In the Belly of the Elephant: Prologue
There is a story the Zulu people tell in the far south lands of Africa about a woman called Unanana-Bosele, who willfully built her house in the middle of the road, trusting to ubungqotsho. Anything a person does to gain self-confidence, power, strength, or passion, all of this is ubungqotsho.
Unanana-Bosele had two young children who were very fine. One day, after building her house, she went to fetch firewood and left her children alone.
Soon a baboon came by and asked, “Who built this house in the middle of the road?” The children answered, “Unanana-Bosele.”
The baboon replied, “She built in the road on purpose, trusting to ubungqotsho!”
An antelope came and asked the same question. Soon, all the animals came, asking the same question. The children became fearful and cried. Just then, a very large elephant came and, after asking the question two more times, swallowed Unanana-Bosele’s fine children. Then the elephant went away.
When Unanana-Bosele returned to her house in the road, she asked a villager, “Where are my children?”
But that part of the story will come later. Some stories are best told in pieces, when the time is ripe.
The first time I met Death was in a tiny bush-town called Foequellie. It was said that the bush devil who sometimes came to town, dancing to a chorus of drummers, was Death. But he was just a local man dressed in rags and a wooden mask.
On a blue morning of sailing clouds, I crossed the clearing that separated my house from the two-room clinic—the only health facility within a 20-mile radius of thick bush and rain forest. A breeze carried the voices of chatting mothers and crying babies. It was Under Five’s Day, the weekly clinic for babies and children up to five years old. Well into my second year as a Peace Corps volunteer, I worked there, giving nutrition demonstrations and vaccinating children.
Awake from my morning cup of Nescafé and ready for the day, I passed through the dappled shade of a cottonwood tree. This was the town’s Ancestor Tree where the ghosts of great-great- grandfathers, great-aunts, uncles, and cousins hid in the hollows of the trunk with the snakes and spiders, and high up in the branches among the leaves and the ricebirds. The Ancestor Tree loomed next to a red dirt road that twisted its way around the clinic, past my house at the end of town, and on through hillside plots of rice, potato greens, and cassava.
Women with babies tied to their backs in cloth slings gathered at the clinic door. They entered and stacked their yellow “Road to Health” cards in a pile that reserved their place, and then sat on benches to wait their turn and catch up on local gossip.
James, the clinic janitor and local translator, joined me in the waiting room, a 20-by-10-foot space with a dirt floor and mud-plastered walls that smelled of baby pee and sweat.
We said our good mornings; then James explained the causes and treatment of diarrhea. I stood in the center, squeezing oranges into a bowl. As I demonstrated the pinch of salt and teaspoon of sugar needed to make rehydration fluid, a woman came in with a round-faced little girl in tattered shorts and cornrow braids. The two of them sat at the end of the bench, and the little girl laid her head on her mother’s shoulder and closed her eyes.
Over the next few hours, James and I worked with Francis, the local physician’s assistant and clinic “doctor.” We weighed babies, treated skin and stomach ailments, gave out malaria medication, and vaccinated against smallpox, whooping cough, and tetanus. Morning cool gave way to the heat of day, and the rooms grew stuffy. Sometime before noon, I walked back into the waiting room to call the next in line.
The woman with the little girl took her daughter’s hand to lead her in. The girl, about five years old, tried to stand but collapsed. Her mother caught her, and I ran to grasp the girl’s arm. Her skin burned, and her lips were chapped and dry. She breathed out a rattled sigh, and her head lolled to one side.
“Frances! James!” I called, and they came in an instant.
James laid the little girl down, her skinny arms and legs limp against the floor. Frances bent his ear to her nose, then felt her wrist for a pulse. He looked up at us and shook his head. Her mother began to wail.
I knelt, unable to believe, unable to understand. In my two years at the clinic, this had never happened. I had never seen a person die. The spark of the little girl who had been with us only a moment before was gone.
Without thought, I propped her head back, pressed my mouth over hers, and blew my breath into her limp, dehydrated body. Her skinny chest lifted then deflated. Francis pumped her chest, and I blew into her lungs again, then again.
There was no ambulance to call, no emergency room to whisk her to. This was the only place. We tried for a while longer until Francis put his hand on my arm.
“She is gone,” he said.
Her black irises were dull, as if a door at the back of her eyes had shut, blocking out the light. But her skin was warm and smelled the way children smell, an earthy sweetness that no amount of dirt can hide. Francis gently pressed her eyelids closed. The bleat of a baby goat echoed across the clearing.
Amidst the mother’s wails and the silent grief of the other women, the muscles of my throat closed into a fist. The woman had brought in her child, sick with dysentery, dehydrated, dying, and she had sat and waited her turn. Why hadn’t I noticed when they first came in? Why hadn’t I done something sooner? I looked around at the faces of the women and children who still crowded the room, and I started to cry. The mothers all turned to me, eyebrows raised, mouths open, as if they realized for the first time that I, too, was made of flesh and bone.
A week later, several of my students put on a skit at a school gathering. A young man lay on the ground while another pantomimed blowing air into his mouth. Everyone laughed, inviting me to share in the jest.
Foolish Miss Soosan, thinking that by blowing, she could chase away death.
My flushed cheeks and blank face must have moved them. They patted me on the back and spoke kind words; the way one treats someone who simply doesn’t know any better.
Foolish Miss Soosan, crying because she could not make someone stay when they had already left.
Unanana-Bosele returned to her house in the road and asked a villager, “Where are my children?”
He answered, “They were swallowed by an elephant with one tusk.”
Unanana-Bosele ground much maize and set out, carrying the maize in a pot and a knife in her hand. She came to a place where there was an antelope and asked her to point the way to the elephant that had swallowed her children.
The antelope said, “You will go on and on until you come to a place where the trees are high and the stones are white.”
Unanana-Bosele went on for many days, passing many animals until she came to a place where she could see high trees with white stones beneath them. There she found the elephant with one tusk. She approached the elephant, saying, “Great Elephant, point out to me the creature who has swallowed my children.”
The elephant swallowed Unanana-Bosele.