That’s a mighty big cow!

5 May

“Madam, come quickly, they are here!”

I wake up to an urgent whisper accompanied by loud rapping on my louvered bedroom window.

“Madam, wake up!  You should come now, the elephants are in our field!”

I climb out of my bed and onto my bike and follow Musa down the bumpy bush path toward his millet field.

Musa is a farmer in Ghana, he’s tall, thin, wears trousers that were once dress pants and are now frayed at the ends and missing a back pocket, he rides a clunky, solid steal Puegot bicycle.  I am a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, I’m pale, out-of place, and riding a government-issued Trek bicycle into the west African savanna at 4am.  (It is relevant to mention at this point that I did not grow up riding bikes.  I grew up fearing two-wheeled vehicles.  I did not conquer my fear and learn to ride a bike until my twenties, when I found myself in Tilli, Ghana, from where biking 11km to the nearby market town of Zebilla was the most efficient way to obtain a fresh tomato.  Bouncing down a rutted bush path in the predawn darkness strains my comfort zone.)

We speed along, rolling over wash-outs and careening around shea nut trees in hopes of catching the elephants who pose imminent threat to Musa’s millet crop.  As a Peace Corps volunteer I work with a string of ten villages along the Red Volta River corridor – this is also an elephant migration corridor.  My position is to try and help local farmers protect the riparian elephant habitat while offering sustainable livelihood alternatives to clearing forests and farming in the path of pachyderm crop predation.  The farmers are all very concerned that I see with my own eyes the herds of elephants and the havoc they reap on crop fields.  This morning we come as close as steaming fresh dung piles – no small consolation, elephants leave substantial steaming dung piles!

The elephants travel most at night and stay in the thickest cover.  It becomes something of a joke that I am here to work on an elephant project – and we can never find the elephants.  My local moniker, “Wabbit-Nassara” translates into “elephant white lady”, and I’m becoming fairly sure it’s ironic.

Skip ahead a year or so – farmers still drag me out on literal wild-elephant-chases, my bike is now a critical part of life and virtual extension of my own body.

I’m biking down the wide dirt road toward Sakoti and Datuku – the villages farther down river – I have some meetings with farmers’ groups.  The day is hot, the road is dusty, the ride is long, I spend most of my biking time daydreaming and humming songs that get stuck in my head.

Hmmmm hmmmmm hmmmm biking along.

Hmmmm hmmmmm hmmmm what is 44oC anyway?

Hmmmm hmmmmm hmmmm wow those are some noisy cows crashing through the forest.

Hmmmm hmm – Holy #&@!! – those aren’t cows!  Those are elephants!

Those are my elephants!  After over a year of trying to chase these buggers down, I darn near biked right into one (imagine a very Evel Knievel stunt ending horribly wrong in a poof of orangey dust).  I stand by the roadside and watch the group of about a dozen elephants.  Only meters away- they are huge, gray, not so much wrinkled as pleated  Did I say huge, like faded gray army truck caravaning slowly through the spindly dry forest.  I stand in awe as they strip leaves and pick up shea nuts from woods – totally nonplussed by my presence.

I certainly never doubted the farmers.  I certainly never required visual verification of the elephants to do what little I could to help them protect their crops and develop management programs.  But that day I felt tremendous personal validation, and pure glee, and I hung out on the road side with my elephants – the Wabbit Nassara.

(From original journal entries from Ghana 2000-2002)

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