To Follow Elephants

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Young American Owen seeks his father in an African prison, and the truth about why he is there--but his father won't say. Wanjeri, an African woman and elephant researcher, helps him learn the truth with the help of wild elephants, who are also characters whose lives intersect with the human story.
First 10 Pages


The morning that she sensed the approach of the dry season, First Grandmother led her family across a river. She was headed for a place she knew many sweet and green things to eat would be growing, treats that even the youngsters could reach with their short, wobbly trunks. She was a good leader, and her herd was large and healthy, with thirty or more of her sisters and daughters and many of their young sons not yet old enough to go out on their own. The older females trumpeted with delight when the matriarch signaled it was time to go, for they had vivid memories of the taste and smell of the ripe fruits and green leaves in the place First Grandmother was leading them, and they urged their new babies to follow, pushing them gently with their tusks. The little ones hoped their journey would bring them to see the mountain where the Spirit lived, and where she created the very first First Grandmother, and her nine daughters, that they had learned about in the stories First Grandmother had told them.

They would have many questions.

“First Grandmother, where are we going? I haven’t seen this place before.”

How many times had she heard that question in her long life?

“We are going to a special place,” she said, “the place where we were first born. Where all elephants were first born.”

“Why are we going there?”

“The soil that gave birth to us is food for us too.”

She could see that they didn’t understand, but First Grandmother remembered her own confusion when she first took the same trail up the mountain as a young one. Instead of speaking, she stopped and dug her tusks into the soil at her feet, loosening a bit to touch and smell with the tip of her trunk. Then she lifted the sample to her mouth for a taste. She watched the little ones imitate her and laughed.

“This is not the soil we will eat,” she told them, “but we are getting close.”

As they moved up the mountain, she felt cool air sliding down from the top of the mountain, which was made of a cold white rock she had never seen anywhere else—and had never seen up close, since it was too high for an elephant to reach and was nearly always surrounded by clouds. Then the wind shifted, and several young mothers stopped in their tracks and lifted their trunks in alarm. They had detected a strange, threatening scent. First Grandmother lifted her trunk and got it—a woman! But she quickly recognized it as the friendly one who follows elephants everywhere but always kept a respectful distance. She turned into the breeze and saw the friendly one walking up the mountain, following the family as always. There was no threat. First Grandmother led on.

In a broad clearing, she stopped to let the young ones rest a bit after the climb. Elephants don’t like climbing mountains. They aren’t built for it. She felt it in her own old bones. But it had to be done. The little ones frolicked and mouthed the soil, anticipating eating dirt as First Grandmother had promised, while the adults scanned the edge of the clearing and sniffed the air for threats. She noticed a few of the younger elephants eyeing her and imitating her as she turned her head and raised her trunk in different directions.

After ascending into more forest, they reached another small clearing. She watched as the young ones emerged and stood still, gazing in amazement at the huge hole in the side of the mountain, flanked by rocks larger than their mothers. First Grandmother remained still, waiting, remembering the first time she saw this place as a youngster, back when the hole was a bit smaller.

Then the youngsters seemed to understand all at once, and they ran into the hole with the mothers fast behind them. They all tasted the salty, mineral-rich soil they gathered from the walls of the cave. First Grandmother could feel the nutrients coursing through her body, as if they were a drink of water. The mothers dug into the sides of the cave with their tusks to free up more dirt, and the little ones dug eagerly into the clumps that fell to the ground.

When they were satisfied, the mothers went back outside but the little ones continued to explore and enjoy the adventure of the cave with First Grandmother.

“This is the place where we were created,” she told them in the dim light of the cave. “This is where the very first First Grandmother bore her nine daughters and led them out into the world, the ones who were the first mothers to all the elephants. They are the daughters who summoned ten bulls here to create the ten families of elephants that live today, including ours.

“This is where you come from.”


Wanjeri lay in her bed and cried for three days when her mother died. She cried only in her bedroom, quietly, never in front of her other family members who came to her house to show their respect, and never ever in front of friends or at school.

It was a day longer than she cried for her father, but perhaps the crying for her mother was also crying for her father, since he died on Tuesday morning and her mother died the following Thursday evening.

Her mother and father had both been generous and kind people who seemed never to get angry with her. Wanjeri was their third child, though when her mother died, she was pregnant with what would have been Wanjeri’s younger brother or sister. So Wanjeri mourned for the baby who had also died. Her private mourning was Kikuyu custom, unlike the Luo, who wailed and shrieked as they walked behind the bodies of their loved ones on the way to their graves. Wanjeri was glad for it, as she would feel uncomfortable making such noise. If she had been born a Luo and did not show the expected level of emotion at the death of her parents, she would be suspected of being an ungrateful daughter. Some of the elders might even whisper that she had caused their deaths through witchcraft. Even in the city, some people still thought like that.

Still, though she was not a Luo, there was some whispering, and Wanjeri caught wind of it soon after her mother and father were buried. They had both died of AIDS, it was said. She knew it was not true, and she promised herself she would push to the ground any girl in school who said it to her face. None did. But they looked at her differently, and talked to her less frequently. One girl even refused to drink from the same faucet, fearing that Wanjeri would spread the disease. When they did openly tease her, it was over small things, like the way she wore her hair in tightly wound strands with small ribbons. Her mother used to wind the strands together, but now her older sisters Wanjiku (named for her father’s mother in the traditional way) and Nyambura (named for her mother’s mother) trained her hair into braids, and they were not as precise.

The problem was soon resolved when Wanjeri’s uncle Mubego, who took responsibility for the orphaned girls and their brother, Julian, announced he would send Wanjeri to a boarding school in Kiratu. Her sisters, much older than Wanjeri, had completed enough school and both went to be married. Wanjeri dreaded leaving the city for such a small, boring town. “Think, girl!” Uncle Mubego exclaimed when Wanjeri whined about the school. “Most girls your age are working on farms planting yams and beans! You have the privilege of schooling.” Uncle Mubego was an officer in the Army and used to telling others what to do. She would have her sisters with her, he reminded her. And, she added in her mind, she would no longer suffer evil looks from her old classmates.

The day before she was to leave for the new term in the Kiratu school, Wanjeri went to the dusty square behind her old school and found the girl who had spread the rumors. Without saying a word, she approached the girl with her right arm stretched out straight and caught her by the throat. She squeezed tightly enough to make the girl choke and cry, and looked her straight in the eye. Then she let go and walked away, only pausing once to turn and see if her message had been received properly. She was never much for finding the right words, but she had sent a message nonetheless, and it felt good. She could still sense the resistance of the girl’s larynx against her fingers hours later.

The Kiratu Academy was small, with only 40 girls and another ten or so boys in another hall on the other side of a hill. But because there were so few students, they all learned together under one teacher, making her class larger than at school in Nairobi. Wanjiku and Nyambura both studied in the same room, though they were near graduation and had more advanced lessons and books.

Wanjeri had seen elephants before, of course, but only safely fenced in at Nairobi National Park, the tiny, fully fenced-in reserve just outside the city. She was a city girl, and she was stunned to see the creatures roaming outside just a hundred meters or so from the classroom window, with no fence anywhere. She was even more surprised when the teacher glanced at them and then ignored them, continuing with the lesson. An older student explained it after school: “They can come here and roam free on the school’s land. They don’t bother us, and they are no danger. The farmers in this area hate them though, because they eat and trample their crops. The farmers build big fences and chase them with dogs, and the ones with guns will shoot at them.”

“Do they live here all the time?”

“No, they only come in the long dry season. They stay here to be safe, but there is not much food so they must go other places to eat.”

Wanjeri scanned the trees edging the horizon, but the elephants had disappeared during class.

“The teacher takes no notice,” added her classmate, “but when a white teacher from overseas or a missionary instructor comes, they are terribly surprised.”

I am terribly surprised too, Wanjeri thought.

From that day, Wanjeri wanted to know more about elephants. She regretted the days at the park in Nairobi that she had ignored them as she giggled with her sisters in the back seat of the car. She did not understand why the creatures meant something to her. They just seemed so much larger, so much more alive and powerful, when she saw them walking the same paths she walked on the school grounds, even when she contemplated the smelly piles of dung they left behind for her to avoid stepping in. For the next week, she snuck glances at the window in the classroom, but saw no more elephants. Her marks suffered a little for not paying attention. But she devoted more time to her studies when the teacher mentioned that good marks were necessary for entrance to university. She had resolved to go to university to study a field whose name she had just learned—zoology.

* * *

London was so big, and so cold in winter. Wanjeri only felt at home in the rain.

“Do you think it’s cold here?” a young English girl once asked her as she sat having tea with a group of fellow students.

Wanjeri almost spit out her tea. “Of course it’s cold here! I’ve never been so cold! I grew up a few miles from the equator!”

The energy of her talk and the thoughts of the steady heat of home warmed her a little, like shivering. And she had learned the art of speaking her mind more directly, like her classmates. They appreciated it, laughing at her outbursts.

“Have you ever seen snow?”

Wanjeri enjoyed telling her classmates about her home, so she suppressed her irritation with some of the questions. She glanced at the snow outside the cafe window, still drifting down into the dark London streets hours after it started, though it had turned wetter, almost to rain.

“No, but we have it. At the top of Mt. Kenya.”

“Do people climb it?” asked another student, a young man she knew from biology class.

“Tourists climb it, and when people from my tribe get old sometimes they climb it to get closer to God. They believe our God lives in the mountain.”

“Do you believe that too?”

Wanjeri grinned with the possibilities. She could tell these young London university students anything and they would believe it. But she could not bear the thought that some would never learn the truth, so she did not abuse her power. Instead, she thought for a moment and then answered: “I went to Christian schools and they told me God lives in heaven. But all my classmates believed that God lives in the mountain. Now I go to university to learn science, and most of my professors don’t believe God lives at all, and they’re from the country that brought us the Christian schools. So I would say I’m confused.”

They laughed. She was now the center of attention and had signaled her willingness to talk openly about herself, unleashing the other student’s curiosity. Wanjeri summoned her African politeness and continued to answer their questions forthrightly, hiding her growing discomfort. London had taught her two things about why she loved working out in the bush watching elephants all day—it was warm, and elephants never asked her questions.

“Are most people in Africa Christians or their old religions?”

“There are mostly Christians, and some Muslims, but some still believe the old religions. But many people believe both. They just keep the old gods with the new one.”

“How do they manage that? Don’t the Christians want to stamp out the old gods?” The boy from biology again.

Wanjeri thought for a moment, and said, “It’s like Christians who study the classics. The Greco-Roman gods, the mythology and the stories, mean something to them, even if they don’t quite worship them.” Her answer made biology boy nod in approval.

“Can you tell us any mythology from Africa?” asked a young girl, a fellow zoology student.

“Yes, but I need more tea first please.” Her hands were cold, but the tea warmed them. She understood now why Europeans cradle hot drinks in both hands.

“Pardon me if I’ve turned you into a show,” the girl said.

“Really, I don’t mind. I like to talk about home. It makes me feel warmer.”

It was easy for Wanjeri to pick a story to tell. It was the only one from the old beliefs that she knew: God, whose Kikuyu name is Ngai, invited Kikuyu, the first man, to build his house on Kirinyaga, one of the old volcanoes that created the plains with its ash. Ngai lived within Kirinyaga, which is called Mt. Kenya today. Ngai gave Kikuyu a wife, Mumbi, to share the house. Kikuyu’s farm on the slopes of the mountain was very prosperous, and Mumbi bore nine daughters. She actually bore ten, but the Kikuyu believe it is bad luck to say the number “ten.” To say ten, they say “full nine” instead.

The same girl interrupted the story: “Do you believe it’s bad luck to say ‘ten,’ Wanjeri?”

“I am a scientist,” she replied. “These are just stories to me.”

“Ten! See? No problem!” Wanjeri added, to laughter.

She continued with the myth: “To bring husbands for the daughters, Ngai told Kikuyu to build a fire to roast a sacrificial lamb. From the fire came ten husbands, each the same height as their wife. The daughters and their husbands founded the ten clans of the Kikuyu. Most Kikuyu farm the soil around the volcano, but many are clever businessmen and craftsmen. Most Kikuyu girls are named after female ancestors, which means most are named after one of the original daughters who found the clans, including my sisters and me.”

“The girls all have only ten names?”

“Most of us, yes.”

“Is yours one of the ten names?”

“It is.”

Wanjeri finished the story, and they all finished their tea and drifted off into the snow, but the boy from biology stayed with her and walked her home. The snow had turned entirely to rain now, but it was still very cold, and it stung her face.

“You didn’t say if you have ever climbed Mt. Kenya.” he said.

“I’ve only been up a short distance. As I said, Africans go up the mountain, but never to the very top.”

“Why not?”

“It’s traditionally the place where God lives. So I suppose some are afraid of what they might find there.” As she remembered the mountain, an image of a terrible moment deep in her memory flashed into view until she willed it away.

“And others are afraid of what they might not find,” she added.

This made him laugh a small laugh of understanding, and they walked a little more through the snow without speaking. Then he continued: “What do you want to do when you graduate?”

“I’m going to research elephants.”

“Sounds brilliant. Don’t you know all about them already though?”

“Only what I’ve seen for myself.”

“Don’t they teach about wildlife there?”

“Not nearly as much as they ought to. Especially at the university level. That’s why I’m here in this incredibly cold place where no elephant in his right mind would ever come.”

“Yes, it is strange that you need to come to Europe to learn about elephants.”

“I’ve noticed that.” She laughed to assure him that she was not poking fun at the plainness of his observation.

“Is it more expensive to come to school here? I mean, the tuition?”

“Oh yes. But my family is quite wealthy. My uncle is paying for most of it.”

“How did your family get their money? What kind of business?”

Wanjeri was silent for a moment. “I don’t know. Something not good.”