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Lessons from Writing The Elephant Girl

 

‘Ellen is telling lies AGAIN!’ it was an exasperated statement my siblings often made to shut me up. And when I was squealed on,  my mother would materialise and tell me off with ominous examples of what happened to ‘liars.’ The point being if the story I was telling hadn’t happened, then it was untrue!

 

But I wasn’t lying, I was telling the stories that grew in my head simply because they kept coming and I couldn’t stop them. They formed in my head since as far back as my first memory.  Vivid images of people and animals and things they did and said. Some were dreams others just popped up in my head when I was awake. They spewed out of me, annoying, entertaining and puzzling family and friends in equal measure.

 

Then soon after my fourth birthday my father –  the bread winner of his young family –  died, so my mother moved us into a newly constructed housing estate built in Lusaka to accommodate low income earners.

 

The estate was hundreds of square-shaped white, dwellings  with roofs of red corrugated iron. The houses stood so close together  we heard the neighbours sneeze and flush their toilets. And in that neighbourhood I found a willing unquestioning audience for my stories.

Unlike most authors I have come across, I didn’t read a lot as a child. My sister was an avid reader so most evenings she told me the stories she read and I would then pass them on – embellished for drama and effect to the many children living on the estate.

 

Despite having access to books and being a storyteller, it never occurred to me to write anything myself.  With retrospection, which came years later, I realised why. As one grows up, one aspires to be what one sees. Authors didn’t exist in my world and although I was surrounded by books that told  engaging stories, they were set in a world that was completely different from  mine. So I didn’t perceive my stories as belonging in a book nor see myself as an author.

 

Hence, I started writing late. In my mid 30s and as a mother of two I wrote my first book.  It was only when I began engaging with audiences as an author, that I realised that the stories that formed in my head as a child, were my creativity.

A few years ago, I came across the story of a relationship between a young girl and an elephant. I was asked to develop what was a true story into a book.  The Elephant Girl is about a close relationship that forms against all odds, between a young girl called Jama and Mbegu a baby elephant.

 

Up until this point I thought I knew what there was to know about elephants; they are the largest land mammal, they are herbivores, they have long gestation periods and even longer memories.  I definitely didn’t see them as friends to human beings.

Writing The Elephant Girl changed all that. Coincidentally, shortly before I got involved in writing the story, I happened to spend some time at a nature reserve on the outskirts of Lusaka. There I met an elephant keeper – Jama in the story later becomes one –  who was very passionate about his herd and shared a lot of information about elephants. I was amazed at the close relationship that existed between the elephant keeper and his herd of three elephants. The time I spent getting to know the elephants was a heart-warming experience for me.

 

As I sat down to write the story of Jama and Mbegu I felt I had a good understanding of elephants in general and an appreciation of the relationship that can exist between  a human being and an elephant.

 

However the writing of The Elephant Girl has also made me more aware of the plight of elephants and the complexities around the issue of protecting them. Factors such as poaching due to demand for their tusks and the shrinking of their habitat are endangering the lives of elephants as their numbers continue to drop. Also, the relationship between man and elephant, particularly those that live in close proximity, is becoming increasingly acrimonious. Human communities that have their crops destroyed by elephants are naturally unsympathetic to them. On the other hand elephants are weary of humans because of poaching. And because both depend on the land to survive, they clash to protect their environments which are shrinking.

 

However as long as both man and elephant are capable of thought and deep feeling there is hope. I hope the readers of this book, like me, get to understand elephants and come away with an overall appreciation of  the issues surrounding elephants. More significantly, I hope the book gives the readers hope.

 

The Elephant Girl is a story of love.  The beauty of the book is that it is about a pure and innocent relationship between a girl and an elephant. A relationship unencumbered by factors such as suspicion, politics and greed which cause the tensions between the species. That is what makes the story of Jama and Mbegu so special. It shows us that where there is love, there is hope!