Laughter in amongst the despair, in Sharon Pincott’s ELEPHANT DAWN

ELEPHANT DAWN by Sharon Pincott is an eye-opening, factual story about all of her 13 years - from 2001 to 2014 - working alone with the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe in Hwange. It is a heart-felt wildlife story which encompasses all those earlier years of economic and political turmoil, which all fellow Zimbabweans should read and reflect on.

Sharon Pincott at her Hwange cottage

Luckily the book is not all despair, with laugh-out-loud moments to savour. With our government’s absurd policy of 40% duty on books into Zimbabwe, a good selection is not always easy to find. But Elephant Dawn is once again available in Zimbabwe, details of where you can find it in Harare, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls are on the book’s Facebook page – It is also readily available online.

Today we lighten daily Zanu-PF shenanigans with a ‘Year 2011’ extract from this memorable book. This chapter of Elephant Dawn is called ‘Starting Anew’. After 10 years in the bush with elephants, Sharon has just arrived at new accommodation, which smells of (rat) urine, with a leaking bush geyser/44 gallon drum setup near her bed, and a broken window that resulted in a night-time invasion of giant praying mantises. In this chapter, she has already been bitten on the foot by a scorpion while having a (cold) shower. Here’s a taste of what comes next:

“…. Craig is still around and has thoughtfully offered to help me settle in. He collects Amos, his odd-job man, to help too. First, they disconnect the geyser and drum and lower them to the ground. There are hoses and pipes everywhere. It eventually becomes apparent that it’s the drum which has been leaking steadily onto the wooden support rails and down onto the floor.

‘Arrhhh, this drum, madam,’ Amos announces, ‘it is dead.’

Drums are incredibly difficult to come by right now. ‘There are no other drums, Amos. You need to try to fix it,’ I insist.

‘But you can’t fix dead, madam,’ Amos declares.

Well, how can I argue with that?

I encourage him on regardless. He uses a soldering stick, straight out of the red-hot coals of a fire he has made in my front yard, to apply silver solder to hole after hole after tiny hole.

‘Arrhhh, but there are too many leaks, madam,’ Amos keeps muttering quietly as he works away at it for hours.

‘Let’s get this all back up in the roof,’ Craig ultimately urges, visibly tired after a day of similar challenges in my bathroom.

The next day Amos goes off to the township called Hwange (a polluted, rather smelly, coal-mining settlement 70 kilometres away, which I try to avoid) to purchase a pane of glass to mend the broken window in my living room. It’s just a standard size but, before leaving, he measures and re-measures it methodically. He reappears carrying a compact parcel. Craig walks in front of him, shaking his head.

‘You don’t want to know what’s in that package,’ Craig mutters.

I glance down at the parcel wrapped sturdily with both cardboard and tape. If that’s the window glass it certainly isn’t the right size.

‘That’s the glass?’ I ask tentatively.

Of course it is the glass! Amos decided that it would be easier to carry if he had it cut in half.

‘Amos! How does this glass fit my window nicely now?’ I challenge.

‘You just put putty across the middle, madam,’ says Amos. ‘And also use Trinepon glue.’

I close my eyes, and bite down hard on my tongue. Yes, I am now certain that I’m back in the Hwange bush. I think of John. Trinepon—Trinepon glue, Trinepon putty, Trinepon plastic steel—had been his universal fix-it-all too.

Soon it’s time to move on to the roof problem. I need a young man named Thabani, a thatcher who lives just down the road in Dete.

‘Please Amos, will you ask Thabani to come and talk to me tomorrow?’

‘Yes, madam. That is no problem, madam.’

All of this ‘madam’ stuff makes me feel 200 years old. When I ask Amos to call me Sharon, or better still Mandlovu, he insists that it’s much more polite to call me madam and that’s what he continues to do.

After yet another night of busy rats and mice (my rodent intruders come in so many different shapes and sizes that I can’t help imagining that I’ll succumb to bubonic plague), Thabani arrives, bright-eyed and hopeful of some well- paid work.

‘This roof, Mandlo, it needs to come off. It is rotten,’ Thabani exclaims.

‘No, Thabani, for now you just need to patch it for me, please.’

It’ll be another two months before the local ladies begin their annual ritual of cutting thatching grass in the veld. There’s little thatch left in the area from last season and certainly not enough to cover my entire roof. Right now, still unsure of what might lie ahead, I’m not prepared to invest in a complete rethatching job anyway.

‘But Mandlo, this roof it is very little all over,’ Thabani insists.

‘Yes, Thabani, I know. It’s rotten and it’s thin. But for now we have to just patch it, even though there are giant rats in it too.’

‘Rats?’ Thabani queries, his eyes shifting skywards.

And then, precisely on cue, the performance commences. There we all are, Thabani, Craig, Amos and me, standing in the living area and gazing up, watching a huge rat cavorting on the wooden beams.

‘Look at the tail on that thing,’ Amos urges.

‘I think it likes to be looking at the stars up there through those holes,’ offers Thabani.

By now I can only roll my eyes and groan. ‘Please, Thabani, get a thatch cap on this roof by tomorrow afternoon,’ I plead.

Craig’s early morning arrivals are becoming routine. It’s no longer ‘Sit back, relax, pull up a spider’ or ‘Sit back, relax, pull up a snake’. Now I welcome people with ‘Pull up a rat’!

Craig comes armed with tools and paint and putty and cement . . . and rat poison.

I’ve bought clay birdbaths from the roadside in nearby Gwayi. Craig helps me place them in my front yard. Why am I not surprised when neither of them holds water for longer than an hour? I also bought a couple of new owl- and elephant-shaped clay planters. I wander over to the lodge, bucket in hand, to collect a little soil since everything around my cottage appears to be pure sand. As I use my hands to scoop up some dirt, a wriggling baby cobra slithers right beside my fingers.

It’s 2 p.m. on my sixth day back in Hwange and I badly need some red wine. Forget the glass, by now I’m ready to drink straight from the bottle…. “

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