The Elephant’s Foot

Published in Africa Geographic, February 2004

In the south of Madagascar the dry heat and harsh conditions etch lines into the youngest skins; the people are as tough and resilient as the desert which is their home. But the boy had a chubby, innocent face and looked barely out of his teens. I was surprised to hear that he was a father. We sat side by side at the little open-air hotely which served mounds of rice with scraps of gristle and bone to bus passengers stopping in Ihosy, and struggled to converse in French. He was taking the bus north to Fianarantsoa, he said. What about me? I told him I was writing a guide book to his country and there was something special in Isalo National Park that I longed to see. A plant called a pachypodium. The boy looked blank. It means “le pied d’elephant” I explained. I had seen a picture: it was more like a short, squat tree than a plant, with a burst of yellow flowers growing out of a chunky, grey base which did indeed look a bit like an elephant’s foot.

We returned to our seats. He was sitting at the back, and I had placed myself near the driver who spoke some English and had promised to stop in Isalo to help me find a pachypodium. I stared out of the window at the flat landscape. Long grass rippled in the wind like a yellow sea, the monotony broken by the red mounds of termite hills and occasional palms. Every so often the bus slowed down to make room for the herds of zebu cattle plodding their long journey to market.

Suddenly the landscape changed. The yellow grass was broken by ochre rocks which increased in size until the craggy outcrops towered above the bus on each side of the road. The sun was low in the sky turning the ochre to orange and black shadows gave the rocks a new identity. Some looked like gnarled old faces, others like dragons or fierce beasts. The driver stopped the bus. “Isalo” he said. The other passengers seemed content to sit in the shade chatting, but the boy joined us as we set out through the dry grass and rocks in our quest for an elephant’s foot. “Voila!”. The pachypodium was even stranger than I expected. The trunk was almost spherical, as grey-brown and gnarled and wrinkled as… an elephant’s foot, with short, knobby branches sprouting tough grey-green leaves. The buttercup-yellow flowers growing from long, slender stems looked incongruous on such a chunky base. We returned to the bus in triumph and continued our journey north.

Darkness fell. Windows were closed against the night chill and the stuffy air smelt of woodsmoke and sweat – the characteristic odour of rural people. I started to doze. I was only half awake when we stopped on the outskirts of a town. There was a cluster of people on the road, and the back doors were opened, apparently to load some chickens on board. I heard a loud squawk. But it wasn’t a chicken, it was the boy from the south. He walked down the aisle of the bus sobbing and shaking hands with the passengers. I looked at him in blank astonishment as he reached for my hand, and then the driver’s, before leaving the bus to join the people in the street who were also crying.

“What has happened?” I asked the driver.

“His children is dead.” 

© Hilary Bradt

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