Chasing Elephants

Chido Muchemwa

My acceptance letter to an American university for my bachelor’s degree should have sparked waves of rapture. Instead, it surfaced a primal fear that threatened to overthrow any joy about a new life overseas: a paralysing worry that my parents would die in Zimbabwe while I was in America, and I wouldn’t be able to bury them. It was a fear I carried with me for years after, one that would flare up every time I was standing at Harare International Airport with my parents, trying to imprint the memory in my brain just in case the worst happened, and this ended up being the last time I saw either of them. 

Three weeks before I was set to leave home, Mum announced that my father and I were going to set out on what she called ‘The Great Father-daughter Revival’. Mum said we needed the trip as a way to say goodbye.

“A father-daughter trip, Mum?” I asked.

“Yes.” 

“As in Baba and me go off, and we leave you behind?” 

“Yes.” 

“Just Baba and me?” 

“Yes, Rudo. And don’t look at me so incredulously. You have to learn to talk to your father sometimes.” 

It wasn’t so much that my father and I never spoke, but rather that we never spoke of anything of substance. When I was still in primary school, I was a little afraid of my father. He was such a big man. And every conversation with him felt like walking into an episode of Small Talk. He didn’t ask questions like how was school. He would ask what I had learnt that day and proceed to quiz me on the topic. “So, you learnt about Great Zimbabwe, did you? Why is Zimbabwe named after those ruins?” When I got to high school, he took over the duties of getting me to and from school. Those hours we sat in traffic were often the only hours we spoke. La Liga? 70s British rock music? Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? These were things we could talk about in that car. But bigger things like emotions? Neither of us knew how to bridge that gap. We didn’t share feelings. We didn’t hug. And we never said “I love you”. But my imminent departure suddenly made me feel like if I didn’t say these things now, I never would. I just knew that this trip to Mana Pools would be the one during which I would tell Baba I loved him. 

*

The sun had begun to slide behind the hills across the border in Zambia when Baba and I drove up to the gates of Mana Pools National Park. Five hours before, we had left Harare and only a few words had passed between us since then. Despite my best intentions, I had pulled out my Americanah before we had even passed the ‘City of Harare thanks you’ sign. Baba had sung Paul Simon all the way. He played ‘Graceland’ six times. But finally, we had arrived. Out of the warden’s Head Office came a short, dark man with a bald head gleaming with that unmistakable sheen of Vaseline petroleum jelly. He spoke to Baba through the window. 

“Hello, Mudhara. I’m Lucky,” he said. “Welcome to Mana Pools.” 

“We’re very excited to be here,” Baba said. I did not share his sentiments. I was nervous about this trip to Mana Pools. It would be the first time Baba and I had gone on a trip like this without Mum. I wondered what my father and I would talk about with that much time on our hands. It was a new frontier for us.

Lucky explained the rules of the unguided park to us, and when he found out it was our first visit, he got into the car to direct us to our accommodations. From the back seat, Lucky provided a running commentary. His words were directed at Baba, but his eyes were on me. So, I turned my body towards the window. Baba drove slowly to make sure we didn’t miss any animals. 

“So, you’re father and daughter?” Lucky said.

“Yes, Rudo is my only child.”

“And father and daughter just decided to go on a trip alone? Just the two of them?” 

I frowned and looked at Baba. His ears reddened. 

“Yes,” Baba said. “My child is leaving for America, so I wanted to spend a few days with her ndichimboraira before she leaves. Is there anything wrong with that?”

“Of course not. No need to explain, Mudhara. This is good. It’s just that we usually see a lot of ‘fathers and daughters’ here, and you don’t look alike, so I just thought that maybe… Forget I said anything.”

Lucky leaned back in his seat and, except when providing directions, he was silent the rest of the way. I wondered if Baba and I were so awkward that we appeared more as a sugar daddy and his sugar baby rather than as a father and his daughter. 

*

It was a standard Zimbabwe National Parks house: green walls, thatched roof. Inside, it was dim. The living room was crowded with worn, green couches, and a water-damaged dining table with mismatched chairs. It was so silent: no TV, no humming fridge in the background, no neighbourhood kids screaming outside. Just the sound of the river streaming by. 

While Lucky explained the safety rules to Baba, I went to explore the kitchen. There was a rusted sink and a filthy cupboard, and in the corner, there was a fridge. 

“Lucky,” I called out to the lounge, “why is there a fridge if there is no electricity?” He came into the kitchen with Baba. 

“It’s a gas fridge,” Lucky said. If you connect your gas cylinder, you can run the fridge, the stove, a light or two.” 

“We could have had lights and a stove?” I said. 

“Never mind, Rudo,” Baba said. “Now we’ll know what to bring next time.” 

Next time…!

“Ah, Sisi,” Lucky said, “no one told you to bring a gas cylinder? Sorry zvenyu. You better build a fire outside and make dinner fast. As soon as the sun goes down, the animals come out, and if you’re still crying over the smoke, you’ll be eaten.” He chuckled.

I sighed, went outside and stood by the river bank. On the Zambian side of the river was the large hotel the Chinese were building. Two weeks, that’s all I had left in Zimbabwe. And I didn’t know when I would be back. Plane tickets and visas were expensive. My grandmother had taken to calling overseas ‘kusango’. She said watching all her grandchildren leave the country reminded her of the forest near her childhood village that would just as soon swallow a man without a trace as send him home with a buck on his back. Cousin Rangi had been gone for almost 15 years and had never returned, not even to bury his father. What if that happened to me? 

A twig snapped behind me. I looked back and saw Baba approaching. He stood beside me, leaving enough space between us for Mum to fit.

“The mighty Zambezi,” he said, like a radio DJ announcing his favourite hit. It felt like he was waiting for a response, but I didn’t know what to say, so we stood there. I held my breath. Was this my chance to say what I wanted to say? Instead, I asked him about the river. 

“Baba, why is it called Mana Pools?” His face lit up the way it always did when he was launching into one of his mini-lectures.

“The reason you can’t figure it out is because you pronounce it like it’s an English word, but it’s actually Shona.” 

“Oh. Mana,” I said, flattening the vowels to sound the same. “Four.” 

“Yes. Mana Pools is the old-age home for the Zambezi River. Further upstream, the river tumbles over Victoria Falls and crashes through gorges, but by the time it gets to Mana Pools, it’s tired. It meanders in its bed, forming the four large pools that give this place its name.” 

“It comes here to die?” 

“More like to take a breath. It picks up pace just after it crosses into Mozambique.” 

Silence again. Baba watched the giraffes drinking water on the Zambian side of the river. His shirt hung loosely on him, speaking of a lost heft. He’d always been a big, imposing man, but over the last couple of years he had lost a lot of weight. You might even have called him slender, if not for the perfectly round pot belly that’s peculiar to old men. I drew my breath in, preparing to speak, but Baba walked away.

Looking at the river, I thought of the day I would leave. I imagined staging a hug ambush. I would hug my mother goodbye, and then when Baba went in for his usual handshake, I would sneak in a hug before disappearing to immigration control. But then I pictured the look of horror on his face and thought better of it. Maybe a handshake could be meaningful.

*

I woke up around 6am to the sound of Baba still singing ‘Graceland’. When I popped my head out of my door, Baba said, “Time and tide wait for no man, young lady. And neither do the animals.”

I put on a sweater and followed Baba to the car. We headed upstream, where Lucky had recommended. The park was quiet in early August. It had been several months since the last rains, so the foliage was thin. If the animals were there, they would be easy to spot. 

Baba parked the car in the shade of a large msasa tree next to the river. He said, “Anything you want to see while we’re here, Rudo?” 

“Big Five, I guess.” 

“You won’t get a rhino here, but you might see the rest. That’s why I picked this place.” 

“This trip was your idea?”

“Why the surprise?” 

“You never said.” Mum had told me about the trip, so I had assumed it was her idea. It was just like Baba to need a go-between for such a simple matter. He could never ask me to do something directly. It had to go through Mum, who had no trouble telling me exactly what to do.

We watched as a wet rock in the middle of the stream suddenly gaped open revealing two impressive rows of teeth. The hippo yawned a couple more times before submerging.

“And you, Baba?” I said. “What do you want to see?” 

“Elephants.” 

Elephants were everywhere in Mana Pools. We’d already seen several as we sat by the river. We had even seen them on the highway before we entered the park. It was just like Baba to want to see something so ordinary. 

“Just elephants?” I said.

“Not just elephants, Rudo. The elephants of Mana Pools are special. They do something no other elephants in the world do. Except maybe circus elephants. Most elephants knock down a tree if the fruit is too high for them to reach. But the elephants here have learnt that if you knock down the tree that means no fruit next year. Instead, they rock back to stand tall on their two hind legs and reach into the tree with their trunks to grab the fruit.” 

“Impressive,” I said, deadpan.

“It will be,” Baba said, his eyes lighting up at the thought.

Silence. 

“But are you sure the elephants of Mana Pools are not actually circus elephants?” I asked.

“Circus elephants?” Baba said, knitting his brows.

“Yes. I mean, what if when the Portuguese high-tailed it out of Mozambique, they left behind some circus elephants?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Baba frown, but words continued to breathlessly tumble out of my mouth. “And when the elephants realised no one was coming to save them, what if they trekked upstream, running away from the floods until they got here, but by then they were so tired that they didn’t have any strength left and couldn’t knock down the trees, so they decided to stand up instead?” 

Baba lifted the cap on his head to scratch his bald spot. “Well, there wouldn’t have been that many circus elephants, would there? 

“It’s a joke, Baba.” 

The seat squeaked as Baba adjusted his position. “You can be funny when you want to.” 

*

After a couple of hours, Baba decided to drive around. We’d hoped to see a herd of buffalos, but we only saw one bull stomping around in some mud. Not too far away, a couple of impalas suddenly pranced across the road in front of us. Each time we saw an elephant, Baba stopped for several minutes, but the elephants had all four feet firmly on the ground. I could sense Baba becoming more impatient and was glad when we headed back for lunch. When we got to the house, Lucky was waiting outside, sitting on a stool by the door.

“Afternoon, Mudhara,” he said.

“Afternoon,” Baba replied. “How can we help you?”

“It’s very quiet in the office. Most of the other rangers responded to a poacher-sighting 30 kilometres away, and I was by myself. So, I thought I would just come and see how you guys are doing.”

“Good man.” Baba heartily shook Lucky’s hand as he clapped him on the back. Lucky looked like he wanted to be invited in, but we left him outside and sat in the cool of the house eating cheese sandwiches. 

I watched Baba as he carefully cut the crusts of his bread, like he always did. I had forgotten to remove them as I always did. Hunched over his sandwiches, Baba looked just like his father. My sekuru had died long before I was born, but every day, Baba looked more and more like the dark photograph hanging over the fireplace in the living room. 

“Do you miss your father?” I asked. 

“What?” Baba said as if suddenly snatched out of deep thought.

“Do you still miss Sekuru? Do you think of him even though he’s gone?” 

Baba paused as if it was a question he’d never thought I would ask. “Of course, I do. He was my father.” 

“What do you miss the most?” 

“Why do you want to know, Rudo?” Baba asked.

“You never talk about him,” I said. “I never got to meet him, and sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have a grandfather dote on me.” 

“I don’t know about doting,” Baba said warily. Your sekuru used to wake us up at four in the morning every day, then go hitch the cows to the plough. If he got back, and you were still in bed, he would beat you with his chamboko. He’d assign each of us a patch that we had to dig before we left for school.” 

“Sounds militant,” I said. 

“More like a lesson in discipline.” Baba sighed.

“Did he ever tell you he loved you?” I asked.

“He didn’t need to.” Baba turned back to his sandwich but then noticed that I was still waiting for more. So, he said, “Anyway, men don’t say such things.” 

*

After lunch, Baba seemed reinvigorated. He was ready for more elephant chasing. I couldn’t understand his enthusiasm. An hour or two of driving around seemed adequate to me. There was no need to be driving around all day. But I went along with no voiced complaints. We drove under the canopy of trees, stopping sometimes to watch the animals, but all the elephants we saw also had all four feet firmly on the ground.

But then Baba drove around a corner, and we found ourselves face-to-face with an elephant. She was about 10 feet away and completely blocking the road, and she did not look happy at all.

“Don’t worry,” Baba said. “We’re fine. She’s just warning us.” 

“How can you be so sure?” I asked.

“She’s flapping her ears. When she flattens them against her head, then you know she’s ready to charge.” 

“Should we go back?” I said.

“No. Let’s just wait and see what she does.”

Yes, Baba. Let’s just sit here and wait for this elephant to trample us.

So, we sat there. The elephant stood her ground, occasionally looking at us and trumpeting, but mostly engrossed by something in the bushes beside her. Baba watched the elephant, and I watched him, how he gripped the steering wheel tighter when the elephant looked like it might be coming closer, how his eyes lit up every time the elephant trumpeted. And how he smiled the whole time. It was clear that the elephant had no plans of going anywhere any time soon. Slowly I realised the opportunity before me. This was it. A chance to ask what I wanted to ask Baba. To ask him how he really felt about my leaving. To tell him “I love you”. If I was ever going to say the words, this was it. Time was running out, and if I didn’t say it now, I probably never would. I couldn’t see how distance could possibly make these things easier. I decided to ease into it. 

“Baba, how did you feel when you left home for Harare?” I said. 

“How did I feel?” Baba asked. Feelings were not discussed much in our family. Baba had several sayings about feelings. Feelings make bad decisions. Only people with too much time and money worry about feelings. Feelings don’t get work done.

“Yes,” I said. “You were the first in your family to leave for the city. And you were headed to university. Neither of your parents even finished primary school.” 

“Well, I was the fourth of five sons. I knew your sekuru couldn’t afford to parcel off another piece of land for yet another son. So, I went to the big city to try my luck.” 

“Just like that?” 

“The priests at the high school had always prepared us for higher education.” 

“But weren’t you scared?” He stroked the steering wheel and stole a glance at me. 

“Why are you asking this, Rudo?” 

“I just wondered, Baba.” 

“I don’t dwell too much on feelings. They don’t change anything.” 

“Is that how you feel about me leaving? Just push the feelings aside?” 

“What is it with your generation and always wanting to talk about how things make you feel? When I was young, we didn’t have time for feelings. We just did what had to be done.” He cleared his throat. “Obviously, I am not unmoved by your departure, but practicalities override everything else. There are no jobs here. There are jobs in America. My feelings are irrelevant.” 

The elephant gave a weak trumpet, and Baba gripped the steering wheel tightly, his bushy brows knitted. His calloused fingers made a soft sound as they scraped against the raised design of the steering wheel cover. Despite spending so much time in the field, Baba’s nails were neat. The only sign of his weekend farming habit was the bright-red colour of his sunburnt bald spot. He was wearing the one-size-fits-all t-shirt that the university had sent to me when I was accepted. It read: “I know where I’m going.” His seat squeaked as he adjusted his position. And on the radio, Paul Simon was still slip-slidin’ away.

“Moving isn’t easy,” Baba said. “When I first got to Harare, I wondered what a country boy like me was doing among these sophisticated city guys. My mother was a market woman. She used to sell fruits and bread outside the local mine to pay my fees. What was I doing getting a university degree? It’ll be like that when you get to America, Rudo. You’ll be the one foreigner amongst all these people. Sometimes you’ll wonder why you ever moved. Sometimes you’ll question the audacity that took you so far from home. But always remember that you didn’t set out into the world on your own. Someone sent you. And they’ll always be there to support you.” 

At that moment, the elephant finally moved out of the road. Baba put the car in gear, and the moment was lost. As we drove past the elephant, we realised why she had been so aggressive. She had a calf with her.

*

Baba barbequed steak for dinner, and I made sadza. We ate in the lounge in silence. I went to the kitchen and slowly washed the dishes. From the lounge, Baba bid me goodnight. I guess he wasn’t in the mood to talk. When I was done, I sat in the lounge, staring at the spot where Baba had been sitting a few minutes before. I imagined this being my life in a few weeks when I got to America, many an hour spent sitting in silence all by myself, thinking of the distance between my parents and me. The longest time I’d ever spent away from home was the two weeks I spent with Ambuya every Easter. Baba may have been quiet through most of my childhood, but he’d always been there.

I thought of what I qualified as signs of love. Hugs. Kisses. The words themselves. Shona doesn’t have a direct equivalent of ‘I love you’. The word love is a noun. You possess love. You have it for others. And you name your daughter Rudo. Love didn’t need to be spoken to exist. Baba collapsed on his sofa every day because he worked a 60-hour week. He’d sold his second car to pay my college tuition. He might have never hugged me at the end of the school day, but he was always there. And now, he couldn’t say that he was going to miss me, but didn’t this trip prove that he did? Was I responsible for the way we were?

Baba wasn’t the only one who struggled with saying “I love you”. The only person I had managed to say it out loud to was my baby cousin, and even with her I had to whisper the words in her ear, my warm breath tickling her into giggles, to make sure the moment didn’t get too serious. How was it possible that a person named Love struggled to even say the word? 

*

The next morning, we quickly gathered our things and loaded the car. Then we walked to the river’s edge for one last look. We stood in silence, metres between us. Baba seemed disappointed. As we walked back to the car, it felt like the final goodbye had begun. We sat in silence as the car followed the dusty road, as we drove past Lucky at the gate, who waved enthusiastically, up the Zambezi escarpment, along the Chirundu highway, as we passed children in faded uniforms walking home with their mothers trailing behind them, past the large family-owned orange plantations, past full buses, and weary men returning home, dragging their carts behind them.

And when we got home, Baba slouched on his sofa, his remote glued to his hand, and I went to my bedroom. Mum came in and asked me how the trip had been.

“Fine, Mum. Just fine.”

Chido Muchemwa is a Zimbabwean writer currently living in Canada. Her work has previously appeared in The Baltimore Review, Bacopa Literary Review, Canthius, Humber Literary Review, Tincture Journal, and Apogee. She has been shortlisted twice for the Short Story Day Africa Prize and placed 2nd in the Humber Literary Review’s 2020 Emerging Writers Fiction Contest. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Wyoming.

close

Sign up for our newsletter

Sign up to get our latest stories, poems and essays!