Florence’s Book Club: The African edition

Since reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin whilst backpacking the Greek Islands as a student, the impact of reading a book centred upon your immediate surroundings has not escaped me, so I chose my reading material for South African carefully. The Elephant Whisperer was recommended by Robyn in the comments after this post, and I randomly picked up another book about wildlife and conservation in Africa, coincidentally about Elephants too albeit this time in Kenya, called An African Love Story. I would recommend them both, so I thought they would make good holiday reading for you guys and I’d love to hear any you would add to my list – my thirst for books about Africa hasn’t been quenched, or perhaps other reads you can suggest that are evocative of a particular place.

The Elephant Whisperer
Set on a Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, Thula Thula, this is the memoir of the reserve owner who took on a herd of 7 delinquent elephants who would have otherwise been killed. They had a reputation as escape artists and trouble makers and the extraordinary lengths he goes to to develop a bond with them and communicate form the backbone of the awe-inspiring book. It’s not just about the Elephants though, as he recounts stories of his staff, Zulu culture, tribal justice, and the challenges and rewards he faces and gains as Thula Thula blossoms. I can’t in my memory remember crying at a book before yet this one reduced me to tears twice in quick succession, so involved was I in the story and individuals, human and animals alike. I’m now curious to read his second book Babylon’s Ark, about his 6 month trip to Iraq during the Iraq war to look after the animals of the Bagdad Zoo who suffered as a result of the conflict, and a third about his quest to save The Last Rhinos.

I had barely got back to the house when the phone rang. A woman introduced herself: Marion Garaï from the Elephant Managers and Owners Association (EMOA), a private organization comprised of several elephant owners in South Africa that takes an interest in elephant welfare. I had heard of them and the good work they did for elephant conservation before, but as I was not an elephant owner, I had never dealt with them directly.

Her warm voice instantly inspired empathy.

She got straight to the point. She had heard about Thula Thula and the variety of magnificent indigenous Zululand wildlife that we had. She said she had also heard of how we were working closely with the local population in fostering conservation awareness and wondered . . . would I be interested in adopting a herd of elephant? The good news, she continued before I could answer, was that I would get them for free, barring capture and transportation costs.

You could have knocked me over with a blade of grass. Elephant? The worlds largest mammal? And they wanted to give me a whole herd? For a moment I thought it was a hoax. I mean how often do you get phoned out of the blue asking if you want a herd of tuskers?

But Marion was serious.

OK, I asked; what was the bad news?

Well, said Marion. There was a problem. The elephants were considered ‘troublesome. They had a tendency to break out of reserves and the owners wanted to get rid of them fast. If we didn’t take them, they would be put down – shot. All of them.

‘What do you mean by troublesome?

‘The matriarch is an amazing escape artist and has worked out how to break through electric fences. She just twists the wire around her tusks until it snaps or takes the pain and smashes through. Its unbelievable. The owners have had enough and now asked if EMOA can sort something out.

I momentarily pictured a five-ton beast deliberately enduring the agonizing shock of 8,000 volts stabbing through her body. That took determination.

‘Also, Lawrence, there are babies involved.

‘Why me?

Marion sensed my trepidation. This was an extremely unusual request.

‘Ive heard you have a way with animals, she continued. ‘I reckon Thula Thula’s right for them. You’re right for them. Or maybe they’re right for you.

That floored me. If anything, we were exactly ‘not right for a herd of elephant. I was only just getting the reserve operational and, as the previous day had spectacularly proved, having huge problems with highly organized poachers.

I was about to say ‘no’ when something held me back. I have always loved elephants. Not only are they the largest and noblest land creatures on this planet, but they symbolize all that is majestic about Africa. And here, unexpectedly, I was being offered my own herd and a chance to help. Would I ever get an opportunity like this again?

‘Where are they from?

‘A reserve in Mpumalanga.

Mpumalanga is the north-eastern province of South Africa where most of the countrys game reserves – including the Kruger National Park – are situated.

‘How many?

‘Nine – three adult females, three youngsters, of which one was male, an adolescent bull, and two babies. It’s a beautiful family. The matriarch has a gorgeous baby daughter. The young bull, her son, is fifteen years old and an absolutely superb specimen.

‘They must be a big problem. Nobody just gives away elephants.

‘As I said, the matriarch keeps breaking out. Not only does she snap electric wires, shes also learnt how to unlatch gates with her tusks and the owners aren’t too keen about jumbos wandering into the guest camps. If you don’t take them, they will be shot. Certainly the adults will be.

I went quiet, trying to unravel all this in my head. The opportunity was great, but so was the risk.

What about the poachers – would the promise of ivory bring even more of them out of the woodwork? What about having to electrify my entire reserve to keep these giant pachyderms in when I could barely keep thieves with high-velocity rifles out? What about having to build an enclosure to quarantine them while they got used to their new home? Where would I find the funds . . . the resources?

Also Marion didn’t shy away from saying they were ‘troublesome’. But what did that really mean? Were they just escape artists? Or was this a genuine rogue herd, too dangerous and filled with hatred of humans to keep on a game reserve in a populated area?

However, here was a herd in trouble. Despite the risks, I knew what I had to do.

‘Hell yes, I replied. ‘Ill take them.’

– Extract From The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence

An African Love Story: Love, Life and Elephants
Another memoir by the world famous conservationist Daphne Sheldrick, this book along side her stories of the elephants gives a glimpse into life in Africa. A 4th generation settler from Scottish stock, Daphne grew up in the bush and devoted her life to animals. She describes her knowledge of her Great Grandfather taking up the offer of land in Kenya after initially settling in the Eastern Cape from Scotland in the early 1900’s, then her childhood in East Africa, the love story of her marriage to another famous conservationist, David, and her love of the wildlife she fought so hard to protect and conserve. I loved how insightful and evocative this book was about African life for the settlers during colonial times and beyond.

So readers, have you read either of these? Are you planning a trip and want to whet your appetite or have you got some recommendations for me? I’d love to hear of any books that you think are particularly suited to a time or place.


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14 thoughts on “Florence’s Book Club: The African edition

    • Have you seen that there’s a Burmese pop up restaurant in London at the moment? Can’t remember where I saw it but pretty sure it was somewhere central.

      • Mandalay on the Edgware Road is a permanent Burmese restaurant in London, run by an extremely nice man with excellent (not expensive) food. You do have to book through, because it is small and can get busy.

  1. I’ve just finished The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh, which depicts life in the African diamond mines. A really fantastic read. X

  2. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver set in The Congo is traumatic & amazing, I read it whilst in South Africa. Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom is so interesting, especially when you can picture the places. The Africa House by Christina Lamb is based on a true tale of a bonkers English aristocrat who dreamt, & realised building an English country home in Zambia. The book I’m currently reading, & enjoying, is set in Kenya. I was planning to review it for next FF book post so shall leave it at that…

    • I loved The Africa House. If you haven’t read it, I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallman is a beautifully written and very moving memoir by Kuki Gallman about the life that she built in Kenya.

      In a totally different vein, there were some wonderful novels and memoirs set in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. A Sunday by the Pool at Kigali by Gil Courtemanche, We Wish to Inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch were both excellent.

      To generalise massively, it can be difficult to find novels about Africa which don’t either mythologise it (usually from a white/Western perspective) or pathologise it (focussing on violence/heart of darkness stereotype etc.). I think Chimamanda’s novels are very good at providing a balanced perspective (esp. That Thing around your Neck) and I also loved I Do Not Come to You By Chance (Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s) – a wonderful title and a very funny novel – and The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin, which is another novel set in Nigeria.

  3. So glad you loved the Elephant Whisperer 😀 I’m really looking forward to reading Babylons Ark and The last Rhinos and I REALLY cannot wait to visit Thula Thula in August. It’s so sad that Lawrence Anthony died but his amazing wife Francoise continues his conservation work.

    Rebecca – have you seen this? http://current.com/17roskc

    One a different book note, when I was in India I read Shantaram by Gregory Roberts and really enjoyed it. Xx

  4. Anything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – she is my all time favourite author – I buy her in hardback. She writes about Nigeria, her first 2, The Purple Hibiscus and Half a Yellow Sun are historical and her latest two, the collection of short stories The Thing around Your Neck and the much acclaimed Americanah (which is huuuge and which I’m galloping through at the moment) are more contemporary issues. But more than this, she is just THE most fantastic author.

  5. I was lucky enough to visit the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage a few years ago, it was the highlight of my trip to Kenya. The baby ellies were the most gorgeous little things I’ve ever seen, and their carers were just amazing.

    I’d also recommend ‘I Dreamed of Africa’ by Kuki Gallman , its a wonderful read..

  6. Ben Okri “The Famished Road” is an amazing and Booker Prize winning novel set in Africa (likely Nigeria but not specified). Takes a bit of getting into but well worth the effort.

  7. When I was travelling in 2008 I did a big truck tour from Capetown to Nairobi, camping every night and eating off the campfire. it was immense! I visited an elephant sanctuary which sounds similar to the ones described above, so I will definitely be looking out for these books in my local library, especially the Elephant Whisperer, thanks for the recommendations.

  8. I need to read these! We went to the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage on our honeymoon in 2011. Nik’s cousin is the vet there and we were lucky enough to meet up with him one morning and got to meet the elephants before they were taken around to the public!! 😀

  9. I really enjoyed reading Peter Allison’s Whatever You Do, Don’t Run, anecdotes from a safari guide.

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