Monday, July 23, 2007

Elephants and Cell Phones

July 15, 2007. Mole National Park, Ghana.

We're staying at the only overnight facility in Mole National Park, the Mole Motel. The motel is perched above a dam, and looks out across the countryside. The views are spectacular, and the dam looks more like a watering hole. Wart hogs have the run of the motel, and they can be seen everywhere. They kneel on their front legs eating every piece of greenery that they can find sprouting from the red dirt. Baboons, too, are very common and troops move through the park, swinging from trees, running through the dirt and bounding over the hill on their way to the water below. There are also lizards, big and small, that come in a multiple array of colors. When I see them, I can't help but think of my 10-year-old daughter, Zelda, who has become quite the lizard wrangler in Pacific Grove, California. However, of all the animals that I've seen thus far, the most surprising to me were the elephants.

This morning, I awoke around 5:30 in the morning, and I staggered out of bed to make breakfast by six. I checked my bathroom to see if the water was running (it wasn't, and would not run all day.) After that, I went out the back door of my room to look out over the valley below. As I stood on my porch, I heard the voice of Chad, who is rooming right next to me. "Elephants," he said, and pointed down toward the water. I rubbed my eyes and looked down the hill, and there they were: elephants. It was a group of five females and one young male standing in the water taking their morning bath. Just beyond them, in a stand of trees, stood a group of eight. It was an incredible sight and I took a seat to watch them. As I did, I have to admit that I felt very lucky to be in their presence, but at the same time the moment was tarnished by so many inescapable truths. Mole National Park, despite it's greatness, is under intense pressure of human development. Not far from the elephants, on the horizon to my left there was a cell phone tower. Like shoots of weeds, these towers are springing up everywhere, massive metal harbingers of the changes yet to come. Don't get me wrong, I think it's amazing that I can pick up my phone in the Ghanaian wilderness and call anywhere in the world, but this luxury comes with a price. "How long can these elephants last?," I wondered. " Will future parks like Mole become nothing more than large zoos?" For the people who know me, these questions come as no surprise. I no longer believe in the concept of "nature" as being a separate place, untouched by human hands. It's a myth, one often perpetuated by colleagues working in film, that there exists this vast untamed world. Yes, there are elephants and they should be revered and appreciated. Take the time to watch them and be humbled by their majesty. Feel honored to be in their presence, but keep your eyes on the horizon.

Below is a picture of the elephants from my bedroom in Mole National Park. We'd be getting much closer in the following days. After watching the elephants, and a cup of Nescafe coffee (which I have to admit, I'm starting to enjoy) we went to the nearby village of Larabanga, which has a population of approximately 4,000 people. The purpose of our trek was to meet with leaders from the local village to discuss our upcoming shooting plans. The meeting was held near one center of the village and was attended by the film crew, myself, and sixteen representatives from the village. A new guide named Eben served as a translator. After a morning prayer, we described our intentions and were warmly received.

Larabanga is predominantly Muslim, and most of the residents are farmers. Like the fisherman in Accra, the people here have to work a great deal in order to seek out a living. Their major crops are corn, groundnuts, yams and cassava, and they depend on rainfall to grow their crops; there is no irrigation. In addition to the fate of the rains, the farmers have to contend with elephants, which enter their fields from Mole National Park. Elephants can make short order of crops and destroy an entire harvest in a single morning. Monkeys are also major crop raiders. Of all the animals that the farmers have to contend with, though, perhaps the biggest threat, according to Justin Brashares, comes from the baboon populations. Their numbers in some places have increased by more than 600%. Brashares points out that while the villagers may be concerned most with the elephants, the data suggests that the baboons are the bigger problem.
Our morning meeting in Larabanga. The people of this community speak [Kamara], which is a language unique to this small town of 4,000 people.
The children of Larabanga were extremely beautiful and friendly. This young boy stood by my side, rubbing the hairs on my arm. He ultimately sat beside me, and held my hand, content to swing his feet back and forth, which dangled above the red dirt. The smile never left his face.

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