Dust and Smoke
Harmattan dust comes down from the Sahara each December, fogging the views of Mt. Bombouaka, to the east, and Mt. Nassiet, to the west, filtering sunlight all through the early months of each new year in the village of Tambaong. When the haze masks their tops, these crests often look like the bottoms of real peaks. They’re just squat ridges, though, springing up separately a few kilometers south of the village, each rise falling off at maturity, descending abruptly to the savanna, on reaching the line made by the three or four houses (including mine) at Tambaong’s northern limit. When the rains come again in April or May and clear the air, the red cliffs sparkle, for a season, under green foliage caps.
For two years in the late 1980s, the twin escarpments defined where I lived longitudinally, much as Lions’ Grave Game Preserve and the town of Bombouaka hemmed my neighborhood in north and south. Though low by most standards, these ridges reach higher than just about anything else there on a bit of the southern edge of the Mossi Plateau, itself only a small part of Africa’s great continent-wide savanna. Even so, the ridges dominate their region, the Savannah prefecture, the northernmost tip of a tiny strip of land for some not very practical reasons made into a country and called “Togo.”
In seasons when the air was clear, I could see both northern ridge ends as I left the regional capital, Dapaong, heading south on my way home after picking up mail. Once or twice a week, I would climb the long hill between them from the south of Tambaong as I motorcycled home from some meeting or another or from a visit to a farm. Sometimes, and most spectacularly (from a visual perspective), I would moto up the escarpment one more over to the west of Mt. Nassiet, for the sheer pleasure of it if not for my work, for that one led to a higher plateau with a view over the rest of the region—and, farther beyond, into Ghana.
To those who live in Tambaong, the ridges present not only nice vistas but a pleasant sense of being enfolded, protected but not smothered—provided that the season is not the harmattan, provided that the rains have come, bringing greenery and clearing the air. During the harmattan the dust hangs heavy and, when wood smoke joins it, can convince one it could choke. In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the nearest big city, the air gets so filled with dust in March that the few street lights have been known to come on in the afternoon, though there might not be a real cloud in the sky.
Everyone south of the Sahara in Africa, and not just those in the region where I lived, knows them intimately. From Abidjan to Mombassa, Africans understands what these twinned hazes mean to their lives, their futures. Dual signs of the destruction of the savanna—born of the over-use of farmland and of wood burned as fuel—they’ve become omens, precursors of the desert sands certain to follow. Signals, they are, that life in the villages will only get harder as time passes.
The African farmers I worked with in Tambaong aren’t stupid, just pessimistic. Like most others over the continent, they know that their agricultural methods destroy their land, diminishing the productivity of their fields each year; they see rains carrying off what little top soil remains and watch winds sweeping up the rest. They leave the soil vulnerable, yet do not change their ways—they know they cannot do that and survive in the short term. Though understanding full well that each field should lie fallow every seven years (along with other needs of the soil), they are so poor that they haven’t the margin today to allow the future that gain. Cotton demolishes soil, they agree, but what other cash crop that can successfully replace it?
African women face similar problems. They cannot spare the money for stoves that run on bottled gas, and the charcoal they could afford destroys the forests nearly as fast as their own wood-gathering does. The branches they use for cooking and for making millet beer must be carried home from farther and farther away each year, and the women don’t like the burden. Better stove-building methods conserve wood in the brewing of millet beer, but cookfires are kept old-fashioned and simple—and inefficient—in part because the efficient mud stoves do not light the compounds at night the way three-rock stoves do. Without the light from cookstoves, more money has to be spent on kerosene and lanterns. It’s cheaper, if more difficult, to walk a little farther each day. Here again, poverty contributes to the destruction of the land, contributes, ultimately, to further poverty.
Obviously, dust and smoke encompass villages far beyond those of the Moba of Tambaong and their tiny strips of farmland: from Senegal to Somalia, the same problems haunt sub-Saharan Africa. People, including the Africans (it’s not just foreigners who intelligently observe Africa’s plight), watch populations around them growing fast while arable land shrinks and agrarian-based economies stagnate. All anguish over what they see. None of them, not an African agronomist, not a European aid worker, not an American tourist, not an Asian businessperson, has found a successful counterforce.
Togo isn’t much different from any of the fifteen or so countries in sub-Saharan West Africa. For a time, it was a little richer than most, but that has changed since the student strikes that began in 1990 and the devaluation, four years later, of the West African franc, the currency that measures Togo’s wealth. Most of Togo’s 4-million people live in the southern half of the country, more lush, more productive than the savanna of the north, of Tambaong. Life expectancy, something of an indication of the quality of life, is a bit less than 60 years, though probably somewhat lower in the north. Not bad, all in all, for the developing world. A hard place, but one where a life can be built—for the present.
Though smaller in population than most of the country’s 35+ ethnic groups, the Moba cover more territory than all but a few Togolese peoples. Their land, after all, is the hardest, most difficult to coax a living from; they need as much of it as they can get.
Though over 40% of the entire population of Togo can read and write (I’m told), amongst the Moba, I’d bet the percentage is half that. Among the general population, agriculture provides the primary work for four out of five. For the Moba, it’s probably more than nine out of ten. Farther south, coffee and cocoa augment cotton as cash crops. In the north, just about the only monetary income a family has comes from cotton, the selling of millet beer, and small goods trading in the market.
For a long time the country’s chief thug, and father of current president Faure Gnassingbé, was Gnassingbé Eyadema, who took power in 1967, almost seven years to the day after independence from France. Before independence, Eyadema had been a non-commissioned officer in the French army. After independence, he quickly rose to the level of colonel in the new Togolese army. Previous to taking power, Eyadema’s chief claim to fame had been his murder of the country’s first president, Sylvanus Olympio, as Olympio attempted to scale the wall of the American ambassador’s compound for sanctuary after a coup d’etat.
As Eyadema got richer and older, his hold on power began to get a little shaky, as a series of unsuccessful coups and more and more violent strikes demonstrated. The strikes of the 1990’s showed the weakness of the regime and reduced its effective threat when it became clear that the government no longer could retaliate.
Reprisals against opponents were now less frequently carried through; the idea of them began to seem less dire. Eventually, the strikes and the growing boldness of the opposition led to some degree of movement towards a multi-party system and the diminution of the power of Eyadema’s own ethnic group, the mid-country Kabye.
The people of Tambaong, some six-hundred kilometers north of the capital, Lomé, thought they had little concern in all of this, for a great deal of the troubles sprang from tensions amongst coastal ethnic groups. The Moba really have more in common with the peoples of the countries of the Sahel—the border with Burkina Faso (once called Upper Volta), lies just fifty kilometers from the southernmost of them—than they do with those who live in the wetter coastal regions. Ethnically, the Moba comprise one of the myriad Paragourma groups, offshoots of the Gourma, a group based in Burkina Faso and themselves classed as a cluster of the Voltaic (after the Volta rivers) peoples. Africans speak languages related to Moba in a region stretching up into Mali, down into Côte d’Ivoire, over Burkina Faso, and across the tops of Ghana, Togo and Benin, and on even into Nigeria. The ancestors of today’s Moba, like those of many of the Paragourmas, turned for leadership to the naba (king) in Fada N’gourma, a couple of hundred kilometers northeast in Burkina Faso,.. These Moba ancestors were probably Gourmas who migrated to new territory to the southwest some three hundred years ago, their culture eventually taking on its own coloration.
There aren’t many Moba, perhaps 100,000 spread over the northwestern tip of Togo and the adjacent stretch of Ghana. In traditional African ethnic geographical terms, the Moba are bordered, on the north and east, by the Gourma, and the Mossi, for a bare bit, northwest. To the west, their neighbors are Kusasi and Mamprissi. To the south, live the Tchokossi, long the scourge of the Moba, and the Konkomba.
Because the Moba are traditionally hunters and small farmers, the traders among them come from other ethnic groups, often Ewe from the coast or Yoruba from Nigeria. The keepers of cattle within the Moba villages are Peul (Fulani). Traditionally, one family of these nomadic people would settle in each Moba village for a period of several years, taking on herding for the entire community.
The peoples to the south have only been a source of friction for the Moba. The Tchokossi arrived just south from the west two hundred years ago, bearing guns and establishing a base forty kilometers south of Tambaong, at Mango, where they still dominate. Formerly mercenaries in the employ of a kingdom in Ghana, they continued their old ways and began raiding Moba stores. Lacking guns of their own, the Moba took to building hidden granaries high in the escarpments crossing their lands. Some of these could be reached only by climbing down from the tops of cliffs. The Tchokossi never found these hideaways and eventually settled into their own farming, though they continued to exact what tribute they could from the Moba.
A little less than a hundred years ago, the Germans (who had grabbed the area soon named Togoland in the European scramble for African colonies) finally made it up past Mango, where they had established a school. They demolished whatever remained of Moba autonomy and effectively drove ethnic rivalries underground. Traditional power structures were thrown into disarray, for chiefs who had resisted the wishes of the Germans were deposed and foreign-picked chiefs installed in their places.
In 1914 the German rule ended: British and the French forces “took” Togoland and divided it, with Tambaong and a good part of Moba country ending up in the French sector. After the war, the French started appearing in numbers in the north, and with specific demands. They had even more guns than the Tchokossi, so the Moba acquiesced and built bridges and roads, and planted the crops the French required.
Since independence the government, dominated by southern and mid-country groups, has paid attention to the Moba only when it wanted something. From a Moba point of view, therefore, the “independent” governments haven’t been much different from the French. Government representatives might speak Kabye or Ewe as native tongue, but they are still foreign, and they still get from the Moba more often than they give.
Soon after the country’s independence in 1960, the leaders in Lomé, like most leaders of countries with beaches and forests, began to realize that tourism could become an important revenue source. They saw how Kenya’s game preserves drew so many Europeans and so much money; they decided to establish a couple of parks in Togo. They put these parks far in the north of the country, where people’s complaints would be less heard.
The Fosse aux lions, the park just north of Tambaong, had been initially established by the French in the mid-1950s. In those days it wasn’t much, merely a small, low, wet area where animals tended to congregate. Liking to hunt, the French had wanted to keep the animals coming. They confiscated the land, including a few rice fields belonging to Mateyendou Sambiani, the traditional Moba chief of the region, and declared a preserve.
Sambiani had become chief more than a decade before. Elected in 1941, he outlasted the French and managed to celebrate his fiftieth year in power still vigorous and with an eye towards many more. He saw the whole of the story this book tells first hand, and quite a bit that it leaves out. When he talks about it now, he punctuates his remarks with throaty chuckles, though I can’t believe he finds much of it funny.
The most powerful and longest-lasting traditional chief left in the country, Sambiani was still a healthy and perceptive man in 1995, the last time I visited Togo, though he didn’t move as quickly as he had even a few years before. He developed his practiced and slow gait, however, as a young chief and had only lately really grown into it. In the early days, he may have felt the need to walk slowly to augment his dignity. His would not have been an easy position: to his people, he likely seemed young and untried, and increasingly meaningless in face of the colonial bureaucracy. To the colonialists who registered his existence at all, he probably appeared only as a minor tool for effective governance, and not an interesting one, at that.
By sheer determination and strength of personality, Sambiani forced himself to become more important than other chiefs; he knew—and knows–what he was doing and what he has accomplished, how he managed to gain even the ear of the national government though he comes from an unimportant ethnic group and a small town. His awareness of his position can be seen, in the slow way he looks around, in the secretive smile that sometimes crosses his face, coming easily, but not rapidly, to his broad, thin mouth. Vestiges of insecurity remain with him, however; Sambiani knows that many foreigners, and those Africans who slavishly take foreigners’ leads, look down on the entire institution of “chief.” Sambiani never relaxes with any new acquaintance until respect for the chiefdom and for him, as representative of the institution, is clearly indicated.
Sambiani’s power did not erode with time. Though he demanded more obeisance than do most chiefs, more than one would expect from an “enlightened” and worldly man in an “enlightened” age, he had earned it. He was part of the political process that led to independence and now towards democracy. He had traveled to Paris and other parts of Europe, and was a member of a Togolese delegation to the United Nations in New York a couple of years before independence. He knew the relative place in the world of his small ethnic group; he knew that the Moba don’t mean much in the greater scheme of things.
Yet, at some point, he had a large cement throne constructed and painted white next to the flagpole in front of his house. First sight of the throne could be startling, but it was never laughable. It reminded one that Sambiani had managed to negotiate two worlds, the traditional and the modern, without leaving either. Though his influence with the national government in Lomé may have been small relating to national affairs, ministers listened carefully to him regarding the Savanna.
Normally Sambiani himself ignored his throne. He could more likely be found sitting behind a table under a paiotte (a thatch-roofed gazebo) nearby. There, he kept a telephone. There, he accepted petitions and adjudicated disputes. According to Moba tradition, his duties also extended to protection of shrines and oversight of annual religious ceremonies, but, in the years I knew him, I saw no sign of Sambiani’s involvement in any of this. He was, after all, a “modern” man even when young: As a member of the chief clan, he had been sent to school in Mango, probably forced to go by the French, and educated early on in the ways of Europe.
He told me, while we were sitting under the paiotte, when I last visited him and had asked for a history of the Fosse aux lions and the elephants that once lived there, that elephants first (in his lifetime, at least) began visiting the Fosse around 1946. He reminded me of a couple of early incidents I’d heard recounted in the villages, such as when the people of Pana, a village a few kilometers to the northeast of Tambaong, tried to kill one. The elephant turned the tables on them, picking up one of its attackers and swinging him against a tree. The people didn’t much care for the elephants even then, for the animals weren’t satisfied by the wild vegetation—they also wanted to eat the new type of millet the farmers had started planting. Creatures that eat several hundred kilograms of food a day can make a huge dent in a harvest.
In the fall of 1948, a Frenchman shot and killed three elephants in Boumbouaka itself. Chief Sambiani was there, and related the story to me many years later, with occasional contradictions and addenda by one of his contemporaries and by a younger man, a history teacher at a nearby school. The story, as they told it, had little but bone: This Frenchman and his wife. A colonel. No, a doctor. In the colonial service, anyway. In the fall of 1948. No, forty-seven. No, he’s right, forty-eight. When the elephants were coming, he climbed up a tree that stood right there, where that house is now. No, it was farther up this way. No, he is right. Anyway, he shot one, then the other two. When he climbed down, the first got up again, to attack him. His wife shot it this time, and for good.
Though lacking detail, the story of the doctor stayed with me long after I left that day. I tried to imagine it, to get at what the truth of the situation had been at that time, and at what the Frenchman might and believed, and how the Moba had really seen it all. The changes I had seen during my time in the area had roots in that incident, so I mulled it over, molding it into as much of a story as I could. I built it into something that, while certainly not the historical truth, contained, I thought, a starting point for my own coming to terms with a situation that disturbed me greatly: The killing of more than forty elephants–more than forty years later.
The story I created, that I used to anchor the chronology of actual events I was developing, goes something like this (the names, of course, are as fictional as the events):
In the fall of 1948, Dr. Henri Bontemps, whose service with the Free French had left him the rank of Colonel and a position in the revitalized French foreign service, took a trip with his wife Marie-Claude, from Lomé, where he had recently been posted, up country. The purpose of the trip was two-fold: first, he was surveying the health needs of the region. Second, he hoped to do a little hunting.
The trip was delayed for almost a month: the road north of Atakpamé, was impassable, they were told, due to late rains. The train had taken them that far, but the tracks went no farther. An old military transport truck loaded with canned food, tents, cots, portable stoves and baths, and even chinaware that Bontemps had requisitioned, had been waiting for them there, along with a Togolese driver, a Kabye guide, and a cook on loan from the prefet. An escort of soldiers, Togolese in French service, would accompany them in another vehicle.
The Bontemps stayed with the Atakpamé prefet, taking some time out to look at the forests in the area, including the famous waterfall at Badou, and time for Henri to try a little hunting. He had scant luck, though his guide did catch a monkey which he then presented to Mrs. Bontemps, who, not liking the chain constantly clanking from around its waist, politely refused it.
The prefet, a hunter and animal enthusiast, added the monkey to his own collection. In the evenings, he entertained the couple with tales of hunts and habitats of animals. He loved the animals he killed and wanted others to love them as well. To him, there was no contradiction between nature-conservation and hunting: only a poor hunter would kill too often or too many. Responsible hunters kept the herds to manageable size and assured, through their interest in hunting preserves, that the lands the animals needed would be maintained. Bontemps, who very much wanted a lion or an elephant, who wanted to be seen as a “real” hunter, too, agreed whole-heartedly.
Finally, by the second week in October, enough dry days had passed in a row for the Bontemps to safely venture north. The road they were on, the National Road, was really little more than a dirt track, though kapoks had been planted along it where it passed through the larger villages, giving it, sometimes, the hint of boulevard, providing a quaint and almost provincial French feel to the approaches. In general, the road followed the course of the older German road, but the French had widened and straightened it during the period between the wars, making the trip up country a lot less the trek it had been before.
Their high-riding, old military truck could slog through just about anything, and it almost had to, even though the road was a great deal drier than it had been just a week before. They got stuck three times the first day out, in each instance having to ask their escort to conscript villagers to push them out of the mud.
After two days of rough driving, they made it to Mango, where again they stayed with another prefet. During conversation their first evening, this prefet mentioned that elephants had been seen around Tandjouaré, a village about forty kilometers farther north. Never having seen an elephant outside of zoo and circus, and avid to hunt one, Henri would have hurried out and pushed on that evening, but he finally deferred to the better sense of his wife. She was tired from two nights of sleeping under the heavy canvas tents, and wanted to relax a little in the relative luxury of Mango, though she, too, was a hunter and wanted to try for an elephant.
The next day, and quite early, they did set out for Tandjoaré, leaving as soon as both Henri and Marie-Claude had cleaned and oiled their weapons. It had been drier here for longer, so the going was easier, though the road up the long hill to Tandjoaré had been washed out by the recent rains and they had to stop several times while their retinue shoveled rock back onto the road. In Tandjoaré where the road split, one branch going to Ghana and the other heading north to the rather new and fast-growing town of Dapaong (“Newmarket” in Moba), they asked where the chief’s house was. They were told that Chief Sambiani had recently moved his family and administration to Boumbouaka, five kilometers further up the Dapaong branch of the road.
By the time they arrived in Boumbouaka it was past noon and time for lunch and the afternoon siesta. Sambiani wasn’t in town, having walked to a nearby village to handle some crisis or other brewing there, but he was expected back soon. Marie-Claude ordered food be prepared and tents erected. The cook went off to find where he could light his fires without causing himself too much trouble and where it might be best to pitch the tents. Someone sent a child off running to the chief to make him aware he had visitors.
Henri and Marie-Claude waited in the shade of a large tree within sight of Boumbouaka’s market, now nearly empty, for it was not the village’s market day. They sat on wood-ribbed canvas folding chairs while they awaited the chief, and sipped wine from glasses carefully packed and yet surprisingly unbroken after days on the bumpy road. Marie-Claude instructed the cook to carry over her radio, a large, wooden thing that ran on batteries.. Perhaps, she thought, she could pick something up on the short wave.
The gathering of children which had been eyeing the Bontemps quietly from a respectful distance, jumped back when Marie-Claude found a station, and words started coming from the box. One in the group, perhaps one who had been to school in Mango, explained something to the others in Moba, but neither of the Bontemps could understand. The children, however, nodded and now looked at the radio with curiosity. Marie-Claude turned up the volume for them, though she suspected not one could understand the French coming through the static.
Sambiani arrived soon after, accompanied by a couple of elders, and walked directly up to the Bontemps. He was dressed in a long white robe and a skull cap, but carried no sign of office beyond the respect obvious in the carriage of those around him. Stopping in front of the Bontemps, he waited for them to speak.
“Bonjour, chef.” Henri rose as he spoke, as did his wife. In need of the chief’s assistance, Henri wasn’t going to play any games about who should speak first to whom. Sambiani smiled and extended his hand.
Henri explained who they were and gave the putative reason for their visit. He then told the chief, “But we really came here today because we heard in Mango that elephants had been spotted near here, and I really would enjoy the hunt.”
The chief laughed, “Your timing couldn’t be better. Yes, there are elephants, and they are walking this way. I have just been down where they are, trying to head them away from the mango trees. We had to detour coming home, for they had decided to stop and demolish a tree by the path we were taking.”
“How many are there?” Henri motioned for Marie-Claude to hurry to the truck and get their guns.
“Three,” replied the chief.
“All females?” It was unlikely that a full-grown male would be with a group.
“Two females and, I think, a young one, but almost grown. I don’t know if it is male or female.”
“Not great ones, but the two adults do have them.”
“Could you find out for us where they are now? I would certainly appreciate that.”
Sambiani clapped his hands once and pointed at a young man who bowed and listened to the chief’s instructions in Moba. He tore off immediately after, back down the direction from which the chief had come. Two other youths arrived carrying a chair and a stool. The chief sat down, put his feet up, and said something to one of them, who turned and walked quickly away. The youth returned almost immediately, carrying a small clay pot and three calabash (gourd) bowls.
“Will you drink a little tchakpa? It’s a millet beer, and quite good.”
Henri, who had sat down when the chief did, nodded.
“And madam?” Marie-Claude was approaching, followed by the cook carrying both rifles.
“She’ll have some, too, I am sure.”
The chief held out one of the calabashes for the youth to fill from the jug, tasted the beer, nodded that it was all right, then spilt a little out on the ground, ‘for the ancestors,’ as they would say. Henri and Marie-Claude let their bowls be filled, then sipped cautiously at the frothy, sweet liquid. Neither had tried any of the African brews before, but that they were excited by the idea of shooting elephants and knew that they would need the chief’s cooperation were they to do so. They were surprised that the drink was not, in fact, that bad, and that the calabash actually had a pleasant feel on the lip.
Neither Henri nor Marie-Claude even considered whether or not the Africans might want them to shoot the elephants. They didn’t bother to think in terms of African needs or desires, would have been surprised at the suggestion. But such was the case—Sambiani and his people wanted the elephants removed. Once he had heard that the Bontemps awaited him, and had divined what they wanted, the chief had given orders that the elephants be herded as much as possible, that they be encouraged to head towards Boumbouaka, straight for the Bontemps and their rifles. A group of men and boys was pelting the animals with stones from slings; others were making sure the route to the village quite clear and free.
By the time the tchakpa was finished, the first youth had returned, panting with information for the chief, who smiled, nodded to the kid, and sent him off again. Soon after, he stood, clapped his hands once again, and started addressing people. The children vanished, the women following. The men started picking up things, including Sambiani’s chair and stool, and carrying them away.
“So, what’s the situation?” Henri didn’t want to interrupt the chief, but he couldn’t stand not knowing.
“The elephants are headed this way. You might even be able to see them now, if you climbed this tree…. And, actually, that might not be a bad place to shoot from.”
“Yes. Marie-Claude,” he turned to his wife, “hand me my rifle, would you, when I get up there.”
“Yes, Henri, but where shall I be?”
“Hmm. Good question. Chief, where are they likely to run, once we shoot?”
“I don’t know that they will. They have probably never before heard rifles, and will be confused.”
“All right then. Marie-Claude, why don’t you wait in the back of the truck, ready to come out when you can, when it’s safe. You can see from there, and even shoot. We can both try for these elephants, but please let me shoot first.”
She nodded, handed her rifle to the cook, and climbed into the back of the truck. He handed it back as soon as she was inside.
When it was clear that the elephants would end up near the tree and the truck, close enough for the Bontemps to shoot them, the Moba who had been trying to herd the animals vanished. They didn’t really want to be around when the shooting started—an injured elephant, they knew, could be a dangerous thing. Bontemps waited, watching until the elephants were well within range. Watching them, he was getting greedy, perhaps too greedy, he told himself, remembering the words of the prefet in Atakpamé. But, well, this might be his only chance, ever, to shoot elephants. So he waited, waited until the largest was almost under the tree where he hid.
Finally ready, sure he could get a shot off at each, or two, even, he fired. The elephant jerked, started to lift its trunk, then slowly collapsed, its right-side legs going down first. The other elephants, startled by the retort, looked around in confusion, then at their dying companion. Henri shot one as it lifted its trunk and started a mournful roar, then the other, thin plumes of smoke marking each retort. The second didn’t fall right away, so he shot it again. This is too easy, he thought. But he was shaking from adrenaline as he lowered his rifle then climbed down the tree.
Marie-Claude, he saw, had gotten out of the back of the truck and was turning to retrieve her gun. As he bent to pick up his, he heard her shout. Straightening, he saw that the first elephant had managed to get to its feet and was starting towards him. He turned and ran for the safety of the truck. Marie-Claude raised her rifle as he passed her and carefully shot the elephant once more. Again, it took its time falling. This time it stayed down for good.
Though a few more elephants were killed after that, they were soon declared “protected” by the French colonial authorities. There were too few for any hunting to make sense, and too many hunters wanting to kill elephants. Few were as sensitive as that fictional prefet in Atakpamé. Most were like the Bontemps, or like the Moba population, the former seeing the elephants only as sport, the latter viewing them exclusively as serious pests who could eventually threaten their livelihood.
Though people with a little more sense than the Bontemps eventually came to make colonial and independent conservation policies, no one ever bothered to give the Moba, the people who had to deal with the elephants from day to day, reason for protecting the elephants. After all, they probably didn’t even realize how instrumental the Moba probably had been in most elephant killings in their region. The Bontemps weren’t the only elephant hunters surreptitiously helped.
Elephants appeared more and more frequently as the years passed, though other animals faded from the scene. Lions were long gone by the 1950s and hippopotami by the start of the next decade. By 1980, about all that remained were the elephants and wild boars, whose low bodies, fierce tusks, and bobbed tails made them look as silly as the elephants were grand.
In the mid-1970s, the Togolese government decided that the park needed major expansion. The people of half-a-dozen villages were told they had to leave their homes and were given two weeks to complete the moves. New boundaries were firmly established and gendarmes were assigned to patrol, making sure no farming took place in the park and that no animals were touched. Chief Sambiani and neighboring chiefs were forced to accept the displaced into their villages. They were as helpless against this governmental authority as ever they had been against the French.
By the time I arrived in the region, in 1988, the Moba chiefs had quietly accomplished an astonishing task: no outsider, certainly not me, even though, through Peace Corps, I had been trained to be attuned to the local beat, would possibly be able to tell without careful questioning who had been displaced and whose family had lived in the expanded villages for generations. In all observable ways, the move of population and the integration into the outer villages had been seamless.
Sambiani and the other chiefs had made sure they found arable land for those who had lost their homes, even when it meant curtailing the plots of others, and had located reasonable spots for building homes. The assimilation seemed complete and successful, and appeared to have taken place without resentment on the part of those who had to make room. The chiefs had shown, if anyone cared to see, that the traditional structures could work, that they could manage, in times of need, to find real solutions, though these ultimately proved only temporary.
During my own first few months in the area, it slowly dawned on me that many of the people I lived among were new arrivals, forced into the area within the last decade. I lived, then, in Nano, about ten kilometers to the west of Mt. Nassiet, near the region’s most spectacular cliffs, where the most impressive of the hidden granaries can be found. I didn’t much care for the town, though, and chaffed at having to ride my motorcycle every day to Tambaong, where I worked at an experimental agriculture station. I’d inherited the rectangular, tin-roofed home of the Peace Corps Volunteer I’d replaced, and I didn’t like that house much.
I’d joined Peace Corps hoping to gather a different kind of African experience than that offered by the “modern” African city. I’d recently spent two years teaching at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, that country just north of Togo, and had my fill of city life for the time being. Straight cement walls, right angles, and a roof of manufactured material did not fit well with what I’d imagined my rural African experience would be.
Soon after my first exploratory months, I contracted to have a round, mud-walled and thatch-roofed compound built in Tambaong. More traditional, more convenient to my work it was also, well, closer to the regional capital, Dapaong, where I did my shopping and collected my mail, where there’s the electricity and running water for occasional comfort. I may have wanted a village experience, but I never did plan on becoming immune to the lure of luxury.
It was easy, I discovered, to find land for a house in Tambaong. Easier than in Nano, where every possible bit of land is cultivated, where many of the people displaced by the park had moved. Once made up of some seventy-five households scattered amongst fields of millet, peanuts, sorghum, corn, beans, and, in low areas, rice—all spotted with trees: baobab, mango, acacia—Tambaong has dwindled much in the years since the establishment of the park. Fewer than forty compounds remain. Unusual in a country whose population is doubling—and more—each two decades. Even rarer in that region, where most villages had been forced to accept a sudden influx of new citizens after expansion of the park.
In Tambaong I could have my pick of sites. Especially at the northern end of the village. Closest to the park and the elephants, this part of Tambaong most enchanted to me. I had my house built among the decomposing remains of abandoned compounds, where I could watch the comings and goings of elephants at least once or twice a week. No one else wanted to live around there. They couldn’t farm the land, for the elephants would eat any crop, and they didn’t particularly want to raise children so close to dangerous animals.
Since expansion of the park, the elephant herd within it had been growing as rapidly as an elephant herd can. That’s not too fast, given an almost two-year gestation, a long childhood and the fact that a mother rarely gives birth to more than five offspring in her sixty-year life. But the boundaries of the park could no longer contain the herd and the elephants who happened to be passing on their way to Ghana, Benin, or Burkina Faso. The people of Tambaong, constrained by harshly-enforced law from harming any wild animals, were nearly helpless when the elephants decided to roam. Difficult enough normally there, where the land gets more and more arid each decade, their lives too often reached the point of impossibility when additional problems like elephants in the fields appeared. So they left, crowding into the already-over-packed villages and towns farther from the park. Like those who had been forced from their homes a decade earlier, they had become refugees from elephants.
Those who stayed all knew, as they planted their crops, that they might never harvest them. Though fatalistic, they still attempted to protect a lifestyle and ancestry now attacked on one side by the modern life of the towns, on the other by the elephants.
The modern town may eventually destroy the village life of the subsistence farmer, but the elephant, at the time I arrived in Tambaong, seemed the more direct threat. More traditional healers, magicians, and animist priests live and practice in Tambaong and Nassiet than in any other villages I know of. Few of the compounds in bigger, more developed Bombouaka contain ancestor shrines. All compounds do, in the two smaller, more threatened, villages. To me, the needs of the park seemed more likely to destroy traditional Moba culture in the short run than any threat from the “modern” world.
The ancestors, the shrines, all seemed powerless, when I moved to Tambaong, to protect the village from the elephants, whose protectors (the tourists and the foreigners alarmed by the drop in elephant populations) apparently had much greater power. Tambaong and Nassiet, I believed at the time, would eventually have to be abandoned. There didn’t seem to be anything that could be done. A new sort of dust and another source of smoke, the power of money and the interest of the world outside, would insist upon the ascendancy of the elephant and, by default and lack of knowledge, upon the destruction of the villages.
When I left Togo at the end of 1990, that was how it seemed. By the time I returned, five years later, however, there were no more elephants.
The political troubles that had begun that fall continued, and led to a relaxation of national control over the north. In addition to a pitched battle that left many dead in the village of Barkoissi between the Moba and the Tchokossi (bringing a new kind of smoke to the area), another battle (of sorts) took place in the Fosse aux lions, this time between the Togolese Moba (who had smuggled in guns borrowed from their Ghanaian cousins) and the elephants.
By the time I got back to Tambaong not a sign of the reserve remained, and all of the “destroyed” villages had been rebuilt.
And the elephants? All had been killed.
The dust and smoke that presage the desert don’t only threaten people. The tragedy envelopes all who live there.