Which does us more harm? In this age of terrorism, winner-takes-all politics, and growing scarcities, which are more destructive, the things we fear, or our fear of them? The following story, which I heard in Burkina Faso several years ago, may shed some light. I’ll begin relating it the way Jula-speaking griots (story-tellers and singers) of Burkina Faso typically begin a story: 

“Nsirin, nsirin: m’ben’a bla Siriki ani sama kan.”

A story, a story; I shall put it on Siriki and the elephant.

A herd of elephants can be dangerous enough, but most dangerous of all is a young rogue bull elephant who wanders off on his own. No other elephants are around to make him mind his manners and respect his elders. Such a rogue bull elephant once broke from the herd in the neighborhood of Boromo, Burkina Faso, and wandered south toward the sugar cane fields of Banfora.

About this time, in a little village along the winding road to the market city of Banfora, lived a young man named Siriki. Like other young men, Siriki had a field of yams, some of which he sold, and some of which he cut up and planted at the beginning of every rainy season. In just three or four years, the few yams his uncle had once given him had grown in number to where he could take some every market day to Banfora and sell them for money to buy gifts for his family and gas for his moped

Though Siriki lived more than a few miles from Banfora, he could always get to the market early by taking a narrow trail, a winding footpath really, through the forests and the cane fields. He got better prices when he set out his yams early, and by taking this short cut, he didn’t have to contend with the big trucks full of fruits and rice and cloth coming into town for the market.

One market day morning , Siriki loaded a large burlap bag with yams, each one with black, prickly skin, as long as a man’s forearm and as thick as his leg. He wrapped the mouth of the bag closed with string, hoisted it onto the rack on the back of his moped, and tied it down with rubber straps cut from the worn-out inner tubes of truck tires. Keeping the moped and its heavy cargo barely balanced, Siriki began pedaling and cranking the starter on the right handle bar until the moped roared into life and sped off toward Banfora.

Just a mile to the west, by a small village under a baobab tree to the left, Siriki turned off the road, zoomed past a courtyard, scattering chickens and a few goats, waved to the old men sitting in the shade of the big baobab tree, and wound his way through the corn fields toward the trail that would take him directly through the forests and the cane fields to the market of Banfora.

After passing through fields of millet and sorghum, and negotiating his way through two muddy ravines, Siriki was more than halfway to Banfora when he rounded a bend in the trail and saw, standing between walls of tall grass, blocking the path just a stone’s throw ahead, a mountain. Strange: there’d never been a mountain here before. Or was it a big, gray rock? Or the wall of large, concrete block building? That’s new.

And then Siriki saw the rock, or the wall, or the mountain move. When an ear flapped, Siriki suddenly understood, with a shiver going up his spine, that it was an elephant standing broadside across the trail. It was the young rogue bull from the herd near Boromo! Siriki squeezed the brakes of his moped for all he was worth, and the moped slid to a halt. The motor died, leaving Sirki straddling the bike, trying to keep it upright against the weight of his sack of yams, which was now leaning to one side.

When the elephant heard the sound of Siriki’s moped, and smelled Siriki and his yams, it lifted its trunk, flapped its ears and trumpeted an ear-splitting, blood-curdling challenge. Trembling and terrified, Siriki began walking his moped backwards. But the elephant decided that he wanted yams for breakfast and began stamping its feet and shuffling toward him.

Siriki briefly considered abandoning the moped, but then he knew he’d never outrun the elephant on foot. Only on motorized wheels could he possibly outrun the rapidly approaching mountain of a beast. With the elephant getting closer, Siriki turned the moped around and began pedaling as fast as he could, while cranking the starter with his right hand. He could feel the sheer weight of the elephant causing the earth to tremble as it closed in on him. The engine barely began coughing to life when he felt the tug of the elephant’s trunk on his bag of yams, causing him to lose speed for an instant. Then the rear wheel began to spin under the engine’s power, and after a second of resistance from the elephant’s grasp on the bag of yams, Siriki’s moped shot forward, breaking free of the elephant’s hold.

But the elephant was just as determined to eat those yams as Siriki was to escape, and as he sped through the walls of grass on either side of the trail, Siriki could hear the elephant trumpeting in rage and crashing through the weeds in hot pursuit, raising clouds of dust, flattening bushes and breaking through overhanging branches as he came. He could even feel the ground shaking through the spinning wheels of his moped.

Never had Siriki slid so recklessly and so quickly through a muddy ravine as he did with the elephant behind him. The loud thumping and splashing sounds he heard in the trickle of muddy water at the bottom of the ravine convinced him that the elephant was still in hot pursuit.

But while speeding down the trail toward the next ravine, Siriki noticed that he no longer heard the elephant trumpeting, nor did he feel the ground quaking. He wanted to glance behind himself to see if the elephant was still in pursuit, but to do that safely, he would have to slow down. Just as he loosened his grip on the accelerator, he heard more loud banging and the sound of something crashing through the brush. With a quick turn of the wrist, Siriki accelerated and zoomed through the next ravine more quickly than he ever knew he could, weaving and sliding through the mud and the water, with the heavy bag of yams rocking back and forth. More banging and splashing sounds convinced him that he was still being chased.

Soon he began to see the tall baobab tree rising over the village by the road, and the cone-shaped thatch roofs of houses standing guard over the patches of corn that tell you that you are approaching a village. Surely the elephant must be afraid to follow him this far, Siriki thought to himself. But some more thumping, rolling, and crashing sounds made his heart leap up into his throat.

As he passed, at break-neck speed, children and women out hoeing their corn, they looked up at him, frightened that anyone should be driving so recklessly through places where people live and work. “Run; an elephant is after me!” Siriki yelled, and they fled the fields, grabbing the littlest children and running toward their homes. The old men under the baobab tree heard him and scattered, too.

As he regained the paved road, Siriki thought that surely the elephant would never follow him this far. But another loud thump and more crashing sounds in the brush at the edge of the road scared him into fleeing toward his village at top speed. Perhaps a hunter along the road would shoot the raging rogue elephant, he thought. If he ever got home alive, Siriki told himself, he would wait for the next market day to go to Banfora, and by the main road that time.

People were still coming down the road, some in trucks and cars, some on bicycles, some on foot, carrying firewood or charcoal or sacks of fruit or grain on their heads, to sell in Banfora. As he raced up the road toward them, yelling about a pursuing elephant, people scattered left and right, which only further convinced Siriki that the elephant was indeed still behind him. More thumping and crashing sounds in the brush along the road kept him racing ahead at full throttle, until he saw a woman drop her load of firewood from her head and yell, “Yams! You’re dropping yams from your moped!”

Siriki slowed down, glanced behind himself, and saw a young boy running from the road toward the woods with a big black yam under his arm. He stopped and, turning around, saw, almost beyond sight, another girl stooping to pick up a yam from the side of the road. Looking behind himself, at the moped’s rack, he saw that the burlap sack was open and nearly empty, except for one last yam. No raging elephant was anywhere to be seen.

Then Siriki knew: the elephant must have opened the sack when he pulled on it with his trunk. When, he wondered, did the elephant stop chasing him, and when did he start confusing the sound of falling yams with the sound of the world’s largest land animal in hot pursuit? And the question I leave with us is this: Which did Siriki more harm in the end, the elephant, or his fear of the elephant?

All Jula stories end this way: “N’y’a soro yoro minna, m’ben’a bla yen.” And now I shall put this story back where I found it.

Mathew Swora, pastor



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