She was young to be the matriarch, the elephant who was the head of the family. A family who stood around her, their stomachs rumbling in displeasure at her inability to make a decision. She had, unusually, been appointed by her mother, as normally it was the oldest female who became the matriarch. This only increased the rumblings of displeasure. The fact that her calf had died and she could not have any more, only made a bad situation worse.
Her eyes were down cast, and her trunk hung limply from her head. She was too afraid to meet the eyes of her family that were full of accusations and hostility.
Why had her mother died so suddenly? Why hadn’t she listened to the lessons that her mother tried over and over to make her understand? Why was she the matriarch when she didn’t know what to do? Why did they now have to move from where they had been grazing? Why had the season passed so quickly? Why her. Why, why a thousand why’s?
She turned in a circle and, spotting a gap between two of her sisters, rushed away from the family. Their heads tossing in resignation that, again, their matriarch didn’t know what she was doing.
Her name was Mbaamwezi, on whom the moon shines. She was a pretty elephant with long eyelashes, which she liked to flutter. Her eyes were a deep shade of blue that shone at night as if the moon was shining from her eyes and not the sky. With her eyes she could mesmerize other elephants, and because of this ability, she didn’t see the need to listen to her mother. After all, she was young, the world was exciting and lessons were so boring!
But now, she didn’t know which way to go. Where to cross the swiftly flowing river full of crocodiles. Or how to avoid the lions that would prey on the young calf’s as they made their journey towards the new grass as they followed the rains to the north. It had all seemed so simple when her mother had lead them every year. But now, without her mother, the hostility of the family made her tremble where she hid amongst the trees.
As she stood wondering whether, if she stayed hidden long enough, the family would simply leave without her, she felt – and heard – someone calling to her. At first she wondered if it was one of her family trying to find her? Standing very still, she could still hear the soft calling, but there was no movement. Then she wondered if it was her mother calling to her? She ran from her hiding place and ran to where the bones of her mother lay.
Mbaamwezi stood with her trunk gently picking up the bones, feeling her mother in each one. Feeling as if her heart would break, with loneliness. But the quiet voice was gone, and tears fell from her eyes. Sadly she turned away from the graveyard of elephant bones and started the slow journey back to where she had hidden amongst the trees.
As she got closer to her hiding spot, she again heard the voice. A gentle sound on the breeze. She stopped and turned, slowly to try and sense where the voice was coming from. Mbaamwezi stopped turning where the vibrations in the ground felt the strongest and slowly, listening carefully, she followed the vibrations.
As hard as she tried, she couldn’t see anything and after awhile the vibrations began to get softer again. She turned around and went back the way she had come, her trunk sensing the air, her head turned to one side in concentration.
With her foot raised, ready to take another step, the voice shouted, giving her such a fright she almost fell over backwards. Looking around, she still couldn’t identify who was talking to her. A small movement on the ground made her look down, where she spotted a tortoise. Not an especially big one, but still its wasn’t often that elephants came across tortoises.
Not being quite sure how to react to this small creature, she moved back a few steps. Still close enough to watch the tortoise carefully. Could this be the source of the whispering she had heard?
Mbaamwezi had never spoken to a tortoise before, and couldn’t ever remember any elephant talking to a tortoise. As she stood wondering, through her feet she felt small vibrations that became pictures in her mind. She could see the river, the curve where the old tree lay with its roots pulled up, and on the far bank a rock that seemed to glow yellow. Not opposite to where the tree was but further down the river. The small voice seemed to be explaining to her that she mustn’t try to go straight across, as near the bank on the far side, was a hole where crocodiles lay in wait.
She shook her head in disbelief. How was this possible? She again looked down to where the tortoise stood, its head now outside its shell looking up at her. With her trunk, she felt across the top of the tortoise’s shell, as carefully as she had done with the bones of her mother. Each ridge on the back of the tortoise seemed to be a new memory.
The tortoise nodded its head, and she heard the voice talking to her. We tortoises are the memory keepers of the earth. Your mother, and matriarchs before her, made sure that every season they came back here, and built another ridge of knowledge on the shell of the tortoise that’s here. Like draws full of secrets. Knowledge that we pass on to new matriarchs, like you, so they are able to keep their families safe.
Mbaamwezi couldn’t believe that she wasn’t alone. The tortoise a library of knowledge to help her when she was confronted with new situations, or she was unsure. The moon from her eyes bathed the tortoise in its special glow, the rumble from her stomach alerting the family that they must prepare to move, as she knew where to go.
With her head high, and a new confidence in her step, she lead the family towards the river, her eyes carefully looking for tortoises to pass on the knowledge she now had.