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Stories of Zambia: “So There I Was” -

The Elephant And The Ant Hill

 “So There I Was”  - the Elephant and the Ant Hill (2009)

I first met Father Bill (not his real name) at Lukulu in the western part of Zambia, along the Zambezi River. Of course, the first meeting was traumatizing - to have a newly arrived missionary disappear into the ground and all. How would you write the letter to his folks back in Canada? Dear Family, because your son was not emaciated like the rest of us, he started sinking … Perhaps I need to explain. All arriving missionaries are overweight relative to what happens after a while. We “got” rice and beans every day.  We lived way in the bush – no stores for two or three day’s journey. Rice and beans and then beans and rice and on special holidays Father Daniel would serve his favorite – rice pudding – it tasted better if there was milk in the country.
SO THERE I WAS – sitting next to Father Bill when I noticed – he’s shrinking eight inches if any. I was thinking of throwing some holy water on him when he looked at me as if I could do something. He had just sunk another 4 inches - it was serious. As an engineer from Marquette we were trained to quickly assess the situation. I thought of saying, “you're toast” but I figured it wouldn’t be to encouraging. I settled for a compromise, “You’re too heavy – and you’re not my brother.” Sure enough - his chair legs were thin steel rods and his weight was pushing the chair into the sandy ground. The letter never had to been written to his family – happy ending. That was my first meeting with Father Bill.
 
The rest has become one of the great legends among the missionaries – best shared with new recruits at night with the legs resting on a stool swallowing a soft drink – if it could be found anywhere in the sub-continent. If the legs are resting on a stool then they are not on the ground so less chance of a hunter spider investigating your toe.
 
Father Bill’ superiors were coming for a visit from North America and he would take them to the game park – elephants of course – “Got to see the elephants.” The day they were going on the trip Father Bill was sitting half in and half out of the vehicle taking off his shoes and putting on sneakers. “Why are you doing that Bill?” Reply, “In case the elephant starts chasing us.” Statement of fact, “But Bill, you cannot out run an elephant.” Another statement of fact, “No,” said Father Bill, “but when it’s charging I can out run you.” They laughed and got into the vehicle. They tried to make pleasant conversation to avoid thoughts of who could run the fastest. “So Bill, what do you do all day long here in Lukulu?”  Long silence. “I cry a lot.”
 
One of the things all recruits are fascinated by is their first sighting of the ant hills - if you are driving through the Copper Belt in Zambia, AND IF you are not distracted by the blue shift. In that region it was notorious for thieves to stop the car and rob you. One solution - drive your vehicle close to the speed of light to get through there as fast as you can. The down side – which you have probably already guessed – is the blue shift - everything is shifted to the blue as you approach the speed of light – an experience all parents have had when allowing their kids drive the car - so you could be easily distracted from seeing the 15 foot tall ANT HILL.  You heard me. You know you're not dreaming because you see the water tank on top of it. The vehicle is suddenly filled with the scream – STOP THE CAR – I don’t care if the thieves are there. I don’t care if we’re risking life and limb – the family back home needs this picture. CLICK. The vehicle peels off.
 
They arrived at the game park. When the guys got out of the vehicle the game warden came over to give them some instructions. It went like this, to be safe, follow the instructions. (At that moment some of the guys were trying to recall if they had updated their wills.) Now if you see the bull elephant start to wiggle its ears – it’s not a fun moment. It’s angry and it’s trying to cool down. (I stored this away for the next deanery meeting.) He went on. The elephant has excellent hearing and if you take a picture he will hear the CLICK and will start charging at you. Now came the really good part. If it starts running at you - stand still - and the elephant will stop. Father Bill was about to ask if he heard right – did the guy say it will stop or stomp. The superior was not paying any attention. He was to busy looking at Bill’s sneakers.
 
Then the game warden said, the elephant is behind the ant hill.       Long pause, real long pause.
 
They all started to approach the ant hill. To the left they noticed a movement. It was Father Bill. Slowly his two hands were rising up. Camera being aimed as he started WALKING FORWARD going to the left side of the ant hill – face to face with the elephant. All the guys in slow motion, with no sound coming from their mouth, are forming the word – NOOOOOOOO. Father Bill is saying silently, “YESSSSSSSSSS”. 
 
"CLICK" from the camera and then
 
a roar from the elephant – it was one unhappy dude.  
Up goes the trunk, ears flapping,

IT CHARGED.

The superior of course recalls exactly what happened next, which might vary with Father Bill's account in minor points.​ 

Superior: “I thought I was dead, my heart pounding, running as fast as could. From behind I hear this boom, boom, boom of something coming. Suddenly it's Bill with his sneakers running past me. We dive into the vehicle and turn to look." Silence. He continued,  "There between the Elephant and us stood the game warden"  - standing his ground - strong and courageous. The elephant had stopped.

I remember this story quite well with Father Bill telling it. When I shared it with others one thought comes to mind. God stands his ground as a helper and as a shield in the time of battle. When life comes running at me, God is there, with arms out stretched like the Cross, giving me everything I need – strength and courage - to stand my ground - in the LORD.

The Lord give you his peace.

Father Patrick of the Immaculata FLHF