Anthony Ham’s essay, “The Lost Herd,” in VQR’s Winter issue follows the nomadic elephant herds of Mali as they move across the dry lands of the Sahara and the Sahel in search of water and food. As Ham sets out on his quest to catch a glimpse of the roaming elephants, his conversations with Mali’s villagers about their whereabouts reveals the special reverence the villagers have for their mysterious movement. A travel writer who has written for Lonely Planet, Ham’s essay is both an endearing portrait of the deserts of Mali as well as an ecological analysis of the climate changes that affect elephants and humans alike. Here, Ham explains his past work and how it influenced his essay in VQR.
1. In your essay, you build suspense by tracking the elephants as they move from place to place until, at the end, you and your guides finally spot them. What were your feelings during the search? When they eventually appeared, what was your impression of them?
I love the Sahel and Sahara but it’s always tough love. This is one of the most marginal environments on earth for humans and animals alike, and my journeys are always shadowed by exhilaration and despair in equal measure. On this journey my initial excitement often gave way to disillusionment. Watching wildlife here is so different from elsewhere in Africa—distances are vast, herds are small and wary, and the infrastructure is extremely basic. But seeing them took me back to the first time I ever saw elephants in the wild—a sense of wonder at this ancient life force.
2. As you move through Mali in the piece and speak with villagers about the elephants, the elephants seem to take on a mythic status as roaming beasts, both enigmatic and feared. Your writing, on the other hand, suggests a special harmony between humans and elephants from an ecological standpoint. Do you think this relationship is changing due to environmental threats for both?
The situation is changing significantly. The special relationship between locals and elephants dates from a time when most of the people living in the Gourma were nomads and there was indeed an ecological balance and a complementary relationship between the two groups. There was sufficient water for everyone and elephants were seen as guides for the local people in their quest for scarce resources. But drought, growing human and livestock populations, and policies by governments and NGOs to encourage sedentary lifestyles, and hence agriculture, have threatened this balance. Talk to most nomads and the relationship remains relatively intact. Inhabitants of the permanent villages which have become established throughout the region, however, rarely have that same relationship with elephants. Elephants are a threat to their livelihoods and, as relative newcomers to the region who have migrated here due to drought and famine elsewhere, they don’t view the elephants as special at all, merely troublesome. These are people living a hand-to-mouth existence and this has become a quintessentially African dilemma: how to protect threatened wildlife and equally threatened people on land that is already close to breaking point.
3. You’ve written for Lonely Planet travel guides, specificially on the Middle East, Norway, Spain, and West Africa. Did you find there was a large difference between the reporting you did for the West Africa travel guide versus your piece in VQR? How does an awareness of a personal nonfiction narrative affect your primary experience of a place?
There are some similarities: developing a strong sense of place, a need to make every word count, and the imperative to reveal just enough without taking a sense of discovery away from the reader, for example. But there is a clear expectation with guidebooks that the person reading them will visit the place with their guidebook in hand, whereas a personal non-fiction narrative demands that I take the reader places that he or she is unlikely ever to visit. The focus for so much guidebook writing is necessarily practical, while I see my task in other nonfiction writing to find and bring back the stories that illuminate a place and the lives of its people, and to tell those stories which don’t otherwise get told.
4. Lonely Planet guides seem to provide more information other than the usual tourist hot spots, particularly regarding the nuances of food, arts, and culture in a locality. Are you able to learn this information just by spending a lot of time in a place, or is it a matter of knowing how to chat up the locals? Did you find yourself relying on these skills when you researched for your VQR piece, particularly as you tracked the elephants using word-of-mouth clues?
I read widely about a place before I travel there and I talk at length with other travelers about their experiences, but there’s no substitute for spending as long as I can in a place and spending most of it in the company of locals to take readers to the heart of a place. In the case of Mali, over a number of visits I have built up a network of trusted friends who serve as my guides to the country. Their stories and explanations could fill entire books and much of what they tell me never appears in my writing. But it all contributes to a deeper understanding of the country, and the 10 percent I do write about wouldn’t be possible without the other 90 percent.
5. You used to work as a refugee lawyer in Australia, but then decided you wanted to explore the worlds where your clients were coming from. What other circumstances motivated you in this direction? Also, where specifically did you want to travel, and why?
Traveling from a young age is very much a part of the Australian psyche. It comes from growing up in a place so far from anywhere else. I had a Masters degree in Middle Eastern politics and most of the asylum seekers with whom I had worked came from Africa and the Middle East. I felt as if I knew these places but only had half the story. It’s also true that I traveled initially to escape. Three years of listening to stories about rape, torture and broken lives, then fighting against a skeptical government, had taken its toll. In working with asylum-seekers, I’m reminded of a quote from a story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, where she writes of people in Nigeria with difficult lives: “Of course they nurse resentment, as they well should, but it has somehow managed to leave their spirits whole.” I wanted to meet more people like this, to see them before their lives became broken and to immerse myself in their worlds.
6. As you set out on your travels, did you know you wanted to be a writer at that point, or was it an occupation that developed along the way?
I have always written and had a few pieces published here and there, and I’d always had a passion for stories and for the written word. But it was not until I was sitting on the running boards of a train in Thailand and had a moment of blinding clarity: I wanted to be a writer. As a lawyer I had felt that I could make a small difference in someone’s life, but I’d reached a point where that was no longer enough. I wanted to change the way that people thought about the world by bringing back its stories and challenging the stereotypes we have about little-known corners of the world. Although most writers have this dream of changing the world, I think that all we can do is bear witness by telling stories that don’t otherwise get heard, and hope that this makes the world a better place in some way.
7. When you’re reporting abroad, do you travel light because you’re not always sure what’s going to happen, or do you bring a lot of things so that you are always prepared? What are some essentials you always carry with you?
I always plan to travel light and never do. I always have my laptop, camera, lenses, tripod and a pile of books that weighs down my baggage. A short-wave radio is also always there. I don’t use it often, but it keeps me in touch with what’s happening in the world. On a journey into the Sahara in Mali in January, I returned to Timbuktu to discover that President Obama had been inaugurated as president. I’d had no idea because I’d just returned from a place where there was no electricity and no sense of the great moments in history that were occurring beyond the desert. And of course I always carry with me a photo of my wife and young daughter.
8. What are you reading right now?
I always have at least three books on the go at any one time. Right now I’m reading JMG Le Clézio’s recently translated Desert, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, and, for the fourth or fifth time, Peter Matthiessen’s African classic The Tree Where Man Was Born.