A Writer Writes


A folktale retold by Michael O’Neill (Sierra Leone 1978–82)

    As a community development field worker in Sierra Leone I developed extensive relations among the Mende people in scores of villages throughout the Eastern and Southern Provinces. Upon entering a village for the first time, I made a habit of inquiring as to the history of the place. I often asked the local people if they could explain to me how the village got its name.
         Once, while responding to a request for assistance to build a grain store, I had occasion to travel to a village named Helebu. In response to my usual inquiry, the elders described the turn of events that resulted in the village’s strange moniker.          — M. O'N

    MANY YEARS AGO an offshoot settlement of the chiefdom headquarters town, Futa Kpeje, had been established near the site of present-day Helebu by a clan of earnest farming families. The place quickly gained renown for the bountiful harvests of rice, vegetables and fruits produced from its farms and orchards. Each harvest season merchants from distant chiefdoms made their way to the village market to buy up the cornucopia of local produce. As the crops flourished, the people prospered. Then, one year when the rains had come with propitious timeliness and the sun coaxed nature’s capricious bounty, just as the golden rice grains swelled upon bowed panicles and plump vegetables ripened on the vine, disaster struck. A rampaging elephant appeared without warning romping through the village farms, uprooting trees and damaging crops. The villagers’ vain attempts to drive away the rogue beast — fencing the area at great expense and backbreaking labor, setting up a constant din of drummers, or dispatching a battalion of young men with slings and stones — utterly failed as the elephant returned again and again to wreak havoc in the farms and orchards that surrounded the village.
         Unable to rid themselves of this monstrous pest and fearing that their entire harvest might be lost, the village elders determined to summon a famous hunter from the remote forests to the east. As was the custom of the time, they first sought permission from the Paramount Chief to engage a man possessing such awesome powers. This done, the elders sent forth word of their dilemma and the need for the great hunter’s services through the channels known to the shamans and herbalists, witch-finders and soothsayers. As they waited for a response, the elephant continued to roam unchecked devastating the carefully tended farms. Hope for a profitable harvest dimmed with each passing day.
         In the gloaming of bleak twilight, as the elders reclined in low-slung hammocks passing a calabash of palm wine from hand to hand and bemoaning their great misfortune, a silent figure mysteriously appeared in the village. He was an altogether fearsome figure decked out in a kola-dyed, knee-length, country-cloth ronko robe, dangling cowry shells and leather fetishes and other paraphernalia of the hunters’ trade. He cradled an antiquated shotgun in the crook of one arm. With his free hand, he flicked an elephant tail whisk at unseen gnats. The hunter strode to the center of the village, crouched on his haunches and surveyed every corner and shadow with wary predator’s eyes. The elders bestirred themselves to welcome the renowned stranger. He stood erect, oblivious to the chatter of interested onlookers who had begun to gather at a safe distance, as if responding to a secret clarion, to ogle at his ominous regalia and assure themselves that this great man would surely rid them of the accursed beast. The elders and the hunter repaired to the chief’s compound where the customary greetings were exchanged, terms negotiated and retainer paid. The hunter prepared at once to seek his quarry.

          The hunter rose before dawn, performed the private ceremonies demanded by his fetish, then moved unseen through the village hidden by a shroud of wafting kitchen smoke commingled with the lingering morning mist. He strode to the edge of the village and disappeared like a specter into the nearly impenetrable forest. Beginning at the site of the elephant’s destructive frolic he surveyed the area with an expert eye. Before him lay a maze of trampled, matted rice stalks that zigzagged through the farms across which the great beast had plodded before re-entering the forest. Tree trunks as thick as the hunter’s waist had been snapped in two under the elephant’s weight where it had paused to scratch an infernal itch. Gurgling guinea fowl searching for grubs scavenged among the splintered bark and broken branches that littered the ground along the crooked path. Their indignant, shrill chortles broke the silence as they scurried into the underbrush at the hunter’s approach. Squatting low with head bowed, the hunter followed the trail of havoc and mounds of fresh scat that marked the elephant’s passage. All day he tracked the beast, stopping from time to time to examine the feces more carefully, or sniff the air and listen with eyes closed and his head tilted back. As the blue-gray twilight settled and quickly waned, he realized that though he had hiked many, many circuitous miles that day he had not wandered very far from the village. He could sense all about him the elephant’s presence. He felt confident that he was close upon his prey.
         But night and fatigue dictated that he make camp and complete his task in the morning. He ate without cooking, performed his simple evening ablutions, and then strung up his hammock between two stout tree trunks in the pitch-dark forest. He feared nothing in the bush for his fetish was very powerful. He nestled in the hammock’s embrace as the day’s exertion brought him immediate slumber. While he slept, the elephant he sought appeared to him in a dream. There it stood a dark, humungous presence astride a wasted landscape under an ashen sky. In his dream the hunter was inexplicably stricken with paralysis - not out of fear, no never that — but as if he had been bound with invisible restraints. As he struggled against his confinement, the hunter hurled futile invective at his nemesis that landed as harmlessly as pebbles bouncing off its thick, gray-brown hide. The behemoth laughed at the hunter’s foolish pride and warned him that to continue his pursuit was dangerous folly. The hunter bristled at the elephant’s conceit, yet grew wary of a beast that could so easily invade his dreams. Surely this was no ordinary creature. The hunter, no stranger to the realm of witches and shape-shifters, had many times confronted their evil manifestations and had overcome their mystical powers. But never before had his dreams been so trespassed. The elephant’s musky redolence permeated the very air he breathed. The night’s rhythm seemed to rise and fall with its exhalations. Finally, the hunter, calling upon the courage of his fetish, challenged the elephant to reveal its true self (for surely the elephant-form hid the nature of a powerful entity).
         “Reveal yourself!” the hunter demanded.
         “Sina gende. Sina gende. whispered the elephant as its visage faded. Tomorrow morning. Tomorrow morning.
    As the rosy rays of dawn splintered through the darkened forest, the hunter awakened from his fitful slumber. The elephant’s essence completely suffused every aspect of the moment. The memory of the strange dream weighed heavily upon the man — an unfamiliar anxiety. As he swung himself down from his hammock, the realization struck him like a blow. In the dark, he had strung his hammock not between two stout trees as he had supposed, but to the thick legs of the very elephant he sought. Fearing for his life, the hunter fled the scene and stumbled back to the village. An aged village matriarch, upon hearing the hunter’s tale, urged the people to quit the settlement, make sacrifices of rice, palm wine, goats and fowl, and re-establish their village at the place where the hunter had encountered the powerful spirit while he had slept “beneath the elephant.” They called their new settlement Helebu that has since prospered and never again did the elephant return.

    Michael O’Neill has held the position of Security Director for Save the Children since September 2002.  Prior to taking up this position, he served as the Coordinator of Volunteer Safety and Overseas Security at the Peace Corps (1995–2002).  Currently Michael is also co-chair of the Security Advisory Group of InterAction, a consortium of American-based NGOs, developing security resources and standards for humanitarian workers posted to insecure environments. 
         Michael served as a community health Volunteer in Sierra Leone.  While working for GTZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit) in Sierra Leone from 1982 to 1988, he supported hundreds of community development initiatives in Bo and Pujehun Districts. As Regional Relief Administrator with the Sierra Leone Red Cross (1991–92), he frequently traveled throughout the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone to assess the level of security and make recommendations for the safe delivery of relief supplies. In a later assignment with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in 1993, he was posted on the Ethiopia/Somalia border, where he negotiated with Somali clan leaders on a daily basis for to secure guarantees for Red Cross relief workers and programs.
         Michael earned a Bachelor of Science in Social Work from St. Louis University (1976) and a Master of Science in International Rural Development Planning from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada (1991).
         Michael and his wife, Millicent, met and married in Sierra Leone twenty-four years ago. They have two children, Owen, 23, and Sheila, 18.