Vrede looks up with pleading eyes, watching every move as Vetfaan slices the biltong. Dogs have a way of doing that: fixing somebody with their brown doggy-eyes in such a manner that you simply cannot ignore their unspoken request. Vetfaan relents, bends down and hands the bit of meat with a smile.
As usual, it’s been a warm, sunny day and the patrons at the bar enjoy the cold beer while they discuss the latest edition of The Upington Post.
“I don’t understand it. I mean, if you want to disagree with somebody, why not tell it to his face? But no! Israel and Syria are scenes of war these days, and over here we’ve got people who destroy property because they want to draw attention to their lot. What doesn’t make sense to me is this: suppose you want a bigger salary and the world is in a recession. Now, by striking you’re buggering up production, and by burning buildings and machinery – even vineyards – you aren’t really putting the employer in a better position to offer you an increase, does it?”
“It’s not about the money, Vetfaan,” Kleinpiet shrugs, “it’s about politics. I don’t know much about those other places, but over here there are people who desperately want to destabilise the country. Say, for instance, some guys are worried about Nkandla, or the upcoming big congress in Bloemfontein. Thy know there’ll be a lot of talk before they go back to their homes. So, instead of debating the massive issues of corruption, service delivery and crime, they will have to debate the current unrest. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. Politics, my friend, it’s all politics.”
“It’s called the Elephant Syndrome,” Gertruida quips, “it’s a world-wide phenomenon.” Knowing they won’t understand, she explains: “It works like this…”
One day, a psychiatrist was late for work. In his consulting room the throng of patients waiting to see him, grew to a little crowd. The seats were all filled and the rest of the loony people stood against the walls, in the receptionist’s area and even in the little kitchen.
What was strange, however, was the elephant in the middle of the room. He was a huge beast with long elephant’s teeth and flapping ears. Anybody who knows anything about elephants would immediately have seen this is a happy elephant. Unperturbed by the people around him, he stood there, chewing a cud and watching his surroundings with the myopic eyes only elephants have.
The patients had a problem. Do they discuss this strange phenomenon? Was it okay to turn to the man next to you and remark on the elephant’s size? What’ll happen if somebody asked the receptionist about the animal?
You see, the problem was that the elephant should not have been there in the first instance. It wasn’t logical. So…maybe…maybe he wasn’t there? Maybe acknowledging the presence of the elephant, will convince the people around you that – indeed – you really are mad?
So, while the elephant stood quietly in the middle of the room, the patients did what patients do in a waiting room – they stared intently at their feet while they tried to convince themselves nothing was wrong.
The receptionist, too, had a problem. Over and above the fact that it is impossible for an elephant to make an appointment to see a psychiatrist (most medical aids exclude schizophrenic pachyderms); the door was far too small to admit one standard-sized jumbo. If she asked Miss Morbid over there to escort the animal to the elevator outside, the resultant blockage of the doorway would interfere with her plans to attend the S+M meeting that night. The best thing, she decided, was to accept the elephant as an illusion and go on painting her nails.
When at last the psychiatrist arrived, everybody sighed with relief. Finally, they thought, they could discuss real problems like kleptomania and agoraphobia. And they all knew they shouldn’t say anything about the elephant – they’d be in real trouble if the doctor was aware of him as well…
“That’s a silly story, Gertruida! An elephant in a consulting room? That’s impossible…” Precilla tries to picture the scene, fails, and signals for another beer. Gertruida can come up with such outlandish stories.
“The story isn’t really about an elephant, Precilla.” Gertruida sighs. Why can’t people see the bigger picture? Then again, If the elephant isn’t big enough, what is? “It’s about acknowledging what’s wrong. It’s about being brave enough – honest enough –to admit mistakes. Remember Bill Clinton? I did not have sexual relationships with that woman. He couldn’t see the elephant. And over here we’ve had so many elephants I don’t even want to go into details about the corruption in our government. And what happens? We – and the world – studiously ignore the elephants, staring at our feet while we try to convince ourselves nothing is wrong. Think about it: why would a country choose to be governed by people who commit all manner of transgressions – and then go back to the polls to elect the same people all over again?”
“Oh, I get it.” Kleinpiet finishes his beer and smiles at Boggel when a new one slides across the counter. “You’re saying the world is in denial? That everybody is living in a make-believe dream, while it’s only here in Boggel’s Place that we’re honest enough to see the zoo cooped up in the waiting room?”
“No, I think most people see it, Kleinpiet. People aren’t that stupid. They’re just too afraid to speak up, that’s all. They think it’s better to shut up and go on with their usual lives, than to speak up and be labelled a troublemaker. People hope somebody else will take the elephant away. But it never happens, does it?”
They all turn around as the door bangs shut behind Oudoom.
“Quick, Boggel! Mevrou is having a nap, so I popped in for a beer.” Noticing the uncomfortable silence, he asks what they’ve been talking about. Gertruida gives him the short version of the Elephant Syndrome.
Oudoom sips his beer. Waits. Watches them. Sighs.
“You’re just talking about people? The world? Of course that’s true, but…” Oudoom hesitates. “Every Sunday – every Sunday – all over the world, people attend churches. Pastors and preachers and priests tell their congregations the same thing. Every Sunday. And people listen to the message of love and forgiveness – every Sunday. They hear the command to love each other – every Sunday. In Christian churches, people are instructed according to the Bible, which tells them to be honest and kind and respectful – every Sunday. And every Sunday people sit on the pews with holy faces, nodding their agreement that God wants us to live in a certain way.” He puts down his glass and gets up to leave. “You want to know about elephants? They’re alive and well and living in a church near you. And the biggest elephant of them all … is God.”
The door swings shut behind the clergyman. Smiling at the wonderful way he was led to be in the bar at precisely the right time, he makes his way home. If there is one elephant he dare not ignore, it is Mevrou…