In 1973, my father’s job took us to Zambia in sub-equatorial Africa. I was ten years old; my parents were not yet forty. We were young, we were woefully ignorant, and Africa swept us away.
It was not something we had ever even truly sat down to imagine in our sweet little lives in Old Europe. And now here we were, and the climate was not to be believed, the sky was impossibly big, and the people – and the things that people did – were incomprehensible, and unknowable.
It was the first time we had seen a banana tree. It was the first time we had seen a woman carry a week’s worth of firewood ON HER HEAD. And there, in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, on the grassy median on the main avenue, there was a constant and impromptu market of brightly-dressed folks huckstering the kind of stuff that would attract the tourist trade. Malachite jewelry (I STILL have those weird necklaces, balls of malachite separated from one another by tiny plastic green beads…). Ebony carvings.
In those days, elephants were elemental. We had never even SEEN one. And I hate to even say it but it didn’t OCCUR to us to question the provenance of the ivory we bought. Entire carved tusks were offered for sale on that road, and breezily purchased by eager passersby without a second thought, without the first beginning of a reflection that it was entirely possible that an elephant had been killed just to provide that particular piece of ivory carved up for the tourist trade.
My parents purchased two ivory carvings.
I still have them.
They are tucked away in the back of a cabinet. I am ashamed of owning them, I am bitterly regretful that they EXIST, but I know so much more now than I knew then (I was ten, remember?)
I feel bad, owning them but would feel worse if I just threw them away because that would add disrespect to the tragedy that is already there.
So they sit in my cabinet, reminding me of an African childhood, reproaching me with their very presence.
Is there a dark secret attached to something lurking in your cabinets?
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