Sisters with cancer ‘strengthened by Elephants’ – powerful film reveals

Image of Elephant eyeA series of films in South Africa, The Healing Power of Nature explores how contact with the natural world ‘heals’ us, a particularly powerful example being Message in the Eye.

“ELEPHANTS REACH OUT TO PEOPLE IN NEED” is a headline that sisters Norma and Wendy would not have believed possible whilst growing up in Barbeton, close to the Kruger National Park. “ Escaped elephant tramples farmer”, “Enraged cow kills man”or “ Rogue elephant shot” were the usual kind of headlines they would read from time to time in the local newspaper. These are the kinds of reports that not only create negative perceptions about elephants, but also instill a natural fear of them into people. Norma, Wendy and family would often visit the Kruger Park and were always very nervous when sighting elephants. “We’d never get close to them, everyone thought ellies dangerous: stay away, keep the car running, don’t switch off, they may just charge us, so you wouldn’t spend a lot of time with them – you had this fear instilled in you all the time”. says Norma.

Unbeknownst to both sisters, it would be family tragedy and their own life changing experiences that would completely alter their outlook on elephants. After the trauma of losing both their father and brother to cancer, they were soon confronted by shocking news that they had both been infected by the dreaded disease.

For Wendy, losing her hair so suddenly was initially the hardest part. “I don’t think anything can prepare you for how hard it is. You have to work through all the down emotions first, the negativity, the fear” said Wendy. She also says that Chemo is horrific but you realize it is a tool, an aide to get you to recover. Wendy also knew that drawing strength from something else was essential. She reflected on an article she had read, before the diagnosis, about the healing powers of infrasound emanating from both dolphins and elephants. From this they were drawn to the tame elephants of Kwamadwala and Elephant Whisperers where they made physical contact with these animals for the first time in their lives.

Wendy said she stood in front of the elephant with the intention of opening herself up, to just give and see what she could receive. “I stood there and felt completely naked. We made eye contact and she looked at me as if to say, ‘I know.’ She just kept looking at me and every time I touched her something happened inside of me – it was as if she was saying, ‘don’t worry, be strong, you are going to be alright.’ It was a very humbling experience” says Wendy. ‘You have to stand there and say I am yours… That’s where I got the feeling of ‘don’t worry you are going to be ok’ from… The ellie just gave me a sense of tranquility, peace and acceptance” continues Wendy. “It’s a gentleness you can’t describe – they just absorb you into them – you become part of the ellie, you can do anything with her – if you’re nice to them they are nice back,” adds Norma.

The man responsible for introducing the sisters to the elephants was someone who had similar experiences when first encountering elephants. Sean Phillips had reached the lowest point in his life after alcohol and drug abuse. With nowhere to turn after two stints in rehab, he was thrown a life line and given a job at an elephant rescue, taming and training centre called EFAF (Elephants For Africa Forever).

Initially when the elephants first arrive at the centre they are wild, frightened, dangerous, and not at all happy with being there. This was something Sean could relate to. He had never had any contact with elephants, and said that at that point in his life he had nothing to lose in exposing himself to potential danger: “I used to walk up to the stable and he would look me in the eye. The whole time I was talking to him and saying ‘listen you can trust me I am on your side. I am here to help you.’ The more I was getting into him the more I was drawing inspiration and strength from him, so the more I wanted to give back to him until I eventually got up to him and put my hand on his face. I would stand there and look into his eyes, and then I realized that he’s also drawing strength from me and that’s how the bond started. There was this connection and we could start to read each other, he could read me, that I was not threat – I started seeing this in his body language and in his eyes. I had to be 100% he was not going to kill me.

“A lot of my understanding and connection with the ellises is because I put myself into their shoes – when you see where they are coming from, its quite humbling. It made me realize that these elephants are so forgiving, so understanding and so patient that I as a human felt I could learn a lot from these guys.” says Sean. Like the honeyguide patiently revealing the secret reward of honey, Sean exposed the girls to the subtleties of the elephants.

“Sean helped us tremendously with the ellies and he opened up a whole new avenue. He taught us a lot, how to socialize with them, become part of the herd, help feed them. They were very special moments and Sean was so knowledgeable… Sean, to me, is the elephant whisperer – there is so much people can learn from him – he has a special connection with all the ellies” says Norma. Explaining the special bond Sean witnessed between the sisters and elephants he says that, like himself, Norma and Wendy wanted more out of the elephants than your average man on the street. They gave more and got a whole lot more in return.

Norma and Wendy have since made numerous trips to the greater Kruger Park area and discovered similar connections with wild elephants. “The only difference is we couldn’t touch them. I do not fear them anymore, they are there to help us,” says Norma adding that this is not the only fear they have lost. “We are both going to make it, I am convinced of that. I’m not scared of anything, I have no fear… There is such contentment we have. Cancer, we do not fear it, we will beat it because these ellies have made us so positive. We have a different outlook on life.”

Their quest is now to help others, to give them hope so they do not give up the fight. “The message we want to give is dont give up, but also reach out for the right resources because they are there, they are in the universe. Everything we need is here and we must just know how to look for it…” concludes Norma.

Read more about Message in the Eye

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