Eating the Elephant Strategy

The Eat the Elephant tactic is primarily focused on breaking up a significant and dangerous task into many smaller, seemingly less dangerous, challenges. In a sense you: eat your enemy’s strength. The tactical part is that each participant in one of the smaller tasks does not know how challenging and daunting is the overall strategy.

Many people are familiar with the question – how do you eat an elephant? The joking and familiar answer is: in small bites. So, faced by an overwhelming issue or challenge you can still achieve success by breaking it down into manageable tasks. To understand this tactic we’ve retold the little known story of Bhekimuzi’s Elephant (1840). It was probably once a training story (parable) for the elite Zulu leadership.

Bhekimuzi’s Elephant

Once there was a young Zulu man by the name of Bhekimuzi who had traveled and proven himself a warrior. He had only just returned to the Kraal (village) of his father, who was a minor chief, when the old man died leaving Bhekimuzi as head of the family. It was important that the young chief married and after sometime his sisters persuaded the daughter of a powerful Induna (regional chief) to marry him. The lobola, or gift to the bride’s father was high, and cost Bhekimuzi many cattle. Still, it was worth it to have such a beautiful maiden as Nkosazana to be his bride and the alliance of the families would strengthen Bhekimuzi’s position in the region.

After much preparation the day of the wedding arrived. The cattle had been sent to the father of the bride and the beer had been brewed. Bhekimuzi’s mother and sisters had prepared all they could and the time had come for him to go and select one of his best cattle so it could be slaughtered for the wedding feast.

However, when Bhekimuzi came to the pasture he found his cattle were missing and the shepherd, maluzi, so fast asleep on the grass that he could not be woken. Realising that the spirits were at work Bhekimuzi followed the trail of the cattle up into the hills and cliffs only to find that the tracks ended by a large green pool and still there were no cattle.

As he stood there he saw a large python glide through the water and disappear behind a rocky outcrop. Climbing over the boulders he saw a not a snake but a man with an old face and white beard but the muscles of a warrior.

Grasping his fighting stick, Bhekimuzi gathered his courage for he knew that he was now in the presence of the Inkosi Yamadlozi (Lord of the ancestors). Before Bhekimuzi could move the old man told of how the cattle had been taken by Mbaba Mwana Waresa (Goddess of beer) so that she could choose one for her own feast and that Bhekimuzi should be pleased as this meant that the beer at his wedding would be especially good. He was also told that he should not worry for all the cattle but one would be returned sometime in the next few days.

Bhekimuzi replied that he was pleased that his cattle had been found good enough for a feast of the spirits but that he still did not have one to slaughter for his own feast and this would bring great shame on his family.

The Inkosi Yamadlozi said he was sorry but he would not make Mbaba Mwana Waresa give Bhekimuzi his cattle but that he would give him an elephant (iNdlovu) that could be eaten in its place. However, all meat worth eating on the elephant must be eaten before the end of the feast or terrible bad luck would be cast on all who had been at the festivities and Bhekimuzi’s cattle would never be seen again.

Too wise to refuse the offer of the Inkozi Yamadlozi, Bhekimuzi agreed and returned to his village to find the elephant already slaughtered and his mother and sisters unsure of what to do. Quickly he told them what had happened and then sat down in deep thought for he knew that there would be so much meat that some would be left over and bad luck would follow.

After a short while he realised that he had no choice but to eat the elephant and he set his family to work preparing the food so that the aroma of the fire would spread far on the air. He then told his family to make sure that no one saw the carcass of the elephant and that they must keep secret what the Inkozi Yamadlozi had told him. His mother, Nokukhanya, then told his brothers to go to all the nearby villages and tell all the children that they would meet that Bhekimuzi had slaughtered not one but many cattle so that the feast would be rich with meat.

Sure enough, by the time the bridal party arrived all the people who had smelt the cooking or had heard the story of the boys had arrived to join in. (Uninvited guests were, and in some places still are, welcomed in Zulu culture). The Induna and his wives and his beautiful daughter Nkosazana were most impressed at the size of the party and celebrated with dancing and drums throughout the night.

By the end of the wedding all the meat worth eating had been eaten and there was not an empty stomach for many miles around. Bhekimuzi’s reputation was greatly enhanced and even the Inkozi Yamadlozi and Mbaba Mwana laughed and returned the cattle. After all, Bhekimuzi had found a way to eat the elephant.

And … to this day the elephant cries when he sees a bridal party and the hyena laughs at the bones.

Tactical Considerations

  • By deconstructing the first part of story it is possible to identify several key points.
  • Bhekimuzi was playing for high stakes (reputation, family, status)
    The problem was not of his own making
  • In his attempt to improve his situation he was presented with an insurmountable task (a tactic in itself)
  • He had no choice but to accept the challenge

In effect he has no choice but to deal with the problem of eating the elephant and the consequences if he fails. His realization that it must be eaten in small bites and that this will require the support of many people is almost taken for granted – the question he actually faces is how.

The approach that he selects is tactical. He plays down (conceals) the threat (hostile environment) and the very challenge that he is facing thus avoiding intimidation of his support-base. Enticed by the “aroma” and the “potential rewards advertised” he attracts the exact support that he needs to achieve the task (manoeuvring / positioning). At the same time he spreads his risk if he fails – far better that everyone is unlucky and not just him. In addition, by spreading the task among many, each of whom is not aware of the main purpose of the central task, he ensures that if he is successful there will be no claims for a share of the rewards he will receive.

Is this ethical? Well it depends on your point of view. Bhekimuzi is playing for high stakes and has a duty of responsibility to his family to do whatever he must. Furthermore, if he had been completely open he would have almost certainly failed as the risks involved would have kept people from committing the support he needed. Why should they take a chance as there is nothing in it for them?

From the point of view of the guests they are being involved in a risky project without their consent but with serious consequences if they fail. It is likely that even though they were successful they would consider themselves used and abused if they ever found out what had been going on.

Yes, tactics are not always nice – in fact they rarely ever are. Still, they work!