Attack of the Flesh Eating Ants

This blog is about mpashi, the African flesh eating army ants, which attacked our (my, Molly, Hannah, and Emilie’s) camp last weekend while we were camping near a waterfall. If you would like some background information about these little terrors (which I definitely recommend), check out the wikipedia article here. It gives some idea of what we were dealing with.

At the top of the waterfall, Easter Day, before the attack.

It’s midnight when I feel the first bites. I slap one off and another bites down. Another and another before I start looking for my light, start wondering what could be going on.

In my tent there are a few ants, which isn’t too odd, but still I decide to go outside to check and make sure that they’re not the bad kind. Maybe I can just kill the few and get back to sleep. As soon as I step out of my tent, though, they’re everywhere. I’ve stepped into a mass of angry ants attacking any skin they can get to. They are climbing my legs, biting onto my toe, holding on. I can hear Hannah yelling to me from the dirt road, though, instructing: “Jenna! Come to the road and take your pants off!”, so I run, screaming, through the mass of army ants who have taken over our campsite to the road, the one place where there are no ants, and proceed to slap everywhere, shaking any remaining ants off of me, shaking them out of my clothes. I have one shoe in my hand, the other I have to assume is by my tent, being attacked by ants.

I ask Hannah, and she had woken to find them flooding into her tent, which was set up under the insaka (cooking shelter) to protect her from the rain.

Some fun facts about mpashi: If they come across a chicken, according to Emilie’s host father “the chicken will be just a skeleton”. If they come across a drunk person who can’t manage to get up? They will eat the person. They will get inside ears, nose, mouth, and work you from all angles until they are full. Also they are very tough to kill. Most methods of getting rid of them include fire, burning them with water full of wash soap, and running away and hiding out until they are done attacking an area. The last method seems to be the one that works the best.

Soon Emilie is awake and we are shouting at her to get over to the road. “Don’t zip your tent! There is no time!” we shout at her, and guide her to the safe area. We’re shaking.

The four of us, Molly, Emilie, me, and Hannah.

The first step it going down to the river. If you’ve ever read the Poisonwood Bible, you might remember that they have to escape to the river when the village gets attacked by these things, because that is the one place the ants won’t go. So, standing ankle deep in the edge of the river in our underwear, we start systematically killing ants.

I soak my shoe in the river to drown them, and ten minutes later they are finally dead.

We check Emilie’s pajama pants for ants, declare her clear and she puts them on. And immediately gets bitten again, multiple times. So she takes them off again, and we do the first of what will become a surgically precise method of checking items. We check the front, back, inside, outside of the pants. We find an ant, we start all over again. And we don’t allow her to put the pants back on until every part of the pants has been examined multiple times over and declared clear. This is for all our safety, because, as we are coming to realize, one person’s ants are everyone’s ants.

At this point it is past one in the morning, and we don’t know what to do. We try to think of ideas: sleeping on some rocks across the river is one idea, waiting until the amaamas are awake and can help us. At this point, too, Molly is still up at the camp. She was sleeping in a hammock tent, so was safe. So Hannah decides to go up to the camp and check on the situation. Maybe they’ve moved? We hold this thought desperately in our minds as she sneaks up towards the camp. Shes going, getting closer, closer, when we see her light swinging frantically around and see her legs sprinting back to the river.

“They’re there!” she pants. The ants have been traveling, and made it down towards Molly’s tent, apparently, which is where Hannah got to before she started running back to the river. Moments later we see Molly’s light come on, start looking around, and then we see it running towards us on the road.

“Take your pants off!” we yell, but she reassures us that she has shaken them off of her as she ran. The ants had started coming up the lines of her hammock, which is when she made a run for it.

So now it’s two in the morning and we are sitting on some rocks by the river. We have to make a plan, and Molly points out that we really should just work on breaking down the camp so we can just get out of there. These things attack for hours at a time, and if we try to wait them out we have no idea when we are actually going to get out of camp.

So we begin.

The method goes: dive into camp, throw as many things as possible to the road. Systematically check every item over for ants, and when it has been officially cleared it can then be moved into the next pile further up the road, the clean area.

Inspecting a blanket for mpashi before declaring it “clear”.

We start with the things in our tents, throwing them to the road and checking them one by one: shorts and sleeping bags and tubes of toothpaste, each as carefully as the last, and once all the small things have been checked we go into camp, rip the tent stakes out of the ground and run, tents held one at a time up in the air, out to the road with them to be checked. These are checked over multiple times before they are cleared and moved to the top of the road with everything else.

The safe spot, where everything that has already been cleared for ants is being kept.

The entire process of removing and clearing items takes around four hours, and by the time we are at the top of the road, eating apples for breakfast and packing our things into our bags it is six in the morning and the sun is nearly coming up. We have officially spent the entire night doing this.

The last items left in camp are Molly’s chacos and my pots and pans. The pans I decide aren’t worth it. They’ll be sacrificed to the ants, because they’re too covered in the ants to get out alive. The chacos, however, are another story. So while me and Emilie work on packing, Hannah and Molly grab some pieces of sugar cane and fling the sandals out of the camp, releasing some ants in the air. They then grab them and run them down to the river where they washed the ants off, and brought them up to declare clear.

The vast majority of my cooking and kitchen utensils are in this photo, and are now lost to the mpashi.

We are almost done.

It’s light now, our bags are packed, and we have Hannah’s music playing as we hike out. Constantly looking at the ground ahead of us we hike as fast as possible, putting as much space between us and the mpashi ants as possible. We pass one of their lines around half a kilometer up, and start hiking faster, the memory of the ants still haunting us as one or another quickly twitches or slaps an arm or a leg, imaginary ants still crawling all over us and biting down. We escaped the hive, but they still live in our minds.

Waves of mpashi. So many mpashi.
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Finally made it out to the roadside by 8am, after hiking the first five miles out of camp, then bargaining for a ride for the last five. Happy to be alive and ant-free.

On Clouds

The air keeps rushing, switching from cold wind to hot sun as the clouds move across the sky. The clouds are thick, greys edged with white today. Not storm clouds yet, but ones that aspire to be so menacing.

I sit in my chair and read.

My clothes hang on the line, it’s been a three day process to wash them. Two days ago the weather was perfect: bright blue skies, thin clouds floating past. But there was no water. The mechanized pump and spigots that World Vision put in to replace our old, regular borehole, have not been functioning so well and water has been spotty if at all. So I waited.

Yesterday was a storm day. White sky in the morning, clouds already crowding a sky awaiting the afternoon storm. But there was water, so I washed, giving my clothes a quick scrub before hurriedly clipping them up on the makeshift line I string up between corners of my fence. A hasty hour or two in the air with spots of sun peeking through got them almost dry before the storm, as expected, came.

Now today I sit, watching the southeast for the storm. My clothes are swaying in the occasional wind, slowly drying in the reluctant sun.

I sit in my chair and read: now Artemis Fowl, now The Wheel of Time, book seven.

The clouds to the southeast are thick, but that doesn’t indicate rain. They are thick but in layers, like strips of grey and greyer cotton lining the sky. The clouds I’m watching for, though, are the deep blue singularity of a storm. The middle-of-the-ocean blue that darkens and greys and intensifies as it slowly creeps over the sky.

I keep sitting in my chair, reading: now Looking for Lovedu, now Mao II.

I keep watching for the clouds. For the slow rumble that will indicate thunder, that will indicate t-minus thirty minutes until the rain. I’ll be able to watch it as it encroaches, swallowing the fields, making its way over the trees until it reaches me. Until I hastily bring in the clothes,  the solar panels. I will fold up my chair, retreat with my book inside as the rain starts sputtering over me and the air goes cold. I’ll light some candles and huddle under my sleeping bag on the couch as the the rain swallows any plans I may have had for the afternoon. That’s what I’m watching for.

In the meantime I sit in my chair and read.

I sit in the alternating sun and cool, I watch the fluff of the clouds overhead, I watch my Saturday progress and measure the time through pages read in my book.

A Post About a Smile

There are certain things that take a day that is just okay, that is fine but not bad, not special, nothing more. There are certain things that take this day and make it a day that will mean something. That does mean something.That makes you feel something, feel special or noticed or appreciated.

It is a unique feeling to feel missed. To know that your presence meant something to someone. To know that they are happy just to see you again, just to feel you back, because they noticed that you had left. You left a hole when you were gone. I can’t help but crave that feeling, to relish it. It makes you feel that your presence is more than ordinary.

Or is it just that they noted you. Really felt that you were there to begin with.

I pull my bike up to the church for my women’s group meeting, and three women are walking up at the same time. They see me, they smile. Their step quickens, if ever so slightly.

Shikenu mwani! They say, smiles crossing their wrinkled yet ageless faces. Shikenu mwani!, they sing, shikenu mwani! They sing, crossing over to envelop me in three double embraces.

Shikenu mwani! Mwafunta! Twazangalili! You have returned! We are so happy!

Just that moment. Remembering their faces, their hugs, their joy at meeting again. Remembering how much I truly love working with these women. I love working with them because they care. They care about the projects, about learning, about the fact that I have come to teach them, about making projects work, together. They care that I was, am, and will be here. They are so excited for my return.

I can’t wipe the smile from my face throughout the meeting. Seated on the simple wooden church benches, they actively turn the small talk towards the meeting, they inform the others that their meeting is started, and we begin discussing their ground nut cultivation project. They want to plant one field this year, and use the proceeds form that field to buy more seed to grow soya bean next year. This is their idea, not mine. They care. They want to make this work. They want to continue working, they are excited, so excited.

And now I have spaced out, because their Lunda has sped up in their excitement and they are talking over each other, and collecting their ideas and writing down who has donated and collecting any money that is left to collect and finishing each others sentences and I have lost them in their emotion.

I smile. One notices, stops them, shows them I have lost them. They slow, bring me back to their conversation, explain their excitement.

I smile, I can’t stop smiling.

Some days can be made so great. A few words, a feeling, a smile. A group of women that never stop surprising me. Returning to site and knowing that it is for a reason. I smile.

My favorite women, learning to cook eggs with veg.
My favorite women, learning to cook eggs with veg.

The First Rain

The first rain of the season sweeps across the world. The leaves rustle on the trees, the air thickens, the sky changes ccolor. The bright blue fades to a deep steel grey at the horizon, and you know that the rains are on their way. The rainy season approaches.

Thunder shakes the top of my hut as the wind speeds up outside. It surrounds me, the noise digging deep into my bones; I shake with surprise at the sound and creep outside to look in the direction it came from. Above me the sky is still blue, beautiful, sunny, but to the south the darkness looms, frightens all in reach: the storm is coming fast.

And as the wind speeds up, the air cools down, the clouds run across the sky and all of a sudden it is covered. Drops come down, one after another, slowly slowly slowly then all of a sudden fast. Big drops widely spaces, ones fat with the moisture they have been saving up all dry season, saving for this chance. And the wind speeds up again, shakes the roof of my hut, spins the straw above me. Pieces come down around me as the wind and rain knock against the outside and rustle pieces of the thatch and dust down from the roof and onto my floor and the rain keeps beating on.

I crawl into my bed, I curl up against the corner of the wall. The thunder beats on outside, the drumming so loud it seems like it is next to me: I forget how intense these storms can be. I forgot how scary they can seem. I put on music, I read my book, I go outside to look at the rain. The world is quiet again, no talking or shouting, no kids running wild. Just the sounds of the storm deafening out everything else in the world.

There is nothing left but the storm. The sounds of the storm, the slap of the rain, the rush of the wind, the crash of the thunder around me. It is hypnotic in its own way, the way the world changes with just the coming of the storm. It is calming, too, in its own intense way. I can think of the rain and the rain only. I curl a little deeper against the corner, waiting, wondering if it will last, if this feeling will stay for a little while longer.

And as soon as it came, it is gone again. A few hours later and I am stepping into the now cooled air. The heat has been chased away, the sand on the ground has been packed back down, the land looks a little more alive.

The rain comes with one other rain a day later, and then nothing. It is early in the season still: the rainy season isn’t supposed to start until the end of October, so this is just a teaser. An indicator of what is to come. It’s not surprising for the rain to start so early up here; it is simply disappointing when it leaves again.

In the following days the area starts to turn green again. The trees look alive, the grass starts to return. The burnt fields feel the rain and start to regrow, green stalks popping up overnight, ferns unfolding in my yard. The world is still brown, but not so much as before.

And in another day the world is hot again, dry again; the hot season has returned, has reclaimed its turf. The nights are getting cooler again, but the rain doesn’t return. It will, though. It will in its own time, when it is ready.

On Cruisers and Time

The hours stretch by. Expand then contract again, bouncing in and out of time, out to forever then back again. Time stops being real, it moves at its own pace. It gets lazy then catches up with itself. The heat holds it down, presses it against itself. The hot tarmac radiates up and out and keeps stretching out, behind, back where we came from.

A year ago I was in this same cruiser, driving the opposite way. Driving the eleven hours from Lusaka to Solwezi. We were restless. We put in music. We checked the time. We tried to read, talk, play a game. We looked at our watches once more. We didn’t know that the time will go as it pleases, that this road won’t rush itself by until it wants to. We occupied ourselves, we counted the hours till arrival.

A year later we have learned better. We get in the car in the morning, we curl up against the bags lining the seats. We put in music. We fall asleep. We wake up and watch the road slink by. We watch it unfurl, a never ending river of black and grey and dirt. We push the piles of stuff down around us. The packs and purses and pineapples. We nestle into the holes, rest against the soft parts, punch away the hard. We push our knees against the door, press our toes into the glass window, fall a bit deeper into the nest we’ve made. We change the music, look up, nestle down, keep watching the road beyond. We read billboards and look at the trees. We don’t ask it to go faster than it wants. We let it take its time.

Our watches go faster now. Wake up, another city. Fall asleep, the smooth tarmac gives way to potholes. Another place, another province, another few hours tick themselves off quietly, no fuss, no acknowledgement.

We are more patient now. We know the ride will go as it pleases. We know the places now, we know the landmarks to look for. We don’t need to check the time because we know that the time will not make a difference, that the clocks are arbitrary will never change as we want. So we stop wanting. We let them move at their own pace, molasses speeding up after its initial slow decent, then pulling back into itself. Chovu chovu. Slowly slowly.

And soon we will be in Lusaka, where the time makes sense again. Where the roads will stop and give way to traffic. Where watches start up once more, we get out, stretch our legs, wonder at the day flown by. Wonder at the time snapping back to the finite. Wonder at how much more patient we have become, how much easier these rides get with time. Wonder at how months have gone by, a year has gone by, too quickly to imagine fully. Too quickly to comprehend now, so for now we will ignore that spectacle in time, leave it for another day.

Tears and Volunteers

It’s late morning, mid May. I’m frustrated. I sit in my house. I feel like I’m going to cry. I’m so sick of feeling like I can’t get anything done, like it is impossible to get things right, like I am alone in my village with nowhere to go. It’s just one of those mornings. One of those mornings that later on, when something goes really well, I will think back to, and think about how I spent so long thinking that nothing would ever go well. Thinking in hyperboles about how time was going to slow down to a thickly slowing standstill.

Things here come in hyperboles. Things are wonderful, until all of a sudden you feel like you are going to break. I count down the days until I have something exciting to look forward to, and all of a sudden, a month later, I don’t know where the time went. These spots come in waves, and sometimes it’s hard to realize that they always get better; they really always do.

And its hard to admit those tough days. Tough weeks. When things feel like they’re never going to be right again. When things feel like they are never going to work. No matter what you do. Sometimes we feel like we can’t talk about them. Like we shouldn’t talk about them, like we shouldn’t admit to them. Like once we do, everyone will know we’re a failure. We’re not strong enough. When really, these tough times are what make the experience out here real. They make it more than just a dream, an idealistic image of what we want to accomplish. They make it something tangible that we learn and grow from. That changes us in ways we never thought it would.

One of the tough things here is that volunteers tend to shy away from talking openly about their tougher experiences. We put a bright face on it all, show off the wins, hide the losses. And so we think that we are the only ones having a tough time. We think that we are the only ones going through a slump. I talk about it with a friend or two, they remind me to just wait, that it always gets better, just wait for the day where I will get that win again.

A day that I get excited because I can finally have a meeting, that I can finally get something done.

And then no one comes. I sit on the ground in the shelter outside, reading my book, greeting the people as they come by and they don’t stop. I know they are not going to stop, to sit down, to be part of the program today. Because today will be written off as a failure. And I am upset for that failure.

Kids playing by the borehole

But I also know that that failure is okay. That failing every day for a month is okay. I don’t think I knew that in the same way before coming here. I don’t think I realized, too, how even though I know it is okay I am profoundly upset by it. By the idea that I can’t seem to get through to the people how much I want to work with them, if they will only find the ability within themselves to come and ask me for help.

But then, when I have given up, there is that one meeting that works. Where the mothers come two and a half hours late, but I am still sitting there with my Zambian counterpart, and we have written off anyone coming, but all of a sudden three mothers show up and sit down beside me and pull my diagram that I have drawn over to them and start listening to what I have to say. And they start coming up with their own ideas.

We want them to start collecting eggs from the chickens running around in their yard. And they ask how to build a home for the chickens and I show them the sketch. And they ask how many eggs, and I tell them. And they start talking: if they sell some and save the money, they can buy more chickens. If they sell some fritters they can use that money, too. They can pair up and work as a team. They can make this idea that they came up with just a few weeks ago into a reality.

“You can form a women’s group,” I say. They look at me. “You can start an official group to do this, too. Make it a real thing, not just a few of you keeping chickens.”

They make plans. They tell me they are going to start collecting supplies in two days. They can’t understand how excited I am, how this is the first time I have had people motivated to work on something, how even just the three of them starting this project is more than any other village has accomplished.

How they have not only learned what their kids need to eat, but they have realized that they like feeding their kids eggs, they can’t always buy eggs, so they want to lay their own, and all of a sudden we have a project that may fail in a few months as so many do, but the important thing is that we have made the first steps towards trying. And it is because of them that we are doing so, not because of me. They are the ones who can make this work, and they may just be starting to understand that. And I walk away, grinning, cheeks hurt so bad. And I know that moments like this are what make all the tougher ones worth it. That this is what I was waiting for. And this is what I am here for.


Fires Burning

The sounds of the rain have been replaced by fire. I hear crackling and spitting around me and look out the door, half expecting to see thick drops, but instead see the clear blue sky, the clear blue day. The breezes blow, the sun beats down, and the sounds feel like the fire is in the hut with me. Surrounding me. It is cool, and oddly calming.

Out in the plain, though, it has changed. The tall grasses that once swept by my body, slapped my ankles and tickled my wrists, now crackle with low lying flames. I can see the lines where the charring stops, or has yet to begin. The iwes walk along near the fire, and I don’t know if they are helping it along or just watching it dance, but I skip around the little burning patches and cover my eyes to the smoke and run a bit faster towards a clear part of the path, waving to the iwes as I go by.

And yesterday I went up to Ikelenge, the very tip of the province, to the source of the Zambezi. Tucked into a little forest, a little forest so saturated with water still. It hasn’t been burned, torn down by crops and by fire. It smells like a rainforest, and the little puddle that turns into a stream that turns into the Zambezi into Victoria Falls runs clear and calm through the shady trees.

But back out, out of the protected area, out of the forest, the ground is black like coal, thin brown grasses poking up above the rest that is so dark and bare. Patches of old grass and new, coal black and green, the darkest land I have ever seen looking so saddengly beautiful and bare.  

All the way home to where the wind whips itself into a frenzy of sand and little pieces of ash that fall and cover my arms and chest and face for a minute or so before they calm down again. And I go inside and a piece of ash falls from inside my ceiling onto my hand. And the smoke and the wind and the cracking hiss of the fire die down with the evening, replaced by the ever constant deep deep blue and bright bright shine of the stars above.

A travel blog. A Peace Corps blog