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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.