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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

minyanya

On the Cold

The mornings are cold. The air bites your cheeks as you wake up and see it’s light out. You roll over, pull the covers over your head, curl your legs up to your chest. You yank the covers down again, impatiently. It’s still cold. It’s still early. You go through the options in your mind. You could read in bed, but that requires your arms to be outside the covers, and then they’ll be cold. You could try to go back to sleep, but you already know that’s not going to happen.

You pull the covers up again, burrowing into the corner of the bed, toes touching the end of the short mattress, fingers clutching at both the blanket and the open sleeping bag on top of you, making sure they are doing their jobs, pulling them up and around your head, cocooning.

You can hear the construction workers not so far away blasting their music already, getting ready to work. The bass translates through to your hut. You can’t ignore it. You can hear the kids next door. The bell rings at the school for the beginning of classes, in the distance you can hear kids running around the schoolyard. Sleep is not going to come again: you know that.

You abandon your bed. You throw the covers back on top clumsily, you promise yourself you’ll make the bed as soon as you’re warm. You go outside to use the bathroom, you come back in and curl up on your couch under another sleeping bag. From one bed to another, essentially, but this one has music access.

You think about breakfast. You know that, logically, the sooner you make yourself get up and light your brasier, the sooner you’ll be warm. You ponder that thought for a while until, used up, it thins out and slips out of place and disappears. You forget what you were thinking about, thoughts wearing out and fading away again before they bother to become fully formed.

It’s still cold. That thought sticks.

Cold season has hit fast. It stops raining, the storms fade away. One last storm comes in the afternoon, crashing in in a matter of minutes and fading out within the hour. The last storm of the season would like to announce its presence. It would like to make a statement: we’re done for now, but we will be back. Back with a vengeance.

The clouds spent a week coming in early in the morning before burning off with the heat of the day, and then one night you go to bed and it is cold. And you wake up in the morning and it is cold. There are no clouds, just the cold biting your feet as you step into the air outside. And you close your window before going to bed to keep your space a little warmer at night. And you anticipate the cold coming on as the sun falls below the horizon, and the sky opens up and there is nothing to block your view of a hundred million stars lighting up your breath in the air that swiftly drops away the heat it maintained for so long during the day.

So after you get up and after you warm up and the sun is up a bit, enough to start warming the day, but it is still cold, you go out to the clinic in your leggings and with a cardigan on top of your dress. Bundled up. You think about wearing a scarf, but realize that you don’t need it. Yet. And you get to the clinic, and the sun has come out, and the sun is scorching down, and the heat permeates everything. And suddenly it is too hot for your cardigan. It is too hot for the long leggings. And you think about this morning when you were lying, shivering in bed. And you smile.

And in the afternoon you go to sit outside, but it is too hot in the midday sun, and you go to sit inside, but it is too cold with the cool of the brick hut. And you sweat and the sweat cools too fast once you go inside. And cold season cannot make up its mind. But it is still the beginning. Still just the start.

And when you drive along the roads in your bus you watch the sun rising over the trees and over the fields of grass. And the grass is drying out, getting brown. And the trees aren’t quite as bright as they used to be. And you recognize this. You know what this is. You know these colors and these winds and this sun warming the middle of the afternoon and blowing away the biting cold of the mornings. And the sun comes up, and it is day, and the cold wind blows in through a crack in the window next to you and you pull up your hood and curl a bit closer to yourself in your seat and you realize: it feels like fall.

Kids joining me on a late afternoon run down the tarmac.
Kids joining me on a late afternoon run down the tarmac.

Episode 5: On the Kids Here

Color coming tomorrow!

Theres been a bit of a lag lately, in terms of life and in terms of me posting blogs–I was at Peace Corps workshops/trainings and then on vacation for December and the New Years, and since then there hasn’t been much going on at site due to a combination of people being away for our presidential elections and people not working due to the rainy season!

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Sedentary Funk

The world spinning.

This is not real life.

I feel twitchy, sitting here. Twitchy. But I can’t move. There’s nothing for me to do. This is not real life, I say. I’m in a funk. I have nothing to do. And I have nothing I want to do.

Nothing to do. There’s nothing to do and no way to change this. It takes so long for anything to happen here.

Schedule a meeting. Meeting is canceled. Go to the boma. Come back again. Everyone is leaving. Everyone is somewhere else. There is nothing to do. Nothing at all to do.

After elections, there will be things to do. Just then. Just okay. Its all just okay.

Go home. Cook some food. Finish your book. The sun comes out, the sun goes away. Fetch water. Wash the dishes. Sweep the floor. Sweep again. Eat your food. Go for a run. Read your book.

Look at the calendar. One week and elections will be over. Make plans to make plans. Plans to start programs. When the rains end. When the teachers return. When people finally have time to work. When life will still be this slow.

Close the calendar. Ten minutes have passed. Open your book. Close it again. Go outside. It’s too cold.

The rains will come back again, or so the clouds say. It is still so cold, that is what the winds say. Step inside. Put on another jacket. Open your book.

Make a list in your head: all the things you could do today. Think of what you want to do. The winds come in. Bundle up a bit more. Go back to your book. Stare at the page.

This week you have read 1700 pages worth of books. 1700 pages. You close your book again. Not bored as much as appalled by that thought.

Ten more minutes have passed. Its still the long afternoon. Stare out the window. Pray for some rain. Let your eyes fall on the puffy clouds instead.

Get up. Light the brazier. Happy for a bit of warmth. Happy for a bit of work. Make your muscles move. Think of something new. Listen to some music. Get out of this sedentary funk.

truck
Get bored, take a truck somewhere new.

 

On Malawi Vacation

Bounce around in the back of the truck, wind blowing through your hair. Pause the truck to let the baboons cross the street (why did the monkeys cross the road?), more like a tiny dirt road. Pick up some people, drop some off. Stop for a hitchhiker: a forty-five minute ride can take three hours.

Malawi is beautiful. Small hills covered in big rock faces and newly green trees. Gardens and farms line the road, soil prepped and ready for the rainy season to come in full force to grow the maize. White sand beach, small islands popping up in the middle of the lake which looks like an ocean. Clear blue water lapping the edges, the amaamas washing the clothes and the dishes in the lake, little naked kids diving in and out of the water.

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Little iwes jump on the back of the truck as we drive through the village.
Little iwes jump on the back of the truck as we drive through the village.

Its dry here still, like in much of south eastern Zambia, where the rains are still just starting, a month later than they should have. You can see it in the trees and the fields and in the rivers thirsting for water. You can feel it in the heat, which constantly needs a good rain to break it up into something more bearable. Something less heavy feeling. The hot season has gone on way too long here.

Of course, being from Northwest, I am not used to the heat. Our rainy season has been going for at least a month or two now, and I worry more about the hole in my roof than about my neighbors’ farms not being able to grow food. I worry about the snakes that might come in through the forest of ferns that grows up around my house before I ask someone to come and slash my yard. Dry is a foreign concept at home when I cant get my clothes to dry, when I am in bed in my sweatpants and a sweater.

Men lounge at the bus station in Lilongwe, Malawi
Men lounge at the bus station in Lilongwe, Malawi

But, then again, this is our beach vacation, and what is a beach vacation without too much heat and sunburns and skipping over the burning sand into the cool water to cool down?

And here we are: in Malawi. On the lake, the crystal clear lake that is so big it seems like an ocean. We lie on the beach and read our books and drink our beers and life on vacation is good. We wait while the morning clouds clear out, we catch a ride into town to get money from the atm. The breeze in the truck bed cuts the heat for the moment, and is a nice break from the rest of the day.

And we return to the beach. We watch the boats in the water, multiplied at night while they shine their lights and go fishing. We watch the amaamas go down to the edge of the water and wash the clothes and the dishes and themselves. The little boys run down to the edge of the water, strip their clothes off on the way and dive into the waves. We count the chickens running around in the sand with the kids, and it is so much like home, like the village, but with sand instead of dirt and lakes instead of streams. It is vacation.

Lake Malawi, amaamas doing wash.
Lake Malawi, amaamas doing wash.