Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Out of Africa: Daniel and the Soldier Ants

My Aunt Joan's father was a missionary in British East Africa in the 1920s. Her older brother, Homer, wrote an unpublished memoir about his life, and included many stories of the family's time in Africa. He followed in his father's footsteps and returned to Africa as a missionary in 1933. This is another story from his memoir:

Bunyore, Kenya is a beautiful place in a tropical equatorial kind of way. The setting is surrounded by small African huts all thatched amidst groves of broad banana leaves. Outcroppings of granite stand out over the area as sentinels and tall eucalyptus sway in the breeze. 

Modern photograph of Bunyore, Kenya

We had good friends at the Bunyore Mission Station and went to visit them for a few days. Our son was a baby at the time. Having finished his last feeding for the evening, he was burped and nicely bedded down for the night. The netting was suitably tucked about the bassinet to shield from the hungry mosquitoes. The whole setting was calm and serene under a starlit, gracious night.

We were aroused from our slumbers by small sounds of pain from the wee one. Mother seemed to be the first of us aware of the baby's cry. She rolled out of bed to see what could be wrong. Turning up the lamp wick, she began the search for the reason. As she turned back the netting, and blankets, she instantly became aware that something was crawling on her feet and legs. Not only crawling, but also biting very hard. By this time she had found soldier ants (also called Army ants) within the baby's diapers, latching on to his little body. 

Drawing of an Army ant; courtesy of PLOS | Biology

This called for help; we had to do something instantly. Mother took hold of those vicious ants to pull them loose, but they clung tight until they came apart. They simply would not give up their hold on the wee body of our son. Baby Dan was most unhappy not knowing what to make of this rude awakening. 

Everyone was up by this time. There was no sleeping in this kind of situation. Getting a kerosene lantern, we began to scout the outside of the home. The ground was covered with soldier ants -- millions of them. We discovered they were using a one-inch piece of rope to make their way up and inside the house. Even the bats in the attic were under attack. They were literally devoured by ants.

The old expression "ants in one's pants" in such a case is not a bit funny. So what was to be done about the situation. Native people back through the dim past had used hot ashes to turn away these attacks and they were what we used that night as well. We took all the ashes from the stove in the kitchen, spread a line about the approach area. We also took the spray gun and used a mixture of kerosene with pyrethrum powder which is a very potent control for insects, but not instantaneous.

Let it be said if a baby were to be left alone and the soldier ants found it, life would not long be sustained. So it was that our night was disturbed, but the wee fellow was soon out of trouble.

NOTE:  Previous "Out of Africa" posts:

Doctor Livingstone, I Presume
The Kikuyu
The Eland Hunt
The Hippopotamus Hunt 
Kagui and the Python 
Water Buffalo Trouble
Baboon in the Sweet Potato Patch
Breakfast at Kimingini

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