Mpashi

Here is an adventure.

***

Nyambwezu Falls is a waterfall in the Mwinilunga province of Zambia, and when I saw it in its full, waterfally glory on Easter Sunday, it was a thing of beauty, an object of awe. Three friends–Hannah, Molly, Jenna–and I had traveled there on a camping trip; in the way of many travels here, getting there required getting lucky enough to hitch a ride. (The waterfall and its surroundings lay 16 kilometers and some change off of a main road.) After three or four hours, we hit the jackpot: an acquaintance of Jenna’s drove by, and agreed to take us the entire way. The four of us smashed our backpacks into the trunk of his car and climbed into the backseat (joining a gentleman who was already seated there). During the drive, we were asked if we were afraid of the snakes we might encounter. “Oh, no,” we laughed. We were tough as nails, we were.

When we were dropped off, we hiked through the woods for a mile or so, and then slowly began to hear a great rushing of water. We came out upon the Kabompo River, and an area proprietress of sorts ran to us from its banks and started speaking with Jenna in rapid-fire Lunda (the local language). We followed her over a bridge of springy sticks and down a steep hill with mossy, soaking wet rocks, which led out to a partial view of the falls. As we maneuvered our way down, packs of gear on our backs, something started biting our feet, repeatedly and without warning. And it hurt.

***

There is an ant here, essentially an army ant, commonly referred to here as mpashi. I had read about them before I ever came to Africa. My host father told me that if they came upon a chicken, they would leave only the skeleton. They sweep into an area in a raging mass, pillage, destroy, eat, then take their leave. When you hop on the internet for terminology to describe these ants for a blog post, suggested search terms include “african army ants eat cow”. Other volunteers had mentioned harrowing run-ins, from time to time, and a group had even been spotted near my home a few weeks prior (but vanished after my host family sprang into action with everything from laundry soap to a can of diesel fuel). Standing by the waterfall, our guide urged us to hasten back up the hill, and we did so, pitching camp alongside a path that led from the stick bridge. Three tents, Molly in a hammock, a fire in the middle. Time for dinner.

***

The next day, Easter. Pancakes on the fire, and then a trip back to the waterfall; those pesky mpashi seemed to be mostly absent. The water rolled and thundered, running at full bore because of rainy season, and we gaped at it and laughed with joy, soaked through in minutes. The spray was so strong that I had to tilt my glasses on top of my head to see.

Waterfall Shot

A rainbow literally encircled us where we stood, the sunlight fanning out on all the drops of water. What’s the word? “Scintillating.” It being Easter, I thought of the glories of the Lord. We clambered into a cave-like area beneath the falls, then climbed back above them and sat in the water, taking turns holding a bottle of cheap champagne in the current to cool it. Little fish nibbled our feet. We found a large, flat rock on which to lie down and dry off, and opened the champagne with an almighty pop that sent the cork flying. Later, I went down to the river and sat on the rocks, and washed my hair as the sun started to set over the water, and thought for a little while: about who wasn’t there with me to see what I was seeing; what I would tell them about how river water tastes when you drink it with iodine (not so bad–a little bitter); how, perhaps, sitting on the banks of the Kabompo with clean, wet hair, watching the river tumble by, cannot actually be described. It was a good day.

***

And then.

***

At approximately midnight, I woke up to screaming. If you hear this at midnight in the middle of your Zambian campsite, it means that something is wrong. I heard Jenna, one tent over–“Oh my God, oh my God!”–and Hannah, a few yards away and already outside, shouting to get out. The canvas of Jenna’s tent shuddered as she escaped it. I switched on my solar lamp, and shone it on the walls of my own tent. Climbing up the outside of its mesh windows, one after the other, at a smooth and relentless pace, were the mpashi. Then I turned the lamp onto the bottom of my tent. They had found a way in.

I grabbed my sandals from the corner and scrambled to unzip the tent door and rain fly. Once I managed this–the total and absolutely pressing need to get OUT of the tent NOW now now now now NOW NOW NOW NOW naturally rendering my fingers clumsy and nerveless to the maximum possible degree–I looked down at the ground outside my tent, where I would now have to squarely plant my feet and haul myself up, and saw that the grass was already glittering with a boiling thread of ants. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. Jenna and Hannah called out to me–“You don’t have time to close your tent!”I swung my feet out and scrabbled to slide my sandals on, but it was already too late: they were on me. I rushed out to the path where Jenna and Hannah already stood, all of us yelling as the ants we had carried with us from our tents ran all over our bodies, sinking their mandibles into our skin wherever they could find purchase–feet, legs, hipbones, necks, each bite a horrible sting. It took about ten seconds before everyone was in their underwear, clothing torn off and thrown aside because it was full of mpashi. We took off down the path to the river near the stick bridge, and Jenna and Hannah climbed in the water to their shins. At this point, we realized that the mpashi had reached our heads and started to bite. Hannah and I began frantically running our fingers through our hair, pulling out ant after ant. (Through all of this, Molly remained in her hammock, suspended above the chaos, safe for the time being.) The moon was full, and bright as a floodlight, and we stood by the river and faced the fact that there was no more sleep for us that night, and that all of our belongings were now covered in ants who saw us as very large Pepperoni Bagel Bites.

***

I went on a scouting mission back to the campsite, swinging my lamp low over the ground; I got a little too close to my and Jenna’s tents in my desire to see the extent of the damage inside, and my feet were swarmed in seconds. Hannah volunteered to walk through the tall grass alongside the campsite–come at things from a surprise angle–and try to see if she could reach our mostly dormant fire and have the time to build it back up to the type of bonfire that would show these mpashi, be it ever so briefly, that they were not the boss of us. (Please note: they were the boss of us.) She took my lamp and started off. Courage is this: a woman walking into very tall grass, barefoot, in her underwear, into an mpashi-ridden campsite to try and stoke a fire. For about a minute, she proceeded without issue. But as she neared Molly’s hammock, the bright circle of the lamp–till then, held perfectly straight–started swinging wildly, and Hannah rushed back to us. The mpashi, it seemed, had reached Molly. We watched as her hammock tilted back and forth, her light investigating, and a few minutes later, she was on the move. She had looked out of her hammock perch, she explained, and when she did, the sandals she had left sitting below were literally invisible, covered by a seething mass of ants. Then she saw them climbing the trees to her hammock. Then it was time to go.

We made a plan.

***

The next six hours went something like this:

  1. Appoint retrieval team for each campsite item; designate Light Holder, Thing Grabber (highly dangerous), Thing Skittishly Catch and Hurl
  2. Move into campsite, scouting the immediate environs of the object being removed for mpashi activity
  3. Grab thing, throw
  4. Grab another thing, throw
  5. Stop grabbing things and take off running because ants have started crawling over your feet while everyone screams “Abort! Abort!”
  6. Place thing in the “clearing zone” and remove every ant. One or two team members to hold the item, one to hold the light, everyone to turn their most unforgiving gaze upon the blanket/shirt/backpack/tent/sandals/book/leggings/sleeping bag and spot and crush ants without mercy, ants who flit over the surface of humans and objects alike like insects possessed.
  7. Flip the object over three times, because you missed at least ten ants on your first pass, bub
  8. Declare the item clear, and move it to the “clear zone” up the hill
  9. Check your watch at 2:30 a.m. Check it again five minutes later. It is now 4 a.m.
  10. Realize that the pots that held dinner are so overrun by ants that they must now be abandoned completely.

IMG-20160329-WA0009

***

The sky grew lighter. All of our items were cleared, and we packed up quickly, ready to walk away. At this point it became cold, hard reality that we would be walking all the way back to the main road, 16 kilometers away, on no sleep with all of our gear, unless a miracle descended upon us and we encountered a car. Our adrenaline bore us along for a while, and the cool morning air was a boon. We passed a herd of cows in the woods (“Would the mpashi eat them?” we wondered aloud. “I mean, do they fend them off with their hooves?”), small, bright flowers we’d never seen before, the long, gorgeous shadows of the trees slanting through the early morning sunlight, a horde of ants carving a ludicrously enormous and orderly track across our path. (Us: “Aiiiiieeeeeeeeee.”) We had walked for nearly five miles (according to Molly’s FitBit) when we passed a home set back from the road…with a car. A shiny, well-kept car. Jenna approached and made inquiries while the rest of us watched from a distance, and when she turned around and gave us the thumbs-up–we had a lift–we felt the profound joy, the triumph over long odds, that one must feel after successfully landing a spacecraft on the surface of Jupiter. We slid into that car and sat down for the first time in hours like queens, and laughed with an airy disregard as we drove over the huge hills we would have been forced to climb.

When our savior dropped us off at the main road, we sank down in a grateful stupor. Jenna negotiated with a nearby woman across the way, and we got hot water for coffee, which we made and drank as we sat on the ground.It was about 8:30 in the morning; Solwezi was a three-hour hitch away. Life was a dream.

***

As it turned out, I didn’t arrive in my village until 7 p.m. that night, finally dropped off by my third vehicle of the day–a vehicle that had coasted off the road twice after its engine failed–walking as fast as I could through the pitch dark, trying to reach my house ahead of the terrifying lightning storm that was closing in all around, but that is a TOTALLY different story.