10. “Askari Ants”, Kenya
Everyone who lives in Africa for any length of time will eventually experience the Askari Ants, at least that is what the Kenyans call them. They are different from
any ants one may experience elsewhere. They seem like two species of ants since the ‘Askari Ants’ or guard ants do just that, they guard the other light brown smaller type.
The Askari Ants are larger and a darker brown color, but they also have a very large head with mean looking mandibles or pincers! It is their pincers that cause the problem and pain. Anything and anyone that gets in their way or attacks the other ants, the Askari Ants will quickly attack, but in a way that is slightly different. They wait until several thousand of their members are assembled in a specific area and then they bite! Somehow they give out a signal when all are ready and then bite, that is, they pinch their victim and will never let go. One has to physically remove the head of the ant with the pincers.
There has been some recent research using this ant to suture cuts by getting them to pinch the two portions of skin together and then cutting off the rest of the body and leaving the head with the pincers in place. It seems to work, but convincing the locals to go along with the procedure will take some time yet.
My first encounter with the Askari Ants was in our garden where we grow a variety of fruits and vegetables. After cultivating an area for a while, I decided to weed a section of the garden just for a change. After a few minutes I had this horrible burning, biting sensation in my crotch and screamed out for help. Our neighbor came to my aid and pointed out that I was covered with Askari Ants, and that the only solution was to remove all my clothes and pick off the ants by hand, one by one. Naturally I ran for the nearest place that I could get undressed.
The pain was excruciating and even after the ants were removed, their bites still left a burning sensation that took a while to wear off. The Askari Ants would explain several unexpected sightings of native workers in their field suddenly getting naked! The really mystery to date would be how the ants knew to bite all at once only after several hundreds of them were in position in my crotch?
We raised rabbits on our compound in Limuru and when any of my does were ready to give birth, I would get up early and go visit her to see how many babies she gave birth. There was one such doe I was waiting for her to give birth at any time, and when I went out that morning, I saw that she had given birth to eight babies, but they were all a dark brown color. Upon closer inspection, they were not brown but covered with Askari Ants. The mother was quietly sitting near by not moving a muscle. It seems that her fur had saved her from the ants. Somehow the ants had crawled up the long legs of her hutch and into her cage, literally covering her babies with Askari Ants, killing them by their hundreds of stings. I was devastated and was determined to make sure it would not happen again.
I had just read a great story that took place in Africa called, “The Wormwood Bible” where one of the protagonists had failed to listen to the native and planted his garden his way. He of course lost it all to the rains. I was very much interested in how folks did things here in Limuru. I was told that one had to sprinkle wood ashes around the cages to keep the Askari Ants away, and if your hutches were build with legs, you had to oil them down or at least put each leg in a small can filled with oil. I did both and never had problems with those damn Askari Ants again, at least concerning my rabbits.
A new member of the community arrived and had to learn the hard way, like the rest of us, about all small intricacies of African life and landscape and insects. Brother Tom was a fast learner, but one can not foresee everything. Every Sunday evening our community would split in half and have a sharing on the week, talking about the challenges and the blessings of the past week. Tom tended to be dramatic at times, especially when it was his turn to share his thoughts on the gospel readings for the day. This evening, as we lit the candle and everyone settled themselves and we turned off the lights, all of a sudden Brother Tom got up and started dancing. I thought to myself, here we go again! But then he just as suddenly exited out the door and headed for the toilet. When he got back quite a while later, he said that he was attacked by Askari Ants!
I thought that would be impossible, since the ants rarely come inside the house. The good thing about the ants is that they are constantly on the move. When they appear in the garden, no sense in trying to kill them, since by tomorrow they will all be gone. We all looked at the couch that Tom just happened to be sitting on by himself, and sure enough, there were the ants. They had come in a small opening by the window, headed for the couch and climbed up a leg and up to the top and across, then down the other leg and out another little opening by the window. Tom just happened to sit right in the middle of their path with his arms spread out across the top of the couch. The path of the Askari Ants can be about one to two inches wide with literally thousands of ants quickly moving to their next destination. Outside, the ants can literally wear a path through the grass, eating anything that gets in their way, even humans!
My last encounter with the Askari Ants was at the burial of our good friend, Dom Pohl, a Cistercian monk at Our Lady of Victories Monastery in Kipkelion, Kenya. He had been the Abbot there for several years, and now in his eighties and in perfect health, he was the novice master of the monastery with a good number of monks from Kenya and Uganda. During our yearly visit to the monastery, he would usually give us spiritual talks. Every once in a while he would show up at our novitiate in Limuru after doing business in Nairobi, and we would invite him to stay and spend the night, but always he would refuse and head back to his monastery as soon as he could take the next local train. On one occasion, when the trains stopped running from Limuru to Kipkelion, he took us up on our offer, and found a way to get back to his monastery the next day on his own.
As it turned out, during our last stay at the monastery before the post-election violence eventually closed it, we just had our talk by Dom Pohl. The next day he headed out to say mass at a local parish but felt bad and turned around and came back. Another monk realized that he was in pretty bad shape and headed out to the doctors with him, but Dom Pohl died on the way. We were at least fortunate to be able to attend his funeral. It was quite an affair, since he was well known in the area. Unfortunately, the funeral lasted forever, but at the end, with the commitment at the burial site, we were given a break, at least those standing at a particular spot at the grave site.
The people near by kept mentioning Askari Ants, but we didn’t connect until it was too late and the ants started biting us two white folks. So we had to leave the burial and head back to the nearest outhouse, or choo, as they call it, to remove the ants. We were able to beat the crowd and eat our lunch early. Thank you, Dom Pohl, for still watching over us. He was sort of the no-nonsense monk anyway and would have been perfectly happy to just have the monks put him into the ground without all the pomp and ceremony.
So if you ever visit this wonderful continent, now you know to look out for those Askari Ants, especially if you decide that it would be a nice idea to have a pick-nick in the middle of Africa.