Tag Archives: Africa

READING CHAIR – Missionary: 1. “Snakes and Spiders”, Zambia

Snakes and Spiders, Zambia

My time spent in Africa was an encounter with several types of snakes, mostly poisonous.  In Kenya, snakes were rare where we lived in Limuru, because of the altitude, seven thousand two hundred feet.  I was happy with that because they were not so rare in Nairobi at five thousand five hundred feet altitude.  We would encounter snakes at the game park every once in a while when we visited.

cobra of Kenya
Cobra of Kenya

When I was stationed in Lusaka, Zambia, that is where my encounter with snakes was more frequent; at least once a month or more, and half were poisonous cobras!  Our neighbor had about six acres that he allowed to grow wild, and any snakes there would multiply.  Some would cross over into our property through cracks in the wall, especially during the end of the dry season when they would start to burn their grasses.  The fire would chase some of their snakes onto our property, both kinds, poisonous and non-poisonous.  Cobras were quite common, but there were also black mambas!

Black mambas were one of three of the most poisonous snakes on the planet, and they were aggressive compared to other snakes which would generally run away if a lager predator came near.  Black mambas would attack most of the time, as my one missionary friend found out after he was bitten by one that had gotten into his house!

One of the missionary priests always told the story of when he once presided at a liturgy out in the bush in Malawi.  Right in the middle of the celebration, a large rat came running into the church from the back of the building and ran up to the sanctuary and across to the exit at the side door.  Not much later a large black mamba came running in after the rat following the same route.  All of a sudden the whole congregation jumped  up on their chairs until the black mamba exited the same route the rat took.  After a few seconds the whole congregation came running out the doors chasing the snake with sticks and rocks with the intent of killing the snake if it was the last thing they would do.  And they did!  Then the liturgy continued where they had left off as if nothing had happened.

Fortunately there were no black mambas on our property, yet.  At least a cobra will give one a warning before striking by standing up as tall as it could and spread its cape.  A spitting cobra will then spit its poison into the eyes of the predator hoping to blind it, and then run.  If it is not a spitting cobra then they will either strike or run away.  Usually two or more predators would be enough to convince the cobra to run.

Once we had a visitor to our property and I was showing him around.  At one point in the tall grass I had turned and was ready to continue on until I spotted a cobra standing three feet tall blocking my way.  I had never seen any snake that big before, so I quickly stopped and considered my distance from him.  I decided to have the visitor move around behind me and alert the workers on the property, who were near by, to come and help.  I have never found an African not willing to kill a snake.  Once the alarm is sounded, it is amazing how stick and rocks appear out of no where.  As I was waiting for the visitor to sound the alarm, I backed off a little from the cobra and noticed that the snake moved closer to the round as though ready to make a run for it.  Then I moved a little closer to it again, testing its reaction, and the snake stood back up poised to strike.  I was thinking that it was better to let the snake make a run for it out the gate rather than attack me, since I was standing there alone, and a cobra is more prone to attack a single predator.  So I backed off and the snake fell to the ground and quickly disappeared.  When the workers arrived I only said that the snake fell to the ground and ran away…that way.  Off they went in hot pursuit carrying their sticks and rocks, but they were too late.

One year at the peak of the snake season, we had killed at least twelve snakes, with half of them being cobras.  Most of them got trapped in our long driveway, which leads away from our property down a long road between two eight feel tall brick walls.  The snakes come through the cracks in the walls and get trapped in the gravel drive.  “When our guys come back from teaching at the local school they easily spot the snakes and quickly dispatch them.

brown snake of Kenya
Brown Snake of Zambia

Once a brother found a snake in our oven.  He quickly closed the door and turned on the oven to kill the snake.  Fortunately our cook arrived and dispatched the snake for him.  He was a great snake killer, probably because he was afraid for his little three year old girl, and wife.  But the next time a snake got into the house, it got trapped because of the smooth tile floor.  The snake couldn’t get any traction to move, let alone to escape.  The alarm was sounded and again out of nowhere sticks appeared, some looked like our broom stick handles!  Fortunately this snake was a regular brown garden snake, but very large, six or seven feet.  They were not poisonous but they did bite!  It went into the dorm and hid under the bed.  Since we didn’t know if it was a cobra, we had to be very careful.  There were several mattresses piled up on top of one of the beds and we had to carefully look through them one at a time.  In between the last two we spotted at first what we thought was the snake, but it was its skin that it had shed some days earlier.  I kept the skin to bring home to my nephew as a gift!  Eventually we spotted the snake under the bed and the guys quickly dispatched it, making a mess of its blood all over the floor.  They proudly held up their prize, the seven foot brown garden snake.  I thought how many field mice that snake could have caught from our corn field growing outside, but I could never convince the ecological connection from snake to mice to maize.  Besides, it is too difficult to tell the difference between this snake and a real cobra.  And that sounded like a very good reason to dispatch first, ask questions later.

In Malawi, one of the brothers who lived at our community there, next to our high school, Chaminade, that we ran in Karonga, was presented with a green mamba that was killed by the guard in a tree near the building.  I guess he was expecting to be praised.  Instead, the American brother berated him for disturbing the ecology of the area by killing a prime carnivore that kept the mice population in control.  Unfortunately, the brother forgot that there were high school children on the campus that would have been exposed to the green mamba, a deadly poisonous snake that climbs trees and can hang down at face level.  Imagine an encounter with that critter in the night!

banana spider of Zambia
Banana Spider of Zambia

We have banana trees on our property, several hundred trees, and they are ideal for snakes.  The whole time I have lived there, I have never encountered any snakes in the banana trees, but I am sure they were there.  I have encountered spiders, big spiders.  These were large grey tree spiders that have a big white marking on their abdomen, the shape of the marking is hard to describe, bar shaped?  We would encounter them in the banana and avocado trees.  Their webs are of extra thick treads, almost like sewing thread, a slight yellow in color.  Fortunately they are easy to see, but at night, when checking on the water pump located under the avocado tree, one can forget they are there.  Usually we leave them alone since they eat the flies, mosquitoes, and bugs that can infect the trees.  Once in a while I have to send one of the guys to climb the trees and harvest the avocados, hoping he will take care not to get entangled in their webs.  The spiders usually are not aggressive and avoid encounters.  However once in a while I will have noticed that all the webs have been cleared out of the trees, probably by the more squeamish brothers in community, especially those who are small and have to climb the trees for me.  I don’t say anything.  I have learned to go with the African flow.

READING CHAIR – Missionary: 10. “Askari Ants”, Kenya

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

askari ants
Askari Ants – Kenya

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.

Kipkelion Monastery
Cistercian Monastery in Kipkelion, Kenya

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.