Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Great Ant War

The Great Ant War


Monday, October 11th, 1993 – Thursday, October 14th, 1993

Battle Field:

The “Jesus Never Fails” house, just outside of Boso, Ghana.


Humans and companions:
Scott Slusher, Volunteer, Peace Corps, Class I
Kwame, canine, Class I
Mr. Africa, Technical Specialist, Class III

Ants, African Army, Lake Volta Corps

Rainy season, tropical version.

Account of the battle as told by the eventual victorious party, Mr. Slusher:

Monday, October 11th, 1993

It all began on October 11th 1993, in the evening.  I was conducting extra math tutoring for my high school students at Boso Secondary Technical School, where I held the position of Math and Science teacher.  A handful of my students were preparing to take their “O” level Math and Science exams in a few short months, and I was trying to prepare them for this difficult exam.  It was night, but the school had electricity and electric lights in some of the rooms so we were able to get a lot of extra studying in that evening.

I tutored my students until about 9:30 pm and then walked home, about a half mile walk from the school.  I lived in a newly-built house in the country outside of Boso.  The house was named “Jesus Never Fails” because that was the slogan painted above the front porch of the house.  It was a nice, comfortable house for Ghanaian standards, and it even sometimes had (cold) running water, but no electricity.  I lived there with my young canine companion, Kwame, thusly named because he was given as a gift to me on a Saturday by my all-around house man, Mr. Africa, thusly named because he could name all the countries in Africa.

The weather had been extremely rainy lately, with powerful storms raking the town several times per day over the past few weeks.  It was nearing the end of the rainy season in Ghana and Nature seemed hell-bent on giving me something to remember it by during the upcoming dry winter.  Thankfully, however, on the evening of October 11th, 1993, the rains were nowhere to be found, and there was even a bright sliver of moon in the West sky.  My house was about a quarter mile from the end of town, located in a dirt plot recently cleared from the forest.  Because of the abundant moonlight, I turned off my flashlight and easily walked home by the light of the moon and stars only.  It was a lovely clear night and I was undisturbed and feeling good (you know, handling it) as I walked home through the hilly Ghanaian countryside, singing Van Morrison to myself, an artist generally reserved for pleasant walks through the countryside.  Life was good.

My house sat back some 50 yards uphill to the West of the road.  I walked up the dirt driveway and idly noted how interesting it was that a little stream had started to form in my front yard because of the heavy rains.  I thought I’d need to build a bridge over the little stream if the rains kept up, as the water was starting to dig up quite a little canyon now.  My house was tucked into the base of a small hill, and as I mounted the steps to my front porch the hill behind my house blocked the moon from view, plunging everything into near darkness.  As accustomed as I was to both the geometry of my house, and living with no light, I thought nothing of navigating through the front porch to my bedroom in the dark.

But something felt wrong.  I’m not sure if I could sense it, or just barely see it, but the front porch appeared to be rippling, almost moving.  I heard Kwame whining quietly in the front porch which was slightly unusual.  I don’t know how, but I could just sense that Kwame and I were not alone in the house.  Instinctively and without hesitation I reached for my flashlight and turned it on, and oh shit its ants

African Army Ants are all over my house!  I’m going to die I’m going to die I’m going to die crap crap crap.  Thick pulsating streams of ants are flooding the floor, walls, and even the ceiling of my front porch.  There are literally thousands of ants in here.  Kwame is standing in the far corner of the porch, whining.  I feel the first bite of an ant.  Holy crap, that hurts.  Then another, and another, and another.  Kwame is getting bit as well.  I know this is bad.  Army ants en masse are perfectly capable of killing a dog, even a horse perhaps.  I am smaller than a horse.  They are looking for food, anything that moves; Kwame and me.  I am living a horror movie.

Take defensive action.  Get Kwame. Check.  Run to the bedroom.  Check.  Are the ants in my bedroom?  Scan the floors, the walls, the ceiling.  Nothing.  Thank God, they haven’t made it this far yet.  A glimmer of hope.  We have a base now from where we can mount a counter attack.  But I fear it won’t last, they’ll eventually get in.

Assess means for thwarting entry into bedroom.  Broom.  Kerosene. Insect spray. Mosquito coil?  Straight-up evacuation.  Assess each idea individually.  Broom.  Limited effectiveness.  Ceiling ants in particular will just fall on top of you like little evil biting flakes of snow.  Kerosene.  Probably effective, but will leave me without light.  Insect Spray.  Probably effective, but looks dodgy and might cause cancer.  Mosquito Coil.  Probably not effective whatsoever.  Evacuation.  But where would we go?  Back to the school, I guess.  I decide to stick it out.  I douse my window sills and door frame with all my kerosene, and spray the same areas with the insect spray.  It’s 10:00 pm and I sit down to jot down a quick note in my journal by the light of my flashlight, and then get onto the bed.  An excerpt from my journal from that evening follows:

“Oct 11 [1993]”
“Ants!  Ants!  Ants to the glory of God!  My house is being besieged by an army of army ants – incredible – there are thousands of them, all over the house no place is safe – they climb into every corner, through every window sill into everything!  … and did I mention that they bite??  Ouch – they bite and bite and bite – our dog was freaking out!  And I am too – I don’t want to go through this again.  The walls of the house are absolutely crawling with army ants.”

So Kwame and I settled in for a long vigilant night in the citadel of my bedroom.  In the dark.  With all of Africa’s ants at my doorstep, so it seemed.  Periodically I would leap up from the bed and manically turn on the flashlight to confirm that the kerosene/insect spray was keeping them at bay.  It was.  I started to fall asleep but the vision of army ants crawling up into my nose and ears quickly woke me up every time.  Eventually I did fall asleep, against every protestation of the primitive part of my brain, and woke up with an involuntary shout of “Ants!” as the dawn was approaching again from the East.  

Tuesday, October 12th, 1993

A quick peek out the bedroom door confirmed that my defense held, and that furthermore the ants had appeared to move on to the next location.  I was safe.  I had nothing with which to cook breakfast, and had turned my house into a highly-flammable cancer-causing death trap, but on the plus-side Kwame and I made it through the night alive.  On my way to school I inspected the new stream that the rainy season had created in my front yard.  I was astonished to see that the army ants from last night had actually built a bridge over the stream using twigs, plants, and dead ants with which they were able to cross over and invade my house.  Or perhaps this was their egress route from the house.  Either way, now viewed with some distance from the terror of the night before, the ant bridge was endlessly fascinating and impressive. 

And a little frigntening.  They are making bridges.  I mean, ants have brains the size of, well, quite frankly I don't even know if they technically have "brains", but collectively they understand how to build a bridge over what to them is a raging torrent of certain death.  Note to self, do not underestimate these guys, somehow they are smarter than you think.  Maybe they have like a distributed brain or something.  One ant all alone, not so smart.  75,000 together, we're approacing Da Vinci territory here.

During the afternoon we got one of the most powerful storms of the season yet.  When I returned back to my house after school the ant bridge was washed clear away and the stream was quite the little torrent.  Nature seemed to be on my side, building for me a little moat around my house.  Mr. Africa stopped by in the evening and brought me more kerosene and dinner, and promised to get a good “ant killing spray” from town if they came back.  Wait, what do you mean, come back?  All in all the day passed in relative quiet terror.  Far better than most other kinds of terror.

Wednesday, October 13th, 1993

From my journal:

“Oct 13 [1993]”

“The ants are returning.  This time, I was here when the initial onslaught took place – they only got to the cement outside of the porch.  Another stream of ants just tried to sneak up behind me but I noticed them in time to sweep them away.”

This time it was still daylight out, and since I was there when the ants showed up I was able to beat them back with some success with a combination of broom and water.  Our house was equipped with a 50 gallon plastic tank of water, fed by the rain, for use when the piped water was not functioning.  I drained almost all the water into smaller buckets and sloshed the water onto the oncoming columns of ants.  I knew that I would not be able to hold them back forever.  If they were determined enough they would eventually outlast me and make another assault on the house.  But quite frankly with nothing better to do, and the feeling that these little biting bastards had made it personal by coming back a second time, I was hell-bent on engaging them in battle as long as possible.

Thursday, October 14th, 1993

Back to the journal:

“Oct 14 [1993]”

“Last night was an ant hell, I suppose.  I didn’t sleep much because I was worried that those ants would at any moment make the final push into my room.  I must have woken up 8 times.  This morning I woke up and the ants had just begin to climb into the interior porch.  I swept them all back and then Mr. Africa came from town with a bunch of DDT, which he liberally applied to all ant-infested areas.”

Did he say DDT?  So this was Mr. Africa’s “ant killing spray”.  Wait, isn’t this stuff illegal?  Doesn’t DDT cause sterility?  Doesn’t it cause freaking cancer?  Shit, I’m out of here! 
“I’m concerned about 2 things.  First, I have a feeling that the ants will come back.  Africa assures me that, no, they won’t.  I’ll believe that when I don’t see it.  Second, DDT is a potentially harmful chemical.  I’m none too pleased that I’ve been exposed to it all morning.  Better than ants, I guess?”

Potentially harmful?  Oh I’d say it was definitely harmful.  It sure harmed the ants quite a bit.  They didn’t come back.  The DDT killed many of them, and the rest went away, back into the bush, to find something else to eat. 

So I won the war, but at what cost?  I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the ants would have eventually gone away of their own accord in a few days’ time.  I absolutely felt guilty for allowing Africa to spray the perimeter of my house with DDT.  I didn’t even hesitate to make the call.  Just do it.  I could have told him to stop.  But I just wanted the whole ordeal to be over with.  And besides, I ended up doing something much worse a few weeks later.

It brings to mind a larger question, that is, when living in or even visiting another country, when a situation arises where you could do something that is acceptable in your new country, but not acceptable in your home country, what do you do?  This is a tricky example.  Is it acceptable to employ DDT in the use of pest extermination in the United States?  Clearly no.  In fact I doubt it's even allowed in Ghana in 2011.  But it is acceptable to employ some means to exterminate household pests in general.  Perhaps in this case the proper course of action would be to suggest to Mr. Africa that we try a different, slightly more legal brand of pesticide.  Then I would be making a satisfactory compromise between solving the problem and hanging on to some level of self-worth.

The tragic irony in this particular situation is that while at first glance it seems like I'm "going native" by allowing Mr. Africa to use DDT, in fact I'm doing quite the opposite.  I'm going native only in that way that Ghana tries to emulate the developed world, often times with strange results at best.  I did not know this at the time, but the army ants were not intending on making my house their home.  They were exhibiting classic "raiding" behavior, and once they had ransacked my house for everything they wanted, they would go away.  The truly "native" thing to do would have been to leave my home for a few days, let the ants take what they needed, and then return.  The ants in fact typically do the house a favor by scrubbing it clean of other insects and pests.  Like a good regimen of Flagyl for your home.  Had I known this and was willing to vacate my home for a few days, and willing to just come to grips that I needed to let Fauna win the battle in order to let me win the War, I could have easily stayed away.  So I lost in all possible ways, except my fighting spirit was still intact.  But don't judge me too harshly, many mistakes are made in the heat of battle.  Would you have made a different decision?  Perhaps now you would, I know I would!

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