Insects shall inherit the earth!
Just before Bill left, I upgraded from my little doctor’s chalet across the street to the tin-roofed manager’s house (with the incredible luxury of a concrete sofa). The leaking thatched roof and holey screens on the doctor’s chateau are being hastily replaced before the rainy season starts in earnest (and the new doctor arrives). The first few rain showers brought out even more six and eight-legged friends. One evening we were besieged by a mob of termites attracted to the lights like something out of “The Swarm” – our own real-life horror movie. The frantic, swarming creatures squeezed through a gap between the screen and the wall as we madly stuffed the opening with fine Zambian toilet paper to fend them off. Then they started coming through the space under the door until we blocked it with a towel and through the holes in the screens until we found some aluminum foil to hastily tape over the holes. We may have missed out on the culinary opportunity of a lifetime though. I’m told by the locals that termites with their wings pulled off sautéed in a little oil are quite a nutty, crunchy delicacy. Yumm!
We won the Battle of the Doctor’s Chalet (actually, we turned out the lights and cowered inside our mosquito net), but the insects will undoubtedly win the war. Every morning I knock down new little mud termite towers growing up from cracks in the cement floor. The termites here are remarkably industrious creatures that build gigantic mounds up to ten feet high and more (the tip of an underground iceberg) and try to consume every piece of wood (hence, the concrete sofa). There are mounds everywhere, literally every fifty feet or so. Our “attack” was probably a premature one from a single mound. When the rains finally come, each mound will erupt to fill the air with millions upon millions of termites. I can hardly wait!
In an event that illustrates the relentless siege of insects and the sad inability of my clinic friends to plan ahead, the water tank that supplies water to the clinic and the staff housing collapsed this morning because termites had completely chewed through the supporting wood tower. Now one would think that in such a place regular inspections of any wooden structure would be in order, but alas, this is Africa. For a while at least, the clinic has no running water which creates all kinds of challenges in getting through the day. The clinic staff is scrambling to find a new 3000 liter water tank and money for bricks and mortar (no wood this time) to build a new water tower.
In both houses here, I have been wonderfully cared for by the two house men, Rogers and Davis. I told Bill that it says something about him that it takes two men to keep me straight here while he manages all by himself at home. I’m not sure what it says, but it’s something. At 61, by his best guess, Rogers considers himself a “very old man” (also 61, Bill does NOT, although he does feel that way after Friday nights at the Flatdogs bar). I delight in Rogers’ mellifluous James Earl Jones voice and dignified gentlemanly manner.
Davis, who alternates weeks with Rogers, is a keen young man who’s eager to do beyond whatever I ask. Sometimes his enthusiasm gets the better of him though, like the time he awoke practically the entire camp at 3:00 am when a herd of ten elephants were using their heads to batter down the brick wall of the garden across from my house. The ellies were after the tomatoes, and short of shooting the raiding party, there’s not much anyone could have done to save the garden. Davis just wanted to be sure everyone knew! After seeing the aftermath of the ellies assault, I think the ellies in the garden make our little Orcas deer seem quite sedate by comparison.
Each time I witness the incredible power of my animal neighbors, I draw strength and confidence from the knowledge that my house is protected from attacks by ellies, hippos, lions, leopards and hyenas by stout barriers of rusted screen and a door latch that would succumb to a strong sneeze. My ultimate refuge, of course, is the mosquito net. What self-respecting jungle animal would dare to violate it? For Bill, it was ear plugs – “Wake me if anything interesting happens.”
The bathroom in the doctor’s house is the favorite haunt of a family of really BIG flat spiders (“flatties”) which I’m told eat mosquitoes and are harmless. Still, they cluster menacingly overhead in the shower making shampooing and soaping-up hasty procedures. We’ve also hosted a mutant giant cricket and huge black millipedes called Chongololos. The chongololos are everywhere -- on the ceiling, crawling up the wall, in my shoes, on the floor. Fortunately they are also supposedly harmless. Naturally, they do have a smaller cousin like our centipede (also everywhere) whose bite is poisonous.
The bathroom in the new house is home to a large collection of “fatties” – quite another kettle of spiders. Two nights ago I came home to find the mother-of-all-big-fat-hairy-spiders creeping up the post in the shower. YEEKS!! I think the thing was a tarantula-like baboon spider which is venomous and aggressive. Now, when it’s been 110 degrees all day and I’ve slathered myself in DEET as my dinnertime perfume (a delicate go-yonder scent), a shower before bed feels divine and makes the 95-degree night bearable (for five minutes or so). Doing without a shower would be unthinkable. Bill was disappointed when he heard I was too wimpish to either catch this mega-monster and evict it or at least smash it properly (before he left, he subjected me to careful instruction on how to perform each task).
So the spider and I had a staring contest as I showered. The spider had an advantage on that score with six eyes to my two. I was afraid to close my eyes for fear it might detect an opening and jump on me, so washing my hair and face while keeping one eye open was a challenge. In the end, it scuttled off into a crack in the mud wall. I’m afraid it may be just biding its time, thinking about the one that got away. I’ve taken to leaving the light on in the bathroom to scare off the spider families. Until now, I thought I was managing to cope with the bugs, but they just seem to be getting bigger and creepier as time goes on.
The skin-crawlingly creepiest insect of all must be the “Kalahari Ferrari” (this is definitely not a reference to my truck). This bug looks like a mutant cross between a giant spider and a scorpion with a shiny four-inch long body, long legs and long pincers held at the ready in front. It emerges after dark and runs about frenetically always seeming to be running towards any screaming human nearby, which of course would NEVER be me. I’ve discussed Kalahari Ferrari eradication techniques with some of the young British girls working here. They recommend donning Wellies (knee-high rubber boots) to give them a good stomp.
To get to my truck after dinner, we have to pass through a narrow passageway next to the kitchen – the site of my first Kalahari Ferrari encounter. After convincing my toes that Tevas were much more stylish than the insect-proof boots Bill was wearing (a hard-sell), we watched the Kalahari Ferrari unsuccessfully attack an armored cricket. The night watchman interrupted us to draw our attention to the sand-colored scorpion (small, but really nasty) that was making a dash for my foot (my toes were now really unhappy about my choice of wardrobe). While I was hopping back and forth in a reasonable (and if I may say so, quite artful) interpretation of an Irish jig, Bill shined his light farther down the passage and said, “Look, there’s a snake.” This was subsequently proclaimed to be a night adder. By this time, my toes had had enough and we went home to the comparative safety of our bathroom and its spiders.
The camouflage-colored geckos and striped skinks who live with me are my allies in the losing battle against the onslaught of insects and arachnids. I have fun watching them hunting along the walls or chasing each other loudly pattering along the screens in a battle for territory. I’ve become quite a big fan of my reptile friends as I cheer them on in their hunts for all the creepy crawlies. It turns out, however, that they’re not as sure-footed as one might expect so my evening reveries are sometimes punctuated by the soft plop of one of them “dropping in” on me.
This morning I saw a Spanish tourist who was bitten on his pinky finger by a sneaky spider that was hiding in his dinner napkin. He had big bloody blisters on his finger and redness and swelling extending to his wrist. I dressed the wound and gave him antibiotics, but seeing him made me realize these creatures mean business. We think he was bitten by a violin spider which is in the same family as our brown recluse. While I was examining him at my new house, we were entertained by a troop of monkeys who jumped with loud BANGs onto the tin roof as they played and leapt from the trees. One little black-faced guy hung upside down from the roof to have a peek in the windows. I know the monkeys are well-acquainted with this house since we found monkey prints embedded in the concrete of the floor. Maybe he was just checking to be sure his “Kilroy” was still there.
It’s been roastingly hot here, 113 or something equally unlivable, for the last two days. Every day we look hopefully at the puffy clouds for a hint of rain, but I think they're only teasing us. The night brings only a whiff of cooling, but last night I watched the spectacular orange full moon rise through the spreading sausage trees and was reminded of what a remarkable place this is…spiders and all.
This page was last updated 01/07/06