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About the Author
Alzada Carlisle Kistner is associate editor of the journal Sociobiology, published by California State University in Chico, California. David Kistner is the world's leading authority on the rare beetles that live with ants and termites; he has described more than 500 new species and 150 new genera and written more than 200 scientific papers. An Affair with Africa is Alzada Carlisle Kistner's first book.
Read an Excerpt
An Affair with Africa
Expeditions and Adventures Across a Continent
By Alzada Carlisle Kistner
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1998 Alzada Carlisle Kistner
All rights reserved.
Ants Everywhere: Belgian Congo
* * *
THEY COVERED MY ARMS AND LEGS, CRAWLED INSIDE MY SHIRT, UP AND DOWN MY NECK ...
HEAT AND humidity almost knocked us flat as we wrestled our cameras and flight bags into the air terminal in Léopoldville, Belgian Congo. Long, snaking lines of somber Europeans, loaded down with carry-on luggage, waited to board the Belgium-bound plane, which would refuel and head back full of refugees. Small children hung on to fistfuls of their mothers' skirts. Pandemonium reigned at the ticket counter: the plane, which had carried few passengers coming in, was overbooked going back. Six thousand Belgians from remote areas of the African bush were trying to get out of the Congo, and we were trying to get in.
Independence Day, June 30, 1960, the day when European control would pass to the native Congolese, was less than three weeks away. Would the Congo have a peaceful transition, as had Ghana, nearly 1,700 miles away, or did these people know something we didn't know? Would fighting and violence rule the day? All we knew was that by being in Africa, we were fulfilling a dream. For biologists, there is no richer place on earth than the tropical rain forest and no greater thrill than that of trying to unravel the mysteries of the living world.
As a child, consumed with a love for biology, I read about intrepid explorers, fell out of tall trees, and rode impossible horses. My father, a physician, patched me up and shook his head. As I grew older, my mother longed for me to become a Chicago debutante. Instead, I have remained an avid adventurer, finding the world endlessly beckoning, a lively, bubbling cauldron of questions and intrigue.
At the time of our first expedition to Africa, my husband, David H. Kistner, was just getting started, trying to make a name for himself in science. Three years before, during a dinner to celebrate our engagement, Dave's thesis adviser, Professor Alfred Emerson, had drawn me aside. "Alzada," he had intoned earnestly, "David is the most insightful student I have had in thirty-five years. I expect him to make major contributions to human knowledge. Please ... let him think."
Stunned and frightened by the possibility that the Dave I knew to be a self-driven, outrageously bright worker would become an icon in his field, I resolved to create a studious atmosphere at home, help in the field, help in the laboratory ... and let him think. I dropped plans for my own Ph.D. degree in biology, a decision I have never regretted.
Sixteen months after our wedding, our daughter Alzada was born. Watching her develop from a helpless infant into a walking, talking toddler was the most exciting experience of my life. Yet when the opportunity to go to Africa arose, I couldn't say no: not only did the prospect of exploring a foreign land thrill me, but also the leader of the expedition was madly in love with me. Still, there was the matter of baby Alzada. Leaving her behind was almost too much to ask. And yet, although Dave and I could take risks, we could not risk her life. Alzada would spend the next three months with her grandparents at my family's ranch in Montana. My parents begged me to stay home. I was torn to shreds. But in short, I had to go.
So there we were on June 10, touching down on a refugee-packed tarmac in the Belgian Congo, later to be Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). If our arrival on the cusp of independence strikes some as absurd, our reason for being there will seem even more so. We had come to collect beetles. Not just any sort, but specifically the kind that live among ants. Known as "ant guests" or, more technically, myrmecophiles (myr'-me-co-philes), these specially adapted insects dwell within ant nests—house guests of the worst sort, if you will. Not only do they rely on the ants for food, housing, protection, and care of their young while doing no work themselves, but they also eat their hosts. Life is risky for these intruders; if discovered by their hosts, they are attacked, torn apart, and tossed, lifeless, onto the ants' refuse pile. Stress abounds even in an ant nest.
Many other animals love ants and thus, strictly speaking, are myrmecophiles. Bears, aardvarks, ant birds, lizards, and some snakes all love to eat ants. Edward O. Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Harvard University biologist who knows more about ants than almost anybody, might be the ultimate myrmecophile. But the term usually applies to the beetles and the few wingless flies that parasitize ant societies.
Dave and I are not so much lovers of ants as lovers of ant guests. We have been endlessly curious about the ways of these strange insects, what they look like, how they evolved, and how they survive within a hostile environment. Our interests extend to the broader topics of taxonomy, evolution, and mimicry. Whereas ant-invading beetles may seem trivial in the scheme of things, they exemplify the larger issues, such as ecological and biological diversity, and thus are relevant to all of humanity. And that is what our trip to the Belgian Congo was about that summer. Unaware, we were risking our lives in the pursuit of science.
Few would describe a scientific expedition as restful; ours certainly wasn't pleasurable by most objective criteria. We were there to study the myrmecophiles that live within colonies of army ants. For certain beetles, an ant nest is almost the Promised Land. And so we would spend much of our expedition on our hands and knees, peering down at millions of streaming ants, looking for beetles. Army ants were once described by the famous Harvard ant biologist William Morton Wheeler as the "Huns and Tartars of the insect world ... vast armies filled with an insatiable carnivorous appetite." Notorious for their foraging raids, these tropical ants form synchronized columns many millions strong and readily devour any animal in their path. Their reputation is not unjustified: their large jaws, called mandibles, act as razor-sharp sabers, slicing through flesh with little difficulty. Tales abound of babies devoured in their cribs, pigs torn apart while tied to trees, and chicks in brooders overrun by rampaging ants. Yet swarming army ants are not dangerous to any animal capable of moving out of their way. Tribespeople typically evacuate their huts for several hours while the ants move in and dispatch roaches and other vermin, an effective if unusual method of housecleaning. I learned to step carefully across a raiding column, which would continue on, seemingly oblivious to anything not directly in its path.
In 1957, there was enough interest in army ants and their guests in Africa that the Musée Royale de l'Afrique Central in Brussels published Dave's doctoral dissertation on myrmecophiles, "The Evolution of the Pygostenini (Coleoptera Staphylinidae)." Two years later, Monsieur Jurion, director of the Institut National pour l'Étude Agricole en Congo (INEAC), having seen Dave's paper and knowing he had studied only dried museum specimens, invited him to visit two of INEAC's extensive research facilities in the Belgian Congo. The catch? INEAC could not guarantee that the invitation would be honored after independence. It was a golden—perhaps the last—opportunity to find new species, to further scientific knowledge, and possibly to do what others had not done. Bolstered by the receipt of a grant from the National Science Foundation, Dave jumped at the chance. I refused to stay home. And fortunately so; my adventures with Dave have been more exciting and exhilarating than I ever imagined they could be.
LÉOPOLDVILLE appeared to be a city of many contrasts: old and new, poor and rich, dirty and clean, primitive and urbane. Wide streets were lined with brilliant red flame trees and blooming hibiscus. Older colonial stone-and-stucco houses with tile roofs and wide verandas shared the streets with gleaming multistoried buildings. From a distance, the native market seemed to be a dark pool swirling with iridescent daubs of yellow, purple, green, and orange. As we drew closer, we could see the sweat-drenched, glistening black torsos of men intermingled with women who moved in a wild profusion of brilliant hues, bedecked in their brightly patterned wraparound kangas. Some vendors had stalls, but most just spread their wares on the ground, ranging from modern plastics and detergents to carved ivory tusks and tanned leopard skins.
Bob Banfill, our assistant, was a tall, solidly built sixteen-year-old high school student and 4-H Club award winner from Columbus, Montana, population 3,000. He had helped us mount and label insects for Dave's research while we put up hay every summer on my family's 25,000-acre cattle ranch. Bob had been electrified by talk of the Congo but had never traveled farther than Billings or seen a building taller than nine stories. Clearly shaken by the incomprehensible languages and unimaginable smells, Bob was unprepared for what he encountered in Léopoldville: the confusing hodgepodge of sounds and scents, even the blackness of human skin.
We were all naive. We had gleaned most of our information about the interior of the Belgian Congo by poring over old National Geographic magazines. A twenty- five-year-old book had told us that Coquilhatville, our next stop and the site of one of INEAC's smaller research stations, was five days' travel upriver by steamer from Léopoldville. The book hadn't mentioned flying. But fly we did.
The 3,000-mile-long Congo River, shaped like a giant horseshoe, flows from its headwaters, just south of Lake Tanganyika in Zambia, past Léopoldville and over immense rapids to the sea at Matadi. Taking a highly sinuous route, it flows 1,000 miles to the north, then 1,000 miles to the west, and finally 1,000 miles to the south before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Until Henry Morton Stanley (of "Dr. Livingston, I presume?" fame) proved otherwise, no one believed that the north-flowing headwaters of the Lualaba River and the south-flowing Congo River could be one and the same body of water. The only major river that traverses both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, the Congo is always flowing through a rainy season somewhere, and unlike the cyclic Nile and Mississippi Rivers, its flow in the last two-thirds of its length remains almost constant, at 1.5 million cubic feet per second. The immense Congo basin, containing a rain forest that constitutes more than one-tenth of the land surface of the entire African continent, is its beneficiary.
As we flew over the river, foreheads pressed to the windows of our indefatigable DC-3, we saw dark, impenetrable jungle spread from riverbanks to horizon—there were no roads and no towns, and virtually no sunlight pierced the forest canopy to the ground. Occasionally, we spotted a clearing where a few huts huddled and dugout canoes were tethered on the shore.
Shortly thereafter, the plane bounced down on the dirt runway of Coquilhatville. H. M. Stanley, who paused to explore this area around the equator in 1883, named the little settlement. A fieldstone equator marker stood in tribute to him. As we made our way to the hotel, it seemed to me that little had improved since Stanley's time. The accommodations, which would probably be described as "quaint" in a tourist brochure, were challenging. Dave and I had a private bath but no hot water, whereas Bob had hot water but no private bath. His bathroom, down the hall from ours, had no doors or curtains and was designated for use by everyone, Africans and Europeans, women and men. He came wild-eyed to our room, asking to share ours. The clammy sheets, fetid mosquito netting, moist air thick with wood smoke, and pulsating rhythm of drums being beaten to ward off nighttime spirits defeated our efforts to sleep.
There is no leisurely dawn on the equator; the world blinks awake. At six o'clock the next morning, we were up and eager to go to the INEAC research station and start our search for the beetles that live amid ants. Unfortunately, never having seen a live myrmecophile, we didn't have a clue about how to find them. Dr. Emerson, a taciturn man, had offered, "Seek and ye shall find." So much for useful advice.
Still, we were not without help. Monsieur Thiry, manager of the research station, had already sent three workmen to look for army ant nests in anticipation of our arrival. Known technically as dory-line ants because they belong to the subfamily Dorylinae, these army ants are also called driver or safari ants, an appropriate term given the frequency of their hunting safaris. Because they are constantly on the move, they form temporary nests called bivouacs in which they may remain for four to eight weeks. The bivouacs reach depths of less than two feet and spread over a large area.
One of the workmen led us to a nest that was six yards across. Deep in the dense forest, it looked like a cratered moonscape. The nest was a loosely formed structure held together by masses of ants: millions of workers linked together in an extraordinary network of tangled legs and bodies. Workers went in and out of the nest as we watched, depositing sand, dirt, debris, and dead ants on a refuse pile outside. Huge soldier ants, larger than my thumbnail, guarded the many entrances while mixed columns of smaller soldiers and workers swarmed forth in search of prey. Forming a continuous stream, raiding parties were leaving the nest and returning with an amazing variety of insects, millipedes, and worms.
All the ants bit. We tucked our pant legs inside our socks to keep the ants from crawling up our legs, but they bit through our socks. One bit my finger, making a searing, slashing wound that bled like crazy. I turned to Dave only to see him and the other two workers stamping their feet and swatting their legs as ants covered them. The barefoot assistants, in shorts, were bitten on their legs and between their toes, but they stuck to the job. I was amazed and impressed by their fortitude. We found no beetles, but Dave doused the nest with DDT, an effective insecticide later banned in the United States for environmental reasons, in the hope of collecting some beetles after the ants died.
Still full of naive optimism, we set forth in search of another nest. This time, thorny branches and barbed tendrils, vines, and stickers clawed at our faces and clothes as we beat our way through nearly imperceptible jungle trails. In places, the men cut a path with their machetes. We finally found a nest but had no way to get the beetles out without being eaten alive by ants. Stymied, we returned to the station.
The purpose of this INEAC station was strictly agricultural. Researchers were there to introduce and test plants that might help the Congo's economy. For example, every palm known to the tropical world could be found at the station, in addition to flamboyant flowers and most of the trees and shrubs known to grow in the tropics of Africa. Monsieur Thiry's miniature, manicured empire was a tiny bubble of civilization hacked from the jungle.
At the end of the day, Monsieur Thiry drove us back to the hotel. Noting our wounds and the countless ant heads still clinging to Dave's pants, he told us how the Africans employed soldier ants as sutures. A medical aide would hold an ant so its mandibles closed, bringing both sides of the wound together, and then snap its body off. The jaws then continued to hold. The technique is cheap, available, and biodegradable. We hoped we wouldn't need it.
Once back in our room, Dave picked ant heads from his clothes until a fist-sized heap littered the floor. We were beginning to realize what we were up against. Studying specimens in the lab had given us no clue to the rigors of real fieldwork.
Drums beat incessantly during the night. Because jungle travel was so difficult, most villages were built beside rivers, and sound carried easily up and down the waterways. Over the centuries, a workable system of communication based on drums had developed. We knew not what was being said, nor did we care; that night nothing could keep us awake.
Excerpted from An Affair with Africa by Alzada Carlisle Kistner. Copyright © 1998 Alzada Carlisle Kistner. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
First Expedition - JUNE–SEPTEMBER 1960,
Chapter 1 - Ants Everywhere: Belgian Congo,
Chapter 2 - Uhuru–Freedom: Republic of the Congo,
Chapter 3 - Plans Revised: Kenya,
Second Expedition - JUNE–SEPTEMBER 1962,
Chapter 4 - Dripping Army Ants: Liberia,
Chapter 5 - Wa-Wa–West Africa Wins Again: Ivory Coast,
Third Expedition - DECEMBER 1965–JULY 1966,
Chapter 6 - Collecting à Trois: South Africa,
Chapter 7 - German Shadows: Tanzania,
Fourth Expedition - JANUARY–AUGUST 1970,
Chapter 8 - A Classic Expedition: Rhodesia,
Chapter 9 - East Africa in Transition: Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda,
Fifth Expedition - SEPTEMBER 1972–JUNE 1973,
Chapter 10 - Travel by Sea–The African Lightning,
Chapter 11 - Sand and More Sand: South-West Africa / Namibia,
Chapter 12 - Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend: Angola,
Chapter 13 - Family Matters,
Chapter 14 - Last Great Safari: Botswana,