The night we arrive in Uganda, my mother wakes to the sound of rain, not a storm, but a steady slap of drops against pane. She rolls over, her body weary from the plane and the children and the jet lag. Although we are at the top of a hill, windows flung open to catch a breeze, the air is heavy and my mother realizes with a start that she’s in Africa. Full awake, she sits, pulling one leg against her chest. Next to her, my father is stretched out, snoring. Something feels wrong and so my mother turns to the window and looks out; she hears the rain but cannot see it.
“Gary,” she says, nudging him. “Is it raining?”
My father listens to the patter of water hitting glass. The rhythm is constant, lulling. “I guess so,” he says, reaching to pull her toward him. Only later will he learn the thickness of rain on a tin roof, the overwhelming timpani of it.
“But it doesn’t look like it’s raining,” my mother insists. Laughing, my father sits and looks out, and he has to agree. It doesn’t look like it’s raining. They sit together in silence, listening. The noise grows no louder, no softer.
My father untucks the mosquito net, swings his feet to the ground—he will later be glad he got out on the side he did—gropes his way to the wall, and flips the switch. A column of driver ants, six inches wide, marches across the floor, through the bedroom door, and into the house. The trail begins at the window where the ants boil out of a slit in the screen and drop down with small plops.
Driver ants are not interested in picnic fare, in cake crumbs or bits of bread. Mostly, they eat lizards, cockroaches, millipedes, geckoes, scorpions, frogs, chameleons, baby birds—anything that cannot get away. They are partial to chicken coops. They can eat through a trapped hen, leaving behind bones as clean as porcelain. There are even stories of driver ants chomping through a tied-up goat.
My parents follow the trail as it winds down the hall, giggling like schoolchildren. They have heard about these ants: how expatriates have sat in the wrong swath of grass and had to high-step it for home, how even the most prudish will become a clothing Houdini leaving behind a shirt here, trousers there. “Look,” they whisper to each other.
The trail of ants turns and heads into my room. My parents walk faster, but I have not cried, and so they don’t worry. The worst they expect is that the ants will have surrounded my bed, that they will step over the trail and rescue me. When they turn on the light, I stir beneath the blanket. A river of ants cuts across the floor, straight to my bed. It moves up the thin quilt, journeys over the bump I create under the covers, and continues down the other side.
Only a thin piece of cloth separates me from a churning mass of mouths. Somehow the ants do not recognize me as prey. They flow over me unconcerned, as over a rock or log. I am lying on my stomach, hands tucked at my side, the blanket pulled to my ears. It is a wonder that I have not kicked off the covers. The air is thick as honey, and I am used to cool nights. Even one hand flung over the edge, and I would be found.
My parents could have bolted that night. They could have seen the driver ants as a warning that peril can slip in through the smallest of openings, that Uganda is too dangerous, that we should pack up and leave.
Instead, my mother eases me from under the covers. As the blanket moves, the ants spread like a blooming flower. She pulls me clear and stands up. “There you are,” she says. I blink in the sharp light and rub my eyes.
Sari Fordham is a writer, professor, and environmental activist. Her memoir, Wait for God to Notice, narrates her childhood in Uganda during and after Idi Amin’s dictatorship. Her essays have appeared in Brevity, Passages North, Green Mountains Review, and the Baltimore Review. She teaches at SUNY Oswego and lives in upstate New York with her husband and daughter. More at sarifordham.com and on Instagram.
This essay originally appeared in Brevity #20 (Winter 2006).