Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story.
When I have finished, I will publish the stories in digital and print book formats.
It’s almost impossible to contemplate life in the jungle without thinking bugs. Think of every jungle movie you have ever seen, documentary you have watched, or National Geographic article you have read; tropical rainforests are creepy, crawly places.
Leeches that suck your blood, ants that march in armies, and mosquitoes that ooze with malaria are all legendary representatives of jungle lore. Anyone who writes about the jungle is expected to include bug stories. Editors and their lawyers write it into the contract. So here are some bug tales.
I’ve already introduced you to bug-a-bugs or termites as we more prosaically call them. If we listened very quietly in our first house, we could almost hear them dismantling the place around us, bite by bite. They were everywhere. The rainforest was full of their skyscrapers, huge mounds that have been known to reach forty feet into the air. An equivalent human building would be over nine miles high.
Americans are of course familiar with the voracious appetite of termites but they may not be aware that termites in turn are considered to be tasty treats by a substantial portion of the animal kingdom.
Jo Ann and I learned this at the beginning of rainy season. This is when the little buggers sprout wings and fly in the millions to set up new colonies. We had a vague concept of what insect migration meant. We had seen ladybugs and other insects swarm when we were growing up. What we weren’t prepared for was the sheer massiveness of the invasion.
Somewhere in the middle of night, we woke up with rain pounding against our shutters. At least we thought it was rain until we realized that it was only pounding on one shutter, the one protected by our porch roof. Curiosity led me to go exploring.
When I opened the door, the first thing I noticed was that we had left the porch light on. The second was that the sky was alive with flying termites, all of which seemed determined to land on the wall and shutters next to the light. Once landed, they immediately begin to move downward, making room for more bugs. I’m sure their greedy little minds were contemplating the wood beams that held up the porch.
Whether they could get to the beams was something else. Every animal in the neighborhood including Do Your Part, Brownie Girl, Puppy Doodle, Rasputin and Les Cohen’s dog, Thorazine, were scarfing up bug-a-bugs as fast as their tongues and mouths could work. What they missed was being taken care of by a huge army of toads that ranged in size from teeny-tiny to humongous. There were so many termites that no one was going away hungry.
I called for Jo to come out and watch the carnage for a few minutes and then we retired back to bed, leaving the light on. We didn’t have the heart to deprive the animals of their feast.
The next morning I headed out to survey the damage. Not a termite was to be seen. It appeared that the animals and toads had hung around until the last bug-a-bug had disappeared off the platter. I was eager to get to school that morning so I could learn more about the termites swarming habits from my students.
What I learned was that my students enjoyed eating the bug-a-bugs as much as the animals. Many of the students, in fact, showed up in class carrying cans loaded with the still alive and squirming termites, which they proceeded to pop into their mouths for breakfast as we went through the day’s first lesson.
“Sweet meat, Mr. Mekemson,” they reported while making a smacking sound with their lips. “Would you like to try some?”
I primly informed them I preferred my food a little less rambunctious and without quite so many legs.
“The queens are best,” one of the students stated authoritatively and was immediately backed up by a chorus of agreement.
Queen termites are huge egg laying machines with fist-sized abdomens capable of popping out 30,000 kiddos a day. The Liberians caught them by tearing apart the termite mounds. Appropriate eating etiquette involved biting off their tails and sucking out their innards. Sweet meat indeed!
Later that day I watched as Mr. Bonal’s sister-in-law spread out mats for drying dead termites. The termites were then stored away for later feasting. Nothing edible was ever wasted in Liberia, whether it was meat flying, meat running, meat swimming or meat crawling.
And yes we did get to try dried bug-a-bugs in Liberian chop. They were crunchy.