TITLE: Catching Ants
By Rachel Spencer
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The North of Uganda has recently suffered from a long and brutal civil war. For the last three years, the area has been peaceful, but the lives of thousands of people are still far from easy. Packed together in ‘protected villages’, or ‘internally displaced people’s camps’, the residents of this war-torn region are slowly trying to get themselves back on their feet. Agriculture, which has long been neglected due to the danger of being out in the fields, is slowly starting again. Schools are being rebuilt, and children who have known nothing but conflict are finally getting an education. But there is still a long way to go.
Last year, I was in one of these protected villages. Home to several thousand people, it is miles from the nearest shop, health centre or church. Families of eight people live in one small mud hut, eating one meal a day if they are lucky. A government army barracks sits next to the camp, in case of further violence. A team from the organisation that I work with went to this camp to help build a school and to provide health teaching in the community. In order to relate better to the villagers, we slept in mud huts, fetching our water from the borehole and cooking on a charcoal stove.
The people in the camp were very welcoming, and although we did not speak each other’s languages, I soon became friends with several of the women. I began to learn something of the horrors that they had lived through during the war, and was amazed at the joy and laughter that I saw in these victims. They must have been hungry, but they never complained or begged for food from us. I was truly humbled by their courage and resilience.
One morning in the camp, I woke up early to the sound of screaming. My heart stopped for a moment, and then started again, thudding hard in my chest. I lay silently, convinced that the rebel soldiers had come back. As I heard running feet outside my hut I froze, my blood running cold, but they passed by again. Still I remained where I was, desperately trying to work out what I should do. Was it safest to stay where I was? Or should I try to run to another hut? I did not know, and I was too scared to even think straight.
Then I realised with a start that people were laughing outside. I tried to clear my head, as I heard it again; the sound of children laughing with delight. My fear started to evaporate. The screams, I now realised, were the screams of people enjoying themselves. I jumped up and pushed open the rickety tin door of my hut, eager to see what was going on.
The sight that met my eyes made me laugh out loud. Thousands of flying ants, a delicacy here in Uganda, had swarmed over the camp at dawn. Every child from the village, as well as most of the adults, were chasing them around, trying to swat them to the ground with tree branches, t-shirts, brooms and anything else that they could find. Some were running around with containers, collecting the fallen ones. These ants have large white wings, which they shed as soon as they touch the ground, leaving the usually dull dusty place shimmering as the delicate wings caught the early rays of the sun.
I stood watching the mayhem, laughing and waving at the kids as they jumped high in the air, clapping when the ants came hurtling down. Everywhere I looked, people were giggling, guffawing, cackling, and laughing hysterically. Typically sullen men were joining in the fun, lifting their children into the air to better whack the insects to the ground. Tired looking women forgot their burdens in the race to collect as many as these treats as possible. Soldiers from the adjoining barracks came over to the camp with guns by their sides, attracted by the noise, and soon left their weapons on the ground and jumped into the midst of the chaos.
Even as I stood laughing at the sights, tears rose in my throat. I was overwhelmed that people who had suffered so much pain and loss, and for whom life was a daily struggle for survival, could find such delight in catching bugs. I realised that nothing could truly suppress the sparkling life that was in the people of this region, and that I was privileged to have seen it uncovered for a short while.
That day, the smell of frying ants covered the village, and everywhere I went people called to me to come and eat. Overcoming my natural distaste of eating insects, I joined my new friends, and joyfully shared the feast with them.
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