Steve's Yarns-- All those years growing up and living
in Oklahoma, California, Arizona, Texas, and Africa.....
Ain't done growing up 'til I get over on the other side :-)

Steve Van Nattan





Anyone who has ever lived in Africa can tell you many stories about pinching ants. Having lived in Africa for twelve years, I too have some observations.

Pinching ants are called "siafu" in Swahili, the trade language of East Africa. They are also sometimes called safari ants.

The pinching ants, sometimes erroneously called army ants, would come in columns maybe 12 inches wide and up to 200 feet long. When they reached a home, they would enter and swarm all over the inside of the house. They would eat everything in sight that moved. They ate very little of our regular food, but they would eat all mice, scorpions, spiders, etc. They would kill and eat dogs and cats if they were trapped in the house also.

In the older times of missionary work, before poisons were available, the missionaries would simply move out and let the ants do their work. They would be done and move on in as little as two days, and when the missionaries moved back in, the house would be free of varmints for a long time.

We had some poisons we used to apply to the outside walls and the door entries so the ants would not pass them and move on to other places, but the Africans still just moved out for a couple of days. We applied the poison by dragging a can full along the wall so that is came off on the cement, and my job as a kid was to hold the pressure lamp. Dad and I kept our feet moving all the time so the ants could not have a chance to grab hold and climb our legs.

When pinching ants get on you, they don't bite at once. I have heard anyone with experience tell the same story. The ants climb up inside your clothes, and you never feel them. They seem to give a signal, and suddenly they ALL start biting at once. They have huge pinchers, and they grab hold and don't let go. There are many stories told about them.

My story is that, as a kid, I went out at night into the dark to relieve myself before going to bed. We were visiting friends, and needed to take care of the call of nature, so my brother and I went out into the dark and took care of things. In that short time, while standing smack in the middle of a pinching column on its way somewhere, we were covered. The ants all hit as we were walking into the house of our friends, and my folks had to strip us and pull the ants off one at a time.

One missionary was going to preach, and before the meeting he stood afar off and communed with his soul and the Lord. The problem is, he communed in the path of pinching ants. They did not strike until he was in the meeting and ready to preach. He is said to have made the point that Satan is working to attack in everything we do. The ants struck. The missionary jumped, and said that Satan seemed to have struck him, asked the group to sing a hymn, and he headed for the outdoors where he had to strip and take the ants off.

In Ethiopia, where Elizabeth and I were missionaries, we used Eucalyptus leaves. We stuffed them in all the cracks around the house, and laid fresh leaves across the doorway, and the ants would not enter. Even old leaves in the cracks around the room next to the wall could be freshened up after the leaves died by pouring a little hot water on the leaves.

I do NOT miss the critters, but the memory is interesting.

For the record, army ants are much larger than pinching ants, and they don't attack the same way. They will bite, but they don't climb all over you as a rule. They will actually ignore you. I used to slowly put my finger in the middle of a column of army ants as they went by, and they would bump into my finger, check me out with their antennae, and then walk on. They forage the same way thought in long columns.




I had many experiences with pinching ants as a kid and agree with the observation that they must communicate/coordinate the attack somehow. My most memorable experience was on a return trip that I made with Daniel Entwistle in '79. We were camping in Masai Mara in a pup-tent when we were brought out of sound sleep by the ants. They had entered our tent and sleeping bags. On signal they all started biting. We abandoned the tent and moved into the kitchen tent, only to be rousted from there just before dawn.

Exactly a week later we were in Pibor Post, Sudan (about a 1,000 miles away) sleeping under mosquito nets on cowhide beds, when I woke to the nightmare of being bitten. Not knowing how many were in the hut with us, I called over to Daniel and asked him to turn on a flashlight. He lifted his netting to get the light and was showered by ants. After ducking back under the net, he turned on the light, and found both of our nets covered by ants.

On signal we jumped out of bed and ran outside. Woken up from a sound sleep twice in a week by pinching ants, over a 1,000 miles apart. What are the chances of that happening?

For all the inconvenience (getting bitten and losing some rabbits to them) they were really good a cleaning off the skulls of animals that we were preparing to mount. Nothing did a better job at getting all the meat off.




I lived in Nairobi for 2� years. During my stay I went fishing on Athi river. While sitting on the river bank waiting for a bite, I was feeling a bit bored. I saw a few ants going back and forth. They went under a pile of twigs and leaves. To see them better, I poked the leaves away. Wrong move ! In no time they were swarming out to repair the damage, and I was surrounded.

My husband had to soak a rag in petrol and light it to clear a way out for me. As we left, we found in the forest there was a great column of ants, the central part of which was at lest 9 ft across... again we had to run for it as there were soldiers guarding the outer fringes of the column, and when they got on to your skin, they would grab a bit with their pincers and walk backwards till a bit of flesh came away. Extremely painful.

Later in my stay I went to visit Lake Niavasha. I went out in a little boat to an island in the lake . It was covered in lush grass, and reminded our group of England... so we decided to get out of the boat and explore. We had not been there for long before someone screamed... they had been bitten� in short order we all realised that it was literally swarming with Siafu... we ran shouting and wincing into the boat, carrying ants with us !! They were in our clothes and the boat rocked and swayed, threatening to upturn and throw us all, into water infested with bilharzia (an intestinal disease)!

The most un-nerving time was when a neighbour left a large bone in the garden for his dog. Overnight the whole area swarmed with ants which had come to feast on the meat, and once the bone was clear they were into the house, and we had to stand the bed legs in DDT in cans in order to stay safe. We had an African friend who was very brave. He walked around in amongst the ants, pouring liquid DDT around the house to make a circle past which the ants could not pass� at several moments we were very worried as they began to climb over the dead bodies of their companions. Very scary stuff as he told us the could literally eat us alive.

I am so glad there are none of those ants in U.K. !

Dianne Lam
from the UK


Letter from a reader in Kenya:

Hi, My name is Mwanontii S.

I am a kenyan citizen, aged 38yrs, and male by sex. I was born and brought up in the slopes of mount Ethangune, a small mountain in the east side of Mount Kenya.

Today i read about safari ants or siafu as we call them in our national language {kiswahili}. Having been brought up in farms, siafu are a common thing in our village. It's called NTHIRAKU in Kimeru, which is my mother tongue. They commonly migrate during rainy seasons, for they live underground. They have an advantage to farmers, who happens to plant during rainy seasons. During their immigration, they eat worms which destroy crops, thus saving the farmer from a big loss.

According to my experience, they are easily attracted by dirty smells. They can kill a cow, if they attack it during delivery. Some people have torched their houses by trying to chase them away.

Then you may ask which the best way to chase them is?
1. Use kerosene paraffin, and don't light it.
2. Disturb them using twigs.
3. Use charcoal ashes.
4. If they are in a hole, as they prefer living in them, throw in a live chameleon. They will eat it, and leave immediately.

The most disadvantage thing with siafu, is that, if not checked and they enter a morgue, they will cause a lot of destruction to the dead bodies. Africans tend to believe that, a swamp of siafu, is a bad omen. Its being said that, some Kenyans have eaten them during periods of hunger.


Mwanontii S



Here is a page with a photo

Page on Siafu

If Wikipedia is not passing on urban legend, their article only adds mystery


I would like to add other people's experiences here.
Credits will be given if I add your story.