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An invasion of flesh-eating driver ants takes over the village covering everything in sight, and the entire population escapes toward the river. Leah runs mindlessly for a while, trying to ignore the sting of the ants crawling all over her body, before realizing that she has lost track of her family. Suddenly Anatole appears beside her, and tells her to remain where she is while he finds everyone else.
Rachel's only thoughts during the ant crisis are for herself. She attempts to force her way onto one of their neighbor's boats, and is shoved off. When she is flung to the ground she loses her most prized possession, the one object she thought to take with her as they fled the house, her mirror. She stares in horror at the shards lying on the ground.
Orleanna grabs Ruth May and begins running with her, but then hands her off to someone else. Ruth May begins to cry and then remembers the amulet that Nelson gave to her. She tries to think hard about being a mamba snake.
Adah, unable to run through the crowd along with everyone else, pleads helplessly for her mother to save her. Orleanna is torn between saving Ruth May and saving Adah. Unable to put Ruth May down, she calls to Adah to do her best to follow along. Adah feels betrayed and abandoned. She falls to the ground and is about to be trampled when Anatole lifts her up and carries her to the river, where a boat is waiting to carry them across.
Anatole appears again with Ruth May over his shoulder and climbs into a boat with Leah. He tells her that Adah and her mother are in another boat and that her father is delivering a sermon about the ten plagues of Egypt. Leah and Anatole continue their ongoing philosophical discussion, with Leah revealing Adah's discovery about Eisenhower's plot against Lumumba. Leah reaches a crisis of faith amid the turmoil, feeling the "breath of God go cold on [her] skin." She begins to cry and repeat Anatole's name over and over feeling that this word alone can anchor her. Suddenly she sputters out that she loves him, and he tells her never to repeat that. Two days later, after the ants have passed through, they are able to return to Kilanga.
The episode with the ants serves to bring out elements of each character's personality that until now had been carefully suppressed, hidden both from other people and from the character herself. The extremity of the situation—the terror of fleeing for one's life—pares away the layers of self-deception. By bringing each character, or at least, Adah and Leah, to crisis level, this scene serves as something of a climax, even though the major event of the story is yet to come.
Rachel's exposure is not very surprising. It is only a confirmation of what we have been led to believe about her until now, that is, that she is a true egomaniac. During the crisis she is shown to be a "demon," in Anatole's words, trampling ruthlessly over other people to save her own skin.
Leah reaches her final crisis of faith here, losing her old religion and immediately picking up its replacement in the form of her love for Anatole. She feels "the breath of God go cold on [her] skin" (The Judges, Leah) and then a few paragraphs later murmurs Anatole's name feeling that it "took the place of prayer" (The Judges, Leah). Though it is Anatole who goads her here into admitting that life is not an equation with deeds on one side and reward and punishment on the other, his last small pushes are really superfluous. Leah's crisis has been building steadily, egged on by her observations in Kingala and Leopoldville and by her eye-opening philosophical discussion with Anatole. The latest blow she had been grappling with until this point had been Adah's discovery that Eisenhower sent orders to kill Lumumba. This news disrupted her sense of country, determining, unbeknownst to her, that she would never call that place home again. However, it takes the mortal tumult caused by the driver ants to finally sever her desperate ties to a belief in a just and comforting God. Convinced that they are all about to die, she no longer has the will to force herself to believe in something she has probably not truly believed in for many months.
Adah too suffers a crisis of faith, but the faith she loses is in her own detachment from life. She learns that she values her own life, that she is desperate to continue living. Adah's loss is actually quite similar to Leah's, but even more harrowing. Both of them lose their buffer against the harsh reality of the world. Leah hid from the injustices of life behind her belief in a just and caring God, a belief that good deeds are rewarded and bad ones punished. Adah, on the other hand, looked life's injustice fully in the face, but she tried to keep the pain of injustice at bay by pretending that she was a mere observer rather than an active participant. In particular, the injustice she had been dealt because of her injury, and the resulting exclusion she suffered convinced that the world would exile her, she made that impossible by exiling herself from the world. What Leah loses is merely a source of external comfort, a source that had been steadily waning for months. Adah loses something much deeper—her entire sense of self, her way of approaching the world, and she loses it in a single instant. She refers to this instant as the turning point in her life, the moment when she ceased her upward journey toward maturation, and began her downward journey toward death. Whereas Leah has a new faith, her love for Anatole, waiting to rush in and fill the gap left by the old, Adah has no such thing. It is not until much later that she finds her own comfort in science. Adah's crisis is more devastating than Leah's for these reasons, and also for one more, perhaps the most significant of all. In the very moment that Adah loses her buffer against the pain of injustice, she suffers its severest blow: her mother chooses to save her sister's life instead of hers.
On more thing is worth noting with regard to the driver ants. Whereas the Price women see this event in a wholly negative light, their neighbors in Kilanga are used to the biennial visit, and view it in a positive light, as a form of cleansing. When the ants pass through the village they eat all plant and animal matter left in their wake, which means that they clean the houses of crumbs, the beds of bugs, the hen coops of chicken mites and so on. It also means that any baby or pet that is left behind will be eaten alive, but the Congolese know this and act accordingly. This is just one more reminder that the Congolese are well adapted to their land, and that the civilization that grew up there was the correct civilization for that location. On the flip side, this means that the Western civilization that so many centuries worth of conquerors tried to impose on African soil was misplaced and just plain wrong. A culture that is right in some contexts can be ill suited to others.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Poisonwood Bible!