Thursday, September 17, 2009

Skyscraper, Sudanese style

I have a distinct memory of browsing through a copy of National Geographic when I was about 9 years old and being riveted by a photo of a termite mound in Brazil that appeared to be taller than the buildings in the new capital city, Brasilia, then under construction. The photo made a serious impression on me. I studied and studied that picture, convincing myself in the end that it must have been the clever angle of the photographer that made the work of mere termites look mightier than the work of construction crews with bulldozers, carving their new city out of the jungle.

Since traveling and working in Sudan, I now realize that my childhood conclusion was wrong--frightfully wrong. Indeed, termites do create mounds that rise 15 or 20 feet in the air, vertical dung heaps more imposing and in some ways more solid than their surroundings. Nothing stands in their way. Terminix wouldn't stand a chance! The termites go about their work, unseen and unhurried but unstoppable.

My colleague and friend, Sister Maureen Limer, told me that she once returned to her mud and thatch hut in Sudan after having been away for a week. The painted wooden posts that framed the doorway looked somehow different, so she put her hand onto the frame to take a closer look. The paint was still there, a thin layer of color in the shape of the doorframe, but it encased only air. The wooden branches beneath had been entirely eaten away. When she touched the paint, it crumbled to dust. What could she do but laugh?

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