Alzada Kistnerís An Affair with Africa Nationally Acclaimed

Alzada Kistner and daughter Alzada collect beetles from an ant line during
the fourth expedition in Zambia, 1970.
Step back in time to join Alzada and David Kistner as they and their small children explore Africa during the dangerous political turmoil of the 60s. Just published, critically acclaimed An Affair with Africa is at once an engrossing adventure travelogue, a fascinating natural history text, and an extraordinary love story. Alternately funny, touching, exciting, and informative, this book is always engaging. M. Bernbaum, author of Bugs in the System.

Affair with Africa was featured by The Christian Science Monitor (August 27) in its "Books" section. The reviewer Marjorie D. Hamlin wrote that despite the many volumes of books recording expeditions to Africa, Kistner's book deserves attention. Hamlin praises it for its description of the natural beauty of Africa, the vividness of the collecting of beetles, the picture of an Africa in political turmoil, and the touching memoir of a family, "remarkably oblivious to the hazards around them, crouching together over endlessly marching ants and termites."

Alzada Carlisle Kistner met David Kistner, biology professor emeritus at CSU, Chico, while both were graduate students at the University of Chicago. Kistner said, "Two children, forty years of collecting beetles, as well as safari logistics followed." An Affair with Africa is the account of five expeditions in seven countries of Africa between 1960 and 1973.

Dave Kistner, who now, according to Alzada, works only six days a week instead of seven in his Holt Hall lab, is the world's leading authority on myrmecophiles and termitophiles—beetles that live with ants and termites.

Over the course of his career, he has written over 200 papers and named over 500 species of the peculiar beetles that live with army ants (myrmecophiles and termitophiles, respectively).
Inset: Close-up of army ant line. This is the
first picture ever of the queen army ant
(upper left) in an emigration column.

Alzada Carlisle Kistner organized the expeditions, acted as nurse and medical adviser, directed protocol for her family, was Dave's research assistant, and became first class myrmecophile spotter and collector. Myrmecophiles and termitophiles have made a variety of evolutionary adaptations that allow them to survive in an otherwise deadly environment. The adaptations include secretions, body contortions, and the ability to camouflage their shapes to not only protect them from attack, but trick ants into feeding them.

The Kistner's two girls, Alzada and Kymry accompanied them on several of the expeditions after each was old enough. Kistner relates the special slant that traveling with children adds to the adventure. The children are eager explorers, adaptable travelers, and cooperative team members. Kistner is straightforward about the conflict she sometimes felt about the risks to her family, the weighing of the benefits against the dangers. But the exposure to wildlife, the unmatched education, the excitement of living seemed to always win out. She writes, after a rhino charge:

That night, I couldn't sleep. To think that a day or so before, we couldn't wait to see rhinos. Horrible thoughts kept going through my mind. What if the rhinos had charged from the front? There would have been no way to back up quickly on that twisty track, and the car's glass windows would have shattered in an instant. Help was fifteen miles away through a rhino-infested forest.

As she lay awake at one in the morning thinking about the rhinos, she gazes out the window,
Daughters Alzada and Kymry with pickaxes
by rock-hard termite mound.

I suddenly noticed duikers and reedbucks grazing on the lawn. In the bright moonlight, they played and danced. Reedbucks with beautiful quotation-mark-shaped horns came within thirty feet of our hut. Then they whistled shrilly and vanished. For a brief time, the grounds had become a fairyland, with dark rhino shadows in the corners.

Much of the expedition was much more mundane—literally on all fours, eyes to the ground, aspirators (a device for sucking insects into a holding tube) ready, watching hour after hour for myrmecophiles in long columns of ants. On the first expedition, the Kistners spent several unsuccessful days looking for beetles, and trying various ways of looking through ant nests. They finally came across two streams of army ants in a botanical garden. Kistner writes:
Alzada Kistner writing in her
journal during the first
expedition in the Belgian
Congo, 1960.

Excited, we settled down to watch. Dave yelped when he spotted a beetle walking among the ants—our first specimen. Thank God!

Perhaps we had been unnecessarily hard on ourselves. We were, after all, up against incredible odds: for each myrmecophile, there are about 10,000 ants; in addition, many of the beetles look remarkably like their hosts. But whereas army ants are blind, their beetle guests can see and thus would dodge away from us.

The work often meant ant bites, cramped muscles, hours sweating in the hot sun, long days with few breaks, sometimes flies and mosquitoes, and, on one of the expeditions with Kistner seven months pregnant, too-close of an encounter with a black mamba.
Campsite in Kruger National Park, South Africa,
third expedition.

The satisfaction from the work, however, was great. After finding their first beetles, Kistner writes:

Having tasted victory, we worked until we couldn't see, couldn't unwind our painfully cramped legs, and couldn't bear the heat....For the next two weeks , we worked ten to eleven hours per day. Each evening, I lowered myself creakily into a hot bath. Excitement over the day's findings tempered my aching bones.

Kistner describes her partnership with David: "Bottom line, he is always there for me, as I have been there for him." In the beginning of the book, she tells the story from the first Congo trip in 1960 of observing the frightening evacuation of Belgians:

At half past one, the women, some carrying crying babies while older children clutched their mothers' skirts, were loaded into the buses. The men pressed up along the sides of the buses, struggling to reach their wives' outstretched hands. ... I was filming the scene with my pistol-grip 16-mm movie camera...suddenly, a drunken soldier noticed me, reached over, and grabbed my camera. Unthinking, I whirled and snatched it back. "Don't you do that!" I snapped. Within seconds, all guns were trained on me. Everyone standing nearby bolted. There was a stunned silence. I was alone.
An assistant holds a termite (Nasutitermes Lujaz)
nest retrieved from tree.

Dave casually walked over and stood close beside me. "Honey,"; he said, "I think they are going to shoot you." "The list of people who would do that," said Kistner, "is understandably short."

Affair with Africa took six years from start to published copy: two years to write, two years to sell, and two years to edit and publish. Island Press is one of the foremost publishers of accounts of naturalists (publisher of E.O. Wilson and Paul Erlich). As well as praised in the Christian Science Monitor, it has been reviewed in such publications as New Scientist, Natural History, Explorer's Newsletter, and The Washington Post.

Kistner will be the featured speaker at the Biology Seminar on Friday, September 11, 4 p.m., in Holt Hall.


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