Life is still very quiet here on Planet Nomad. There’s no sign of the sandstorm letting up just yet. One year at this time, the sandstorm lasted 32 days, so we may be here a while. We’re keeping the windows closed, and the house is staying downright cool! We’re wearing slippers and long-sleeved t-shirts and enjoying some extra coffee (like we ever need an excuse to do that). Today is the last official day of vacation, and next Monday it’s back to work and school.
In lieu of any current excitement, today’s post is about the locust plague of 2004.
We’d just come back from living in France for a year. We’d descended, rather like a plague ourselves, on our previously-good friends Tim and Debbie and their one son, turning their quiet and well-organized home into something more like, well, our home.
It was early September, the hot/humid season. We’d heard reports over the summer of a locust visitation, and were suitably horrified, and secretly a little disappointed that we’d missed the excitement. We needn’t have been.
I don’t remember exactly when the locusts first came back, but it was probably about 2 weeks after we’d swarmed in and settled ourselves into Johnson’s house, eating up their food but drawing the line at their hibiscus plants. One sweltering afternoon, we walked outside and saw the sky full of tiny winged bodies.
The first wave of locusts were pink with brown wings—kinda stylish, if you could overcome your loathing. They took out Johnson’s hedge in about an hour. The sky was full of whirring, chomping noises, as millions of tiny insect jaws set to work, masticating every green thing in sight. It was a somewhat awe-inspiring, if nauseating sight.
By sunset, all that remained of a once-proud hedge, a once brilliant spot of green in this dry and dusty land, was a meager collection of twigs. The hibiscus plants were just as bad. Tim and Debbie had rushed out with old sheets to cover up the flamboyant tree, but the locusts had eaten through the fabric in several places. The locusts were swarming, looking for a place to settle that night. A few got in the house. One got in Debbie’s hair; another landed on Donn’s shirt and ate a small hole in the linen.
I don’t remember all the invasions, but I do remember that, like labour pains, they gradually got closer and closer together. After that first wave, we assumed everything was dead. But a tiny green fuzz was appearing on the brown twigs, bringing joy to our hearts when, one blistering afternoon, we heard again the dreaded buzz of millions of wings and the chewing of thousands of tiny mouths.
The adults were overcome with dismay, but Abel (then 7) went out in the storm to fight. Armed with a cape, a light-saber, and a whip made of a bit of rope he’d found, he pulled on his flip-flops and yelled a mighty KI-YAH! He leaped out of the door and began whipping and hitting and kicking. It was truly inspirational, and we blinked back tears (of
laughter pride) as we watched his heroics.
Walking out into a locust hoard is like walking out into a rain storm, only instead of tiny drops of water, you are bombarded with insect bodies. They land in your hair, they land on your shoulders, they cover the ground. We were the lucky ones who only had to make it to our cars; the Africans, many of whom walk miles to work each day, had it much worse.
Each consecutive wave ate more. First, the pink ones ate all the green. A few weeks later, another wave of darker pink ones ate the new green. Then came yellow ones, who ate all the bark, and finally dull brown ones who ate everything that grew. All plants were mere stubs, a twig of a few centimetres poking forlornly out of the sand. The trees were stricken, and we didn’t expect them to survive.
They always came on the hottest days, adding insult to injury. I remember emerging from class one afternoon to find the sky full of a few dozens. My heart sank, knowing what was coming. Sure enough; next morning was a full-fledged invasion.
Locusts were everywhere. You’d slice open a baguette and find half a locust baked in. They got caught in the screens and died, and for months afterward we were finding bodies when we opened our windows. Every night, some would get into the house; every morning, there were bodies to be swept up. Weirdly enough, locusts would eat their dead kin. After some weeks, we were hearing rumours from our Mauritanian friends that in the interior, people were disappearing, eaten by locusts! Their dismay fed rumours that grew more and more implausible.
Invasions would typically last 2 or 3 days, until an east wind from the desert would drive them into the ocean, where they’d drown. We’d go to the beach and find piles of bodies washed up on the sand; one week we couldn’t swim because of all the carcasses in the water.
The last of the locust plague left a still, almost shell-shocked city. The locusts came to all of West Africa, but Mauritania sustained the most damage, and many people in the villages faced a terrible famine that year. Here in the city, where most of our potatoes, onions and carrots are shipped down from Europe anyway, it wasn’t so bad, but in the interior of the country, subsistence farmers were in dire straits, and many died in spite of great efforts by World Vision and other international aid organizations.
The city felt strange. It felt like a hellish autumn, as for once all the trees were bare. But the amazing thing was that life remained in those barren sticks poking out of the dry ground. In time, hedges, trees and bushes recovered, grew back, in the wildest “spring” I could ever have imagined.
That December also brought an unusual amount of flies. At the beach, I would crack open the cooler, plunge in my hand and pull out a sandwich, and in that time find my arm black with them.
It was more than a little spooky. I explained to someone at the time, “First locusts, now flies. If the water turns red, a lot of frogs appear, or anyone gets boils—I’m outta here!”