“Look, look! Locusts…. There they are.”
This is how a farm hand alerted his master and co-workers at a farm when the marauding insects invaded their land in South Africa. And that is told in A Mild Attack of Locusts, a short story by Doris Lessing.
Although the government had issued warning that locusts were expected, “coming from their breeding grounds up north,” it still caught the farmers and labourers by surprise. It was a spectacular sight to behold watching them swarm in from the sky over distant hills.
Then the emergency, the crisis and the frantic mode that ensues – summoning workers, sounding the gong, fetching tin cans and any old piece of metal to be beaten to scare off the invading insects.
Farmers old Stephen and son, Richard had planted their farm with maize amidst good rain and were watching the crop flourish with satisfaction.
They shuddered at the imminent damage the horrible insects would wreck on their farm. By the time the locusts were through with their sojourn, the farmers had to plant their farms afresh.
Richard’s wife, Margaret, wondered what men’s fuss and fright about the locusts was all for.
The arrival of locusts is such a spectacular phenomenon that has even inspired creativity and great imagination. Over time, literature has benefited a largely from the marauding insects.
Writers and poets have invoked the locusts as metaphors of various themes in their stories and poems. Often locusts are considered as plagues to depict negative values such as corruption, greed or wanton destruction of resources.
In the poem 'Locust' by Jude Ogunade, locusts are used to depict corruption and greed in a country. Ogunade castigates corrupt individuals as “Locusts with no season,/Locusts for every season!/The insect that eats even in the dark!”
The term locust sounds a bit like holocaust, hence the common association of their arrival with decimation of livelihoods. Locusts are also used as harbingers of a future disruption and destruction.
American author Nathaniel West’s novel, Day of the Locusts, uses the insects to symbolise uprising by frustrated masses who could not achieve their dreams in the land of opportunity. The book has been adapted into many films.
In Things Fall Apart, the arrival of the locusts foreshadows the coming of Europeans who will disrupt the African culture in Umuofia.
Though the locusts brought good fortunes to Umuofia, there is the fear that bad things come after locusts. The sad news of Agbala’s (the oracle of the hills and caves) decree for the killing of Ikemefuna came as Okonkwo and his two boys, Nwoye and Ikemefuna, were joyously munching away at the locusts.
Ford Kenya leader and Bungoma senator, Moses Wetangula, may have had this feeling when he stated in the Senate last week that severe drought and famine followed the locusts invasion on two occasion during the colonial period – 1939 and 1953.
But it is not all gloom and doom about locusts in literature. There are positive lessons to learn and fairy tales to tell from locusts, too.
The Chinese philosopher, Confucius, noticed some vital attributes of locusts that can be adopted by men. The famous teacher and political theorists said the locusts’ ability to mobilise and move in one direction can be a means to quell upheaval in society and foster social order and freedom.
In the Shi King, the Old “Poetry classic” of the Chines, Confucius posits: “How do locusts crowd?/A fluttering throng!” Then exhorts: “May thy descendants be/ Thus vast, thus strong!”
Confucius suggests that there is strength in how locusts swarm. A strength that has defied many a government’s efforts to annihilate them – and even consumed ministers. That there is rhythm and freedom in the way they flutter their wings while flying. It is rhythm and freedom that can see them fly thousands of miles from Lawdar in Yemen to Lodwar in Kenya.
One of the most interesting stories of locusts in literature is The Storyteller by Kunle Akinsemoyi. The story, appearing in Twilight Tales, is about a king who held a storytelling competition to choose a husband for his only daughter. The king would give his daughter in marriage to “the man, be he a prince, merchant or peasant, who can tell a story lasting a week.”
The proud princes proudly and the rich merchants came and their stories could not last even a few minutes. When all had fallen, a random youth emerged from the crowd and begged to try.
The crowd feared that Ojo was courting trouble from the king. Ojo invented the story of the locusts that stretched so long that the king gave up on the way and declared him winner.
Ojo told the story of locusts that invaded a village in thousands eating everything they could find. In the next harvest the farmers decided to build a palace where they could store their harvests safe from locusts. When the locusts came again, they swarmed around the granary but could not find a way in. They went round and round the granary until they found a hole that could let them in, one locust at a time.
“One locust crept in, took a grain, crept out and flew away. Another followed; crept in, took a grain, crept out and flew away… The locusts went on and on in the same pattern until the king got bored and interrupted the storyteller:
“Your Majesty,” Ojo replied, “the story has just begun and until the granary is empty, I cannot tell what happened.”
By the fourth day there was no sign of the last locust creeping in, taking a grain, creeping out and flying away. He asked how long it would take the locusts to empty the granary and the storyteller drew blank: “I cannot tell your majesty. All I know is that they have only taken away two thousand five hundred and thirty three grains… “
The boy refused to cut the long story short saying to tell the end at the middle of a story spoils a good story. The king ended the competition and awarded the storyteller the trophy - his daughter’s hand in marriage.
The King told Wura “You have a clever young man for a husband.”