Day of the locust. Yum!

Continuing with the theme of eating insects …

The people of the eastern Congo plant African rice around June so that it will grow through the wettest part of the wet season, and then they harvest it in the “dry season” which starts about mid or late November. That is around the same time that a “locust” (actually a katydid of some sort) emerges in the grasslands to the north, in the Central African Republican and the Sudan, to spread across the region. And eat rice.

It is rather annoying to have locust descend on your crops. Some years it is not too bad, some years it is bad enough to noticeably affect the food supply. But every year there is the potential for revenge, even if it is mostly symbolic.

I first learned of the locust when sitting around the fire one dryish dry-season night with some Efe Pygmies and Lese Villagers. As we sat there, amid the usual night cacophony of insect (and other) noises, the occasional moth-like creature flying into the flames, and all that, a newcomer arrived on the scene: The katydids. Something largish and green would fly around a bit in the fire-light, and suddenly veer into the flames and spend a few seconds writhing around before being consumed and falling into the coals.

On about the third or fourth fiery demise, someone reached over to a katydid that was at the edge of the hearth, picked it up, held it for a second and popped it in his mouth. Was that a joke? A quirk, of this particular person? Did he think it was a potato chip or something? Or was it a cultural practice? And if so, was it common and widespread enough to be part of the cuisine? Of course, I watched for a while and then inquired, and learned the whole locust story minus a few details, which I picked up later by examining the appropriate literature.

And yes, the folks in this region eat them and take special enjoyment in doing so as a matter of revenge. They are probably my favorites insect; They have a nutty taste and are just oily enough to seem sauteed. Very nice.

Termites are also self-oiled and the winged alates are captured locally during the full moon, especially in the dry season, when termites do a night-time mating ritual that involves everybody flying towards the moon at once. (The moon is used as a reference point to get everyone to the same buggy orgy at about the same time.) To catch the termites, you make a light (of fire, traditionally, or with Greg’s Flashlight if he has batteries and lets you) behind a basket. The termites fly from the nest towards the light and get caught into the basket.

One day we got word, spread in advance by some government herald, that the “King of the Pygmies” would be passing down our “road” (read “slippery footpath”) to visit his people. The ensuing sociological events are worthy of another, and probably sombre, essay. Let’s just say that when those considered by some to be sub-human suddenly have a “king” and all the other folks have is a “chief” that there will be anxiety and even violence can erupt. In this case mainly torture of Pygmies. But as I say, that is another story.

Hearing that the “King of the Pygmies” was arriving soon engendered significant cynicism especially among the Pygmies who have no interest in Kings. But to be polite, I inquired as to what he might like to have as a gift, in the event that he actually showed up. And, since it was termite season, and for some reason I in fact had some batteries that were charged up, “termites” was the obvious answer.

It was timed rather well: The termites were captured and put in a fine hand-woven basket the very night before the king arrived.

It turns out twenty-some years ago an infant King Mobi was taken by missionaries to Italy, where he was raised by Catholic Nuns on a diet of, well, Italian food. As you know, Efe and other Pygmies are of short stature, but what you may not know (and most people do in fact get this wrong) is that their stature is not equivalent to the short stature of the fabled “They were shorter back then” Western ancestors famous for gaining stature with changes in diet and so on. More to the point, if you feed a Pygmy from infancy copious pasta and brochette, he does not grow tall, but he will grow corpulent, and King Mobi was. That may seem like an insignificant observation, but since all Efe are skinny and buff, being hunter-gatherers and all, it was odd, in fact impressive, to everyone.

We gave the King the termites just about the time I realized he would likely not really want to eat them. As it turns out, he didn’t even want to look at them. He did want me to take many pictures of him and he wanted to know what I had to drink. And he was not speaking of water. Living, as we were, beyond the beer line, I couldn’t help him much with that.

I have to admit, though, I’m sorta with The King on this. I love me those katydids, and palm grubs are good, but termites are not my favorite bug. Unless, of course, they are mixed with peanut butter, which is another local product. Anything goes well with peanut butter!

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Comments

  1. #1 Russell
    August 28, 2011

    I don’t know if I could eat a katydid. They look too much like weird extraterrestrials.

  2. #2 megan
    August 28, 2011

    Remember hearing about the use of locust as massive protien for places in Africa for years, since I was child in the 70’s. That they were trying to find methods to make it more efficient and successful was the news.

  3. #3 Lou Jost
    August 28, 2011

    Greg, are you sure about these IDs? Katydids are not locusts and, as far as I know, do not swarm to any great degree. Katydids are long-antennaed, usually laterally compressed Orthopterans. The famous swarming African locusts, like North American grasshoppers, are short-antennaed Orthopterans that are more rounded in cross section.

    The things that flew into the Efe fire at night might have been katydids (they are often nocturnal), but then they would not be the swarming things that descend on their rice.

    I don’t know if they taste different….

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    August 28, 2011

    I could be wrong, but as I said, they were not locust, and they looked to me like katydids. And, I have full confidence that they were the things eating the rice in that year. I know of only one study ever conducted of traditional rice growing in the region, and it is decades old. The WHO was unaware that leprosy is common in this area (they thought they had wiped it out in Africa). I was able to find previously unidentified species of insects by turning over random rocks. From a peak in the early 1980s, when there was SOME stuff known about this area, to the present, the total amount of research done per year had decreased to almost zero in all fields. In other words, if there is a discord between common knowledge and what is seen or known locally there, I’m not surprised.

    Someone who does know insects assured me that these are not locust, and the term “more like a katydid” was bandied about. They look like katydids to me.

    Locusts do affect the crops in the general region Central and West Africa, of course.

  5. #5 Anne C. Hanna
    August 29, 2011

    The “King of the Pygmies” story sounds interesting (even if grim). I’d just like to put in a plug for a post on that, if you’re willing to tell it.

  6. #6 TheBrummell
    August 29, 2011

    That the Efe/Pygmies are shorter than most other humans for genetic, rather than nutritional reasons isn’t too surprising – there must have been occassional rather tall people in medieval Europe, presumably the lucky few who happened to grow up in a time of plenty. Is there much in the way of variation in height among the Efe? Is part of that variation attributable to childhood nutrition, or do forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers such as the Efe not often experience periods of relative abundance and relative scarcity?

    And another request here for the story of the King of the Pygmies.

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