A memory of Locusts

How to cook locusts- Remove the wings and hind legs of the locusts and boil in a little water until soft. Add salt to taste and a little oil and fry until brown.

 

Gabra’s long ebony hands more suited to playing a piano then driving, caressed his stomach or the part of his torso where less lean men would have had a stomach. Animated pidgin words escaped from his mouth which I translated as thus – From out of the pages of the bible, Ethiopia was to have a plague of weird flying creatures that had cymbals strapped to their abdomens to encourage females to mate with them.

I imagined a hoard of singing creatures on a sexual rampage, clashing cymbals loudly before embarking on a lust fuelled evening of insect debauchery.

And yet however strange this image was, I was not sure how their mating exploits could possibly prevent me from going out in Gondar for Christmas Eve. Although Ethiopia was still at war with Eritrea I had so far managed to avoid any major conflicts with man or beast, perhaps now it was all about to change.

My armed escort that came with the driver was fortunately more fluent in English and he managed to explain the impending catastrophe more succinctly if a tad less quaintly. A plague of locusts was about to spread across the landscape, devouring everything edible in their wake. The cymbals were not I was rather disappointed to hear noisy musical instruments, but were tymbals and muscles on the abdomen of the male locusts popped them in and out to make a chirping noise so attractive to the females.

I had encountered many unusual phenomenon whilst travelling the world, but a plague of locusts was not one of them. I do remember as a child watching the “Natural World”, and one of the episodes filmed a plague of locusts somewhere in Africa, maybe even Ethiopia. I remember a living cloud creep across the land like the dark shadow of a giant and the barren wasteland they left behind them.

Now here in Ethiopia I contemplated how the new famine was about to begin and how quickly it would take Bob Geldof to fly in to begin his next “feed the world” concert.

The words of God, a page from Exodus 10 –“I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow. They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields. They will fill your houses…..”

Gabra had suggested a “handful from god of flying creatures”.

I guessed it depended on how big Gods hands were as to how many locusts would descend on Gondar.  On our drive down from my hotel one solitary locust landed on the windscreen of the car. “One locust does not a plague make.”  I concluded. But how big the hand of God was I was soon to find out.

Gabra drove us to an innocuous looking café. The room was painted a pastel mint colour and was furnished with Formica tables and plastic chairs. A man sat in a corner table staring up a large TV screen; he barely acknowledged the two of us as we came in. But his eyes lit up when he saw I had cigarettes.

I had purchased cigarettes and cans of Heineken as gifts for making friends with the locals and had also raided the mini bar at my hotel  so was happy to hand a token cigarettes to the man.

But Gabra became agitated and finally hissed at me, “No gifts for him, bad man. He is a bad man.”

How did anyone know what a bad man looked like? How would I know? He didn’t have a tattoo on his forehead. I wondered what constituted a bad man in Ethiopia, a country that had had its fair share of wars. He must have been a soldier in one of those wars.

Gondar had played a pivotal part in many of the atrocities of war. My hotel room had a fabulous view of the Fasilida Castle, where once the residents of the city had awoke to find the bodies of

Insurgents hanging at the castle gates. Had this passed the order for such a deed? He seemed so unassuming so passive but who really knew the heart of any man?

Gabra introduced me to his cousin Rebekah and she took me to her room where there was a fridge for the cans of larger to stay cool. She then offered me Tej, the local Ethiopian brew a honey mead concoction which depending on the brewer varied in degrees of potency. Hers was pretty potent.

As the evening continued Rebekah our charming host asked several times if we could leave the room, as a “boyfriend” had arrived.  I became confused at the number of “boyfriends” she and a few of her friends had. But who was I to judge?

When asked to leave the room we joined the company in the cafe where the bad man was accumulating a pile of money from men that appeared to just walk in off the street. No words or very few words passed between him and these men. And he merely sat occasionally his eyes averting from the TV screen to me.  And his face would contort into a form of a smile.

But Gabra’s warning of him being a bad man stopped me from trying to engage in conversation with him.

After several glasses of tej I finally needed to brave the outside toilets. As I stepped outside into the courtyard the first of the visitors of the predicted plague had arrived. One landed on my hand, as I peered down at it I saw it was pink. I frowned was it the harshness of the lights strung up around the shack like buildings that had distorted the colour. I thought all locusts were brown. I inspected it more closely, what colour pink was it? Congo Pink, Pig Pink, Spanish Pink, Carnation Pink, Pearly Pink?  None of these seemed to describe the colour.

Even his antennas were pink and the lids of his eyes had a pink dusting like eye shadow, perhaps it was a gay pink locusts.

Variations of the colour pink paraded through my mind like fat can can dancers at the Moulin Rouge.

And then the spell was broken, his hind leg slowly kicked out and I felt a stinging sensation on my hand. I flicked him away and continued to the latrines. I could hear a whirring sound of insects in flight. The one insect was now plural and they had begun to flutter enthusiastically round my head. I was no longer interested in their colour.

When I came out of the toilet the night sky was filled with creatures and I started to ineffectually flail my arms in the air, the locusts landed in my hair, climbing like monkeys through trees I could feel the vibrations of their bodies on my scalp as they  chirped and whirred.

I rushed towards what I thought was the door the communal l room I had first sat in, opened the door and slammed it behind me whilst trying to rid myself of the locusts.

And then I opened my eyes and saw in the low light, two naked bodies on a bed. Both black. They literally stopped in mid copulation to stare at me. It finally dawned on me where I was the local brothel. All the money being handed over to the bad man in the cafe was for services rendered.

I stood embarrassed for a moment and then backed away to the door and opened it to be greeted by the sound of locusts.

The only way to describe the noise a swarm of locusts make is a gentle exhalation of air like a fart, hundreds of locusts farting in the air. And I had to run through the gamut of them, my hands covering my face I ran across the courtyard towards the light of the kitchen diner.

And then I could feel fingers slowly pick the locusts out of my hair.

A pan had been placed on the flames of an old belling gas oven.  Rebekah dropped locusts into steaming water then with a ladle, transferred them into a frying pan of hot oil as they hissed in the heat I thought they were still alive.

A plate of the insects was placed in the centre of the table and we ate Gabra, Rebekah, her three girlfriends and four men. For a few moments the sound of whirring hung in the air and then the crunching of food as we ate. “When locusts swarm we eat.” Rebekah finally said.

The crispy snacks of locusts seemed to be never ending as did the guest who paraded through the room. Each time the door opened more locusts for Rebekah to cook invaded the room.

Finally a bed was made up for me on the floor where the locusts that had crept under the narrow gap in the door now had set up their own form residence  the lullaby of farting locusts finally sending  me to sleep. Through the remainder of the night I was vaguely aware of the sounds of beds creaking in other rooms and distorted grunts of desire, but I slept and daybreak seemed to arrive too soon.

When Gabra and I left the room that morning it was Christmas day for me but not for him. For Ethiopia lived by a form of the Julian Calendar and Christmas day would not be until January and to complicate things even more they have 13 months in a year.

And I was happy to find out that I was seven years younger when I landed in the country as they are seven years behind us in the west!

My eyes became accustomed to the brilliant blue of the sky and the bright African sun there was a scrunching sound as a walked across the road to the car. Millions of gossamer wings still floated through the air. Under my  feet were the carcasses of locusts. Did they die happily in sexual congress? I knew not, but the sound under my feet was like the sound of walking on snow, deep and crisp and even.

I was headed to the monasteries on Lake Tana this Christmas day. As we drove away I didn’t ask Gabra why he had taken me to a brothel to celebrate Christmas Eve. But I did wonder what locusts would taste like if dipped in chocolate.

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