An army of able-bodied youths, mostly O’level holders gather every evening at the outskirt of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, along Gubio and Baga local governments T-junction en route Chad and Niger republics. The place also serves as the ‘Fara’ market- meaning, grasshopper market, where women come in droves to buy hoppers or ‘fara’ as early as 6:00am in the morning from their various processing and selling points within and outside the state.
These youths chatter Pick-Up vans that drives them 10 to 100 or more kilometers, depending on where their feasibility studies take them to. They stop, dress and armed their selves with all they require for the sleepless and tedious journey on foot, combing farmlands and the vast desert grasses for hoppers as early as 7 to 8:00pm until around 4:00am when they begin to retreat back to the highway to board the waiting van that will convey them back to the market.
Sunday Trust was with these youths on a trip to Magumeri local government, which is about 60kilomiters north of Maiduguri where a group of 17 youths crammed in a van that later stopped by the highway and dressed in boots, starched trousers, jackets and tied touch lights on their heads with robber bands, each person carried water bottles and bones or biscuit.
At 8:15pm it was time for each of these young men to depart on their own to begin the hunt. This writer followed Adam Sunday, who is barely 22 years old for a while, while with him, one can sight flash lights tied around the head of the hunters scattered around in the dark bush.
At about 9:00pm, shouts! Shouts!! of snakes from one of the hunters who was still at a voice hearing distance was heard and Adam along with this reporter moved forwards the flash light which is the only sign of a person in that dark wilderness. The snake had entered its hole as at the time we arrived, but according to Chudi, the snake had stroke twice at his legs but his heavily starched trousers prevented the venom from reaching his bare skin, and “their was no stick around to kill the snake, so I started stepping on it while I shouted with my boots but the snake fought back because it was so big and my boots could not hurt it and the snake ran off,” said Chudi.
Adam and Chudi lamented bitterly, according to them, if they had killed that big snake it would have “fetched us some money in addition to the grasshoppers we will catch” said Adam. Snakes, monitor lizards and other reptiles are part of their trade because both men and the reptiles are out in the night for the same purpose; grasshoppers.
At 9:43pm, this writer decided to monitor other hunters, after looking around a flash light apeared but what seem to be close, ended up to be as far as 3 kilometers, at one point this writer wanted to go back to Adam but where he stood neither Adam nor the other unknown hunter can be said to be the closest and the fear of snakes, though armed with protective cloths, sends shivers all over one’s body, the only option then was to move towards the light.
Interestingly, when the hunter was approached this writer realized that the hunter came from a different group and he became jittery and very hostile when he noticed a camera and recorder “who are you, where is your sack?” he asked and the answers provided was not satisfactory to him, but after frantic efforts especially when previews of pictures from the digital camera of his colleagues was shown to him he rested his fists and gave his name as Sini Amos, “I have been catching grasshoppers for the past six years after my certificate programme in CLT in the Ramat Polytechnic in Maiduguri “and in 6 days in a week I come out for hunting. During the dry or cold session I make between 1500 to about 2, 500 naira every day depending on the location we find ourselves,” said Sini.
According to Sini, snakes are not the only danger in this newfound employment of theirs. Either Fulanis or other nomadic tribes, when they settle in certain places, they try to dig pits or wells and when they leave they don’t cover it “and three years ago one of our friend fell into a well he sustain injuries that led to his death and more have fallen in such pits and wells” he said
As if all that is not enough, these youths encounter armed bandits and rebels from neighboring countries who come in to the country to rob villages and commuters “if they see you with this camera I don’t think they will spare your life” but for us “they don’t hurt us instead, they asked us to give them drugs and cigarettes” said Sini.
At that point, the fear of snakes was over taken by the fear that if one does not watch his steps, one may fall in a pit or jam armed bandits. Leaving Sini to meet other hunters became difficult and both of us walked through the night and this writer began to catch grasshoppers though not as skillful as he was. At about 12:22am, it became unbearable to move, each leg took the weight of one’s entire body and Sini persuaded this writer to sleep “I will not go far from here there are lots of grasshoppers here. Just lay down here,” he pointed at a farm and assured that it will be save. The wind helped to blow sleep and instantly this writer was lost in oblivion for nearly an hour.
At 1:09am a freighting sound brought Sunday Trust correspondent to his feet, there was no flash lights on sight, Sini was lost in the vast desert trailing his hoppers and after trekking for about 30 minutes, no body was on sight, a voice began to call “Ahmad Salkida” repeatedly but a doctor later said, it wasn’t any ghost but mere “hallucination”, said Mohammed Sani, a student with the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital.
However, as this correspondent began to weep and cry out of fear, a torchlight came on sight and after a short while Chudi was reached. “You have to take hard drugs if not you cannot make it,” Chudi said and handed ‘Alabukun’ and Nescafe mixed with water, at first this writer resented this idea but the pains in his joints was unbearable and readily took the concoction. After few minutes, it felt like 8:15pm when the hunts started, from that stage, the journey became much easier like the way many others catching grasshoppers felt after they take drugs like tramol, alabukun mixed with Nescafe, Indian hemp etc. taken in over doze is a way of life for this grasshoppers catchers and the concomitant effects can best be imagined by everyone.
For many villagers, these youths are a blessing in many respect, there are times when villagers send words to the grasshopper catchers in Maiduguri of swarms of locust around their villages, instead to report such cases to the Ministry that is responsible for pest control. “When we go there, the villagers will welcome us and we will rid their environment of the grasshoppers that threatens to eatup the produce of their farms” said one of the youths that gave his name as Musa. But “that is only a fraction of the swarms of locusts that ravaged farmlands in Borno and Yobe States” said an Agricultural extension worker with the Borno State Agricultural Programme.
The locusts, according to some village farmers that spoke to this correspondent said, this year’s floods made the locusts to migrate in large swarms and produced eggs in a manner that was never seen in many years in the past. “Though some areas were spread while individuals spread their farms but this is a mere fraction of the reality. The state government and other agencies are helpless”, said the extension workers who pleaded for anonymity because he has not seek clearance to talk to the press.
Sunday Trust reliably learnt that many the villagers have now found a new government in the fight for pest control either by way of eating it or alerting the hunters “this is the only way we can get rid of these locusts that ravaged our farmlands and in turn, causes untold hardship”, said a villager in Borno-Yesu in Magumeri, who gave his name as Bana Modu.
Records of locust plagues dates back to centuries and our ancestors catch hoppers to eat because they have eaten up all their crops and the only readily available food was the very locusts that ate up their crops. According to reports, the conditions that triggers this phenomenon is sporadic-heavy rainfall in breeding areas like that of this years’ just ended raining session is one way that triggers dramatic change in behaviour where desert locusts that are solitary insects group into hungry swarms, “a process called gregarization. Each locust can consume the equivalent of their entire body weight, about 2 grams, in a day. The effect on farmland is catastrophic. In 1958, Ethiopia lost 167,000 tones of grains to plague, enough food that can feed a million people for a year,” said a BBC report in 2004.
According to observers, the effect of locusts in northern Nigeria, though, there may be no accurate or available statistics, but observers claimed, it triples what Ethiopia experienced in 1958. According to expert in the earlier mentioned report, in a day, a swarm of locusts can travel between 5-130 kilometers, fly at a speed of 16-19 kilometers per hour eat 375 truck load of vegetables, which is enough to feed ten elephants, 25 camels or 2, 500 people for a day.
Indeed, Sunday Trust found out that, as swarm after swarm of locusts descended on crops in the lake Chad basin that cuts across the northeast, fields of crops were ravaged in days, “the problem this year is multiple, first, it was the floods that reduced our farmland then, the locusts came afterwards to eat the rest “leaving us with little to survive” said Bana that added that they only looked on helplessly.
Sunday Trust made attempts to perk this report by knowing the level of intervention by governments but protocols and bureaucracy in government cycles and the need to file this report at this critical time for farmers, limited this story to empirical evidences of the reporting trip. However, certain level of pest control was said to have been undertaken by the state government and individuals which was corroborated by Dr. Elizabeth Chibozu, a Public (Community) Health Nutritionist with the department of Food Science Technology University of Maiduguri, when she supervised a recent project.
“At first, we were worried that if there was pest control, where chemicals are involved, then people may be eating contaminated food but we later realized that the areas grasshoppers were caught were not the areas Ministry officials claimed they spread” said Dr. Chibozu who stressed the need for people to know the source of whatever they are eating.
“Sunday Trust gathered that while grasshoppers is a horror to local farmers, it has created a lot of employment opportunities to thousands of youths that have turned into grasshopper catchers, also thousands of women that process and sell them and hundreds of middle men and women that take the grasshopper to as far as Lagos to Ghana, Abuja, Kano and Yaonde have the course to smile, “if only they can catch all the grasshoppers, then if is Okay,” said Bana but for the grasshoppers to disappear there must be effective pest control. “We are appealing to government not to embark on pest control because we will be left with nothing to do”, said Adam
But the jobs the locust create is seasonal as locusts are found during the dry session, though many of these youths have saved money and bought motorcycles “during the off session my two motorcycle keeps me going. Now, I only save the proceeds after giving it out to people to use”, said Buzuzu, a veteran, grasshopper catcher of years. Esther Mamza, whom sales grasshopper at Damboa road said, she has bought sewing machines and supplemented the family’s income through frying grasshoppers.
Sunday Trust also realized that many people that despised eating hoppers in recent past have changed their attitude, an increasing number of persons now eat grasshoppers as a cheap and accessible source of protein, “it has replaced suya as a source of protein because it is cheaper and readily available especially during this period,” said Mohammed Abdulkadir a banker in Maiduguri.
Interestingly, some parents now mix wheat, groundnuts and grasshoppers together and give their children as weaning food. “After removing the chaffs from the wheats, I pore boiling water on a groundnuts and sieve it immediately and boil some grasshoppers in salted water. When these food commodities are dried, I then grand them and prepare it with boiling water for about five minutes, then ready to be administered to my seven months old child,” said Mrs. Nana Ahmed in Shagari Low-Cost housing estate in Maiduguri.
But doctor Chibuzu said, these maybe suicidal because the protein content in fara is quite high, which is about 30% high and because of the frying with vegetable oil, it is also high in fat of about 34%. Therefore, these combinations are brought together for a weaning child, it may cost renal damage or result to other complications “any weaning food at a time should not be more than 15%” in terms of nutritional requirement for a weaning child, doctor Chibuzu contends. “For every 100 gram the protein content is about 34% and the fat is 34%. So it is high in protein and high in energy”, said Dr. Chibuzu.
Sunday Trust found out that in every one measure of fried grasshoppers it contains “450 to 500 grams,” and according to Esther Mamza, a measure or ‘mudu’ goes for 250 to 300 naira “She said that she bought half bag of grasshoppers for 1800 naira and with 6 bottles of groundnut oil which will cost about 900 naira and 200 hundred naira for spices and fire wood she intends to make about N4000 on a very good day. Though, we make more whenever people give us money to buy and fry for them to take to Abuja, Lagos and elsewhere but these opportunity is rare” said Mamza
After a long night of catching grasshoppers at about 4:30 am when everyone started retreating to the high way to board the pickup van, one young man (name withheld) collapsed, and we rushed to revive him but no one had water left, the gallons and bottles of water was all empty, so dusty cloths and jackets where used to revive him and the dust made the frail looking young man to cough as he came back to consciousness. According to his colleagues, he has not slept for nearly 4 days, he is on hard drugs that kept him awake and active which explain why, and even with his frail status he has one of the largest chunks of grasshoppers.
The dose of “Alabukun and a small sachet of Nescafe that saved this correspondent from collapsing is less than 10% of what some of these youths take on a daily basis “and in a short period of time it will weigh them down mentally and physically” said Mohammed Sani, the medical student. The use of drugs is the dregs of this employment for these youths “but we have to be awake in other to catch” said Musa.
To strike a balance between the affected farmers and the empowered youths and women as a result of locusts, is for government to create employment and to eradicate the plague with every force, as Abdulkadir implied. But no government can do this alone, in June 2004, the United Nation Food and Agricultural Organization (UNFAO) requested 73 million to control the pest that have ravaged farms across Africa including parts of northern Nigeria but it only got about 30 million.
According to observers, the pest of this year 2007 surpassed that of 2004 across Africa when this funds was needed. The problem have reached an alarming proportion, though lack of communication accessibility to rural communities precludes any accurate statistics as to the level of devastation, “has there ever been accurate statistics in anything; Aids, Malaria and maternal mortality continue to sweep across our lands, yet what we read on papers contrast the reality on ground” said Abdulkadir.
When Sunday Trust went back to the market 5 days later, the young man that collapsed for not sleeping for four days was said to be at the psychiatric hospital in Maiduguri. “Well-meaning Nigerians and NGO’s must sensitized these youths to shun drug use while a lot of people, “must be trained in nutritional dietetics in order to know what to eat and give their children” said doctor Chibuzu.