The Plague of Locusts

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The mid-morning sun is already beating the dry soil to a ceramic hardness. The grain crop is ripe, but the men, women and children in and around the field, are not harvesting.

At the south-eastern corner of the village, some 30 yards away from the edge of the field, a woman stands in the doorway of her home, hands covered in flour, her features a study of confusion and indecision. The sounds of shouting and banging, are almost drowned out by the noise of beating wings: something between a hiss and a roar.

In this moment, as the southern quarter of the clear blue sky disappears behind a descending cloud of locusts, the man directly in front of her, is poised to bring his flail down on the shifting carpet of voracious insects. On either side of him, children hit boxes with sticks. Some way ahead of him, almost submerged in the sea of cereal, the uncovered head of a woman can be seen - long-legged, fat pink bodies, 3 inches in length, crawling over her hair. She is recovering her balance, ready to take another impotent swipe with her scarf, at the swarm dropping from the sky, all around her. There must be 20 or more people similarly employed about the field.

Only the children wear expressions of unmixed determination. This is, after all, Africa. The adults know they stand no chance against their ancient enemy. Their efforts are futile - but they cannot stand by and do nothing. Desperation is in their eyes. Anger too. It's just a handful of people against a billion large, hungry insects.

Around the field's perimeter, fruit trees are covered in what only looks like heavy pink blossom. The boughs are bent under the weight of locusts. Present and future crops, simultaneously, are being converted into fuel to power the ravenous swarm.

Just a tiny proportion of the great airforce has landed. Most are still airborne - wings flashing and shimmering in the bright sunlight, like delicately veined, rose crystals. The swarm is dense, and yet there are no collisions. They seem to be flying almost in disciplined ranks - synchronised and in close formation. Somehow, pitching and rolling, they keep themselves equidistant from their neighbours on every side and on every plane. Legs folded tightly against stream-lined bodies, they are precision controlled torpedoes. Double pairs of wings - front pair narrow and stiff, rear pair wide and flexible - make them infinitely manoeuvrable.

The invasion looks effortless, unstoppable. Flails, sticks and scarves that take moments to reach their targets, miss targets that take fractions of moments to move out of the way.

This is a scene of tragedy.

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