It’s pathetic to bring this up, I know, but there are a lot of bugs in Africa. A lot. The group I was with had got the array of shots and were taking the malaria pills, but that’s little comfort when you see them up close, when you take in just how many of them there are.
Unicef brought us to a town called Dollow, right on the border between Somalia and Ethiopia. It’s tiny: one street, with no street lights or paved roads. Donkeys stand in small groups, ignoring the tuk-tuks and cars that have to navigate around them. And like any small town in a remote place, Dollow is not really built to accommodate visitors. So, the group was split up to stay in two guest houses, both of them basic, clean and functional.
But no matter how much cleaning took place, the bugs could not be kept at bay. Luckily, few of them entered my room, though I did get a few bites and I had to vanquish a locust. It was the corridors outside where the real creepy-crawly action was. The corridors all led to balconies, allowing birds to sweep through, along with pointy-faced hornets, locusts and other flying insects. The floor was carpeted with cockroaches: it was impossible to ascend or descend the stairs without feeling many crunches underfoot. I tried not to look down.
The mornings, if it had rained overnight, were the worst. Cockroaches, it seems, don’t do well in a downpour. The water flips them on to their backs, so when I left my room, there would be dozens of them lying there, frantically waving their little black legs.
In the other guest house, bugs had breached the guest room defences: unidentified blue creatures that massed in corners. The people staying there described lying under a mosquito net, but being unable to sleep to due to the sound of the insects fluttering outside, trying to get in.
Even during the day, there would be occasional screams from members of the group if something large landed on them, sometimes from the women. The science says that this is all instinctual; a disgust response we developed to keep ourselves safe by not eating anything dodgy or going near any dangerous creatures. Thousands of years later, that response has morphed into something more like fear.
Yet you can’t help but wonder if this is also something to do with how we live our modern lives: dust-free and hermetically sealed, where we have come to view nature as something outside, something separate to us.
Every rural Somali we saw was completely unbothered by insects; because they were more used to it, of course, but perhaps also because they are mostly agro-pastoralists. When they had permanent homes, with rooms, they would grow some crops and keep some animals, mostly to feed themselves. But they would spend most of their time outdoors. Nature wasn’t a separate thing. It was everything. Including them.
But human-waged war forced millions of them to abandon those homes and move to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps where the best they could do was build a hut – they are not much bigger than a two-person tent, and the average Somali family has six kids – and figure out some way to get money for food. For those who remained in their houses, human-created climate change gave them four years of drought, killing their crops and their animals, and forcing them also into a hut on an IDP camp.
This year – because of human-created climate change – the rains returned, but with catastrophic intensity. Bodies were washed out of cemeteries, and more homes destroyed. Rivers in the west of the country burst their banks and swept into IDP camps, flooding the huts and forcing thousands to move to other IDP camps. No wonder they aren’t bothered by insects. It’s people they should be scared of.