Claire Soares: Caught in the middle of a biblical plague

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The Independent Online

You could have mistaken them for snowflakes, had the mercury not been at 35C. In fact, what was hurtling towards the car windscreen was a flurry of tiny, winged insects. After weeks of anxious waiting by Dakar's inhabitants, the locusts had finally arrived.

Stepping outside, it felt as though the Senegalese capital was under attack, the air abuzz with the fluttering of tiny wings, as the swarms of yellow insects descended on the city, seemingly oblivious to human obstacles in their path and tangling themselves in people's hair.

Children raced on to the streets, squealing with delight as they competed to see who could collect the most locusts in their plastic bottles. It may have been an unexpected game for them, but the adults cursed the skies and eyed the new arrivals rather more anxiously.

It was no laughing matter. This was September 2004 and, for weeks, west African governments had been monitoring the progress of this biblical plague down from the Sahara.

Pots and pans were banged and clattered to scare the crop-munching insects away; fires were lit to choke them. Residents dug holes to bury them alive; others desperately swung black bin liners in the air hoping they might trap some of the voracious pests, who can polish off the equivalent of their own body weight every day.

Village chiefs were given calling cards so they could warn one another of the coming swarms, and mobilise people with insecticide.

In Mauritania, the locusts made short work of the national football pitch, chomping their way across it in seconds. And that was just an appetiser. They did not linger long in Senegal – the invasion disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived. Moving eastwards to Niger, they ravaged thousands of square miles of cereal fields, helping to tip the country into a food crisis bordering on famine.

The news that scientists have finally cracked the secret of the locust swarms will be greeted with a collective sigh of relief across the African continent.