The swarming of cicadas does not measure up to locusts when their population peaks in West Africa. I was headed east to Lagos along the Guinea coast after my second visit to Cotonou.
On the road from Cotonou, Dahomey (Benin), I hitched a ride with the Nigerian Ambassador to the Central African Republic. A delightful and highly educated man, we had a great conversation all the way to Lagos and then he invited me to stay at his house for a few nights while I got my visas for Central African Republic (CAR), Cameroon, Zaire and Uganda.
On the outskirts north of Lagos, I got a ride north to Ilorin, founded in 1450 by the Yoruba (one of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria). It is a mid-sized city that seems to be a meeting point for ethnicities and religions. My host was the Chief of Police of Ilorin. Not many skinny European hitchhikers in this part of the world and not many important people with nice cars either. We tended to connect to each other – them for conversation with a foreigner and me for the ride.
The road (national highway) north from Lagos to Ilorin had been filled with all manner of traffic, from pedestrians alone and in groups, to carts, donkeys, bicycles, motorbikes, cars, buses and trucks. All the traffic of this booming nation used this road as actually the primary route from the huge city of Lagos to the new capital of Abuja in the center of the country.
After several hours of relatively slow going, my host saw the day was getting late. He asked his driver to put on the siren and to speed things up. I wasn’t sure what the rush was, but we sped along at a faster clip, siren blaring, with other traffic spreading apart for us.
Close to the equator there is not prolonged twilight. It was very dark, as we slowed into Ilorin. We drove through some brightly lit stretches of the town until we reached a large open blue building. It was a huge Christian church alive with people. Ahh, I realized, we were hurrying to get to a church service.
My host suggested I get out of the car with him, and he carefully led me into the great blue building. It was made of blue-coated cinderblocks up to a height of perhaps 6 feet, with steel poles extending another 6 or 8 feet to a vaulted roof with space between the walls and roof. It was obviously made to inspire!
It was filled with singing people. There were two rows of pews, with a wide walkway between them. We walked to the pew in the front on the left, my host’s family pew. He suggested I stand (or sit if I liked) in the space held open for us. One of his younger daughters stood to my left.
I tried to follow the songs and take it all in. Then I noticed the locusts buzzing all about. There were tall poles on the sides with 6 foot long fluorescent lights reaching up and out at an angle, and similar lights across the ceiling. The lights attracted great swarms of locusts.
The locusts swarmed all around us virtually filling the air in the church above and around our heads. I noticed the little girl next to me grabbed and ate a locust. Then another. I noticed everyone around me was singing, then pausing briefly from the hymn to grab and eat a locust. Soon, I realized that I was the only one in the congregation who was not eating locusts. Or singing. So, I grabbed a locust and ate it. It was crunchy, but one was enough for me. Many of the young children were popping one after another, eating the locusts like candy, as they beamed smiles ear to ear! It was glorious!
After a while, the service ended. We lingered, as my host embraced and spoke with many of his friends and family who were there together. We then walked back to his car and drove to his home. After introducing me to his wife and family in the quiet of his home, he showed me to a small spare room, where he said that I could stay as long as I liked.
I was planning to reach Kaduna the following day but thanked him for his hospitality. The following morning, he showed me his town and the area for an hour. He told me that his cousin, the Chief of Police of Bida, could take me to Bida in his town car. I had an hour before we were to leave. He encouraged me to wander around Ilorin and explore on my own. Everywhere I walked in the town, people smiled, some bowed to me. They had all seen me as the Chief of Police’s guest at the church “dinner” the night before.
I returned to the house late around noon. We had lunch with his cousin and then set off to Bida. The cousin invited me to stay at his house in Bida. After a couple of wonderful restful days in Bida, I was back on the road to Kaduna. I regret that I never had another meal similar to my church dinner in Ilorin, where the locusts were not a plague, they were a smorgasbord.