Childhood Shorts – Chapter 8: The Grasshopper Instinct
Childhood Shorts – Chapter 8: The Grasshopper Instinct
August 05, 2019

(Photo by Bradley Feller on Unsplash)

During those early years in Zambia, I generally paid attention only to those things that directly affected my little life. After all, there was plenty to keep me busy in our dynamic, unpredictable, and oftentimes perplexing neighborhood. What with sisters, jump rope, robbers, snakes, grasshoppers and the like, my young mind could absorb little much else. To no surprise, I was largely oblivious to the realities of the monumental struggle for African self-determination which was readily unfolding all around me. For unbeknownst to me, grownups across the continent, even right in my own home, were actively taking up the cause of independence and the call to build new nation states.

Indeed, between 1966 and 1979, black Zimbabweans were fully engaged in what came to be known as the second Chimurenga (freedom struggle). Over those fourteen years, some activists waged a shrewd guerrilla war against the Rhodesian incumbency from within the country. Others, like daddy, worked from the outside. They formulated liberation narratives, political campaigns, and legal strategies to make the case for independence. The collective objective of these fighters and negotiators was to force the Rhodesian government into a settlement. They were demanding a transfer of power from minority to majority rule by way of democratic elections. With involvement of the British government, these efforts culminated in the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979, which laid the foundation for the new Zimbabwe.

I vaguely recall daddy coming home one evening in 1979 captured by an uncontainable excitement. It was with an irrepressible smile that he cheerfully announced we would soon be going home. Victory was won! Freedom had come to Zimbabwe and sacrifice had fulfilled its good work.

Yet, the second Chimurenga did not form out of nothing. It was built on the shoulders of the first Chimurenga, which took place between 1896 and 1897. This struggle was the first major coordinated response to European imperialism by the Ndebele, Shona, and other people groups who lived in the territories now known as Zimbabwe.

Around the same time that Native Americans in Montana were assessing the motives of the encroaching United States Army, a similar interaction was taking place in southern Africa. King Lobengula Khumalo and the Ndebele people were meeting the newly-arriving European settlers, who came with outstretched arms. What exactly they held in the palms of their hands, however, whether opportunity or threat, would only later become apparent.

Lobengula was no ordinary regent. His father was Mzilikazi Khumalo, the first king of the northern Ndebele nation. Mzilikazi was an exceptional military leader, and the founder of Matabeleland. His region sat between the Limpopo and the Zambezi rivers toward the west and south-west of what is now Zimbabwe. Mzilikazi was formerly a lieutenant of the Zulu king, Shaka. But he left the South African kingdom after a dispute with Shaka in 1823. He thereafter led his people 500 miles north to where they finally settled.

Lobengula, who inherited the kingdom after his father’s death, was initially distrustful of the Europeans. Their obscure motives and excessive fire power provided him good reason to be circumspect. Still, over time, Lobengula gradually befriended a few of the settlers to whom he granted permission for the prospecting of gold and the hunting of game in his territory. It was one such friend, a Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, who ultimately convinced Lobengula to concede mining rights to the British South Africa Company in 1888 under what was called the Rudd Concession. Little did Lobengula know that the man behind the company – a certain British mining magnate and southern African politician by the name of Cecil John Rhodes – actually had a clandestine agenda. His chief intent was to achieve the economic exploitation and eventual colonial domination of the Zimbabwe territories. Indeed, with Lobengula’s concession in hand, Rhodes moved quickly to secure a royal charter from the United Kingdom that would authorize the annexation of the area into the British Empire.

The betrayal was devastating, as Lobengula watched oppression and exploitation swarm out from the loosening fingers of the hands of his advancing deceivers. Hostilities inevitably escalated. Although for a period of time, both sides did their best to avoid direct combat. The stalemate did not last, however. In 1893, a Ndebele raid on Mashonaland territories precipitated the First Matabele War, also known as the Battle of the Shangani. With inferior arsenal, the Ndebele were routed and the demise of Matebeland as a kingdom quickly followed.

Yet, three short years later, the Ndebele, Shona and other people groups living in the terrain were again ready to fight for their sovereignty. Like the Native Americans in Montana, the people of the region were inspired by their spiritual leaders. The Ndebele were rallied by Mlimo, and the Shona, invigorated by Kaguvi and Nehanda. Collectively, these spiritual leaders convinced the people that the white settlers were responsible for the drought, the disease of cattle, and the locusts (there go those bugs again) that the region was experiencing. The people therefore took up arms in what became known as the first Chimurenga.

Although they fought valiantly and dealt a heavy blow to the white settlers, the Ndebele and Shona warriors were convincingly defeated. Nevertheless, the spirit of their resistance lived on. Their courage and conviction deeply inspired a subsequent generation of Zimbabweans. It was this later crop of resisters, of which my mommy and daddy were a part, who stewarded the country to independence in 1980. The first Chimurenga made them believe that freedom from colonialism was readily attainable. Emboldened, they therefore also pushed back.

It has been four decades since my eerie run in with grasshoppers at Little Bighorn Nursery School. That is a long time. But I think I am still a little maladjusted. At least when it comes to those particular bugs. It is true. Whenever I see grasshoppers, I find myself reflexively taking up a subtle defensive posture. It is automatic and I cannot help it. Yet, this instinctual reversion to my three-year-old self is not the only thing that happens. I also cycle back in my mind and wonder why grasshoppers and locusts show up in the midst of significant human conflict.

They were there during the time of Moses, when the Israelites departed Egypt. There during the Battle of Little Bighorn on the plains of Montana. There during the first Chimurenga. There in the Ottoman State during World War I and there in the Middle East during World War II. Of course, as you know from my very own eyewitness account, they were also there during the second “Battle of Little Bighorn” (the 1976 nursery-school version in Zambia). And that is just a handful of examples. Why then do the bugs show up?

Aesop has a fable called The Ants and the Grasshopper. It was adapted into a Disney-animated film entitled The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934). In Aesop’s version, a colony of ants are hard at work on a lovely winter’s day drying grain they collected during the summer. They are approached by a starving grasshopper who begs them for some food. They ask him why he did not collect his own store over the summer. He explains that he spent the long days in frivolity. The ants in response reproach the grasshopper and refuse his request. If he was foolish enough to sing the summer days away, then he can dance through the winter nights hungry and without food. In the Disney version, the ants are far more charitable. They allow the grasshopper to earn his keep by entertaining them with music while they work through the winter.

At first look, the ants in Aesop’s version might seem cruel, but I do not think they are. I believe they are merely being circumspect. They understand the nature of the grasshopper. He is a scavenger, known for his voracious consumption and selfish tendencies. Letting a grasshopper into an anthill is like inviting devastation into a harvest. It will not end well.

With this in mind, I think perhaps grasshoppers and locusts show up during human conflict as a way to warn us against allowing the “grasshopper instinct” to penetrate the colony of our hearts. Perhaps they serve as a mirror to help us see our own general human proclivity. History bears this out: that given even the smallest concession, our natural tendency is to exploit each other for the benefit of our own selfish gain.

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