Life In America: Song Of The Cicadas

February 2005. It is supposed to be winter in America but the gods are smiling on the manufacturers of snow. And snow has tucked tail and fled into the ravines of America’s rugged heart. My children are not happy for what kind of winter drives away snow? A winter without snow for my children is like Christmas without the colorful masquerades of my childhood – those playful masquerades with African names like “404” “Pele” and “Michael Jackson!” It is still winter though and dawn finds me on the streets headed to work to eke out a little something to put on the table. My children must eat, my mother is tired and angry at home in Nigeria and I must find a little something to send to her through Western Union or her effete prayers for me will stop. The crisp morning is rudely interrupted by a herd of deer darting on to traffic from the woods on the side of the road. They are about six in number, healthy, well-fed animals that would keep my ancestral clan chomping meat for several moons. I see the herd of deer and I start salivating. Bush meat! I exclaim within my soul. I must be the only Nigerian on the road that morning because the entire traffic stops in awe to watch the “beautiful” sight of bush meat er deer crossing the road. I see bush meat, America sees an endangered species!

As I sit in traffic waiting for several installments of dinner to cross the road, I start thinking of the cicadas, those ugly insects that visited America last year. I don’t know why I remember them because I certainly don’t miss them. They were a nuisance blanketing everywhere with their show of mass suicide. My children do miss them. Every morning, my kids would wake up and rush to the windows of our little home to say hello to the miniature winged aliens that blanketed our lawn like live balls of colored snow. Those cicadas captured my children’s hearts and attention for the entire season when they were making love, war and dying on our yard. It is fair to say that I was jealous. My children no longer looked up to me adoringly as their super hero. The dreamy look in their eyes was no longer for me. My children had fallen in love with cicadas. I was relieved to get my children back with the disappearance of the last dead cicada shell.

I have never tasted cicadas. There were newsworthy reports of people sighted eating cicadas. I do not even remember their last visit about seventeen years ago. I apologize to the American media for being so shallow. There is no excuse for not remembering such a seminal event. My priorities at the time however were quite different from those of my children today. Seventeen years ago, I had just come to the conclusion that I was probably never going back to Nigeria, the land of my birth. At the time, I was too engrossed in the technical details of ensuring that this immigrant did not become a sautéed cicada in the dreadful bureaucratic frying pan called the Immigration and Naturalization Services (the great INS for those too scared to call that gorilla by its full name!). So perhaps I may be forgiven for not remembering the events of that great period in our history. I had more pressing priorities.

I have never tasted cicadas. I have however tasted termites. And if my experience with termites is anything to go by, cicadas ought to be tasty and highly nutritious. Termites, what about termites, you ask. As a child growing up in Nigeria, I loved termites. They were tasty little bugs, every one of them. Every year, with the coming of the rains, like drunken fools, termites would appear as if from nowhere and fly all over the place. Plump termites would be every where and we would gleefully go out and place buckets of water under anything that had light. In those days, there were lamp posts that actually worked in the city of my childhood and they were the favorite hunting spots for termites, for me and my friends. The termites would be attracted to the lights, get dazed by the lights and soon enough our buckets would be filled with dinner! I would take the bucket of termites to my waiting mother. She would place a big pan on a tripod of fire fueled by firewood. Soon the termites would be frying in their own fat and the heat would separate their wings from their um sautéed bodies. Once the feast of termites cooled down, my mother would sift the singed wings from the meat and the feasting would begin. I am having a difficult time thinking of a more delicious snack than my mother’s sautéed termites. In the two decades I have been here in America, my mother has visited me just twice. Unfortunately sautéed termites have not been part of her bag of childhood delicacies she has brought with her. And I certainly can understand her concerns. You never know what a young customs officer will do to a little old lady clutching a bag of sautéed termites.

Here in America, we live in a society that values the beauty of wildlife and also strives to respect the right of all living things to co-exist with human beings. Such sentiments and values have unfortunately led to unintended and sometimes tragic consequences. My children and I enjoy short walks around our neighborhood. My children love to yell greetings to the herd of deer gamboling around in the woods. It is a sight at once glorious and frustrating, the sight of beautiful meat protected from my dinner table by the laws of the land. I remember experiencing this same sense of loss when I visited the pigeons of Trafalgar Square in London. What a waste of protein! Why were those pigeons being fed, I wondered? They should be feeding us!

At night, when driving home, I am very careful to watch out for fleet footed deer dashing across the road. I have personally witnessed deer crashing into moving vehicles and I have read accounts of fatal car accidents resulting from such unwelcome encounters. Gardeners are also not fond of these deer. They can reduce a gardener’s dream to nothing in a matter of minutes. Thanks to laws that protect their population, we have witnessed a population explosion and now the deer want to sit at our dinner table rather than being dinner. Only in America!

I recently stayed in a hotel in Orlando, Florida whose highlight of the day was a parade of ducks. Every evening, we would repair to the hotel lobby bar, grab a drink and watch along with virtually all the hotel guests, these highly intelligent ducks parade along a red carpet. Amazing! Why are these ducks walking on carpets? Someone give me some pepper and duck sauce! I remember several years ago, at work, an American colleague of mine invited me to look out my window across from a man-made pond. I looked and saw a family of very plump geese playfully romping and gallivanting around the pond. My colleague had invited me to witness what he saw as a pretty sight – a gaggle of plump geese playing around with nothing to do. Me, I saw food. I remarked to him that in Nigeria it would be extremely unwise for those geese to be gamboling around in such a reckless fashion in broad daylight. They would not live to repeat the mistake of taunting the palate. Only in America.

I am told that cicadas visit America once about every seventeen years. I can confidently say that cicadas would never come back to Nigeria, after the first visit. Any cicada that survived the first coming would spread the news: Stay away from Nigeria. Cicadas are eaten here, not adored.

Written by
Ikhide R. Ikheloa (Nnamdi)
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8 comments
  • Nice piece of writing. When I was in college I was always amazed seeing “bushmeat” running around in broad daylight. The thought of having only an F1 visa kept me away from them

  • Nnamdi, I prefer to call this your article a short story.

    It brings back memories of my childhood in Obalende when we enjoyed catching the termites under the traffic lights and they were as delicious as crayfish.

    You should have fried the cicadas for your children and they would have enjoyed the real purpose of the manna from heaven. But, you were playing “oyinbo” to your children and deprived them of the joy of enjoying the delicacy of “cicadas and chips” for dinner.