GeoSemantics / Vanishing Insects & Dying Earth: Reflecting on Insects & Soil in Mbessa (Cameroon) / Kenneth Nsah (Nsah Mala)

“Earthworms!” by goosmurf is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In 2019, during my doctoral fellowship at Aarhus University (Denmark), some of the eco-poems I wrote had to do with insects, especially memories of some insects in my native Cameroon. One of such poems was entitled “Remembering Big Bees in Mbesa” and it first appeared in a Singaporean magazine called The Tiger Moth Moth Review (No 4, 2020). One may ask why I would remember insects in the rural kingdom of Mbessa (Mbesa) found in Anglophone Cameroon while staying in far-away Denmark and have the poetic memories first published in yet another far-away country, Singapore. The answer, as I will show, is at least twofold and significantly enmeshed in the ongoing climate and ecological crisis, including some of its causes such as extractivism and (plantation) agriculture.

Much of my creative writing is anchored on my personal experiences, especially those of my childhood in my native Mbessa Fondom (Kingdom) in the Anglophone Northwest Region of Cameroon. And writing some of such poems provides me with opportunities to relive my childhood memories, thereby keeping me anchored to my roots and informing the way I see, inhabit, and attempt to shape the world in a symbiotic relationship. This poem is about remembering my insect-friends and animal families as it is about remembering my ancestral roots, human-friends, and families. Some of the insect-friends (and insect-enemies, read: harmful insects like wasps) I shared my childhood with included various species of ants, grasshoppers, beetles, bees, butterflies, flies, dust bugs, termites, ticks, wasps, and so forth. Among the various species of bee-friends I had as a child were honeybees (called yuse in my Mbesa language) which my family and some other people in Mbessa kept for their white honey and the big bees or carpenter bees which constitute the subject of my poem in question.

“Sonoran Carpenter Bee Maui Sue Salisbury Maui Hawaii2” by Sue Salisbury Maui Hawaii is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In the Mbessa language, carpenter bees are called ndehse and they are broadly divided into two groups: ndehse bangnese (yellow carpenter bees) which bore holes into soft wood in the bushes and ndehse fingnese (black carpenter bees) which bore holes into plank and other forms of wood on our roofs. The poem that follows, “Remembering Big Bees in Mbesa”, captures some of the multifaceted kin relations that we as children had with these two types of carpenter bees.

: :

Remembering Big Bees in Mbesa
Nsah Mala

When we were young, we had many types of bees.
When dry seasons powdered the earth with dust,
there were big yellowish bees – ndehse bangnese,
those not social to live in colonies, but as couples,
that burrowed into dry soft wood in the bushes,
and made a sweet yellow paste which we harvested
when we went to fetch wood. We often dated girls by
offering them the sweet paste. Sometimes we ignorantly
roasted and enjoyed their bulbous larvae back home.
Because they never stung us, we would catch some alive,
bring them home, tie to long thread pieces & fly as planes.
There were also big black bees – ndehse fingnese,
that burrowed into planks and wood on our roofs.
They also made a sweet yellow paste,
but we couldn’t destroy houses to harvest it,
except when our fathers had to renovate.
Facilitated by noisy zinc sheets on roofs,
they sometimes became boisterous bands,
humming gentle melodies from their burrows
to entertain us by day, troubling our sleep some nights.

Aarhus, 26 May 2019

: :

As a committed artist and ecocritic I am very concerned about the ongoing sixth mass extinction unfolding before our eyes in this century. The mass extinction of bigger and more visible animals and plants is receiving significant attention in academia and arts as demonstrated by numerous publications related to biodiversity loss. However, some members of the animal kingdom especially insects are vanishing almost invisibly and silently although the consequences of their extinction are both conspicuous and loud in Mbessa and in the world. Thus, “Remembering Big Bees in Mbesa” is not only about remembering carpenter bees but also other kinds of bees and insects in particular and our sinking Earth in general. Insects are estimated at about 5.5 million species and considered as the most diversified animals on Earth, accounting for about 80% of life on Earth. Insects offer priceless services to our ecosystems: pollinating plants, controlling pests, removing waste, providing nutrition to humans and wildlife, and so forth. And scientists are increasingly warning us about the alarming rates of extinction witnessed among our insect-friends in this era of the Anthropocene when anthropogenic climate change and capitalist greed are suffocating our Earth to death.

The socio-cultural and economic consequences of vanishing insects are manifold in Mbessa and elsewhere. In the case of honeybees and other pollinators, their decline corresponds to poor harvests of crops and even honey which are sometimes blamed on witchcraft and bad luck. I remember something very curious between me and honeybees.  One of my elder brothers, Peter Kemneh Nsah, is an expert in making beehives with either raffia or Indian bamboo. And he is one of the most successful beekeepers in Mbessa. Sometimes my mother, Prisca Ansama Teh, also bought beehives from Kemneh and kept them successfully. But all the beehives I bought from Kemneh and kept in the bushes were never colonised by honeybees. Back then, I sometimes had the impression that I was not lucky with beekeeping or that some invisible forces were driving bees away from colonising my beehives. However, when I look at the situation in hindsight now and in the light of my advanced climate and ecological knowledge, it seems that the decline in honeybee and insect populations in and around Mbessa may have been, at least partly, responsible for my unsuccessful attempts at beekeeping. But why partly? I say partly because many people have continued to succeed in beekeeping in Mbessa and neighbouring communities despite the decrease in bee populations. That said, it is worth noting that declining insect and bee populations also result in decreases in the quantity and quality of honey harvested in Mbessa and its environs, including other related effects such as economic hardships for beekeepers, increasing prices and scarcity of honey which is used as food and in some indigenous medicinal practices.

The use of insecticides and the destruction of insect habitats by humans are some of the leading causes of insect extinction all over the world. In the case of Mbessa, people are unconsciously killing our insect-friends through the increasing use of insecticides and herbicides coupled with ignorance about their effects on insects and the resulting decline in food yields, honey production, and other negative consequences. More and more Mbessa people are beginning to use herbicides in clearing their farms as shown in this video and insecticides in controlling pests on their crops such as beans, coffee and tomatoes as seen in this video where a Mbessa market gardener is spraying his tomatoes with an insecticide. It should be noted that I ordered these videos for this essay and that is why Frankline Toah Kenkuo, a biology teacher who plays the role of the Mbessa farmer in them, tries to explain the negative consequences of these farming practices on insects.

In Mbessa, herbicides are not only used in clearing some food farms for the cultivation of semi-cash and semi-subsistence crops such as maize, beans, Irish potatoes, etc. Pesticides are not used only in controlling pests in some gardens and food farms in Mbessa. Many Mbessa people are also beginning to use chemical fertilizers in some of their farming and gardening activities. These toxic substances, which are murdering our insects and poisoning our Earth, are also increasingly used in plantation agriculture in Mbessa, notably in the cultivation of coffee—although we do not drink coffee. Yes, my father’s compound is surrounded by a coffee plantation just like all other compounds in Mbessa and neighbouring communities like Akeh, Din-Noni, Kom and Oku—but,I repeat, we don’t drink coffee as a culture in Mbessa! We do not grow up drinking coffee, but we grow up growing and selling coffee, thus caught up in the global wicked webs of the Anthropocene and the Plantationocene. Coffee is just one of the numerous monocultural cash crops that colonisation imposed on the people of Mbessa, Cameroon, and Africa.

Elsewhere in Cameroon, there are vast plantations of tea in places like Ndawara (where I sometimes worked during the holidays to raise part of my tuition in secondary school), Ndu, and Tole. One of the fallouts of the German colonisation of Cameroon is the current State-owned Cameroon Development Cooperation (CDC) which is the second largest employer (after the State) in Cameroon with numerous plantations for banana, oil palm, and rubber in many localities of the Anglophone Southwest Region of Cameroon. There are also numerous private plantations for cocoa and oil palm in the Anglophone Southwest Region and in Francophone regions such as the Centre, East, Littoral, and South as well as plantations for cotton belonging to the State-owned SODECOTON in the Francophone regions of Adamawa, North, and Far North. In passing, many young men and women from Mbessa and similar communities in the Northwest Region often work in and sometimes own some of these cocoa farms and plantations in parts of Cameroon that are suitable for cultivating cocoa, oil palm, banana, rubber, and cotton. I sometimes worked in my brother Simon Mala Nsah’s cocoa plantations to raise part of my tuition fee in secondary school. Again, like coffee, many Cameroonians produce cocoa but we do not have a significant culture of eating chocolate.

Meanwhile, national and multinational companies equally own numerous plantations in Cameroon for the production of cash crops such as rubber and oil palm, including those owned by the US firm Herakles Farms (Sithe Global Sustainable Oils Cameroon), the Malaysian firm Sime Darby, the Indian firm SIVA Group/Biopalm Energy, the Belgian firm SOCFIN, and so on. Whether it is a multinational rubber plantation in Kribi or a national cotton plantation in Maroua or a CDC oil palm plantation in Tiko or a family coffee plantation in Mbessa, certain things are common to all these plantations. In one way or the other, they contribute to deforestation and the loss of biodiversity, including insects, and they lead to climate change in many ways. While oiling neoliberal capitalism and exacerbating climate change, plantations degrade and desecrate our soils and decimate our insect populations.

Chemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and habitat destruction, whether through subsistence or plantation agriculture, do not only reduce the populations of insects above the land such as bees and grasshoppers. They also reduce insects beneath the Earth such as earthworms which contribute to soil fertility and enhance the soul of the Earth. Activities to extract or suck out the numerous minerals such as petrol (crude oil), gold, diamond, and iron ore found in various parts of Cameroon also have devastating ecological consequences. And these include soil degradation, various forms of pollution, habitat destruction and the loss of biodiversity. Plantations and extractivism contribute in killing our more-than-human kin such as wildlife and insects and in violating the rights of nature, thereby jeopardizing the life and soul of our Mother Earth. Interestingly, according to Mbessa cosmological and spiritual beliefs, the Earth is a living being which should be treated with care and reverence because it gives life to us and swallows us back through death. That is one of the reasons why we pour libations onto the Earth and use it in swearing. In this regard, ignorantly or consciously using pesticides and poisonous fertilizers in agriculture leads to two serious crimes: destroying the geological composition and natural fertility of the soil on the one hand and desecrating the soul and sanctity of the Earth on the other hand. This amounts not only to ecocide in western scientific terms but also to suicide and sacrilege from a Mbessa spiritual and cosmological perspective. And killing the Earth is suicidal for us humans in Mbessa (and elsewhere) because we cannot outlive the Earth that gives life to us and takes it back, that feeds and eats us. So, what must we do to stop exterminating insects, desecrating Mother Earth and triggering our own self-annihilation—in Mbessa and in the world?

I have a number of suggestions in this regard. One entails massive environmental education in places like Mbessa where people live in close connection with nature and are deceived by capitalism into embracing harmful farming practices like the use of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Another is for the spiritual authorities of Mbessa (e.g., Fon/Foyn/King and Kfifoyn/Kwifon—the latter is our secret and sacred traditional parliament) and other places similar to Mbessa to accompany environmental education with the pouring of libations to appease the damage to the earth.

Another suggestion is artistic and metaphorical in nature. Whether in Mbessa or elsewhere, one of the ways to re-establish our kinship and harmonious relations with Mother Earth, including our insects and our soils, is to learn or relearn to admire more-than-human beings like insects that were hitherto perceived as ugly or nasty. Here I am thinking about how in my childhood we used to play with and admire some insects such as grasshoppers and dust bugs, but not earthworms or even those intestinal worms that used to be flushed out of our stomachs when we were sick and losing weight despite eating well. We could dismantle metaphors that may have been leading us to denigrate insects in general and train our senses to start seeing beauty in some of the insects that we may have previously considered only as enemies. This would include wasps which used to sting us as children when provoked (whether deliberately or accidentally) and earthworms which many of us seem not to consider as beautiful or pleasant to look upon when eating food grown on their sweat. Is it not high time we redefined what we consider as beauty regarding insects in general and earthworms in particular? What if beauty no longer lays in the eyes of the beholder but in the importance of the beheld? Isn’t it more appropriate to appreciate not only beauty but duty? I mean to admire not only the bright colours of a ladybug or those of carpenter bees but also the slimy body and faithful ecological duties of the earthworm toiling and sweating for us and for ants and for birds?

“Earthworms!” by goosmurf is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

It was from the above perspective that I penned the poem that follows, entitled “Beautiful Earthworms”, to celebrate the beauty and duty of our insect-friends in general and earthworms in particular. I believe that transforming our perception of earthworms into some kind of pleasure is in line with the deep economic, socio-cultural, spiritual, political, and technological transformations that we require to cool down our warming and dying Earth. By contemplating and hopefully admiring our insect-friends, especially those hitherto perceived as ugly or not pleasant to look upon such as earthworms, we might be cultivating new symbiotic relations with our more-than-human neighbours and kin. We might be learning or relearning to admire, venerate and care for the Earth that gives birth to us and swallows us back.

: :

Beautiful Earthworms
Nsah Mala

Soft slimy creatures,
You glide underground –
Escorting water and nitrogen,
Distributing nutrients to plants
Which feed us, but some of us measure
Your beauty with their eyes, not with their minds.

Fragile flexing creatures,
You burrow into the ground –
Impregnating the soil for our good,
Toiling tirelessly as natural engineers
To sustain lives, but some of us measure
Your worth with emotions, not with eco-metres.

While some of us burn fuels, the earth warms;
Some others spray into extinction our worms.
Exterminating you leaves us and others sunken
As the scramble for capital keeps us drunken.
No doubt we destroy the earth looking for beauty
And we forget that a healthy earth may be ugly.

Who cares? Beauty lies in its beholding,
But this earth is a multifaceted mirror
Not hung only for human viewing.
Other beings observe it for their honour.
Acknowledging the beauty of worms
Could quench this Earth that warms.

Aarhus, 28 May 2019

: :

This is part of the cluster GeoSemantics. Read the other posts here. 

: :