Uganda’s ‘green money’ grasshoppers under target and threatened

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Locust hunting provides Ugandans with cheap nutritious food and sometimes a lot of money, but the number of insects is declining due to deforestation and climate change. An Italian photographer captured the joys and dangers of trapping “nsenene” in a book with a preface by Bobi Wine.

“As children, we used to catch bugs and fry them for our morning or evening tea. It wasn’t until I was fifteen or sixteen that I realized this was a business opportunity, ”writes musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine in the book’s preface. Nsenene by Michèle Sibiloni.

Wine grew up in the ghettos of Kampala and like many young people would go out twice a year at the end of the rainy season to trap the long-horned grasshoppers, called nsenene in Luganda language. The children filled their bellies, and finally their pockets.

“I recorded my first single – and I made my first million – with grasshopper money,” writes Bobi Wine. “He paid my brother’s school fees and the family bills too. That’s why I worship these insects: locusts have changed my life.

Hunters are looking to make a living, but some people are happy to catch a few for a free nutritious meal © Michèle Sibiloni, Nsenène, Edition Patrick Frey, 2021.

The Nsenenes migrate en masse only twice a year, after the rainy seasons in November and May. The swarms are only there for a few days and it is a period of intense activity.

The easiest method is to go to banana or corn plantations and shake the trees or bushes.

But to earn real money, hunters set elaborate traps involving iron sheets, barrels of oil, transformers, and a special fluorescent bulb that produces a stronger light than usual to attract and disorient insects.

Grasshopper hunters fill large white bags with the lucrative green insects which they then sell in a special market in the capital Kampala
Grasshopper hunters fill large white bags with the lucrative green insects which they then sell in a special market in the capital Kampala © Michèle Sibiloni, Nsenène, Edition Patrick Frey, 2021.

Magical atmosphere

Italian photographer Michele Sibiloni was drawn to the lights one night in 2011 as he was traveling by bus through the Ugandan town of Masaka, near the Congolese border.

“The city was completely lit and it was incredible,” he told RFI. “I didn’t know what the lights were.”

In 2015, he began tracking the insect around Masaka, known locally as the “Nsenene Republic” since the tradition began there about four decades ago. He then photographed hunting expeditions to a number of towns in central and western Uganda, meeting as many trappers as he could.

It took him five years to complete the project.

“One of the things that kept me going is the magical atmosphere that occurs during these swarming days,” he says. “The sky turns completely green, everyone leaves their homes and goes in search of grasshoppers. It’s not just about making money, it’s about living the moment and spending time together.

Locust hunting is also a family affair
Locust hunting is also a family affair © Michèle Sibiloni, Nsenene, Edition Patrick Frey, 2021.

“Green money”

One of her favorites is a photo taken from inside the traps with everyone picking up grasshoppers from the ground.

“It looks like a still image of a moving image, a kind of combat relationship between man and nature,” he says. He remembers the unique atmosphere of that night in Fort Portal where they were making a lot of money.

“The owners of the traps made around US $ 5,000 that night and had to hire a huge truck to send all the bags to Kampala market. It was the first time I had seen someone make so much money and the owner told me it was the first time this had happened to him. There was a lot of joy. “

The trappers of Fort Portal, in western Uganda, are having a blast. "The owners of these traps won nearly $ 5,000 overnight" recalls Sibiloni
The trappers of Fort Portal, in western Uganda, are having a blast. “The owners of these traps made almost $ 5,000 overnight,” recalls Sibiloni © Michèle Sibiloni, Nsenène, Edition Patrick Frey, 2021.

Risky business

Nsenene’s trapping has its dangers, however. Competition between hunters can become fierce, and because they deliberately break bulbs to increase light intensity, dangerous UV rays can burn skin and eyes.

“This is what happened to my brother,” warns Bobi Wine.

And if there is money to be made, “it’s an unpredictable business,” says Sibiloni.

“The wind can change suddenly and the swarm can move to another city in half an hour.”

Hunters make their way to the Kampala Grasshopper Market.  You can earn thousands of dollars in a matter of days, but it's unpredictable.
Hunters make their way to the Kampala Grasshopper Market. You can earn thousands of dollars in a matter of days, but it’s unpredictable. © Michèle Sibiloni, Nsenene, Edition Patrick Frey, 2021.

Threats

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program, grasshoppers have a higher protein content than beef or fish and therefore are a promising source of nutrition that could fight malnutrition.

Unfortunately, the number of grasshoppers in Uganda is declining.

Nsenenes are in fact bush crickets but deforestation deprives them of their natural habitat.

“When you fly over Uganda in a small plane, you realize that in some areas there are few trees left,” says Sibiloni.

Meanwhile, climate change is making the rainy seasons increasingly unpredictable, disrupting their life cycle and disorienting swarms.

Grasshopper numbers decline in Uganda: deforestation leads to loss of natural habitat as climate change disrupts rainy season and disorients insects
Grasshopper numbers decline in Uganda: deforestation leads to loss of natural habitat as climate change disrupts rainy season and disorients insects © Michèle Sibiloni, Nsenene, Edition Patrick Frey, 2021.

Sibiloni noticed the drop in numbers.

“The last season was bad, the trappers lost a lot of money. They invested and never got their money back. “

There is a lot at stake, especially for Ugandan youth. 77 percent of Ugandans are under 25 – the youngest population in the world – and unemployment is high.

“You see a lot of young people chasing grasshoppers, any possibility of making money is worth trying,” says Sibiloni. “But it’s kind of like gambling – you have high hopes but you just don’t know if you’ll get your investment back. “

Some of Sibiloni's grasshopper photos have a surreal side
Some of Sibiloni’s grasshopper photos have a surreal side © Michèle Sibiloni, Nsenene, Edition Patrick Frey, 2021.

Sibiloni is currently working on a documentary film around nsenene, with Bobi Wine, which will be released in 2022.


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