The lives of locust communities are divided into a solitary phase and a gregarious, or swarming, phase. During the misleadingly named solitary phase, locusts spend their time hopping or flying from plant to plant, chomping away at leaves and posing a minor threat to crops like all other varieties of shorthorn grasshopper. The nymphs, or hoppers, align themselves to each other in small groups, but their movement is more or less random; they don’t seem to feel any burning need to get anywhere. The adult flyers don’t even live in groups.

Under the right conditions, however, the population builds up. Over the course of a season or more, the growing numbers of hoppers gradually move into the gregarious phase. This behaviour is unique to locusts. This is why the ordinary grasshopper is a cute bug in all the storybooks, and the locust is a plague of literally Biblical proportions. The small groups of hoppers move around at random until one group happens to intercept another. The two groups merge and continue to roam, intercepting other small groups, until a huge band of locusts is formed. The movements of the individual members begin to find a common direction until the entire band is actually marching in a unified direction like a vast army, virtually unstoppable. Hoppers can swim.

At some point of the march, the hoppers moult, becoming flying adult locusts. The random, exploratory hopping patterns seen before repeat themselves as short, circular flights. Active flyers encourage the others to follow them, and eventually the entire band is swarming, circulating in the air, gradually finding its direction and attracting other swarms to join it. The swarm begins to fly purposefully, looking for food, flying up to seventy hours at a stretch, one hundred kilometers a day, in any direction except straight into the wind.

Of course, from a human point of view, locust swarms are disasters. But from an evolutionary standpoint, they are miracles.


Daigoro’s words have been moving into the gregarious phase for several weeks now. They emerged slowly, in little groups dispersed at random. Ah ah ah, buh buh buh, varum, kochuk, aumamum, little hoppers trying out different bushes like grasshoppers. It was a joy to watch them in the solitary phase. She would sit up, holding a block, and name it “Um Um”. Block, I would tell her, but a minute later it would be “Kocha”, and “Um Um” would be a tambourine. It was all just too adorable, as random and funny as Douglas Adams at his best.

As the days went by, I became aware of a change. The hopper groups were banding together. “Beh” emerged as a clear favourite, having originally been the name of a bear but now finding new meaning as an all-purpose exclamation. “Beh” could be Bear, or Baby, or Bye-Bye. Or, of course, just plain Beh to get my attention.

Two of my personal favourites, “Untz Untz Untz” and “Taco Taco Taco”, were the first to merge. The new group, “Untz untz untz taco taco taco taco” was stronger than the sum of its parts. She would use it on anything and everything. She would wander around the apartment applying “Untz untz untz taco taco taco taco” to every object she found. It quickly met and subsumed other small bands, like “Dada” and “Bebe” - the new, baby-specific version of “Beh”.

I could tell that the swarm would begin any day now. The hoppers were ready to moult. She was replying to everything I said to her, with meaningful intonation and clear cadence and recognizable nymph forms of actual words. Would her first real word be “Daddy”, or “Mommy”, or that old sit-com favourite “NO”? Would it, perhaps, be in Hebrew or Afrikaans? Would she - heaven forbid - use any of those horrid four-letter words we tried so hard, so unsuccessfully, to banish from the house?

Keep in mind that it’s possible to predict roughly where locust bands will find favourable conditions for the gregarious phase, but if you lose track of a band on the march, it’s nearly impossible to predict where they will actually begin to swarm. And once they swarm, you can’t even hope to control their movement. Only the wind can control a swarm of locusts.


Paddington Bear had been sitting on the shelf since the day Daigoro came home from the hospital. We tried him as a crib companion once or twice, but she never paid him any attention. She always preferred the more flopsy creatures, like the enormous, sagging bunny rabbit or the strange black Raggedy Ann her grandmother bought her on the road to Knysna. She absolutely loved that one.

So Paddington had been warming the bench, waiting for his day. And that day came today, when I put her to bed and read her a story. I showed her the bear, and she said “Beh”, and I said yes, it’s a bear, it’s Paddington Bear. And she said “Pfaffinkung” or something close to it, and I told her that was great.

And I read her the story while she drank her bottle, and all the while she was watching Paddington as he sat next to her, eternally warm and dry in his macintosh and his wide-brimmed hat. I finished the story and laid down next to her, and asked her, vapid father-conversation style, if she liked Paddington.

And she said, as clear as the BBC News, “Paddington.” Chain lightning tapdanced from roof to roof. The Earth shook. Rain came pummeling out of the sky in parts of Ethiopia that didn’t even have a word for rain, and a white sperm whale was born off the coast of New Zealand. Daigoro’s first word was “Paddington”.

“Beh. Paddington.” The swarm had begun. She had started to drift off, but now she woke up completely. Mommy came home from work early, as if she had known today would be special, and the child was up like a bolt. She spent the rest of the evening with us in the living room, talking nonstop. There were no more real words, not today, but I know they are coming.

Paddington will never go back on the shelf.

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