Oct/Nov 2006 Nonfiction

Time in the Desert

by Elizabeth Bernays

Photo by Jim Gourley


I take up the trowel and a roll of toilet paper and head out into the sand dunes in the blinding midday sun. We are near the abandoned village of Tin Aouker in the Tilemsi valley, about 30 miles north of Gao in Mali [16048 'N, 0008 'E], camping with tents, trucks and Land Rovers. Reg and I have a tent where we keep our personal stuff, but we sleep on camp cots with nets under the stars. The radar team and the meteorologists must go to bed in their tents at sunrise and sleep during the morning hours and they have recently risen to join the rest of us for lunch.

We have all been sitting in the mess tent—a high canvas twenty feet long without walls. Twelve of us are eating salty soup, fresh pan bread and dried fruit. I wear a knee-length skirt, cotton blouse, and sandals. The men wear shorts, sandals or boots, and half of them wear shirts. Ibrahim, our Malian cook in long baggy pants is by the opening to the kitchen tent where a 44-gallon drum of water stands, supplying our needs for three days.

We talk of the morning's findings. Coulibali found hundreds of grasshoppers in the light trap, a four meter by four meter ditch we had dug, lined with plastic, filled with soapy water to drown the catches, and illuminated at night with a lamp from the generator. Most of them were insignificant little brown things called Oedaleus senegalensis. Don and Mark had dissected some of them in the lab tent to estimate their state of maturity. Nick had searched the area for species that might be living in the minimal vegetation. Reg and I had taken a Land Rover further afield to see what we could find where the radar had suggested takeoff the previous sunset. Everyone is sleepy now in the heat.

I need to traverse about a hundred yards of lifeless sand before I am out of sight of the camp. I seem to be the only living thing in the shimmering heat, the temperature well above 400C. I encounter the straggling growth of a small bitter gourd, Colocynthus, and one grass plant, Cenchrus, with dried up leaves and spiny seeds. But nothing moves. It is the time of day in the desert when it makes sense to be completely still.

No sooner is my action beginning when I see the thing coming, and marvel at the way it flies in the heat, wonder where it could possibly have been hiding, out of the sun. It is a dung beetle. It is a stocky black two-centimeter long tank of a thing, and comes slowly my way in a zigzag flight upwind. It comes at an angle and when it seems to be past the proper angle to reach me it turns about 900 and comes again. The movement is exactly what the entomologists call anemotaxis.

Insects have a simple mechanism for getting to the source of a good smell, a smell that might mean food. The antennae of course do the smelling, but once the good quality is recognized they automatically turn into the wind at an angle that regularly alternates a little bit, giving the zig-zag flight. This tends to keep them within the odor plume. If they reach the edge of the odor plume on the right or left they deviate again to the left or right, and thus they reach the odor source.

I am thrilled to see such a perfect demonstration of the process and I wait with my trowel, not wanting to spoil the dung beetle's reward as I try to recall the evolutionary history of insects. Beetles of course have been around for hundreds of millions of years, but dung beetles? I don't know, but certainly for tens of millions of years. She lands right on the prize and immediately begins the process of getting it under the sand into the right sizes and positions for laying her eggs. After the burial, which takes no more than twenty minutes, I am more than ready for my own return to the shelter of the mess tent, the all-important water, and to Reg who will enjoy my story. I hadn't needed the trowel after all.



Six of us, five men and a woman around a wooden table covered with green plastic cloth, each with a Fanta, the sickly-sweet orange soda I have seen all over Africa. No one wants any of the dark-colored food in the glass cabinet, which is unidentifiable, though some of it is probably goat meat. A door with torn screen blows open and shut. A beautiful boy of about thirteen behind the counter wears khaki shorts and tattered white shirt. He stares at us and I know he has George's attention. Such a boy will return to London with him later. It has happened before. Silent George, with his love of North Africa and of Muslim boys, is a key player in most locust and grasshopper projects. He is just one of the diverse characters I work with in this place where time has a different meaning.

Through dusty glass I see two bearded men in long white robes squatting in the heat under a neem tree. One draws shapes in the dirt with a stick, his robe folded up over his head. The other gazes into the distance, cloth drawn tightly round his thighs. They talk little and I wonder how they manage to squat for so long without moving.

I am in Gao, Mali, October 1978, as the only woman member of a British-sponsored interdisciplinary team studying night migration of pest grasshoppers. We flew to Niamey in Niger and for two days we have been traveling north, crossing into Mali, following a rough road that follows the River Niger upstream. We left some of our group at Daoga and will head north from Gao, away from the river and up the wide, stony, Tilemsi valley. The two teams will camp 50 miles apart across the InterTropical Convergence Zone, an area of low pressure that forms where the Northeast Trade Winds meet the Southeast Trade Winds near the earth's equator. As these winds converge, they force moist air upward. This causes water vapor to condense, or be "squeezed" out, as the air cools and rises, resulting in rainfall. In desert areas, the InterTropical Convergence Zone, which moves north in summer and south in winter, is a place where grasshoppers may find plants, at least some times, some years.

Our food for the month was purchased in England and shipped to Niamey. Our water drums are filled in Gao, and we must get used to managing in camp with little more than a gallon per day per person. Each will develop a different strategy for using his quota efficiently, and mine, apart from drinking, is for cleaning teeth with no more than a tablespoon, washing face with two pints and reusing that to wash the rest of my body or my hair. What is left of this I reuse again for washing clothes or feet.

Here in the hot afternoon café we daren't drink the water but instead drink that warm, very fizzy, very brilliant orange-colored Fanta. It is good to sit still after rattling along for two days in a Land Rover, but conversation lags. Joe, who is fluent in French, talks briefly with the waiter. There was a sandstorm two days ago, drought continues, the best well has become contaminated with grasshopper corpses.

We hear the mid-afternoon call to prayers from the nearby mosque, and I realize that we have been in the café for a long time. Three men go by, one in long red robes, the other two in white. They prod a single Zebu bull ahead of them "Fulani," murmurs George, but they have gone by before I have time to register their faces. That I miss some details is unimportant. That I have no watch doesn't seem to matter. That time passes so idly seems reasonable.

Reg and I are silent. We are partners in every sense. I know he thinks as I do, of the sights of the past two days, the villages of Ayoru, Tillaberi, and Ansongo, with their low mud houses and narrow streets full of people and animals in the cool of the morning, classic barren desert beside the wide brown river Niger, large decorated boats being loaded with grain to be paddled or motored downstream to bigger towns. There is a wide alluvial strip between barren desert and water that is almost luminous-green with rice, turning the adjacent red sand dunes into a delusion.

Two men on camels pass by in the street. They are Touareg nomads, draped from head to foot in dark blue cloth. Only the top halves of their faces are visible under turbans, faces also blue from the dye of the cloth. I learn that for centuries, these people herded camels and goats across the Saharan plains, leading a hard but independent existence. When the French colonized the region in the late 1800's, the Touareg put up a fierce but unsuccessful resistance. Then, with independence in the 1950's, the Touareg were parceled out among the newly created countries, and their nomadic existence restricted. However, they sit erect and silent on their camels and we will see more of them in the camp at Tin Aouker.

The sun is low. Dust-laden rays of sunlight hit the edge of the tablecloth, highlighting the feeding and copulating of flies. I notice that one of the flies has only five legs but is in no way hindered in its activities. If anything, it seems to get more matings than the others. As I watch them I discover that they vary in size, in shades of gray, in speed of running, in how high they raise their legs, in how quickly they engage in coupling. They differ in how low they hang their heads when extending probosces with spongy tips, and how long the sponges engage in licking old food spots on the plastic. Flies have been so engaged for almost one hundred million years, and I become conscious of time or perhaps timelessness here, so far from everything I know.



When we arrived at our campsite at Tin Aouker in the Tilemsi Valley it was almost dark. Reg put up our two-man tent by starlight while I struggled with our camp cots and nets outside the tent. We all got our water rations and turned in early, exhausted from the rough journey. The hot day turned into a cool night and we needed blankets out under the stars where the donkeys startled the midnight hours with braying and we woke early with the dawn.

Don made his little camp some distance from the rest of us, saying, "I need distance." When he rose next morning he found his cot beside a skeleton emerging from the desert sand, and it wasn't long before several Touareg men arrived, gesturing and shouting among us. We had accidentally camped on an old burial ground with some special significance. The skeleton was to be dug up and reburied. We had to move camp. Don was one of those people to whom things happen. The next night the nomads brought him back after he lost his way when he went off in the dunes to pee.

At the new campsite, Nick picked up a stone arrowhead and we all marveled at the quality of the point, the details of the tiny notches. His blue eyes sparked as they often did: "Let's make one. Let's try hunting with one."

Then George found a stone axe head. In the next hour or so we all had found stone tools and we forgot grasshoppers in our excitement. Small boys from the nomad camp nearby came to watch us and we gave them coins for any that they found for us. The tools were scattered all around on the stony slopes of a low hill, exposed I imagine, as sand had been blown from the surface. None of us thought about the archeological value of the site with tools in such abundance, and it was twenty years before Mali established laws restricting export of such items, so I still have my collection in a leather basket on a table by my front door in Tucson, Arizona.

My arrowheads are between one and two inches long. Some are narrow with very fine lateral serrations and sharp points. At the base they have hafts that must have fitted into wooden handles, so that they look like very symmetrical miniature pine trees. One is broad, with five large serrations along each edge. Another has rounded sides and a particularly sharp point. The roughest looking has sharp smooth sides and is almost completely flat. Each, I suppose, must have had a different use. The fine "axe heads" were probably scrapers and hand held, varying from about an inch long and even smaller in width, to about two inches square, polished and rounded with perfect edges. No signs of chopping or flaking to make the edge, making them Neolithic, at the earliest probably between four and six thousand years old.

I hold an axe head. It fits exactly in my palm. Each of my fingers runs over the silky-flat surface, as I imagine a dark hand long ago that may have treasured such a tool. I think about the hands that held the axe then and what thoughts may have engaged the man in long hours spent grinding and polishing. Was there joy in making and holding this thing? Was it the Swiss army knife of those times? And why was there no sign of wear on its sharp edge? Had he dropped it out of his woven bag as he ran from some enemy? Was it kept for prestige? Had it been used in a burial? Did the maker wonder about the meaning of human life? What tribal identity, myth, and ritual gave order to his days? What have we inherited from those distant days in our needs for esthetic detail, quality tools, mythical explanations of who we are and why we are here?



George in Daoga was on the two-way radio talking to Nick up with us in Tin Aouker.

"Our radar shows big swarms of them heading north at 500 meters, going at fourteen meters per second. Wind from the south at five meters per second. Over and out."

"When should we see them on the radar up here? Over and out."

"If conditions remain stable you should see them in about four hours, so let's say one a.m. We will need the information from your upward-looking machine too to get the species. Over and out."

Those of us with daytime jobs were sitting around the table under the mess canopy, chatting about the day's work. The temperature had finally fallen to something comfortable as we drank tea and picked at the broken shortbread from a big square tin.

"Interesting that all the females are immature—no sign of eggs in ovarioles," mentions Don, who had been dissecting insects under the microscope in the lab tent.

Reg replied, "Well, that would be typical, not just for grasshoppers, but for most migrating insect species. They need to get where they are going before putting on weight." He continued, "What was the species profile from last night's light trap?"

"Oh, a mixture—Oedaleus, mostly."

"Yes, that's what I got on the transects around here today," said Nick.

"Liz and I went north to where the radar showed concentrated takeoff last night and at first we saw nothing. Then Liz poked a stick down into the deep cracks left by drying mud in a wadi and you wouldn't believe it, but it was full of resting grasshoppers, all of them Aiolopus."

As darkness fell, the radar team was busy in the truck, monitoring activity in the air above on an oscilloscope, and using a movie camera to record the changes on screen. Insects appeared as white dots and a group of them at similar altitude showed as a circle of white dots. Groups at greater altitude created circles with larger diameters. With many insects in layers the screen became a mass of concentric circles, but when the air was dense with them the screen was entirely white. Dense in this context would be a couple of insects in one hundred meters cubed.

Our mission was to understand the nighttime migration of pest grasshoppers that were adding to the desertification of the Sahel in West Africa. Life for the nomads is hard enough in such a desert, without the added problem of competition from millions of these grass-devouring insects. They were inconspicuous and cryptic in the daytime, but with conventional scanning radar we could see them at night, and measure the density and flight speed. With upward looking radar we could detect the orientation and wingbeat frequency of the insects used to characterize each species. We obtained additional evidence for species flying from ground surveys in the daytime and from collections of insects that dropped down into the light trap at night.

Meteorologists provided measurements of wind speed and direction at different elevations. The hypothesis was that the grasshoppers were programmed to fly downwind and thus pitch up at the InterTropical Convergence Zone, the best place to find food. And this proved finally to be so. There were several grasshopper species involved and the masses of individuals flying at night were mixtures of species all doing the same thing. They flew before they were reproductively mature, presumably banking on getting food and then settling down to eat, mate and develop eggs.

The team of people worked well together—radar scientists, electronics technicians, meteorologists, ecologists, insect physiologists, and Nick, the taxonomist and trickster. There were fourteen of us plus the Malian locust control man, Coulibali, and our Malian cook, Ibrahim. At sunset, with the day jobs done and the night jobs yet to begin we all sat down together for a single small beer and reported the highlights of the day; grasshopper survey counts, finds of stone tools, Touareg activities.

After the first few days at Tin Aouker, a few Touareg women lost their reticence and gathered close to the camp. It was me they looked at—the unusual sight of a white woman in skirt and sandals. One morning as I went to my tent in pajamas to wash and dress I found three of them waiting just inside. I smiled a little nervously, not knowing how best to regain my privacy, and they looked at each other giggling behind their blue robes. I noticed silver objects sewn to the bottom of one of their robes, I saw dark mysterious eyes in beautiful young faces looking up and down my body. I washed my face and hesitated, but they remained motionless. Eventually, however, I shooed them off and they fled laughing back to their encampment.

One day two Touareg men came to our camp and explained in French that they needed water. We had brought the minimum, used it very sparingly, and certainly couldn't get into the business of supplying the nomads, but it seemed that they had an old man dying and Nick felt there was no option and filled a goatskin for them. It turned out to be a true story—the old man died next day.

Surveys sometimes took us close to the Touareg camp. We could hear radios with occasional French words emerging from crackle. Radios are typical gifts from Europeans or Americans crossing the Sahara, running out of water and being saved by nomads. The batteries run low, but no one seems to mind that hearing the words or music is impossible; the volume is kept up just the same.

Men in blue cloth sitting in a circle under the scant shade of a solitary acacia tree talking, women in blue cloth grinding spiny seeds of cenchrus grass at the entrance to a tent, children riding off on donkeys to a distant well, joining us in racing after grasshoppers, playing complex games in the sand. The sores on their scalps spoke of scurvy. A Negro subclass, the boys in briefs, appeared to carry out many of the daily jobs. Camels lazing. In the distance a block of windowless rooms built by the French in a vain attempt to provide a permanent township. In the other direction, heat mirages over the stony hills.



We see it coming. A distant brown blur across the rocks and dunes of the desert. And the wind is rising. "Quick," yells Nick, "Get the tents down, chaps." He is excited by the drama actually but practiced at dealing with all emergencies of the camp.

We set to as the brown mass comes toward us. We flattened every tent over its contents and held it down with rocks or whatever heavy objects we could find. We did the mess tent last, and that was difficult with the wind blowing hard now and the first sand blowing in our faces. John and Joe covered the radar dishes and tightly closed the equipment truck containing the generator and oscilloscopes. Then we all got into the Land Rovers, rolled up the windows, locked the doors and waited.

For three hours we could see almost nothing but brown as the sand and dust whipped across the desert, sanded the paint on anything left exposed, scratched the glass on the windscreen. The vehicles rocked. The edges of tents flapped free from their anchors. The sounds were eerie with whines and none of us spoke. We listened and watched the violence, and wondered how long. I wondered how the Touareg managed sand storms and what on earth the grasshoppers did. Surely the sand would wear away the waterproofing of their cuticles.

The air calmed down and the sand settled. The storm was over by late afternoon and we were able to put things in order again before dark. And that was good because sunset involved a ritual that every single one of us valued above all other things in this Mali camp. The generator, brought to run electronic equipment for the night-time radar work, ran a small refrigerator during the day. It was just big enough to hold one small bottle of beer for each researcher, and every evening at sunset we emptied the day's ration with such smiles and goodwill that I am sure, after a long day of piercing sunshine, shade temperatures above 400C, a monotony of warm water, salty soup and hot tea at predetermined intervals, that beer was critically important to the success and enjoyment of the trip. I started to think of that treat quite early in the day, and by mid afternoon could think of little else. The faces at sunset when Nick called, "OK chaps," told me I was not alone.

The day of the sand storm happened to be Sunday and Don, who had thought out the whole menu for all these people for a month in the desert, had decided that Sunday should involve some kind of treat. His choices overall had been excellent. We had muesli with milk made up from powder for breakfast, together with lots of tea. For lunch we had soup made up from powder, some canned meat or sardines, Ibrahim's pan bread, canned or dried fruit and lots of tea. Dinner varied. Sometimes we had fresh food from Gao, but usually we ate stew from dried meat, scrambled eggs made from powder, rice dishes from packets, cheese, jello, and lots of tea. On Sundays a big can of Dundee fruitcake was opened and the fruitcakes marked the passing weeks. I never felt like eating in the still-hot evening but all of us ate slices, if only to assure Don that he had done well. And so, on the day of the sand storm, after sunset beer, and simple dinner, we sat around the trestle table in the mess tent with lamps burning, eating fruit cake, telling tales of life in the desert. From time to time we heard the light splash of an insect hitting the water at the light trap.



I live in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona but by the standards of the Sahara it is hardly a desert, with its winter and summer rain and rich flora. But it is a desert with its piercing heat and bone-dry wind, and the strange expansion of time as we wait for rain, as cactus plants wrinkle, as shrubs lose their leaves or turn completely brown. An ancient arrow piercing my largest old saguaro cactus is evidence of the people who once lived simple lives here, wondering surely about who they were and from whence they came, waiting out the dry seasons that still seem endless even with our sophistications.

Where we worked in Mali there were just three plant species and those scarce and restricted to wadis, the spots that are slightly lower, where water collects a little when it rains. It was not always so. Neolithic humans lived here in abundance. But it is the nature of deserts to make us aware of time, of the past, and of endurance. It is the nature of deserts to trigger contemplation of who we are and where we came from.

Under the vaulted dome of skies over a nameless continent unhurried human existence passed its days here thousands of years ago and for thousands of years. The stone tools that took long days to perfect in such abundance suggest a rich living. So long after, we come by plane for a matter of weeks to this barren place littered with the artifacts of lives long gone and empty air where we imagine conversations, thoughts and hopes of people who shared all our genes. We leave again by plane, taking with us insect specimens in bottles and on pins, information collected in files and notebooks, celluloid film recording the places and events, and exquisitely durable prehistoric artifacts and with them dreams of who we were before our world of electronic overload, reverberations of a past in which grinding patience and unrecorded ideas belied the future wilderness of a world enthralled with its own momentum and blind to risks of its own demise.


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