In those first few weeks people said they had seen the moths at night, and eventually I began to see little egg clusters nestled in the lower branches, or on the bark of the trunk, of the occasional shea tree. These didn't seem to be so very numerous to me, but my new friends disagreed. Everyone in the village anticipated a LOT of caterpillars.
A week or so after the eggs first appeared, they began to hatch. The newly emerged caterpillars were tiny – 2 or 3mm in length – and their transluscent green bodies would have been invisible against the green of the leaves were it not for (1) their black heads, (2) their obvious signature of a leaf stripped down to its structure, leaving only its ribs and backbone intact, and (3) the fact that they are gregarious, clustering in groups of over 100. Nevertheless, in the verdant shea trees towering above newly planted fields, each one crowned with dense foliage, these tiny caterpillars were not easy to spot. Not yet.
A few days later, they had grown in size. A week passed, and they were becoming easier to spot, in trees where they had defoliated entire branches. And after just a couple of weeks, the trees were transformed.
No longer was I working in idyllic landscapes scattered with fertile, flourishing trees. The crops continued to grow, but the trees – the trees were like ghosts. The majority of shea trees were now stripped bare by their tiny predators. The pale yellow spines of leaves were all that remained on the branches, and these shone in clouds around the crown of each tree. Meanwhile, the caterpillars had moved on to the next tree. Each day as I walked across fields, paths, even on roads, the caterpillars could be seen underfoot, steadily inching across the soil below with a clear purpose – to find more food.
Meanwhile, the villagers were happy – they had been right in their predictions, and their only expressed worry was that perhaps there were too many caterpillars and not enough trees, so that many would die before meeting maturity.