Issue 64, Winter 1975
To them he was simply “the old man” and they had no other name for him: he was so ancient that they had forgotten what he had once been called and knew nothing of his origins; there was some debate even as to whether he truly belonged to the tribe. Yet when they took me out to meet him, they showed him to me with pride: he was theirs now and was something to exhibit to visitors; he cost virtually nothing to keep in food and shelter and could easily be carried with them once the waterhole dried up and they had to move on. Besides, he looked after their locusts.
He lay on the ground at the foot of a pole stuck into the sand, and the insects were kept in a closed wickerwork basket that dangled from the top of this by a leather thong. The old men never fed them or tended to them in any way that I could see; no one else seemed to either, and yet they continued to live. If you listened carefully, you could hear a faint scrabbling inside, as of bodies being painfully dragged around; occasionally a leg or wing would appear through a join in the basketwork and remain there for hours or days on end. Then it would disappear: either a passing child had pulled it off, or the creature had regained enough energy to extricate itself; I was never able to tell.