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The Magical Language of ‘Bug’

 This is a repost of an original Bug Chicks article on Science Friday.

During my Master’s research in Kenya, between collecting trips out in the bush, Jess and I often trooped around Nairobi.  It’s one of my favorite cities in the world.  It’s bursting, anxious, green, spacious, and a little menacing at times. It sounds stupid, but I feel alive there. It is one of those places that forces you to be aware, acute.

Nairobi is home to about 3 million people and about half a million live in a place called the Mathare slums.  It’s a shanty town with no running water, no sewage and no money. We had the incredible opportunity to walk through Mathare with a woman who lived there.  She owned an NGO that was trying to bring tour groups in to expose tourists to “the other side.”  She wanted our opinion on how people might like the experience.

We didn’t know what to expect. All the normal telethon phrases apply:  appalling living conditions, despondent and hopeless, etc. However, we also found it full of laughter and buzzing with energy, straining and proud. Most people we met were busy, and charged through the day with an enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit. Buying, selling, trading, hauking. It was not vastly different from the market stalls downtown– just closer-in, heavier, dustier.

As always, we found the children charming and almost impervious to the situation around them.  This little girl showed us her pets–  two short-horned grasshoppers.  She had pulled their back legs off to prevent her companions from hopping away. I told her, in a combination of Swahili, mime and English about grasshoppers, their legs, mouths, eyes. She pointed to the parts with me, reciting the English and Swahili for each.


Surrounded by the lovely, dreadful chaos of the slums,  this little girl and her grasshoppers defined my day in Mathare (and, if I’m honest about it how I’ve chosen to spend my time since).  The bright eyes of a child and nature.  However they come.

It’s always amazing to me that no matter the circumstance, no matter the place, kids want to talk bugs with us.  All children, all over the world speak ‘bug’. It’s a universal language that, unfortunately, most people outgrow.

Whenever people (scientists included) belittle our work as The Bug Chicks because it’s just kids, or I start to question the scope or importance of informal science education, I think about this girl, so excited to show me her most treasured possessions. So willing to learn more about them. It snaps me right out of negativity and doubt.

I remind myself that the ability to speak ‘bug’ is a privilege. We feel lucky  and work to learn new ways to communicate about these animals everyday.  We look forward to more moments like this. However they come.


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