And then the locusts came. It had not happened for many a long year. The elders said locusts came once in a generation, reappeared every year for seven years and then disappeared for another lifetime. They went back to their caves in a distant land, where they were guarded by a race of stunted men. And then after another lifetime these men opened the caves again and the locusts came to Umuofia.
After a long absence, a large swarm of locusts descends upon Umuofia, much to the villagers’ delight, for the locusts are a source of food. Here, the narrator explains the folklore the Igbo tell about the locusts, folklore that symbolizes the Igbo’s close connection to the cycles of nature. The story of the locusts also represents the Igbo’s respect for and desire to maintain their culture, for had they been more modernized, they would have understood the scientific explanation for such biological phenomena.
At first, a fairly small swarm came. They were harbingers sent to survey the land.
When the locusts first come to Umuofia, only a small swarm appears at first. The locusts are described as “harbingers” sent to do reconnaissance work for the rest of the swarm. This is symbolic of when the white missionaries first come to Umuofia, as only a small group of them appear at first. When the rest of the locusts arrive, this foreshadows and represents the white settlers’ appearance later in the novel.
Everyone was now about, talking excitedly and praying that the locusts should camp in Umuofia for the night. For although locusts had not visited Umuofia for many years, everybody knew by instinct that they were very good to eat.
At first, the Igbo are excited when the locusts come. Their instincts tell them that the locusts are “good to eat,” and in this excitement they fail to recognize that the locusts will also bring destruction. In much the same way, the Igbo are excited and curious when the white missionaries come, and their instincts fail to warn them that the settlers are actually dangerous and will cause more harm than good. The way the locusts’ destruction catches the Igbo off guard symbolizes the way the reality of the white settlers will catch the Igbo off guard later in the novel.
They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered the bare ground. Mighty tree branches broke away under them, and the whole country became the brown-earth color of the vast, hungry swarm.
After the first swarm of locusts arrives, larger swarms follow. Soon, every square inch of the village and surrounding land becomes covered with the unstoppable, hungry masses that are quickly devouring all the vegetation in the area. The locusts’ destruction of the Igbo’s land symbolizes and foreshadows the way the white settlers will exploit the Igbo’s land and resources later in the novel.
[“]I forgot to tell you another thing which the Oracle said. It said that other white men were on their way. They were locusts, it said, and that first man was their harbinger sent to explore the terrain. And so they killed him.”
During his exile, Okonkwo is visited by another clansman, Obierika, who tells him some disturbing news. A neighboring village has been destroyed by a group of white men seeking revenge for the death of their comrade, who was killed by the villagers in a preemptive attack. Obierika tells Okonkwo that the Oracle had warned that the white men were “locusts,” coming in small numbers at first and then arriving in devastating numbers later. The locusts have come to symbolize the white men and their ominous arrival to Africa.