Field notes from an African anthropologist by JC Niala

It was while I waited for my name to move up the notorious allotment waiting list that I found my entry point into the English garden. I had joined a University of Oxford college gardening society  where inclusivity is actively welcomed (or so I thought) and a little more disorder is tolerated than in the ‘not-a-thing-out-of-place’ aesthetic of the traditional university gardens. I was preparing the ground on a crisp autumn afternoon with Wilder, a fellow member of the society, when I spotted a ladybird.


JC Niala sketch of Chilocorus renispulatus


It was on Wilder’s collar, and when I pointed it out, he stood perfectly still and cocked his head to one side so as not to disturb the insect before whispering, ‘Is it foreign?’ When I assured him that it wasn’t, he exhaled. ‘We’re supposed to kill them, aren’t we?’ I nodded in reply because I too had read the newspaper reports, and had done exactly that the previous summer, killed two ladybirds that I think looked like the one below:


Sketch of Harmonia axyridis











As you can see, it’s hard to distinguish the rare Chilocorus renispulatus from Harmonia axyridis, especially when they are life size and seen so fleetingly. It was Harmonia axyridis (called the Harlequin ladybird in the press) that were again being blamed for an invasion of UK homes in the summer of 2018, and whenever they were reported the headlines got more inflammatory. Thirty years ago, they were charged with competing with the indigenous population of English ladybirds, and by 2018 they were getting accused of carrying and spreading insect STIs said to be decimating the English population of ladybirds, alongside social media storms about how to handle them. This from The Independent newspaper:


Originally from Asia, they have reached our shores from North America via mainland Europe. Now they are coming over here, stealing our native ladybirds’ niche in the environment, eating their food and forcing some species like the two-spot ladybird into scarcity.


These reports were disconcerting, more so because I hadn’t stopped to question whether I should kill the ladybirds or not –  although I loved ladybirds, at the time it had seemed a justifiable response. After all, the papers were using the language of war. The kind of language I realised later that was being used to describe people from Europe in the build up to the Brexit referendum. And the kind of language that was used to describe black people during the 1960s, when my parents were students in the UK.


So why did I react like that? Why had I killed creatures that I loved?


The Harlequin ladybirds had crossed a boundary, and boundaries are the demarcations of belonging. We invest a lot in these ideas – they’re an important part of how we order the world. We think of them as fixed, objective – we represent them on maps and they become real in our minds. As real as these boundaries might be for us, they do not exist in the world of the ladybirds. Their lives carry on (unless we infringe upon them) within their ladybird world.


On the African continent, in the nineteenth and twentieth century, European leaders imagined – and made legal – terra nullius, a vast expanse of resource rich land that ‘didn’t belong to anybody’. Because of the power of this idea in the white imagination, colonial administrators didn’t have to recognise or care about the African peoples who lived in the nothing-ness. The boundaries they drew between themselves and African peoples turned myths of superiority into pseudo-sciences, and callously ignored systems of society and ways of living on the land that had emerged over thousands of years.


Where we place ourselves in location to each other, the boundaries we make, also define where human societies place themselves in relation to nature. The two often reflect each other. If we imagine ourselves outside of nature, we treat it in ways that are very different to when we see ourselves as part of nature. When we believe that nature – or people – are there to serve us, it enables mistreatment or subjugation.


Feeling guilty, I decided to find out more about the Harlequin ladybirds, to figure out why it was that they had become so reviled. The first thing that hit me, as I’ve already mentioned, was the similarities between the Harlequin ladybird and Chilocorus renipustulatus, the rare English ladybird. Nowhere in the media was it noted that there was an English ladybird that could easily be confused with the Harlequin. As a black woman living in a European country, I could not help but identify with the Harlequin ladybird. And the feeling deepened as my research revealed that the Harlequin was actually imported into the UK because it is extremely efficient at getting rid of aphids, which are a common garden pest. It is still very good at doing this, and all was going well for the Harlequin until someone decided there were too many of them – or as the Field Studies Council guide to ladybirds of the British Isles put it: this ‘recent immigrant … [is] spreading and increasing … is the most invasive ladybird species on earth and poses a serious threat’.


Does this sound familiar?


It reminded me of the Windrush generation: people brought into the UK from the Caribbean during more recent colonial times, to do a specific task, to help rebuild the ‘mother country’ after the Second World War. Yet thousands of Black British people have now had their citizenship questioned – there are 164 people who were wrongly held in immigration detention, 83 of whom were removed from the country even though they were British, and eleven died after they left. Entering the country at a time when they were all still British ‘subjects’, they have all lived and worked and paid tax and endured hostility, long enough to claim legal citizenship, even after their countries of origin gained independence. Many also came as children and have known nowhere else as home. Now, over half a century later, those same people were being told by the UK government that they have to prove their identity, show us you are British or leave. All too easily, the question of why the Windrush generation were brought into the country is lost, along with all the beneficial work they have done, the families and homes they have made before suddenly being declared personae non grata. I could not help but see parallels between the way human beings were being treated and the way human beings can treat nature. My field notes are filled with examples of species whose fortunes change depending what boundaries humans place around them, and what categories they are said to fit into. What is striking is how arbitrary it is.


My love for ladybirds keeps deepening. I have spent many hours learning how to identify different varieties, and when finally, I did get my allotment plots I would never fail to spot a ladybird while gardening. I even started to give public talks about them, and people were sending me photos and news clippings about ladybirds. I am nowhere near an expert, but I sometimes get asked to come and identify them. Increasingly, I felt that ladybirds were trying to tell me something.


Anthropologists have a fondness for the word ‘entanglement’. It means that things work both ways: we do not just shape the world, we are also shaped by it. I began to wonder if I could find examples of species introduced to the UK that had become English/British, and that were now prized. Initially, it seemed as though plants that can contribute to the aims of the human beings who cultivate them, end up having their indigenisation fast tracked, like a visa or work permit. A plant can usually guarantee its place in a European nation’s food canon if it is beautiful, well marketed and especially if it has a royal connection. Examples of plants that fall into this category are the potato and dahlia (both originally South American). But I was looking for something else. I was looking for a plant that in the UK had become entangled with English people, despite coming from elsewhere.


The answers started coming when I went to Waterperry gardens to buy an apple tree, and the man who was helping me select one asked where I lived. He could see I was puzzled by his question, but he quickly explained that in recent years city apple trees were doing better than rural apple trees in Oxfordshire. When I told him I lived in town, he rightly guessed that my neighbour had an apple tree and said they would pollinate each other. I paused for a moment and thought about all of the baskets of windfall apples outside people’s homes that lined the Oxford streets that I walked every day in late summer and early autumn. There are many things that fruit trees can teach us, but for me the most pertinent is that they are not meant for individuals or even individual families. Their abundance belongs to communities.


At the garden centre, we went on to talk about the relative isolation of rural apple trees and the companionship that city apple trees had; and it made me think about a street in north Oxford that I knew, where many of the elderly residents have moved to the city to retire because they found life increasingly isolated in the villages where they had raised their children. One of the street’s residents is Barrie Juniper – Barrie and I both have a good friend in common, and when he found out I was interested in apples he invited me to visit his orchard, home to over 100 varieties. (It also happens that Barrie is a Reader in plant sciences at the University of Oxford, and the author of The Story of the Apple.) Barrie explained to me that the fruit that we think of as quintessentially English are from the Tian Shan mountain region of modern-day Kazakhstan, and tracing them allows us to map the movements of European colonialists to places as disparate as the U.S. and India and Kenya.


Standing in Barrie’s beautiful orchard, I could not help but think about the diversity of apples that was in direct contrast to the fewer numbers of varieties on supermarket shelves. Our interaction with apples has been subjected to the same forces that we subject ourselves to – that of standardisation, homogenisation, the growing of apples that are uniform in taste and colour, a narrowing-down in genetic variety, of flavour and the use of the apples. Barrie showed me apples that were only used decoratively (Lady’s Fingers), apples that graced books by Dickens (Ribston Pippin) and apples so flavourful I struggle to describe their complex taste. As the man at Waterperry gardens was telling me, this complexity is from the cross pollination – apples are promiscuous, you could say. If you were to plant one from seed, there is no telling which nearby apple tree’s pollen would ‘do the business’, creating a whole new plant. The only way to make the exact same type of apple tree again and again is by grafting, which is where tissue from one plant is added on to another in order to replicate the first plant. It works well – all the Bramley apples in the world are grafted from a single tree that is still alive and well in Nottingham today.


Barrie wanted to know what had brought me to the apple, and so I told him about ladybirds. Talking to him I began to realise that my obsession with boundaries and belonging was a lifelong quest to find my place. On both sides of my family, we are a people on the move. On my father’s side, ancestors travelled to Kenya over millennia from the Nile, in what is now Southern Egypt; while a rebel prince on my mother’s side had come from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even my parents met in London, not the country of their so-called origin. My family’s story – my story – was a story of movement and migration. Yet we are living in times where our identities, the random accidents of birth, have profound consequences on where we are supposed to live and who we are able to become.


I went on to tell Barrie that I could not help but love ladybirds, all of them, with their different patterning and colours that could keep me busy studying for a lifetime. It was there that he smiled and asked me if I had come across this quote: ‘The creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars on the one hand and for beetles on the other’. I had not, but grasped its significance. Ladybirds are a type of beetle, and so far 400,000 species of beetles have been named. There are lots and lots of beetles around in all sorts of places. What is common to apples and beetles is this incredible diversity that allows them to transcend boundaries and to make many different types of place, their place. Standing in Barrie’s orchard on a bright late summer’s day, I had finally understood what the ladybirds and apples had been trying to tell me. Being different gives me my place, in nature, and in the world.


*  * *


JC Niala is a writer and anthropologist who has lived and worked in Africa, Europe and America. Her play The Strong Room was shortlisted for BBC Africa Performance and her film Wazi? FM has won many awards including an EU award for promoting peace and cultural understanding. A version of Field notes from an African anthropologist was awarded the Frank Allen Bullock Creative Writing Prize 2020 at Oxford University. She is currently working on A Loveliness of Ladybirds, a debut non-fiction book that explores colonial history, urban allotments and natural history through her own life growing up in Nairobi, Kenya. Shortlisted for Canongate’s Nan Shepherd Prize in 2019, the book will be published by Little Toller Books in 2022.

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October 15, 2020 at 3:11 pm

[…] entry, Fieldnotes from an African anthropologist – nature’s lessons on place and belonging, is an extract from a non-fiction book that she is currently writing called A Loveliness of […]

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