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Letters Home from the 2008 International Congress of Entomology in South Africa

Editor’s note: The author, Tom Sappington, attended four different International Congresses of Entomology, from 1996-2008, and sent hand-written letters home during each of them. The following, the fourth part of four, is unedited text from his trip to Durban, South Africa for the 2008 Congress.

Part I: Florence, Italy, 1996Part II, Iguassu Falls, Brazil, 2000Part III, Brisbane, Australia, 2004

By Tom Sappington


To get to Gandhi’s house, [our guide] had to drive us [my wife and I] through Phoenix Settlement, which today is occupied mainly by Zulus. It is a huge, densely populated shanty town of thrown-together shacks of scrap lumber and metal sheeting. “It looks a little ropey, and it is. But you’re in no danger here.” Gandhi’s home site itself is on a very peaceful, green hilltop. It is protected as a historical landmark of sorts, but is oddly neglected by the government, which ran out of money a few years ago during a restoration project. So some of the wiring hangs unconnected from the ceiling in one of the buildings and no ropes or fences guard anything inside or out. Thus we were free to walk right up to his printing press and touch the handle worn smooth by his hand. And we walked through his house, in and out of the same rooms he went in and out of 100s of times. And we stood on the front porch and looked out over the landscape and listened to the trees rustling in the breeze and birds calling as they flitted about, just as he must have done so long ago. It was quite moving.

The site is overseen by a tall, soft-spoken young Zulu named Bongani. He does what he can to maintain Gandhi’s home site with the contributions visitors might leave, or sporadic donations through the mail. He asked what I did for a job. But “entomologist” didn’t ring a bell. I explained a little. “Ahh, you work in agriculture? Agriculture is very important.” But it was just small talk. We weren’t connecting. How could I explain? I study insects to help farmers who own 10,000 acres grow 180-bushel/acre corn instead of 170-bushel/acre corn. Actually that’s why I get paid, but I study insects for the love of science and discovery. No way to explain that either…

Durban, South Africa, Sunday 7-06-08: Just to the north of the convention center we found the entrance to the outdoor market. It was spread along a closed-off street for several blocks, and almost all of the stalls were manned by black South Africans. Near the entrance, however, there were a few white merchants and a few white shoppers. As we plunged further into the market, the scene became more colorful and more native African, until eventually ours were the only white faces in the bobbing throng of shoppers. We could feel the closeness of Africa in the jostling of the crowds and in the bright sun warming the north sides of our bodies and in the slickness of silk scarves being peddled by Indian women. And it smelled more intimately African with chicken and mutton and beef and vegetables and rice cooking and smoking on open grills. The sights were more intimately African with brightly, even wildly, colored dresses and shirts and pants and hats hanging from the roofs of the stalls along with the paintings by Zulu artists also laid out on tables and tarps on the ground. And we could hear the intimacy of Africa in the quiet lilting Zulu voices in conversations all around us. We met a colleague on our way back to the hotel, who was somewhat startled to learn we had been to the market. “I saw it from my hotel window, and debated whether I ought to try it.” But apparently his better self lost the debate. Walking away he was debating with his friends how safe it would be to go on down to the beach, a lively carnival area with rides and arcades. All along the street running parallel to it were vendors selling their wares, including hand-made jewelry, paintings, baskets, small musical instruments like drums and flutes, and miscellaneous trinkets. We walked to the beach and out on a pier to watch a professional surfing contest, as well as families on the other side of the pier frolicking in the Indian Ocean. A man in a suit rolled up his pant legs and the lady accompanying him held up the hem of her fancy dress as they waded ankle-deep in the surf.

Zulu dancers and drummers performing during the Opening Ceremony of the XXIII ICE in Durban, South Africa, July 2008.

The Opening Ceremony of the Congress had an interesting line-up of speakers, including several city government officials – all black, a distant dream not so long ago. The guiding theme seemed to be that despite all the political changes and uncertainty in recent years, and obvious problems with crime, Durban had come a long way and was ready to join the rest of the world as a serious tourist destination – they were so happy we were there to enjoy their city. One of the speakers was the Post-Master General for Zulu-Natal Province. Why, you ask? Good question. It didn’t really make much sense – but it was the most interesting speech of the night and the only one I remember anything about. He described in some detail the recent massive efforts of the postal service to provide addresses to homes in disadvantaged communities (i.e., shanty towns) like Phoenix Settlement. We take having a home address for granted, but, until this latest initiative, millions of South Africans never had one – which meant they could not open a bank account or apply for a loan or check-out a book from the library or tell emergency services like medics where to come to help them or receive mail from anyone. This was not a man used to speaking to large audiences. But he was proud of the achievement and progress, and the loud applause from the auditorium full of entomologists was heartfelt.

The Opening Ceremony closed with a half-hour presentation by Zulu and Indian dancers on stage. The Zulu dance company went first, followed by the Indian company, then both combined for the finale. I was not ready for the energy they exuded with their drums and voices and body movements. There was absolute joy in their energetic dancing and singing and drumming. The folk costumes of the Zulus were minimal, but included fringe at the ankles, wrists, necks, and waists which added shimmies and movement to the already fast moving feet and limbs and torsos and heads. You could feel the vibrations from the drums, and the smiles on the performers’ faces were clearly genuine, a side-effect of their complete absorption in the art they were creating and sharing. We were engulfed with the sounds and I was spellbound by what we were seeing. I actually felt shivers and was unable to stop a couple of tears from trailing down my cheeks, and the thought in my mind was, “I’m so glad to be alive…”

Durban, South Africa, Monday–Tuesday 7-7,8-08: Two talks stand out. One was by a young Scotsman, currently a postdoc in the U.S. The topic was the relationship between trachea size and atmospheric oxygen levels in eons past. He borrowed rare fossil insects in amber from “unsuspecting colleagues” to examine their tracheae by electron microscopy. “Unfortunately, we discovered that amber turns almost black under X-ray beams. So, after apologies all round, I returned the blackened amber fossils to their owners.” There was a great deal of guffawing and knee slapping – it’s the kind of thing scientist nerds find hilarious….

I went to a presentation by Hans Ferenz from Germany, just because I wondered what he was doing now. During his talk he showed a slide “from several years ago when I still had access to antibodies to the locust vitellogenin receptor.” He was [Dr. Alex] Raikhel’s main competitor in the race to characterize the first insect vitellogenin receptor (VgR) back when I was his postdoc at Michigan State 15 years ago. It was a lively, spirited competition. But then Dr. Ferenz did not make the equivalent of tenure at his university – the bar is very high in the German system – and he was going to be dismissed from his faculty position. In disbelief, as we all were, he asked his colleagues who knew the importance of his research, including Dr. Raikhel, to write letters asking his administrators to reconsider. And to his never-ending credit (and my admiration), Alex seemed visibly shaken and he softened and he wrote a letter for him. It’s no fun to compete if your competitor suddenly becomes vulnerable to outside forces…. Now Dr. Ferenz is a professor at a small university, and his talk was the only one on VgR at the Congress, a topic that was so hot just a few years ago. Back then our arch-rival had black hair and a mustache and was very animated and energetic when he spoke. Now the mustache is gone, his hair has grayed, and he speaks slowly and quietly. But maybe he is happier now, still discovering beautiful things about insects, but without all the pressure of earlier times – who knows. But I’d like to think so…

Durban’s beachfront on the Indian Ocean, looking back from the pier. The large white tent housed the beach party put on by the city of Durban for delegates to the XXIII ICE, July 2008.

Durban, South Africa, Wednesday 7-09-08: Our plane home left this afternoon. Our son is getting married Sunday and we have to be back in time for the rehearsal. Last night, the city of Durban sponsored a Beach Party under a big tent near our hotel for all the ICE delegates. As we unloaded from the buses at dusk, we were greeted by Zulu dancers and drummers lining both sides of the sidewalk leading to the tent. We stopped along with many others to watch and enjoy their dancing and singing and shouting. It took a few minutes, but I finally realized that, while most were covered, two of the women were topless in the local style. So many entomologists had never been so exposed to so much at the same time in the history of the world…

There was free food and tickets for a couple of drinks, and we could walk down to a portion of the beach blocked off from the public. Down by the surf, I ran into a grad student from France who had previously told my postdoc that he would be interested in working for me after he graduated. Though encouraged to contact me, he was probably a bit unsure and timid and hadn’t done it. So we talked for a while. He made the comment that one reason he wanted to come to America and study was maybe to get away from the competitiveness in France. “It seems like in Europe we all work in isolated islands and don’t cooperate outside our own labs.” He was trying to tell me something about how his talk had been rescheduled into a symposium he hadn’t requested – I couldn’t follow the details because of his accent, but he said, “At least you made it to my talk! So I am happy!” We ended up chatting so long that he missed getting some of the food which was packed up and hauled off early. So I felt bad about that. On the other hand, he had girls trying to get him to dance all night, so I imagine the evening wasn’t a total loss…

It was our last night in Africa. Most entomologists were not even half-way through the Congress, but it was our goodbye party. Always before, I have stayed to the bitter end, attending the Closing Ceremony and the reception afterwards. And it is always a little sad – hotel crews not waiting for us to wander off before unceremoniously breaking down the poster stands, vendors the same, the number of scientists way down because half leave early to catch flights home, the air of expectancy and excitement so palpable during the first 90% of the Congress conspicuously deflating. So at least this time I left at its height. The party helped give me a sense of closure I guess, even though for others it was marked by the excitement of still being nearer the beginning than the end.

Cynthia and I didn’t try to dance because of the crowd. But we enjoyed the music and watching the young students dance and giggle and flirt and enjoy one another’s company. Later we walked down to the shoreline, where the big waves were crashing rhythmically. The far-away music drifted down to us choppily against the breeze. And we danced by ourselves on the wet sand under the light of the African moon….

Thomas W. Sappington is a research entomologist with the USDA-ARS and a collaborator professor at Iowa State University in the Department of Entomology. He is an insect ecologist, with a primary interest in dispersal and migratory behavior of agricultural pests. The views reflected in this article are solely Tom’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARS, the Department of Agriculture, or the United States government.


  1. Thank you so much for allowing us to read your delightful letters home. In this era of 140 character tweets and short attention spans, it was a pleasure to settle down to read your vignettes from the conferences. They were entertaining, evocative, and moving. I thoroughly enjoyed them and looked forward to the next installment!

    • Thanks Tanya! I’m glad you enjoyed them (and I am very appreciative your attention span!…). –Tom

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