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Remembering Maryam Ibrahim Babangida: A Legacy of Grace, Philanthropy, and Leadership



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Reflecting on the life of Maryam Ibrahim Babangida, the former First Lady of Nigeria, whose impact transcended the political sphere. Her commitment to social causes, dedication to women’s empowerment, and unwavering support for her husband, Ibrahim Babangida, left an indelible mark on the nation. Baba Yunus Muhammad remembers a remarkable woman whose legacy continues to inspire positive change. 

In the tapestry of Nigeria’s history, certain individuals emerge as beacons of inspiration and catalysts for change. Maryam Ibrahim Babangida, often fondly remembered as the “Nigerian First Lady with a Difference,” occupies a significant place in the hearts of many Nigerians. Her life was marked by grace, charisma, and an unwavering commitment to social causes.

As we reflect on her legacy, we delve into the various facets of Maryam Ibrahim Babangida’s life, exploring her role as a trailblazer, philanthropist, and advocate for women’s rights.

Born on November 1, 1948, in Asaba, in the now Delta State of Nigeria, Maryam Ibrahim Babangida, was destined for greatness from an early age. Her innate grace and elegance became evident as she grew into a young woman. Her poise and charisma were not only visible in her public appearances but also in her private life.

As the wife of General Ibrahim Babangida, President and Commander in Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces from 1985 to 1993, Maryam carried herself with dignity and became a symbol of sophistication, through her immense qualities of care and compassion for, commitment and sensitivity to, the situation of the less privileged in society. She was widely praised for her single-minded determination to bring the plight of rural women, often neglected in the urban domination of national issues, to the forefront of public concern.

Similarly, her vigorous campaigns on behalf of the disabled, and against the use of drugs among Nigeria’s younger generation, became a testimony that the position of First Lady could be transformed from one of comfort, vanity and complacency to a platform for active participation in nation-building. Maryam was unrivalled as the first to venture beyond the traditional role of patron of charities and women’s organizations, into the more challenging field of active campaigns and advocacy on behalf of society’s less fortunate.

When Maryam Babangida became Nigeria’s eighth First Lady on August 27, 1985, probably, only a few had any inkling that she would be revolutionizing the institution of the First Ladyship to unfold its enormous potential for public good. After eight years of her tenure, she did just that, to the pleasant surprise of Nigerians and with a charm and grace that was exclusively hers.

Surely, and steadily, she applied the gentle strokes of a peaceful, persuasive advocate to that sector of society which she aptly described as “the domestic side of the polity”. Her most ingenious master stroke was the Better Life for Rural Women Program, which, by any stretch of the imagination, was a quiet revolution that redefined the entire spectrum of life for Nigerian women and those who dwelled in the rural areas.

Under this program, the vast majority of rural women and, indeed men, voluntarily mobilized themselves into functional co-operatives to pursue the benefits of communal joint-effort and self-help. Practically, every field of human endeavor in agriculture, craft and art was covered by the co-operatives; and with easier access to soft loans and grants as well as the goodwill of the First Lady, they increasingly acquired simple new technologies – gari friers, corn and rice mills, cassava graters, fish smoking devices, etc – and building, training and leisure facilities such as communal health centers, women resource centers and day-care centers to improve their lot.

The entire countryside was awash in a new awareness as a result of the Better Life Program. From Nigeria, she championed women issues vigorously and reached out to the First Ladies of other African countries to emphasize the effective role they can play in improving the lives of their people.

Maryam’s influence extended beyond the traditional role of a First Lady. She was a trailblazer, redefining the expectations placed on women in Nigerian society. Her commitment to education, health, and social welfare marked a departure from conventional roles, establishing her as a transformative figure in the nation’s history.

That the Better Life Programme for Rural Women made significant contributions to improving the lives of women in rural Nigeria is an understatement. It empowered women through education, skills training, and access to resources, leading to increased food production, improved healthcare, and enhanced economic opportunities. The program remains a notable example of Maryam Babangida’s commitment to social development and women’s empowerment in Nigeria.

Maryam recognized the pivotal role education could play in empowering individuals and communities. Her passion for education manifested in various initiatives aimed at improving access to quality education across Nigeria. Her efforts in championing the cause of education also led to the establishment of the National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult, and Non-Formal Education. Maryam’s vision went beyond conventional schooling, emphasizing the importance of literacy and skills development for all, irrespective of age or background.

Maryam Babangida’s philanthropic endeavors extended to the realm of healthcare. The creation of the “Pet Project” marked a turning point in the healthcare landscape of Nigeria. Through this initiative, she advocated for improved maternal and child healthcare, pushing for policies that addressed the unique health challenges faced by women and children.

The “Breast Cancer Awareness” campaign, a flagship project of the Pet Project, brought attention to a critical health issue affecting women. Maryam’s efforts to destigmatize discussions around breast cancer and promote early detection played a pivotal role in raising awareness and saving lives. Her commitment to healthcare left an indelible mark, laying the foundation for future initiatives focused on improving the well-being of Nigerians.

Maryam Ibrahim Babangida was a fervent advocate for the rights and empowerment of women. She believed that empowering women was key to unlocking the full potential of society. Her initiatives sought to address the unique challenges faced by women, from education and healthcare to economic opportunitie s. She recognized that empowering women was not just a moral imperative but a strategic investment in the nation’s future.

Her advocacy also extended to issues such as gender fairness and domestic violence. By speaking out on these issues, Maryam Ibrahim Babangida contributed to changing societal norms and fostering an environment where women could thrive.

Maryam Babangida was renowned for her impeccable fashion sense and style. She became an icon, not only in Nigeria but also globally, for her elegant and sophisticated fashion choices. Her distinctive outfits not only displayed her impeccable taste but also promoted Nigerian fashion designers, contributing significantly to the growth of the fashion industry.

Maryam Babangida was also known for her commitment to the institution of marriage and her loyalty and dedication to her husband, Ibrahim Babangida. Their marriage was a prominent aspect of their public life in Nigeria. A friend who once accompanied this writer on a visit to the General describes the late former first lady thus, “I remember her very well: tall, serene serving her husband and his friends at table all by herself, as though she had no housemaids! That, to me, was clearly a sign of unadulterated love for her husband, honor, humility and respect for tradition”.

It was indeed, remarkable that Maryam Babangida still found time besides her challenging domestic and public responsibilities, first, as a housewife and secondly, as First Lady of the most populous and complex country in Africa to cultivate her literary appetites. In September 1988, she made her debut in the hallowed world of authors with The Home Front, a candid profile of the life of army officers’ wives. The book, the first by any First Lady before her, was acclaimed by critics and the public alike as a work of exemplary sensitivity.

Her second book: Nigeria’s First Ladies – Life in the State House, published in 1990 was a historical tribute to previous Nigerian First Ladies whose valuable roles as the stabilizing force behind the nation’s most powerful citizen had hitherto been ignored by writers and historians alike.

Maryam Babangida successfully established a glamorous persona, and by and large, the “Maryam Phenomenon” became a celebrity and an icon of beauty, fashion and style in Nigeria and beyond. Writing about the opening of the seven-day Better Life Fair in 1990, one journalist remarked that “she was like a Roman empress on a throne, regal and resplendent in a stone-studded flowing outfit that defied description.” Women responded to her as a role model, and her appeal lasted long after her husband left office in 1993 till her last day on earth.

For her relentless services to humanity Maryam received several awards, prominent among them was the prestigious Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger in London on 19th September, 1991.


One would have thought that her passion for empowering the underprivileged and the rural woman would have waned when her husband left office in 1993, but rather, Maryam Babangida remained steadfast, and continued to be involved in various social and philanthropic activities in Nigeria. As a woman of influence in a patriarchal society, Maryam became a role model for women across Nigeria. She used her platform to advocate for gender fairness, encouraging women to pursue their dreams and aspirations. Maryam’s Islamic beliefs reinforced her commitment to children’s issues, empowering women, and advocating for their well-being and empowerment. In addition to all these preoccupations she had her pet educational project in Minna, El Amin International School and other cottage businesses to worry about.

Probably, not known to many Nigerians, throughout her post-First Lady years Maryam Babangida was also engaged in a quiet Islamic proselytization work within rural communities in Niger State and beyond, spreading the principles of Islam and promoting its teachings. This aspect of her work reflected her deep commitment to her faith and her desire to share its positive impact with others. In the rural communities, Maryam recognized the importance of providing spiritual guidance and support to individuals who may have limited access to religious resources. She believed that embracing Islam could bring about positive change in people’s lives and communities, and she actively sought to create opportunities for this transformation.

Maryam’s quiet proselytization work involved organizing Islamic awareness campaigns, hosting religious gatherings, and supporting the construction of mosques and schools in rural areas. By doing so, she created spaces where individuals could come together, learn about Islam, and deepen their understanding of the religion’s principles. Through these initiatives, Maryam aimed to empower individuals to live their lives in accordance with Islamic values. She believed that by embracing Islam, individuals would find solace, guidance, and a sense of purpose.

Maryam created a holistic impact on the lives of those she reached through the integration of her quiet proselytization work into her overall philanthropic efforts. It is however, important to note that her proselytization work was done with respect for the diversity of beliefs within the communities she served. She approached her work with inclusivity, recognizing and respecting people’s individual choices. Her intention was to offer guidance and support rather than impose her beliefs on others.

Until her death on the 27th of December, 2009, Maryam was known for her unwavering support for widows. She recognized the challenges faced by widows, who often struggle with financial stability, social isolation, and emotional distress. She diligently worked to address these issues and provide assistance to widows in need. Her support for widows encompassed various initiatives, including the establishment of programs that provided financial aid, skills training, and emotional counseling. Maryam’s support for widows helped restored dignity to their lives, gave them a sense of hope, enabling them to become self-sufficient and active contributors to society.

Her journey on earth, shaped by her faith in Islam, exemplifies the power of compassion, education, and empowerment. From her philanthropic initiatives to her advocacy for women’s rights, Maryam’s contributions have left an indelible mark on Nigerian society and would, certainly, inspire generations to come. Her generosity positively impacted countless lives, uplifting the less privileged and providing them with essential resources and opportunities. She exemplified the true essence of leadership, using her position to drive positive change and uplift the lives of those in need. Her memory serves as a reminder of the transformative potential of a life dedicated to service and the influence of Islam in shaping one’s character.

As we remember Maryam Ibrahim Babangida, we honor her remarkable legacy. Her grace, elegance, and tireless efforts to empower women, improve education and healthcare, and uplift society will forever be etched in our hearts. May her legacy continue to inspire us to create a better world, one filled with compassion, empathy, and impactful change.

“O Allah, forgive Hajiya Maryam Babangida, have mercy upon her, overlook her faults, and admit her into the spacious gardens of Your Paradise. Make her grave a place of rest and comfort from the gardens of Paradise. O Allah, purify her from sins and transgressions as a white garment is cleansed from impurities. Grant her a place among the people of Paradise and reunite us with her in the highest level of Paradise. Amen.”

Baba Yunus Muhammad is the President, Africa Islamic Economic Foundation, Ghana.

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Dr. Gazali Muhammad Appointed Technical Advisor to President Bola Ahmed Tinubu of Nigeria on Development Finance




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From our special correspondent in Abuja

In a significant move towards fortifying Nigeria’s economic strategies, Dr. Gazali Muhammad Abubakar has been appointed as the Technical Advisor to President Ahmad Tinubu of Nigeria on Development Finance. This announcement comes on the heels of his impactful tenure as the Executive Secretary/CEO of the National Agricultural Development Fund.

Dr. Muhammad, an alumnus of Bayero University, Kano (BUK), where he earned a B.Sc. in Economics, the Enugu State University of Science and Technology, where he bagged an M.Sc in Economics with distinction, further solidified his academic prowess with a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Bakhtalruda, Sudan. Notably, his interest in Islamic finance, coupled with a diverse array of professional qualifications, positions him as a thought leader in the realm of economic development.

Prior to this prestigious appointment, Dr. Gazali has held pivotal roles, including the position of Senior Special Advisor to the Managing Director of NIRSAL Micro Finance Bank. This experience reflects his commitment to navigating the intricate landscape of financial institutions, underscoring his ability to contribute significantly to the nation’s economic vision.

The expectations surrounding Dr. Gazali’s new role are nothing short of transformative for comprehensive national development. With a background steeped in agricultural development, he is anticipated to spearhead policies and initiatives that bolster national development, particularly focusing on sustainable growth strategies.

Dr. Gazali’s expertise in Islamic finance is expected to bring a fresh perspective to economic policies, potentially fostering financial inclusivity and ethical financial practices as integral components of Nigeria’s developmental agenda. No doubt, his strategic guidance is anticipated to extend beyond conventional economic measures, reaching grassroots levels and ensuring that development is inclusive and impactful across various sectors.

With this appointment  Dr Gazali emerges as a key player in shaping Nigeria’s economic landscape, and its impact is poised to extend beyond the corridors of power and the urban centers of Nigeria, reaching the grassroots level and becoming a driving force for national development. Through his strategic guidance, Nigeria looks forward to a renewed emphasis on financial inclusivity, creating opportunities for a broader spectrum of the population to actively participate in economic activities.

Furthermore, the fight against poverty in Nigeria is set to receive a boost under Dr. Gazali’s leadership. His comprehensive approach, honed through diverse experiences in the financial sector, is expected to drive initiatives that uplift marginalized communities and create sustainable solutions to alleviate poverty.

As Nigeria charts its course towards economic resilience and inclusivity, Dr. Gazali’s appointment signals a strategic move by the Federal Government of Nigeria to harness the expertise needed for comprehensive and impactful economic development. His tenure as Technical Advisor  is anticipated to leave an indelible mark on Nigeria’s pursuit of sustained growth, financial inclusivity, and poverty alleviation.

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Silence in Bethlehem, Wailing in Gaza




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By Chidi Amuta

The raging war between Israel and Hamas will not end before tomorrow’s Christmas is over. The unfortunate war has instead yielded two principal casualties: the first is the nativity festivals of Christmas which have made Bethlehem a favorite destination for Christian pilgrims. Home to the historic shrines and places of the Christian faith, Bethlehem has from time immemorial been the only authentic destination for Christian pilgrims. Those who want to see the birth place of Christ, the place where Christ was born, where he died  and was entombed, return endlessly to Bethlehem every year for that spiritual atonement that all peoples of faith perennially long for. Bethlehem has over the centuries become for Christian faithful what Mecca and Medina is for Moslem faithful.

The city used to receive an annual influx of 2 million pilgrims. This steady deluge of pilgrims powered the economy of the city and contributed to the revenue of the Israeli nation itself. The hotels, the restaurants, the tour operators, the bus and coach companies, the tour guides with their worn out narratives and the thousands of youth employed in all the pilgrim service enterprises have over the years taken on a life of their own.

In the fog of this season’s raging war in Gaza, all that seems to have come to a screeching halt. This year, the previous traffic is down to almost nothing as the festivities and tour sites have been shut down. Most of the activities and festivities that used to make Bethlehem the “go to” place in Israel have either been drastically scaled down or totally cancelled. No one knows when these events and venues will reopen and normalcy return.

The bustle of pilgrimage events and faith holiday activities have yielded to an ominous quiet and silence. This is not “the silent nights” of  the Christmas song. It is the real eerie silence of a silent foreboding, the whisper of something devious and sinister lurking in the dark street corners. It is perhaps only the presence of young hooded operatives of Mossad and Shin Beth and the uniformed police that reassure people that no one will detonate a bomb or hurl a missile at the holy sites.

When the hostilities recede or stop, the mentality of war and siege will not easily depart. Loss of hotel revenues, the silence of shuttered restaurants, the barricaded memento shops and deserted bus routes may yet endure for a while. Both faith and the economics of faith have been badly injured by the silence imposed by the war and the fear of terrorist attacks even in this holiest of places.

The second victim is the uneasy calm of Gaza, the home of   nearly 2.5 million mostly Palestinians that has perennially been besieged by the vigilance of the overlord next door.  Gaza before this war was a city besieged by the hope of freedom and an eternal longing for the Palestinian homeland. In Gaza, an uneasy calm has been replaced by the boom of guns and the reality of death and blood in unusual places. In hospitals, schools, playgrounds and residential apartments, the guns of war have devastated the peace and left behind an endless trail of the blood of the innocent. Women, children, the elderly and the infirm have all fallen victims to this war. At the last count, over 20,000 non -combatant deaths and still counting have been recorded in Gaza.

The infrastructure that supports life has been devastated as streets have been replaced by endless heaps of rubble. Homes have been shattered and reduced to rubble. The basic things that support life: water, food, medicine, infant formula and basic conveniences have all become luxuries for which people have to wait for aid trucks to arrive so that they can scramble for supplies. Life in Gaza has become in Hobbesian terms, “ short, nasty and brutish”. Death and tragedy have become the permanent certainty and companions of the widows, orphans and destitute of Gaza.

The harvest of death in Gaza did not cause itself. It is unnecessary and uncalled for. Hamas invited this holocaust on innocent Palestinians. On the 7th of October, Hamas staged a foolish attack on Israeli Kibuths and border towns. In addition to hurling thousands of rockets into Israeli territory, Hamas sent fighters into Israel to kill, maim and kidnap innocent people as hostages.  Over 1,700 innocent Israelis at a Jewish festival were killed. Another 200 or more were taken hostage. The world cried in anguish. Hamas was triumphal at its opportunistic attack.

The magnitude of Israel’s response was perhaps beyond the imagination of Hamas and its friends. This under estimation is evidence of the poverty of strategic thinking among Hamas and its handlers and backers. It is perhaps true that terrorists never factor in consequences when they strike. They only think of the immediate impact of their disruption. On this occasion, the miscalculation was epic. How come Hamas has spent years preparing for war against Israel without understanding the basic psychology of its adversary?

Israel was born out of necessity, nurtured in adversity and has been sustained by a group psychology of unrelieved siege. Of all the nations of the modern world, Israeli is the one nation that was forged in the furnace of war and has spent all of its existence fighting wars of varying intensity, preparing for emergencies and literally readying for the next war. To date, a total of nine wars since its founding in 1947 including The war of independence( 1947-49), Sinai War (1956), Six day War (1967), First Intifada, Second Intifada, Yum Kippur war etc.

Prior to the founding of Israel as a modern nation state by UN Resolution, there had been the Holocaust in which over 6 million Jews were incinerated in gas chambers in Germany during the Second World War. The totality of these wars and the memory of the Holocaust have left in the collective unconscious of the Jewish people of Israel a permanent imprint of hurt that resolves into the phrase NEVER AGAIN as an expression of national survival. Any hostile action that minimally reminds Israel of any hurt to its people is an act of war that can only invoke vicious reprisals. Israel is therefore perennially ready for war at the shortest possible notice. War is the national  reflex of the Israeli nation.

This has of course led the country to develop one of the most sophisticated military and intelligence capabilities in the Middle East if not in the world. It has a deliverable and proven nuclear weapons capability as well. Therefore, the Hamas attack of October 7th is the latest act of war against Israel in recent times. It has naturally upset the precarious balance of hostile forces in the region and invoked obvious partisanship among nations both in support of and against Israel. The most significant ally of the Israelis has of course been the United States with open military support. As a counter force, the solidarity of Arab states like Iran has bolstered the support for Hamas.

The Hamas war is a major diplomatic setback for Israel and by extension moderate states in the region. It has come at a time when an increasing number of moderate Arab states were reaching accommodation with Israel under various guises of the US initiated Abraham Accord. Major economic cooperation agreements between Israel and the major economic players in the region like UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar had begun to signal a new benign alignment of forces that could transform the region from a cauldron of hostility, terror and war to a zone of peaceful coexistence and peace through the pursuit of  collective prosperity. Then came the Hamas attack and the war of reprisal still raging.

After nearly three months of hostilities and devastation, Gaza has virtually been razed to the ground. The greatest humanitarian disaster in recent world history has raged uncontrolled. Casualties from among civilians, children, women and the aged have been recorded in astronomical proportions. Yes, Israel was badly hurt and disarmingly surprised by the 7th October attack. But the reprisal war has been disproportionate. On a headcount basis, the 1,700 Israelis killed on October 7th do not match the over 20,000 Palestinian deaths in Gaza. Not to talk of the devastation of infrastructure and livelihoods.

Current international diplomatic efforts up to the United Nations are still focused on how to stop the shooting and begin the talking. Food, medicines, water and the necessities of life need to get to the needy and distressed. Hospitals have been wiped off the landscape of Gaza. No one has as yet begun to discuss the crucial long standing political issues at stake between Israel and the Palestinians. The matter of peace and security between Israeli and its Palestinian neighbours remains largely unaddressed. No one knows what fate awaits Gaza politically after the guns go silent and the rumble of bulldozers subside. Israel insists on garrisoning the territory after this war. Everyone else rejects that apartheid colonialist arrangement. Hamas remains unrepentant about its terrorist reputation and the attendant routine hurling of rockets at Israel as well as the casual taking of hostages that look like either Israelis or Americans or indeed anyone that looks strange in the vicinity.

International diplomats keep sounding like broken vinyl records on the desirability of peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. We all know that peace in the region would be a function of guarantees of Israel’s security in return for freedom and independence for a Palestinian state next door. The bitterness of the present hostilities do not make the prospect of peace any brighter.

If indeed this goal were unanimously agreed upon, what stops the United Nations from creating the independent Palestinian state by a UN resolution as was done in the case of Israel? Such a state created by UN fiat should be recognized by a cross section of the international community beginning with Israel, the United States and the Arab states both radical and moderate. It could be governed on an interim basis by a mandated UN government of collaborating Palestinians, Arab members, Israeli representatives and other UN observers for an agreed period. Peace eternal would come upon this region and the world can heave a sigh of relief from these ever so frequent wars and random terror strikes and eruptions.

For us in Nigeria, the war between Israel and Hamas has reignited an unfortunate ignorance and misinformation about Israel in the religious mindset of the ordinary Nigerian. In the popular imagination of Nigeria’s Christian half, Israel is held as the bastion nation of Christianity, the abode of God’s ‘chosen’ people with a divine mission and destiny to triumph over persecutions on earth. Therefore a confrontation between Israel and its Arab neighbors is couched as a clash of the two dominant faiths in the world and in our country.

At the onset of the current war between Israel and Hamas, prominent Nigerian pastor and faith entrepreneur proprietor of The Redeemed Christian Church, Mr. Adeboye, publicly prayed in congregation that God should deliver victory to Israel in its then impending confrontation with Hamas. Underlying that unfortunate misrepresentation is a notion that pervades Nigeria’s Christian population. Israel is mistaken as a Christian nation. Far from it.

The Jewish nation of Israel is not a Christian nation even though it is home to the significant shrines and holy places of classical Christianity- the tomb of Christ, the major venues of Christian history as recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible. It should be instructive that among the infrastructure that have been destroyed by Israeli air strikes are Gaza’s oldest church, St. Porphyrius, where 16 worshippers were killed in an earlier Israeli air strike. Since the war started, the Christian population of Gaza has continued to decline as the faithful have continued to flee from the violence of Israeli attacks.

The ultimate reality of the Israel-Hamas war is still the ancient struggle by a powerful nation state to suppress a weaker vassal neighbor for the purpose of its security and regional pre-eminence. The solution can only be an international rebalancing of forces. That is the best way to make peace enticing and further violence unattractive.

Dr. Amuta, a Nigerian journalist, intellectual and literary critic, was previously a senior lecturer in literature and communications at the universities of Ife and Port Harcourt.

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A Giant Crawling Brain: the Jaw-dropping World of Termites




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At least half of termite studies used to be about how to kill them. But science is discovering their extraordinary usefulness

by Lisa Margonelli

In July 2008, I rented a small yellow car in Tucson, Arizona, and drove it south towards Tombstone. My passengers included an entomologist and two microbial geneticists, and I was following a white van with government plates carrying nine more geneticists. We also had 500 plastic bags, a vacuum flask of dry ice, and 350 cryogenic vials, each the size and shape of a pencil stub. We had two days to get 10,000 termites.

The goal was to sequence the genes of the microbes in their guts. Because termites are famously good at eating wood, those genes were attractive to government labs trying to turn wood and grass into biofuels (“grassoline”). The white van and the geneticists all belonged to the US Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute. Perhaps by seeing exactly how termites break down wood, we’d be able to do it too.

We stopped in the Coronado national forest, near the border with Mexico. I lifted a rock and saw a glint of glossy exoskeleton flowing into some little tunnels. I dropped to my knees and began sucking on an aspirator, a disgusting process that stimulated saliva production and made me dizzy. Two minutes later, there were no more termites on the ground and I had about 25 in the test tube attached to the aspirator.

But my pale termites were disappointing. When I separated one from the clutch, it was less substantial than a baby’s fingernail clipping. Doddering around blindly, it waved the flimsy antennae on its bulbous head. In its stubby, translucent body I could almost see its coiled guts – and presumably whatever it had eaten for lunch. Ants have snazzy bodies with three sections, highlighted by narrow waists, like a pinup model’s, between the segments. Termites, which are no relation to ants or bees, have round, eyeless heads, thick necks and teardrop-shaped bodies. And they long ago lost cockroaches’ repulsive dignity, gnarly size and gleaming chitinous armour. I put the termite back in the test tube.

I had stumbled into one of the big questions termites pose, which is, roughly, what is “one” termite? Is it one individual termite? Is it one termite with its symbiotic gut microbes, an entity that can eat wood but cannot reproduce on its own? Or is it a colony, a whole living, breathing structure, occupied by a few million related individuals and a gazillion symbionts who collectively constitute “one”?

The issue of one is profound in every direction, with evolutionary, ecological and existential implications. By the end of that day I had a basic idea that the fewer I saw, the more termites there might be. Where I had thought of landscapes as the product of growth, on that afternoon they inverted to become the opposite: the remainders left behind by the forces of persistent and massive chewing. The sky was no longer the sky, but the blue stuff that is visible after the screening brush and cacti have been eaten away. Termites have made the world by unmaking parts of it. They are the architects of negative space. The engineers of not.

Nobody loves termites, even though other social insects such as ants and bees are admired for their organisation, thrift and industry. Parents dress their children in bee costumes. Ants star in movies and video games. But termites are never more than crude cartoons on the side of exterminators’ vans. Termite studies are likewise a backwater, funded mostly by government agencies and companies with names such as Terminix. Between 2000 and 2013, 6,373 papers about termites were published; 49% were about how to kill them.

Every story about termites mentions that they consume somewhere between $1.5bn (£1.1bn) and $20bn in US property every year. Termites’ offence is often described as the eating of “private” property, which makes them sound like anticapitalist anarchists. While termites are truly subversive, it’s fair to point out that they will eat anything pulpy. They find money itself to be very tasty. In 2011 they broke into an Indian bank and ate 10m rupees (then £137,000) in banknotes. In 2013 they ate 400,000 yuan (then £45,000) that a woman in Guangdong had wrapped in plastic and hidden in a wooden drawer.

Harvester termite workers.
                                                                Harvester termite workers. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Another statistic seems relevant: termites outweigh us 10 to one. For every 60kg human you, according to the termite expert David Bignell, there are 600kg of them. We may live in our own self-titled epoch – the Anthropocene – but termites run the dirt. They are our underappreciated underlords, key players in a vast planetary conspiracy of disassembly and decay. If termites, ants and bees were to go on strike, the tropics’ pyramid of interdependence would collapse into infertility, the world’s most important rivers would silt up and the oceans would become toxic. Game over.

We were on the border between natural history and an unnatural future. We weren’t alone: all over the world, scientists are trying to find biology’s underlying rules and put them to use. They’re doing it with genes, behaviours, metabolisms and ecosystems. They’re seeing nature in new ways, and at the same time they’re trying to reinvent it and put it to work for us. In the future, we will harness nature’s tiniest life forms – microbes and insects – both their systems of organisation and control, and their genes and chemical capabilities. This fits with our paradoxical desire to have a lighter footprint on the Earth while having greater control over its processes.

At the core of this project is the provocative dream of changing biology into a predictive science, much the way physics started as the observation of phenomena such as gravity and then became the science of making plans for the atom bomb. Will there be termite bombs?

Termite colonies begin theatrically on rainy evenings. Small holes open in the sides of existing termite homes and largish, winged termites emerge, shake out their sticky wings, and fly. In northern California, termites of the genus Reticulitermes suddenly appear on the sides of buildings they inhabit. In South America, Nasutitermes shower down from nests in the trees. In New Orleans, Formosan termites, of the genus Coptotermes, burp from colonies in the ground and take to the air in swarms so dense they show up on weather radar. In Namibia, giant Macrotermes mounds seem to spring a leak, spilling froths of winged termites down their sides.

In the mound, most of the termites are eyeless and wingless, but the fertile termites who leave the mound on this night have eyes and what at first appears to be one single translucent teardrop-shaped wing. When they are ready to fly, this single wing, still soft and moist, fans out into four. Called “alates”, these termites are like fragile balsa-wood glider planes: just sturdy enough to cruise briefly before crash-landing their payloads of genes.

Male and female find each other and scuttle off to dig a burrow where they will mate. At first the two termites will be alone in their dark hole. Christine Nalepa, Theo Evans and Michael Lenz have written that termite parents bite off the ends of their antennae, which may make them better at raising their young. Antennae give termites lots of sensory information, and biting off the segments toward the ends could reduce that stimulation, making it easier to live in a tiny burrow with a few million children.

Males and females alike will spend their time gathering food, tending eggs, building the nest deeper into the ground and eventually tending a fungus. As the family grows bigger, some morph into soldiers; their heads grow larger, dark-coloured and hard in a distinctive way, depending on their species. Thereafter they must be fed by their siblings the workers. Soldiers appear to return the favour by dosing the colony with antimicrobial secretions that help it resist disease.

Over time, in the small smooth dirt room where she lives, the queen’s body becomes “physogastric”, her abdomen swelling to the size of my thumb, constricted by taut black bands remaining from her old exoskeleton so she looks like a soft sausage that has been carelessly bound with string. Her head, thorax and legs remain tiny. Immobilised, except for the ability to wave her legs and bobble her head, she lays eggs at the rate of one every three or so seconds. The king stays by her. Her children lick off the liquid that appears on her skin, feed her and care for the eggs.

Or at least, that’s life for some Macrotermes queens (the genus found in Africa and south-east Asia, that builds its mound around a massive fungus). There are, however, at least 3,000 named termite species, and thus at least 3,000 ways to be termites. Some have multiple queens; some have cloned kings or queens; some are, improbably, founded by two male termites. One species doesn’t really have workers. Different species eat wood, others eat grass and some eat dirt. Macrotermes tend a fungus, but most others do not. All termites, though, live in their own version of a big commune.

Zebras by a termite mound in Okonjima, Namibia
                                             Zebras by a termite mound in Okonjima, Namibia. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

To Marais, the queen was no Victoria, but instead a captive ovary, walled into a chamber no bigger than her swollen, sweating body. Marais imagined that eventually the mound would evolve into a being that could move across the veldt – very slowly in its dirt skin – a monster hybrid of soil and soul. Marais’s insight wasn’t original, and many scientists had taken to calling such social arrangements of termites, bees and ants “superorganisms”. The originator of the term was the entomologist William Wheeler, the founder of the study of ants in the US, author of a 1911 article called The Ant-Colony as an Organism.

For a time, superorganisms were all the rage. The concept dealt neatly with what Charles Darwin had called the “problem” with social insects. Darwin’s theory of evolution proposed that natural selection worked on individuals and the fittest individuals bred with others similarly fit to their ecological niche, while the less fit were less likely to reproduce. The problem with social insects was that while single termites seem to be individuals, they do not function as such. Only the queen and king of a colony breed, so who was the “individual”? By declaring the whole colony the individual, Wheeler said its members made up “a living whole bent on preserving its moving equilibrium and its integrity”.

In the late 1920s and early 30s, the paradigm of the superorganism grew colossal. Instead of studying individual trees, biologists studied forests as superorganisms. By 1931, the concept snuck into popular culture when Aldous Huxley reportedly based the dictatorship in Brave New World on humans as social insects, with five castes. Wheeler proposed that “trophallaxis” – a word he invented for the way insects regurgitate and share food among themselves – was the secret sauce, the superglue of societies both insect and human, and the foundation of economics. But even during the superorganism’s heyday, Marais was alone in his assertion that the mound had a soul.

In Namibia, I went to meet J Scott Turner, an American biologist who has spent decades studying how and why termites build their mounds. It took Turner years of experiments to show that mounds could work a bit like lungs, with interconnected chambers taking advantage of fluctuations in wind speed. Air moves back and forth through the porous dirt skin of the mound by two systems: in big puffs driven by buoyant gases rising from the hot fungus nest (like the sharp intake of breath from the diaphragm), and in small puffs, the way air wheezily diffuses between alveoli in your lungs. Turner suspected that the termites themselves circulated air as they moved, like mobile alveoli. This insight was an entirely new way of thinking about the problem. The mound was not a simple structure where air happened to move, but a continuously morphing complex contraption consisting of dirt and termites together manipulating airflow.

Termites who spend a year building an average mound of 3 metres have just built, in comparison to their size, the Empire State Building. Those who build taller mounds, at nearly 5 metres, have just built the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – 830 metres and 163 floors of vertigo – with no architect and no structural engineer. Such unthinking, seat-of-the-pants design is not possible for humans, who required squads of professionals, advanced equipment and 7,500 people working for six years to build the Burj Khalifa. Working with Turner, engineer Rupert Soar hoped to harness the powerful constructive groupthink that comes from the tiny mouths of termites and their even tinier brains to build structures in remote environments such as Mars. But there were issues: termites, he said, engineer to the point of collapse.

One morning a JCB arrived and Turner directed it to a mound. The JCB’s great blade came down on the top of the mound with a hollow whomp, the first note of a funny little concert. Half the mound fell away with a tumbling clinking clatter – as the shards hit different layers of cured mud they played a tune like a soft xylophone. We pushed in close, enveloped by the familiar smell of socks and bread.

What was left of the mound was a ruined hierarchy. Dirt shards and fungus combs and sculpted mud plinked downward, while termites ran every which way, at first as a sort of gauzy net. Soon they had organised themselves into small streams, and within 10 minutes those streams had consolidated into rivers of running insects. As order was restored, I could see the elaborate scheme of tunnels, rooms, chambers and fungus hidden under the dirt exterior. The spectacle was genuinely awesome – as in jaw-dropping and appalling.

The top of the mound was hollow, with wide vertical tunnels. The interiors of these tunnels were very smooth, and they segued in and out of each other in ropey vertiginous columns like a sloppy braid. Termites make the mounds by first piling up dirt and then removing it strategically in the tunnels. Eyeless, they use their antennae to feel for smoothness, and in the big tunnels they remove everything that is rough. They may even hear the tunnel’s shape.

Once the area was walled off, the signal from the fresh air would stop and the termites would fill the internal space with more dirt balls and small tunnels, making a sort of spongy layer. Later they would either block it off entirely or would hollow it out and remodel it. The JCB came back in for another swipe, taking away the dirt below the mound to reveal the system of horizontal galleries, tunnels and chambers where the termites live. It reminded me of those diagrams of cruise ships, visualised from the side, with small rooms packed together in a strict hierarchy of function and status from ballrooms and cafeterias to VIP staterooms and steerage bunks. The colony’s hierarchy is not money, of course, but the things that enable its survival: reproduction, child care, food supply and food processing. Some rooms are large, with vaulted ceilings, and walls and floors the texture of tortilla chips. When I looked closely, I could see that they were not so much rooms as places where many foraging tunnels crossed, like the grand concourses of old train stations. Deep within this area was a small capsule where the king and queen lived, making eggs, which were carried to nearby nurseries.

Below the mound lives the fungus, digesting grass. All termites use symbiotic collectives of bacteria and other microbes to digest cellulose for them, but Macrotermes outsource the major work to a fungus.

In some senses the fungus functions as a stomach, but it also has power reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz. Under the mound and around the nest sit hundreds of little rooms, each containing fungus comb. This comb is made of millions of mouthfuls of chewed dry grass, excreted as pseudofaeces and carefully assembled into a maze. The comb roughly resembles graham cracker pie crust, although it varies in colour from delicious beige to decrepit black. The termites inoculate it with a fungus that they have been cohabiting with for more than 30m years.

Isoptera termites
                                                            Isoptera termites. Photograph: Bryan Mullennix/Getty Images

The symbiotic relationship between Macrotermes and the fungus is tight: workers scour the landscape for dry grass, quickly run it through their guts, then place and inoculate each ball to suit the fungus’s picky temperament, tend the comb and snarfle the fungus and its sugars before distributing the goodies to the rest of the family. Then the workers run off to gather more grass for the fungus. Termite and Termitomyces fungus are so interrelated that it’s hard to tell where the mushroom ends and the termite picks up, but within their codependence is a sort of frenemy-type rivalry. (Fungi are capable of deliberately tricking termites. One invasive fungus in termite colonies in the US and Japan pretends to be a termite egg, going so far as to secrete the chemical lysozyme, which the termites use to recognise their eggs. For reasons that are not clear, colonies filled with impostor “eggs” are no less healthy than those without them.)

Prejudiced by our human sense of a hierarchy of the animate termites over inanimate mushrooms, we would be inclined to believe that the termites control the fungus. But the fungus is much larger than the termites – both in size and energy production: Turner estimates that its metabolism is about eight times bigger than that of the termites in the mound. “I like to tell people that this is not a termite-built structure; it’s a fungus-built structure,” he says, chuckling. It is possible that the fungus has kidnapped the termites. It’s even possible that the fungus has put out a template of chemical smells that stimulates the termites to build the mound itself. As I peered at the white nodules, I began to sneeze violently, sometimes with big gasping whoops, and something – it’s hard to even call it a thought, but a particle of one – flitted through my subconscious before flying out of my nose: the fungus is very powerful.

My admiration for the fungus only grew when I learned that Namibian farmers estimate that every Macrotermes mound – which contains just 5kg of termites – eats as much dead grass as a 400kg cow. Late in the day, one of the scientists used a pickaxe to pop the royal chamber out of the nest – the whole complex was the size and shape of a squashed soccer ball, but made of hard-packed finely grained dirt. He cracked it open, revealing the king and queen in a hollow space the size of a cough-drop tin. The chamber had holes on the sides, allowing air and smaller termites to pass through. The king was large and dark compared to the workers, but the queen was huge – as big as my finger. Her legs and upper body waggled but barely budged the fluid-filled sac of her lower body, which pulsed erratically, as though she was a toothpaste tube squeezed by an unseen hand. Her skin was shiny and translucent and the fats inside her swirled like pearly cream dribbled into coffee.

Even then, the queen’s more shocking aspects are hidden from us. Her truly stupendous fertility – creating millions of eggs over as long as 20 years – is something we can only infer. Some species of termite queens can clone themselves by producing eggs with no entry-ways for sperm, which then mature into sexual queens with only their mother’s chromosomes, duplicated inside the egg nucleus, to furnish a full set. Imperfect copies of the queen, these knockoffs are good enough to get the job done. Parthenogenesis allows the queen to live, in insect years, pretty close to for ever.

                                            ‘A different dimension of loss’: inside the great insect die-off

And yet we do refer to her as a queen. I wondered why. Marais said that when early European naturalists looked into beehives and termite mounds, they saw the monarchies they came from – with workers, soldiers, and kings and queens. It was misleading, he said, and kept us from really understanding what was going on with termites. For scientists, the great danger of seeing social insects anthropomorphically is that it obscures their true insect-ness. In the 1970s and 80s, when the ant scientist Deborah Gordon began studying massive ant colonies in the American south-west, scientists described the ant colony as “a factory with assembly-line workers, each performing a single task over and over”. Gordon felt the factory model clouded what she actually saw in her colonies – a tremendous variation in the tasks that ants were doing. Rather than having intrinsic task assignments, she saw that ants changed their behaviour based on clues they got from the environment and one another. Gordon suggested that we should stop thinking of ants as factory workers and instead think of them as “the firing patterns of neurons in the brain”, where simple environmental information gives cues that make the individuals work for the whole, without central regulation.

And so, these days, one scientific metaphor for the inscrutable termite is a neuron in a giant crawling brain.

Back in the 1930s, the other Marais didn’t write a termite science book, but a book about how humans could understand termites – as a bug, a body, a soul, a force on the landscape. Looking at termites this way changed how I see the world, science, the future and myself.

This is an edited extract from Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Margonelli (Oneworld, £16.99). To order a copy for £14.61 go to or call 0330 333 6846. P&P charges apply in the UK only to orders by phone.

Courtesy: The Guardian

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