Drought / East Africa / Food Security / ILRI / Kenya / Opinion Piece / Spotlight / Water

Serious rain: East Africa’s annual Easter resurrection

Story by Susan MacMillan.


Boys with their goats in the rain in Kenya (ILRI/Stevie Mann).

3 April 2016: Loresho, Nairobi suburb
Exactly four days following Easter Sunday this year, the ‘long rains’ arrived in Nairobi, watering the earth, flooding the streets, pounding the rooftops. All night that night, and all night the following nights, the kusi monsoon, blowing inland from across the Indian Ocean, has delivered the beating rain. People dutifully acknowledge this annual East African event, one that seven of every ten East Africans relies on to feed themselves and their families. One that, memorably, on occasion fails to transpire.


A livestock carcass in Kenya, following prolonged drought (Neil Palmer/CIAT).

One year the long rains failed. That is a terrible tremendous experience, and the farmer who has lived through it will never forget it. Years afterwards, away from Africa, in the wet climate of a Northern country, he will start up at night, at the sound of a sudden shower of rain, and cry, ‘At last, at last!’
— Isak Dineson, Out of Africa

15 March 1997: Kinangop, Kenya

Three million people living in areas of the northern, coastal and other low lands of Kenya have been affected by a failure of the annual short rains last October/November, which follow­ed two consecu­tive failures of the annual long (March–May) rains—FAO, 1997

The air is thick, polluted with a haze of smoke from fires burning out of con­trol for the last several weeks in the Aberdares and on Mount Kenya. Zebra stand motionless under thorn trees. Unusual. We are in a dry season in Kenya. Some are calling it a drought. For some it’s been a famine. In the back-country of Machakos District and the remote north­ern frontier, people have died for lack of food. Two boys in Ukambani were reported to have dug up a bur­­ied dog, eaten it and then died themselves. Old people and children are, as always, most vulner­able to calamity. And animals. Across the country, tens of thousands of them have lain down on the hard­pan to die for lack of water and grass.

In the vast drylands of Kenya, the food disappeared soon after the grass. Nairobi shops begin to run out of milk and butter in January. In March, a sand dune is born on either side of the main road west of the capital. Cars on dirt roads plough through dust a foot thick. An abandoned truck lies buried to its axles in a dust drift. People walking along the road are entirely obscured by fine dust our vehicle spins into the air as we make our way to Lake Nai­vasha for the weekend. A Thompson’s gazelle running across the powdered surface of the earth kicks up a cloud of haze that hangs for minutes in the air.

In the meantime, clouds in the sky are moving eastwards from the great lakes of Central Africa and massing over the Rift Valley. The clouds turn dark early mornings and late after­noons. Big winds rise suddenly. To people like me, this spells an end to the dry season. To the farmers in this part of the world, the changed skyscape tells little. Clouds don’t mean rain above the grasslands of the Rift. Rain here doesn’t necessarily mean rain, either. A driz­zle, a few showers, some rainy days — these go unmentioned. As though they never happened.

On a cattle ranch at the foot of the Kinangop Escarp­ment, above Naivasha, a few drops of rain fall. I look up, close my eyes, spread my arms and call out to the others. RAIN! An old-timer looks down at her feet and turns away.

What these farmers are waiting for — what their ways of life depend on — is serious rain. Tropical rain that rains through the night, that hammers the iron-corrugated roofs of home­steads, that splashes into tin gutters and pours out onto the cracked earth. Sheets of rain that turn dirt streets into mud, that bring cattle into still huddles, heads down. Noisy rain that drowns out the world for hours at a time. Such liberation doesn’t come from displays like mine at the fall of a few rain drops.

Serious rain here is called the rains. Every tribe and culture that inhabits the East Afri­ca savannas treats the arrival of the rains as a blessing. Children born in the rains and young couples married in the rains are doubly blessed. With the arrival of the rains, the voices of people on country roads rise. The forms of everything in nature — people, cows, birds, dik-dik, thorn scrub — stiffen a little. Alert, expectant. Listen when the rain stops, when the birds begin to chirp and the sun reappears, and you’ll hear the sound of dormant seeds germin­ating, of grasses sprouting and sap rising — of a vast store of energy being released. A great moment is in the making: the food cycle is about to begin again.


Kenya schoolboy enjoying the rain (Flickr/Viktor Dobai).

29–30 March 1997: Karen, Nairobi suburb
9:30 PM: A window is open. We’re watching a video. We smell wet on pavement before we hear it fall. The splats of fat drops hitting leaves and tree trunks and the sides of the house. Then the unspeakably sweet sound of steady rain. A wetting rain. A rain that will penetrate the ground, soften the earth, prepare it for the heavier rains to follow.

10:30 PM: We open sliding doors in the living room, step onto the veranda and breath in. The rain has stopped. Lightening flashes. Between claps of thunder, a chorus of amphibian and insect life, outrageously loud, rises and falls in rhythmic succession. ‘A bit of rain sure stirs things up,’ my husband says.

11:30 PM: Later, in bed, a steady rain starts up again. The frogs and insects must have known this (how do they know this?) — that that first fall of rain was the beginning of serious rain. That it will rain tonight all night long. We fall asleep in a cool room, as fresh as the breeze on our faces.

6:30 AM: We awake as the rain finally stops, just before light. Somewhere in the night the frogs and cicada ended their revelry. Excited birds now make their own racket in the garden. Well under way by dawn on this Easter Sunday morning is the resurrection that occurs every year in this country with the arrival of the long rains.

But when the earth answered like a sounding-board in a deep fertile roar, and the world sang round you in all dimensions — all above and below — that was the rain. It was like coming back to the sea, when you have been a long time away from it, like a lover’s embrace.
— Isak Dineson, Out of Africa


Head of sandstone buddha in the bodhi tree roots at Mahathat temple, Ayutthaya, Thailand (Kat Nienartowicz).

20 April 1997: Karen, Nairobi suburb
I work in an upstairs study, at a desk facing a window that looks onto a fig tree. In this last month of rains, the tree has sprout­ed shiny leathery leaves the colour of lime-green. At the bases of the leaves, figs the size and shape of big peas grow in tight clusters.

A dozen yellow-vented bulbuls, a streaky mix of black and yellow green, are sitting in the tree this morning, at my eye level. I watch as the birds peck at the ripe figs, breaking a hole through the outer skin, then working the hole until it becomes a slit that unhinges to reveal a brownish nutty-looking pulp within. From somewhere in the tree a black-headed (bright yellow) oriole produces a melodi­ous liquid whistle. A pair of paradise fly-catchers, long-tailed and chestnut-coloured, swoop through the branches to catch insects gorging on the newly exposed pulp. Dropped and disembowelled fruits lie scattered across the driveway. Bats will feed on these wild figs tonight. So will vervet monkeys, baboons, hyrax and other small animals I never see.

The fig tree is still common in Nairobi gardens. The ‘strangler fig’, which begins its life in the fork of a host tree, which it embraces and ultimately kills with its aerial roots in their downward stretch for earth, provides shade even in the middle of the dry season. Known as Mugumu in Kikuyu, this fig tree is a gathering point for communities and is widely regarded in East Africa as the sacred home of ancestral spirits. Five centuries before the birth of Jesus, Gautama Buddha is reported to have been sitting under a fig tree — I imagine an enormous Indian Banyan of the strang­ler type — when he attained enlightenment, entering that state of perfect illumination that reportedly exists beyond passion, suffering and existence itself.

This story was originally published originally on Medium, 3 Apr 2016:

2 thoughts on “Serious rain: East Africa’s annual Easter resurrection

  1. Mike Rainy on Facebook today reports on rain at his place in the Malepo Hills, Kajiado, Kenya:

    ‘Third day of rain Sunday 3rd April was much lighter than Friday and Saturday but added 4 mm and so our 3day April Rain total so far is now 90mm = 3.53″ a really great start to the Lengerenerwa / long rains this year. In Just 72 hours we have had 18% of a normal year total of Rain.’

  2. And more from Mike Rainy on 6 Apr 2016:
    What a difference a Year makes here in Kajiado County Kenya.
    Last year at this time we were in a very dry year that did not end till mid October by which time we had had only had 221mm in those first 10 months of 2015.

    Once our El Nino conditions kicked in by New years eve 2015 we had had 21 rain days in the last 67 days of the year we had recieved 300mm = 11.81″ so our 2015 rain total came to 521mm = 20.51″ 4% higher than a normal Year. Our cows came back from Deep into our Great Rift Valley near Naudot and I moved their Boma to 30 meters from our house to our old guest tent site and initiated Night grazing to help them recover.

    El Nino conditions have continued and so we are home with a few fat happy Sahiwal cows and a lovely new female calf born last month.

    This month we have already had 114 mm = 4.48″ in the first 5 days of April and in the first 96 days of 2016 we have had 414mm = 83% of a normal year of Rain.

    So since the rains returned on 16th October 2015 in the following 163 days we have already had 714mm = 28.11′ of rain

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