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.