Waiting for the rains in Africa

I used to watch those catfish roiling in the mud of a drying pan when the rain refused to come.

Their last desperate flops as they struggled to deny the drought’s death knell. Some would be lucky, buried alive with heartbeats slowed to a standstill in an earthen coffin of caked mud baked hard and survive long enough for the first storms to come and release them from a living grave. But sometimes there would be a crowded host of these slimy unfortunate fish flapping periodically with the last ounces of will in the hope of finding a wetter patch in the diminishing waterhole as their skins dried to a crisp.

Bottom feeders, sucking in the mud, happy in the dirty waters filled with antelope dung and the footprints of elephants, now, exposed to the predatory birds and the magnifying-glass-like lens of the sun, their whiskers stuck to the sides of their heads like glue, mouths gasping open and closed continually, they reminded me of Africa’s single annual prayer for the coming of the rain and the release that it would bring with a renewed plethora of insects for the fish to feed on and the frogs to devour as they hopped in their plague-like numbers about the reeds – and oh, the herons and snakes would be there, crawling, feasting, darting heads plucking the abundance of life in the frenzied appetite of it all amongst the surge of new-sprung green.

During the dry season, everything and everyone slowed to a standstill. Immobile amongst the barren acacia thorns in the scrub, creatures were inert, breathless, invisible, seemingly incapable of movement. Even carmine bee eaters and lilac-breasted rollers seemed to need an effort to make their brilliantly-plumaged flights of flame from one station to the next perch. Buffalo sought shadow in the slim shade and impala stood in their dusty camouflage in the dry yellow grass. Lions yawned, seemingly not wanting to hunt in the heat of the day, waiting rather for the cool of the evening to come. But it would not. Even the nights were boiling like a fever in the blood.

Meanwhile, the baking sun burned unforgiving overhead turning the mud into a dust bowl of cracked earth. Even the elephants had to make the trek to the river instead and hippo would painfully blunder through the bush in broad daylight seeking a new source of moisture. The stinking fallen carcasses lying fallow for maggots in the plains when the journey dropped by the wayside, the merciless heat an apoplexy of flies. Vultures descending in the mirage of a vibrating haze plucked apocalyptically at the innards of the dead. And the dusty call of doves in the cicada-strung boughs of Mukwa trees reinforced the voice of the drought.

The heat could make you hallucinate. It sang like a string orchestra from a high-pitched kettle coming to the boil without any water in it. And the very air vibrated and nothing was steady on its feet. As if in a fever, there would be no oasis and only the shimmering mirage of an unstable trembling land.

Perhaps, only when the dry cry in the throat of the thirsting ground was finally heard by the gods above would those big-bellied clouds come rolling in pregnantly and the thunder and lightning split the day apart to drench the grateful earth once again and let it drink its fill. A torrent it would be, drenching even the acrid, arid bones of beasts bleached in the dust and beetles would be awash amidst the swirling eddies and rivulets of running water returning to the pools and pans and river in a cascade of red bloodied arteries of running mud-borne liquid.

Earthworms would emerge with the seeds unfurling almost overnight and the flight of a myriad flying ants coming up from underground to the rain-cooled air above would feed the flocks of gathering birdlife in a frenzied feast. Millipedes in the millions and crawling snails, emergent tortoises crunching on them from their mobile caves. And lizards would lazily lick at the flies while mosquitoes multiplied from the puddles that lay everywhere across the world. Then, the whole land would sing once more and the headaches would disappear with the cooling kiss of moisture on the skin. It would be as if life could start again with a new beginning and the forgiveness of the rain. The time for plenty had arrived.

Now, in villages, the people would dance and the fermented grain be drunk in its opaque and sour traditional brew to celebrate the intoxication of new-found release.

That was an Africa that I remember. The land of untamed extremes. Between the dry season and the coming of the rains and a promise of harvest yet to come.

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Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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