Tuesday, July 29, 2008


It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
- Toto, “Africa”

In case there’s any confusion, Toto is the 80’s rock group, not Dorothy’s dog from The Wizard of Oz, although he probably could better sing lines like:

The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what's right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

It’s only now, sitting in Africa, that I can appreciate how ridiculous that song is. I’m still not sure how a dog (or anyone, for that matter) is ever going to find solitary company, but the band gets full marks for trying to find a word to rhyme with “Serengeti”, though I would have personally gone with “spaghetti”. My guess is that the band didn’t spend much time in Africa during the rainy season before they penned this song, because if they had, they likely wouldn’t be blessing the rain.

Of course, this is just the grouchy batauri in me speaking. The local residents do bless the rains, because they are dependent on them for survival. Despite the immense wealth that Nigeria enjoys from its oil reserves, it remains essentially an agrarian society, its citizens relying on subsistence agriculture to carry them from year to year. If you had told me in March that the parched landscape around me would soon produce more than dust devils and my chronic cough, I would have reckoned you were crazier than a cactus cuddler. Nuttier than a one-armed rattlesnake milker. Loonier than a coyote…..you get the idea.

But the rains did come, and it would be difficult to overstate the dramatic transformation of the countryside. If you blindfold me now and drop me 200 feet from my house, it would take me some time to recognize where I am. Of course, the same was true before the rain began, so this might not be the best gauge. But the speed of the growth of the grass and other plants is startling, as though they’ve been conditioned to maximize their existence before the rain disappears. Left to grow as it chooses, the greenery has even overtaken roads, reducing passing lanes to a single track in some places. I’m sure if I stood in one place long enough, I could grow another couple of inches taller. And gain some moss on my willy.

Not all of the growth is unplanned. As soon as the weather hinted at a change, people headed for their fields to prepare them for planting. Wielding a tool that’s a cross between a shovel and a hoe, the men dig their fields by hand, an extraordinary thing to witness. No tractor. No horse or oxen. Not even a plow. Just a shovel swung into the ground, acre after backbreaking acre. I wouldn’t last five minutes. Every morning as drove to the office, I would watch the men at work, already hours into their labour. Somewhat uncharitably, the one thought that dominated all others was not an admiration for their effort but rather a sense that there must be an easier way for them to farm the land. And the short answer to this is “Of course”. But the farming techniques we take for granted in Canada all come with a price tag that few people here can afford. With 90% of the population living on less than $2 per day, a plow might as well be a Cadillac.

Whether these men take the same amount of satisfaction in seeing their crops grow as people do with their hobby gardens back home, I don’t know. Given the stakes involved, I suspect the overwhelming feeling is rather one of relief. Whatever the case, the corn has now grown as high as an elephant’s eye, to paraphrase the old song (not from Toto, thankfully), so the first harvest will soon take place and the ground quickly replanted in an effort to make the most of the growing season, due to end in the early Fall with the final drop of rain.

The odd thing about the rain at the beginning of the season was its regularity. In Canada, storms blow in and out with little predictability. An early morning shower might not repeat itself for a week or a month. Here, I could set my watch by the approaching clouds. Almost invariably, the morning offered no clue to what would happen in the afternoon, with bright sunshine and warm temperatures befitting a brilliant summer’s day. By mid-afternoon, the clouds would slide in as though they were punching a clock and by four, one would swear the apocalypse had descended. Thunder, lightning, torrential rain and wind blowing like a hurricane’s nasty little brother. And within an hour, it was all over; any birds not blown to Cameroon tentatively resumed their songs and the storm was reduced to a memory to be replayed as déjà vu the following day.

Now that the rainy season is fully underway, that predictability is gone, replaced by a simple likelihood that the rain will fall at least once during the course of the day. This consistency has turned the dirt roads to muddy wallows, and the dampness in the air has people running to their closets to dig out the same jackets they wore during the height of the Harmattan. Perhaps it’s a sign of my adjustment to life here that I’ve also been favouring my waterproof coat lately, much to the amusement of my coworkers, who call me fully Nigerian now. The worst of the rain is still expected, as August tends to produce days of unrelenting drizzle, broken only by the occasional downpour. This makes everyday living a different kind of challenge, as even a quick trip to the store on the back of a motorbike will leave one soggy and sad. A planned trip to the South in a couple of weeks will likely exhaust my supply of garbage bags to keep everything dry. If Toto ever reunites for a tour of Nigeria, my guess is they’ll be seeking our solitary company during the dry season. It’s much easier to bless the rains when they’re not soaking you through to the skin.


Anonymous said...

When I arrived in Kenya in May 1991, it was at the tail end of the rainy season and much of what you describe is familiar for that reason. It seemed to arrive every day before sundown [just after 6 - hey, I was on the equator, after all].

And I still remember the swahili word for rain: mvua. That surprises even me because there's not much left of the language after all these years.

Good readin', mossy man.

Anonymous said...

wet and soggy, Toto and all.

Greetings from soggier than most Toronto, Canada. We here in the northern summer climes are experiencing the wettest reverse of our normally dry season. Records have been broken as cms drift to mms in depth and breadth. Water, water everywhere and nary a drop to drink [where does that reference come from? A free pass to the soggy Beaches Jazz festival to anyone who can name that quote].

Climate in all its glory: two years ago I was taken [not quite kidnapped, but almost] by my Shanghai colleagues to visit the city of Xiamen [pronounced she-a-men] on the coast slightly north of Hong Kong. The island of Kemoi [Chemoy] is across the strait from the mainland, and as people frolicked on the beaches, guns faced each other from both sides of this disputed territory [PRC wants it; Taiwan has it; Americans are caught in the diplomatic middle].

It was monsoon season, and I had never been in a monsoon -- not that that was the goal of this trip. Actually, a full blown monsoon hit the coast just south of where we were to devastating effect, but we were spared.

Spared is a liberal term: the heat was oppressive, with the sun beating down relentlessly so long as the sky remained clear. The humidity was so thick as to allow you to "walk through water" as you "strolled" along the streets trying to find a shady place to duck into. And then the rains came -- fierce, furious, thick and grey, unstoppable, vicious. It hurt to be pounded by the heavy drops.

It was at the height of one of these downpours that my colleagues insisted we take a ferry to an offshore island to walk around. Thankfully, the ferry ride was brief, and the harbour was spared the choppy effects of offshore winds.

I think the approach to weather has as much to do with cultural bias as it does with the elements in and of themselves. As the monsoon rains poured down, the steam rose up from the ground. It was not a cooling experience, but a steamy one. At least to my mind that was what I "felt" and witnessed [notice: I say "to my mind"]. To my Chinese colleagues, rain represents "cold", and they ran to get sweaters to ward off the damp chill.

I was astounded because I sweated like a pig through the "cooling downpour" where they shivered with a chill I could neither see nor feel. Perception shapes reality.

Locale shapes reality as well. My Chinese colleagues have no end of chiding me for being a fat lazy Westerner. While the girth issue is true, the lazy issue is culturally biased. Of course, I am a slug that prefers couch-potato-dom to a brisk walk in 105 degree F weather [I just got back from Dallas, Texas where it was 105 degrees in the shade].

To prove their point, my PRC friends would take me to more Buddhist temples than you would want to see in a lifetime. Often, these treks are on hot steamy humid days when the air is so thick you could eat it with a knife and fork.

I think I've already told the story of the beatifically smiling Buddha at the top of the typical staircase in a temple compound -- you climb the interminable stairs of enlightenment [some would claim "to enlightenment" but it hasn't worked for me yet], and at the top the Buddha sits on a lotus bud laughing his ass off as you huff and puff your way to prostrate yourself at his footstool [or simply to collapse in exhaustion -- whichever you have energy for].

The steeper the journey the greater the enlightenment -- like good "protestants" you have to embrace a sweat ethic [being a lapsed catholic, I'd rather just confess all those sins -- that way I get to keep my well-rounded figure].

Going to a temple on a hot humid day where the stairs are well laid out is simply a pre-trial event. Going to a temple where the stairs are cut into the rock on the face of a mountain -- now there's sweat equity. And if it rains in a monsoon downpour while you're huffing your way upward, just think of the glee in the Buddha's eye.

The "laziness" of a rotund Westerner has many ingredients: the obvious two being weight and lack of exercise [atrophied leg muscles do not make the climb easy]. But it also has to do with Northern metabolism and blood thickness. It's not simply a matter of heat [which is a big portion of the issue at hand] but also about the thickness of the body to ward off winter cold, and the slowness of the metabolism to generate internal heat gradually, and the sluggishness of blood flow to ensure heat is evenly distributed throughout the body, again as a response to cold climate.

Well, that all sounds fine and dandy, and such a scientific rationalization, but then again, being a fat couch potato is not so much a metabolic thing as a life choice.

All this blather about sweat and pain and cultural approaches to huffing/puffing simply because it's rainy season in Africa. Dude, you rule.

Well, Toto, this certainly ain't Kansas [the better part of me wanted to resist that reference, but the unlightened part of me couldn't resist -- and now I feel better that I didn't]....

Keep well, keep dry [ha], wallow in the mud and enjoy it while it's happening because what comes next is totally the opposite....victor [lapsed RC from NY, living in To, having just returned from a family reunion in Tx, visiting loved ones from Brazil and Argentina, in 105 degree weather].

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you were describing Toronto last week. One hour it was thunder and lightening with buckets of water and hail, then the next hour the sun was shining. A few hours later thunder and lightening, then sun. TO is turning into the tropics. No need to go to Africa!

Natasha said...

Thanks for getting back to me. Yes I would love to have the contact address or phone number for the Replacement Director.
Also, it rained the other day, the weird part it was still sunny!!I couldnt figure out where the rain was coming from....erie