The Rainy Season
There are two rainy seasons in Kenya - the long rains go from about March to May, give or take a lot ("no hurry in Africa" applies to the weather, too) and the short ones start at the end of October and leave again by about December. Some strange force (Enkai, climate change, whatever's melting Kilimanjaro) turned the faucet down over Kimana during what was supposed to be last year's long rains, to a point where there was barely any rain at all. A year after, safely into a long rainy season that was (thus far) delivering, I mixed concrete with a Kenyan farmer who half-joked that last year was so hot and dry that maize popped on the stalk and goats roasted in their pens. I tried to counter with that American idiom, about eggs frying on sidewalks, but there aren't any sidewalks in Kimana (though by the time the next short rains are due to roll around, there will be). My professors had told me that our camp, now so overgrown that the grass got machete-mowed twice a week, had been a tinderbox two sessions before - no one was allowed to use magnifying glasses for fear of setting the whole thing off.
The concrete we were mixing (with shovels, on the ground) was for a pipe system that is meant to bring water to people who live far from any lakes or rivers, who otherwise would have to spend all day walking to water and hauling it back. There are several ways of doing this, and none of them are easy – one that I tried once involved an old cooking oil container with a strap that I put on my shoulder, around my waist, and even around my neck before a mama, laughing nearly as much as her children, hefted it behind me and placed the strap around my forehead.
“The rain doesn’t come and doesn’t come,” the man told me as we wheelbarrowed the cement over to the wooden frame we were pouring it into. Down the line, where the sun had baked the culvert dry and stable, others were dismantling the frame and handing the wood and nails up to be used again, hammering the bent ones straight. From my limited experience, he’s right – the clouds pile up on top of you, and the rain doesn’t come, the sky yellows over like an old bruise and the rain doesn’t come; the warm rumble of thunder sends you running for cover again and again, and you watch the clouds gallop over you like a cavalry with bigger fish to fry, and the sky flattens into blue again, and the rain doesn’t come.
It feels, as Isak Denisen puts it, “as if the Universe were turning away from you”. And for people who live and make a living here, the consequences are as such. Due to economic and governmental pressure (among other things), many of these people are now agriculturalists, a lifestyle that already requires more water than the ecosystem they’re in can be reasonably expected to provide. When there’s none at all, people starve. Animals are affected too – last year, rangers had to lay out hay for the hippopotamuses in Mzima Springs in Tsavo National Park to eat, and they evacuated ten white rhinos from their dried-out home at Lake Nakuru to the less affected Nairobi National Park. The animals that aren’t lucky (or unlucky) enough to be under special protection generally end up turning to the already sparse farms and herds of local people for food, leading to conflict that drains both sides. For some, even that last resort isn’t enough – hundreds of carcasses, including thirty baby elephants, had to be removed from Amboseli National Park last year. As I fetched muddy water to mix into the concrete, I thought about how lucky it was that the long rains were here. They had teased everyone for a while, too, but they had finally come a few days earlier. Butterflies dipped in and out of the puddle I was using to fill my bucket.
When the rain does come, it happens just as you’re starting to like the feeling of dust in your throat. It opens fire on you, generally in the two to three seconds between when you realize your laundry is dry and when you take it off of the line. And when it comes, the rain, like its opposite, is not halfhearted. It starts out too thin to feel, and you think for a moment that it’s just your vision going grainy – that it’s as you suspected, and your time in Africa has been a movie, and now the cable is on the fritz, and the screen will soon black out. But then - whatever bucket is up there tips, and you can feel it (like a small cold stampede) and smell it (like old metal bottle caps) and taste it (like water, of course) and hear it bounce off innumerable flapping stories of leaves and your eyelashes are so weighed down that your lids close and now you can’t see anything, the cable’s out completely. And you’re drenched, and your laundry’s a lost cause, and bushbabies are wrapped up together under leaves, waiting for yellow beads of sap to start oozing out of cracks in the bark of their rejuvenated tree. The swamp in Amboseli is filling back up; so is the river that brings water to the farms around Kimana. In the morning, elephants will try to give your Land Cruiser a carwash with their trunks. Little birds will shake around in the puddles, looking up every few seconds for hawks, which come out of the sky as fast and hard as rain. You’ll be able to walk barefoot – the mud sticks to your feet, and more mud sticks to the mud, and you’ve suddenly got new shoes, 100% natural and impervious to thorns. And the new culvert will start filling up, a vein across the dry landscape, bringing water to everyone else who really needs it.