Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Malawi's Rainy Season--George's Post

Having lived in Seattle for over 30 years, Carole and I know something of rain.   Most people do not know that Seattle has less annual rainfall than Washington, D.C., Atlanta or Houston, cities in the United States not known for rain.  What makes Seattle so distinctive is not how much it rains, but how it rains.   From mid-October through June, Seattle has few sunny days.  Most of the time it is gray and misty from dawn until just before dusk, when finally the weak fall and winter sun burns off the last of the low-hung clouds and makes a brief, almost apologetic, appearance.  Of course, Seattle has its share of nasty winter storms, bringing days of lashing rain and high winds, flooding streams, sloughs and rivers, and dumping feet of snow, often heavy and wet, in the Cascades and Olympics.



Like much of southeast Africa, Malawi is each year characterized by a typical dry-wet season pattern.  The wet season runs from December through  March, during which the country gets most of its rainfall.   The balance of the year is dry and sunny.   Malawians count on the rainfall of the wet season to grow their crops, especially maize,  that are critical to sustaining life, both in the villages and the cities.  Malawi's weather is much closer to that of Houston or Atlanta than that of Seattle.  For when it rains here, the rain is heavy.   Storms come in  sudden bursts, are tense, and, when over, the skies clear up quickly.   And while the days can be humid and muggy,  they are not misty and damp like Seattle. 
The skies over Blantyre are big and wide, no towering trees to hedge one in and block views, and horizon to horizon views are common place.   Often we see the storm clouds gathering and piling up, usually in the late afternoons as the winds pick up.  The rain is frequently accompanied by claps of thunder and spectacular lightning.   When it finally rains, the heavens open wide, and the blessed rain comes in sheets.   
Throughout Blantyre, along the sides of most roads, even minor ones, deep storm ditches have been dug to drain off the rainfall.    Even so, the rain, when heavy, washes red sandy topsoil across the low spots and swales, leaving the roads like channels of red soil.   Though water is precious, we have not seen catch basins or retaining ponds or irrigation ditches to capture and harness the rainfall.
A week ago, when going to the downtown market in the late morning, Carole and I got caught in our first rain storm.   Foolishly we had left the umbrellas behind in the truck's backseat.  We should have known better, because all morning the weather had been threatening.   Almost as soon as we got to the heart of the market, the rain came in buckets, prompting vendors, customers, and those milling around (including the young boys peddling plastic shopping bags) to scurry to find whatever shelter they could--shop canopies, plastic sheets, the roof of the permanent marketplace.  Carole found herself stranded, together with several other women, under the narrow canopy of a favorite fruit vendor, who sells pineapples, mangos, bananas, and guavas.

 Not yet wet, and early in our morning's ordeal, Carole is, as you can see, in good humor.   Over the next 40 minutes or so, she will make a few new friends.
The conversation however flags as time goes by and everyone is getting wetter.  Gradually there is not much to do, but to hope for  the storm to run its course or at least  for a short break in the weather to permit a quick sprint to the truck.
Had the rain subsided quickly, Carole could have kept dry, but no such luck--soon the heavy rain and whipping wind  soak her shoes and leave her  hair and clothes damp. 
After waiting close to an hour, we gradually begin working our way across the marketplace, slipping from one shop to another, whenever there is the slightest abatement in the storm.  But in the end, we had no choice but to bolt for the truck, without the benefit of cover, for several hundred yards.  It reminded me of the time I got soaked when biking, in a late winter storm in northern Germany,  from the chapel in Bremerhaven to our apartment when I was a young missionary.  We recognize, however, that we are victims of our Western upbringing and culture.   We are impatient, while the Malawians are not.
 Most Malawians are content to wait out the storm, safe under cover,  often occupied in idle conversation with friends or newly-made acquaintances.  They are not in a hurry and do not feel compelled to forego the comforts of their temporary shelter.  Whatever they are doing can wait, and nothing is so important that it can not be set aside for awhile.  It will stop raining soon enough and then there will be time to finish up their chores, to complete whatever business  they have at hand and to get back to their homes and families before dusk. 

 Some Malawians just ignore the rain, going about their business as though it were not raining.  Once wet, they can not get wetter, so what does it matter.   Watching them, you would not think it was raining.    Carole and I are not so brave or so foolhardy.