Thursday, July 9, 2009

The First Rain

So I guess I should apologize for interrupting the usual narrative of this blog for so long. I’ve been mentally composing a blog entry and several emails for some time, and I should know better than to do that because I end up never committing these phantoms to paper. A week or so ago, I was passing through Kaolack on my way to the village from Dakar and intended to do some writing, but the electricity went out at the regional house. Pen and paper, you suggest? Maybe. But I was frustrated and desperate to get back to Ndiago, so I gave up and headed out to the garage.

And here I am, back in Kaolack. Our Regional Strategy Meeting (look at all those capitalized letters! Don’t worry, if it turns out to be anything of importance or interest I’ll tell you more about it later. But bureaucracies are bureaucracies, and meetings are meetings, even in the sub-Saharan desert. So don’t hold your breath, OK?) is Saturday. On Sunday, I’ll head up to Thies with my stage-mates for In-Service Training. I’m super excited to see all my friends from training again, and I’ll be living in Thieneba-Gare with the Sene family again. Nothing could be more appealing – I love that family. Not psyched to spend so much time away from the pepiniere, but those trees are in God’s hands now. And anyway, the rains have started. Trees can take care of themselves during the rainy season, right?

The rainy season. I guess if you’ve been reading the blog, you might have a sense of my attitude toward the rainy season. On the one hand, the rains will bring food. Vegetables are getting ever more expensive and scarce in the village, and the end of the rainy season will mean the harvest is coming in. On the other hand, the rains bring mosquitoes. Instead of freaking out here about malaria, I’ll just direct your attention to any of my earlier blog entries. As far as I remember, they all read something like this: “Senegal is so great! Man, I love eating rice every day! OH GOD I’M SO AFRAID THAT EVERYONE IN MY VILLAGE WILL DIE OF MALARIA! Kinda hot today.”

Well, it’s here. It rained a couple of times in the two weeks before I left for Dakar, then once in those next two weeks while I was away. But the night I arrived back in Ndiago was perhaps the beginning of the regular rain. I’ll never forget that first rain, though. It was a pretty normal early evening at the compound. The day had been hot, of course, and muggier than usual. It had started to cloud over in the afternoon, but it wasn’t the first time I’d seen that and I thought little of it. Maguette Ndao, the young woman whose husband works in Dakar and who lives in my compound with her three kids, was just beginning to make dinner. Other family members were spread out around the huts, relaxing. It was the time of day when people generally stop their work, the women begin cooking, and I start to think about taking a bucket bath.

Suddenly, something shifted. Everyone seemed to know what was coming. The people who had been just lounging around got up and busied themselves. Maguette put out the fire in the cooking hut and moved the pot into one of the huts with a tin roof – the cooking hut being little more than a bunch of sticks held together with soot. Maam Bode, the ancient lady of our family, was suddenly hollering at the kids from her corner of the compound, rousing them to pick up everything that was sitting around outside and bring it in. “Gaw! Gaw!” – “Quickly! Quickly!” The children weren’t the only ones running, either. My dad was off somewhere on business, but both of his wives were scurrying around, picking up every single object outside and bringing it in. Even being placed inside a hut wasn’t always good enough. My mom brought the family’s television set (a black-and-white wonder of a machine, rarely used but much adored) into my hut. I guess the logic was that the toubab’s hut would be the least likely to leak, though the same hands built my thatched roof as built everything else in that compound. Somehow, America, my American-ness, the impossibility of my being imposed upon by nature would keep the rain off my head and away from my possessions. (My mom’s assumption turned out to be false, though no harm came to the television – more on leaking roofs later.) The laundry, not quite dry on the lines, came flying in. A couple of plastic lawn chairs, the plastic mats and sheets we sit on in the compound, the toy cars made out of the cardboard boxes in which you send me care packages, all these were the objects of the family’s frantic search and rescue mission.

As for myself, I could hardly tell what the fuss was about. Sure, there were some clouds in the sky. And the wind had certainly come up quite suddenly. But nature was never that obvious about its intentions in Los Angeles or Annapolis. Or perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention. After all, rain is not such a huge inconvenience when you choose to spend most of your day indoors. So I helped out a little bit here and there, and brought in my own laundry. The family’s energy and anxiety were infectious, and I knew they saw rain coming, but I myself saw nothing.
When the rain finally hit, it wasn’t as if it was dropping out of the sky. The wind brought it right to us, a solid driven wall of wet. By this time, we had managed to take everything inside. The family huddled in clumps, some in Maam Bode’s room, some across the compound in my mother’s hut. I chose to shut the iron door of my hut, since the wind was blowing right into it, and ride out the storm with Maam Bode, Maguette Ndao, and her three kids. Everything is more fun when you include small children, especially when you’re not responsible for them. With Fama, Maguette’s 3 year-old girl, in my lap, and her 5 year-old son Maam Biran sitting next to me in the doorway of the hut, I watched the rain. Sometimes we stuck our feet out into the sand and wiggled our toes around. Sometimes one of the kids would dart out for just a second, then come gasping back in, laughing and dripping. The clouds changed the early afternoon light into something totally removed from the normal progression of the day – the strange dullness had no temporal connection to the late afternoon brilliance we had sat in just hours ago. Each peal of thunder was an earthquake, an immense gulf being torn in the sky, completely engulfing all of us in its crash and heave. No one, not even the kids, seemed alarmed by it. The lightning didn’t look like anything I’d seen before. Each stab cut not from the clouds to the earth, but right across the sky, illuminating the nothing up there with incredible brilliance. The rain itself couldn’t have lasted more than twenty minutes, but it heaved itself at the earth with fury. It was spectacular.

The storm moved across us and was gone, cutting south and west and leaving a trail of grumbling thunder in its wake. Life got back to normal: everyone came back outside, the laundry went back up on the lines, and Maguette returned to the cooking hut to coax the kitchen fire back to life. I sat with her as she began again to cook, as I sometimes do.

“Is there rain in America?” she asked me. I get this type of question a lot, about the horse or donkey carts, about various foods, about all sorts of random objects. So her question didn’t take me by surprise. But how to answer it? I thought of rains I had known, vague memories coming back to me one by one: slipping out of class one day in third grade to jump around in the puddles of the abandoned playground, only to return to the room soaked, muddy, and obviously truant; watching the rain of the late summer in Annapolis from the patio of the quad, drinking beer with my friends and trying to forget the endless singing of the cicadas; and one late afternoon cloudburst in New Orleans that came upon us just as my crew and I came back from a long, sweaty, exhausting, horrible day of gutting houses. Rain had been sometimes a joy to me, sometimes a cursed monotonous horror, and that one day in New Orleans it had been our dance party, our desperately needed shower, our salvation, our rebirth. But I had never seen anything like that rainstorm in the village, and never in my life had I been so desperately concerned with water falling from the sky. Was there rain in America? How could I answer Maguette’s question? The same way I answer most of the questions along those lines. Are there peanuts in America? Are there carrots? Are there charettes? Is there rain?
“Yes,” I said. “But it’s different.”