When the rains came to Africa

By Herman Labuschagne

A narrative about some of the joys and sorrows of Africa’s greatest blessing


It is always something special when it rains in Africa. In a mostly parched and savagely-dry land, the rains is something which both man and beast always look forward to with eager anticipation  For months – and sometimes for years – the rains are awaited with great impatience. For years they might come only occasionally. In vain the children of Africa would turn their eyes in search to a sky like bronze. Sometimes clouds would build up tantalizingly, only to be whisked away by the dry winds of the unending, sun-baked plains. And then one day, when all hope had been lost, clouds would begin to build up into vast, massive castles. And when it is all over, the land would be left refreshed, cleansed and full of new vigour and a zest for life.


Outside of equatorial Africa it is comparatively rare to hear people complain much about rain. One only has to experience one of the continent’s frequent droughts in order to learn that rain is something to be seen as a blessing, to be welcomed and appreciated in any given quantities. Not long ago the world saw pictures of children dancing in the rain for the first time in their lives. Yes, they had never seen or known the miracle of a drop of rain in ten years! But Africa is a strange mother. When she gives, it often seems as if she is trying to make up for all the years during which she had forgotten her children. The year 2000 will long be engraved in the memories of her children as a point in case. In the dry region where I live, right next to Kruger National Park, we have been experiencing intermittent drought for the best part of twenty years. It must have been with a pang of guilt that Africa remembered these last few years that she must have skipped a spot for quite a long time.


The South-East African floods that have made world headlines for nearly a month now has brought much death and disaster with it. The full death toll in neighbouring Mozambique will probably never be known. The damage to one hundred bridges and 2,500 kilometres of roads will quite likely never be fully repaired. Yet, along with all the suffering and damage, Africa has been transformed into an object of rare beauty this year. To those of us who can still remember the terrible droughts of the 80's, the floods are somehow still not that bad. Compared to this, the silent withering away of life over a period of years seems infinitely more cruel. To have seen, in the region where I live, what a real drought was like, is to be able to place matters into their proper perspective.


When dozens of impala lie dying all over the bushveld – and you can gather not even  one  hand full of withered grass in order to hand-feed a dying female impala, it tends to drive the message home. How many a farmer or game ranger, had to shoot his animals one by one until he had no more tears to blur away sights of his rifle? Often the dry winds came tearing across the plains and turned the air into a living dust bowl. So bad that the street lamps in the cities went on, and motorists had to drive with headlights on. When fences became buried underneath the shifting sands where rich Triandra grass once grew...


I keep telling people that the rules of the world don’t fully apply to Africa, and I know that this is something which is hard to understand unless one has lived in Africa for a lifetime. It always remains a strange and mystic place. Like with the rains this year. In the Wolkberge or “Mountains of Cloud,” not far from me, lives Mojaji, the world-famous African Rain Queen. For centuries she and her forebears have ruled their people with their claim to have some influence over the weather. It was with wry humour that I noted this year that Mojaji must have gone a little too far in her annual rain-dance for the season! And indeed, when interviewed, Mojaji admitted that they had in fact probably overdone their prayer-ceremonies in October last year, which the current cause of all the flooding!   And then it was as if the Devil on my shoulder leaned forward and whispered into my year: “If this had happened in America, don’t you think you could have sued the pants off the African Rain Queen this year...?


But each disaster brings its own miracles and wonders. Sometimes it just takes a bit of thought and effort to see them. Just recently I sat with wonder and watched as crocodiles devoured the bloated carcass of a large hippo that must have drowned in the floods in front of my house. How amazing how what is such an indescribably smelly carcass to one, can be such a delicious treat to others! Just to see how these primitive saurians actually slithered into the stinking, bubbling carcass to tear off the tasty tidbits was enough to make one shudder! Yet, there seems to be an insatiable demand fur any kind of protein in this continent. I wonder how many people have seen large barbel, or African “catfish” actually crawl out of the water and onto dry land in order to eat the flesh of a dead animal near the water? – Something which National Geographic has yet to capture on film.


And then there is the more human element which sometimes causes amusement. Like the four city-slickers who had come down from the city, yesterday. Dressed in their nice eco-friendly “bush-attire,” complete with customized Landrover and all the paraphernalia which no doubt should have enabled professionals to successfully complete the Camel Rally, they were just about ready for anything that the new buzz-word of “ecotourism” could throw their way. But somehow the element of adventure must have evaporated somewhat as they got more hopelessly stuck in a dry riverbed, than I have ever seen before! It took a good walk on foot for them to reach the homestead in order to come and squawk for help.


It was funny, really. In what had looked like a typical dry sand-bedded river, they had somehow managed to embed their “Landy” right up to the chassis! With all the bravado of youth, and perhaps recklessly inspired by visions of that hilarious winch-scene from The Gods Must Be Crazy I, they then proceeded to winch their vehicle out with the aid of a very powerful winch. But something must have gone wrong somewhere, for when they had finally and definitely succeeded in dragging their vehicle’s nose fairly solidly into the muddy river bank, they decided to dig instead. And it was only when all four wheels were completely in the air, that they decided it was time to admit defeat and call for reinforcements. It was raining again, incidentally, and by this time they were very nervous. These dry river beds have the unnerving habit of coming down in sudden flash-floods which would undoubtedly have swept them right across the border and into Mozambique –  where they would probably have added to the burden of international flood disaster rescue operations! 


It was funny, yet heart-warming to see their gratitude when they were finally shown how to extract themselves by the use of that wonderful invention: the high lift jack, and plenty of rocks underneath the wheels. Their offering of generous amounts of whiskey as a token of their intense gratitude was perhaps indicative of their relief at having survived their wilderness experience intact! 


From other quarters, came the report of one thousand school children who had been cut off when flash-floods filled the river between their school and their homes. They had to be airlifted to safety. Up in the mountains, huge landslided blocked the mountain passes and cut entire towns off for days. Farms, fancy wilderness game lodges, roads and bridges were swept away and came floating down the river. Even in Kruger Park, a trail of computers and furniture indicated that nature had decided to do some autumn-cleaning of the main camp’s lodges and administrative buildings. The staff only had time to grab one armload of possessions each. When they returned, the buildings were already knee-deep under water, and filled with dozens of crocodiles who had come to seek refuge from the fast-flowing water! – Needless to say that the rescue operation was summarily abandoned! 


So, after a month of flooding, the damage to human lives and possessions has been exceedingly great. It was at the end of all of this, however, that I sat back and wondered about something. How did all the tremendous flooding affect the wild animals? Certainly many must have drowned on the massively-flooded plains of Mozambique, but on the whole it is perhaps significant to see how it had left the vast majority of animals singularly unaffected. For them, it has been a bountiful year indeed. The herds are filled with a particularly large number of offspring, and they are all fat, sleek and vibrant with health. They, the true natives of Africa, have seen times of drought, flood and disaster come and go for millennia. On the awesome scale of time and eternity, the year of 2000 will go down in animal history as... probably just another year...