Friday, September 11, 2009

*Ndiam DON!!!

As I write this, the rain is pounding so thunderously on my tin roof that it drowns out all other sound, with the sole exception of a deep grumbly thunder. Life is stopped, and I imagine in town now, people are packed under inadequate tin overhangs, watching the water course through the by now well-formed rivulets in the dirt roads.

Welcome to rainy season, amigos! And yes, when it rains, it pours.

After nine months in Mokolo of the most blissful dryness, the rains have come and brought a gripping humidity that reminds me so dearly (and sweating-ly) of every other place I’ve ever lived. Normally the Sahel climate of the Extreme North province will dry our newly-washed clothes within an hour, or produce sun-dried tomatoes in an afternoon! So now, we see the other extreme of what this province has to offer.

The most basic premise of life here is that when the rains begin, every other activity comes to a grinding, debilitating halt. And you wait. I’ve waited, marooned under inadequate overhangs, pressed against thirty other dripping people who, like me, weren’t fast enough to reach shelter in time. You wait in stores, in bars, hair salons, or stranded in awkward conversation in the offices of government officials. (In the case of the latter, I advise just getting wet. My personal preference for shelter, you might readily guess, is a well-stocked bar.) You wait because when folks go home here, there is no hot shower to jump into, microwaved cup of hot chocolate to snuggle up with, or efficient dryer to throw those drenched clothes into. In the case of fleeing those government offices, it took my dripping-wet pants seven hours to dry! (Fortunately, however, I next arrived at my preferred, aforementioned shelter…) But generally, you find yourself waiting, sharing shelter with a random slice of humanity with whom you have one thing in common—you do not want to get wet!

I was in town last Wednesday for market day. As I made my way towards my favorite Bean Mama for lunch, the skies, which had been growing increasingly dark, opened with a crackle and treated us to a pelting rain, of that stinging, put-you-hand-over-your-eyes type. Instantly, folks flipped into the highest speeds possible on this continent, and scattered in every direction. I almost knocked over a dear old man in my rush to reach Bean Mama’s stand.

I hunker down on one of Bean Mama’s benches. Above me is a make-shift tarp of stitched-together grain sacks. Although effective at providing shade, grain sacks are not, I tell you, waterproof! Being much more aware of this fact than I was, Bean Mama dispatches one of her children to run over and give me an umbrella, which I gratefully accept. Also sharing the benches with me, seated across a low table, are two young women. They have a piece of clear plastic, which they drape over them, and one woman whips out a breast to start nursing her infant, so small I hadn’t even noticed it. Crouched across from me is a young boy, about 8. He has no plastic or umbrella, but sits obediently and patiently under our drippy pseudo-tarp, declining my offer to share the umbrella. When I realize he has a thermos of hot tea, I buy myself a cup to sip while we wait this out. But the ferocity of the rains only increases. The winds lift the tarp, rain shoots in from all sides, and Plop goes my umbrella, collapsing in on my face. Mmm, wet, clammy, nylon. I peel my way out from under the umbrella, and give my little tea-boy friend a wide-eyed smile. His smile is shy but, in spite of himself, wide. He’s not supposed to be amused at debbo nassara’s misfortunes, but we still snicker under the leaky grain-sack tarp, knowing at times like this there is nothing you can do but surrender to forces greater than you. On est ensemble, as the Cameroonians say, the rains bring together those that might hardly notice each other in the daily passing of life. Cool winds whip through, and the overwhelming sound of the rain beating on every available surface makes conversation impossible, and unnecessary. Tea-boy and I both have goosebumps on our arms, and for me, it’s the first time in months I’ve felt a shiver. I see the tingle of excitement and cool air reflected in his wide eyes, and it takes me back to my childhood, to pre-hurricane moments in a South Louisiana September, when all the neighborhood kids gathered with excitement in the street, the winds picked up speed, the sky took on a ghoulish green tint, and we wondered what Mother Nature had in store for us. Our parents sipped Hurricanes and chatted in the cul-de-sac. We were giddy with excitement, having no idea what to expect, and hoping school would be cancelled! Here in Cameroon, everyone knows that when the rains start, all previous plans are cancelled… and we really don’t know when life will get taken back off of hold.

As I grow increasingly soaked under Bean Mama’s “tarp,” I realize I’d never even noticed when it rains in the States. Do we even have rainy seasons? Rain seemed random and unpredictable aux Etats-Unis. I never made plans with weather patterns in mind. Here, there are certain places where you just cannot travel during the rainy season. Rivers spring up where before there were none, blocking roads. Other roads morph into impassable swamps. Just arriving at the Peace Corps house in Maroua is an affair that involves a lot of screeching, rolling of pants legs, and hiking of skirts, to traverse the nasty-soup puddle that is halfway to our knees: Lake Schisto*. Unlike in the agriculture-based society of Cameroon, rain in the U.S. doesn’t directly influence the livelihood and well-being of the vast majority of citizens for an entire year. Here, there’s probably not a child who couldn’t tell you the basic calendar of climatic patterns. The next time we talked on the phone, I actually had to ask Mom, “So when does it rain in Louisiana?”

I made it out from Bean Mama’s eventually that day, but not after darting under a few other overhangs on the way home, and becoming thoroughly, hopelessly soaked. I think when I go back to the states I’ll have a whole new appreciation for, dryers, and rain in general, namely of the non-debilitating, happy sprinkles sort. Til then, ndiam DON!!

*Literally translated: water IS!! Or, in American English, It’s ****ing POURING!

**Schisto = schistosomiasis: fun disease borne in stagnant water, where a parasite breeds in snails, is just itching to jump into your waiting open wounds, and then involves some type of exploding of the brain. Reference Tropical Disease Bingo.

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