Monday, August 07, 2006

It's raining, it's pouring ...

I keep searching for words to describe the deluge of rainy season in Freetown: the pouring and rushing and gushing and flooding and all-out inundation that has saturated this city in recent weeks. It rains almost every day, and the sun is a rare and revered vision. Yesterday, the mere glimpse of morning rays spurred the city to an orgy of laundry-washing, stroll-taking, spring-cleaning, and sun-basking, and prompted some friends and I to pile into a battered IRC utility jeep and brave the flooded and potholed road to Lakka beach. (Unfortunately, the clouds arrived before we did, and the rain was not far behind.)

The mere frequency of rainshowers would be striking enough, but the truly jaw-dropping, mind-boggling, indescribable thing is the sheer power of the rain. Never in my life have I seen water fall from the sky in such quantities, so quickly, and for such duration. Take the heaviest, most violent rainstorm you've ever experienced – maybe a sudden afternoon downpour in a tropical locale that churned the ocean into a frenzy; maybe an early-spring drenching that seeped hungrily into the hard, semi-frozen ground and chilled you to the bone. Remember the pounding, drenching, driving rain. Remember how it poured in through that one window you left open; how it flooded your basement in a matter of hours; how it made you want to curl up inside, warm and dry.

Now, multiply that storm by a magnitude of 10… or 20… or 50. Imagine rain that arrives in a rush but lasts for hours – or days – without letting up for a moment, pounding loud enough to wake you from the deepest sleep and turning streets into rushing rivers. Within moments, water surges out of overfull gutters and rushes down every incline, washing piles of mud and gravel and hefty stones from dirt side-streets into the main tarred thoroughfare, and carving new gullies in already deeply-rutted roads. Sometimes it feels as though the whole city will be washed away.

Venture outside in the heaviest rain and even a golf umbrella won’t keep you dry. Many of the locals cover their hair with a plastic bag and just accept the drenching; others are clad head-to-toe in plastic fisherman-style rainsuits, with knee-high rubber boots. When it gets really bad -- when roads are impassible, when the rain seems to pour through your umbrella and to pound upward from the sidewalk – many people succumb, hunkering down somewhere dry. Appointments are delayed, plans revised, workdays interrupted… but not for long. As soon as there is the slightest easing of the monsoon – from a deluge to a mere downpour – people set forth again, picking their way along the highest ground or slogging through mud and shin-deep puddles.

Nonetheless, there is a certain romance and majesty and fellowship to it all. It can also be gloriously fun. I remember the very first really strong rain we got. It woke me up early one Saturday morning, pounding me out of bed and luring me to the open porch on the front of our house. I found my housemate, Ajay, lining the front courtyard with buckets and basins and giant pickle barrels to capture the precious drops (we were in the midst of a water shortage at the time), and filling dozens of empty 1-liter water bottles. I ran out to join him, ostensibly to help but really to revel in this remarkable, refreshing, invigorating shower. Laughing, I turned my face to the sky, feeling the giant droplets pound on my face, drench my hair and clothes, and run in rivulets down my neck, my back, my legs. I twirled in circles, face still upturned and arms outstretched. Then I squelched through the puddles and toward Ajay, splashing him with a full basin and shaking water from my hair until I dissolved into childish giggles.

Another shower early in the season caught me downtown, walking along Siaka Stevens Street. I was carrying an enormous black umbrella, and a young professional, umbrella-less, passed on my left and said with a wry smile, “Aren’t you going to cover me?” So I did, sharing my umbrella as long as we shared paths, then smiling to myself as he darted off down a side street with a parting wave.

The next day, in almost the same spot, I was walking through another afternoon inundation. A young girl of maybe nine or ten, drenched to the skin through her ragged tank top and shorts, passed me in a near run. “Sistah,” I called to her. “You want to walk with me?” Nodding shyly, she agreed, and we walked a few blocks under my umbrella in near silence – her nodding or shaking her head in response to my questions, but never saying a word nor turning her eyes from the pavement. When we reached Pademba Road, she turned up and I turned down and she ran off again through the pouring rain, dodging puddles.

I try to remember how much I enjoyed these early rainstorms, before the hassle of the rain and the unbroken greyness of the days began to get to me. Yesterday, when the shift in weather drove us from our spot on the sand and under the cover of a nearby restaurant, I tried not to grumble about the lost sunshine. After all, we were still sipping beers and playing cards on a beach – hardly a bad way to spend a Sunday. And the ocean was, if anything, more beautiful in the rain: a stunning silver-grey against a steely sky, the surf pounding boisterously upon the beach.

Besides, we’re just one week into August. There’s still a long, wet way to go before the sun returns.

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