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May 5, 2017


Yesterday’s rainstorm was atypical. After a gloriously sunny day, grey clouds began to roll in. The air was warm and moist and smelled of the coming storm. Then came the thunder…thirty minutes of it as the sky continued to darken. I remembered Minnesota childhood days: watching dark clouds roll in, feeling the breeze pick up, smelling the changes in the air – and then racing across the yard towards the house as the first raindrops began to fall. The thunder and the sky, the smells and the sounds were taking me back… to different times and places….

I was six, sitting on my Uncle’s lap on the front porch of the cabin in a thunderstorm. Rain was pounding on the stones outside; we could feel the moisture through the screens. Suddenly, the lightening would flash, there would be a cascading series of thunder “cracks” – and then BOOM! – the big one. I burrowed into his chest, hiding my face in his shirt, and started to cry. He did not comfort me; instead, he told me a story – about the elves and their game of ninepins up in the sky. I listened, fascinated, imagining little men – like the dwarfs in “Snow White” – rolling bowling balls across the sky.


In Manila, it was raining. At our tiny little house in San Andres Bukid district, we watched the street fill up and then closed the door and stuffed rolled newspapers under it. Fortunately, the bedrooms were upstairs, so the baby was safe and we could sleep. The next morning there was ankle-deep water on the first floor and the refrigerator had shorted out. The jeepneys were still running and I had to go to the market for food. Later, grocery bags full, I started across a main street to catch a ride home. “HWAG NA!” A man shouted at me from across the street. He was waving his arms and pointing to a spot on the street in front of me. I had almost stepped into an open manhole….


It was 4:15 am in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon in Central West Africa. I had been awakened by a loud rattling sound coming from the metal roof of our home. Could it be? I jumped out of bed, turned off the air conditioner, and threw open the windows. Yes, it was true… the rains had finally come.


As I stood there, drinking in the cool, fresh air, rain drummed on the roof, falling in sheets on the ground tiles below. The leaves glistened with wetness.  I imagined the dust on the street outside running in red rivulets into the ditch…all over the city, running from hills, streets, cracks in the earth, carrying away the dusty refuse of this dry season.

Whole districts of the city had been without water for weeks. As the sun shone fiercely day after day, everywhere people had been looking up… asking, “when will it come?” Like tens of thousands of others, I had given up trying to keep things clean. I was beginning to wonder if the smell of dust, the faint reddish haze on everything, would ever go away.

The next morning, my brown yard would look clean. The respiratory problems which come every year at the end of the dry season would begin to recede. People would smile as they walked around or stepped over puddles. The thunder rumbled gently in the background as the wind and rain slackened.  And, standing at that window, I began to understand – in my gut – what the threat of drought in Africa means.


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