Continuing the series Letters from the Heart of Africa.
My first few nights in Rwanda brought me shallow, dreamless sleeps; when I awoke I was unsure that I had even slept at all. My new home was so different to my home in London. The birdsong, distant voices from the street in unrecognisable tongues, the smell of musty leaves, all carried new unfamiliarity.
The house had no TV, but with its spacious rooms, two verandas and a security guard called Peter who helped around the house, it was very comfortable; I had a crackly transistor radio that could just pick up the German World Service or BBC Radio Africa which played some thumping tunes in the evenings which I would spend reading or working on a laptop on the big pine table in the living room.
I had arrived in March, the start of Rwanda’s first of two rainy seasons, and at nights the raindrops sounded like they were sending Morse code in to the tin-roof above the mosquito net.
Between the showers, there was the occasional sound of tiny footsteps in the attic, perhaps of mice or lizards, frantic patters of short sprints, that ebbed and flowed, but never reaching the thunderous, rich intensity of the raindrops. For they were like the impatient roll of fingertips that, in the darkest hours, were eager to impart meaning.
Perhaps the raindrops too had their stories to tell.
The raindrops frustrated me for despite their therapeutic riffs, in the morning, the bathroom tap would just splutter a small trickle that thinned in to a column of droplets; then it would hiss as if mocking me, just when my mouth was full of toothpaste.
I developed my own water routine. There was a tap in the garden, just a few metres outside the house and every morning I would fill two buckets of water; the first, I would pour down the toilet as a flush; with the second, I would manage to brush my teeth, shave and bathe with. After 6 months of this routine, I realised how little water we actually need, and how wasteful we are.
Rwanda’s climate is temperate, her heat is bearable, and her cold is never biting; her two rainy seasons provide relaxed, sobering rain, unlike the raging, angry rain you might see in the Asian monsoon.
The first rainy season coincides in part with a period of mourning from April to July to commemorate the genocide of 1994. The April raindrops are a catalyst to memory; raindrops are teardrops, for April is Rwanda’s most sorrowful month, and they find empathy at this time with the national psyche.
Memorial day, April 7th (the day that marks the start of the period of mourning when the Genocide started) is nearly always rainy, the clouds shed tears, as if mother-earth herself cries.
Rain water gushes down the hillsides and alleyways between buildings became fast flowing streams and mini waterfalls; roadside ditches fill with the frothy brown flow, keeping the tarmacked roads shiny, filling potholes to the brim, making banana-leaf footballs soggy and limp.
The raindrops are omnipresent; they add an electric green effervescence to the land; they bring out flushes of new buds in her tea plantations; they clean the tin-roofs; they split the sides of paper bags of shoppers (plastic ones are banned in Rwanda) and they make fruit and vegetables roll down the wide avenues of central Kigali.
Kigali citizens tend to stay indoors until showers cease; in contrast, rural Rwandans are braver; in the countryside, women in hunch-back shawls with babies hidden under them scurry home braving the drizzle; single files of men, their faces shiny, walk fast-paced, sheltered with bundles of wet firewood balanced on their heads.
By July the dry season arrives; the soil takes on a light orange hue and fine dust sits in the night sky making the Rwandan moon resemble Mars. In October, the second rainy season descends to wash away the lunar bravado.
If the tin-roof chatter of the raindrops could impart meaning, perhaps they might talk to each other about their impending travel to distant lands …
Raindrops in Rwanda, depending on where exactly they land, can start the voyage to flow in to one of the two great African rivers, the Nile or the Congo.
In the west of the country is a chain of volcanoes called the Virungas, dark and brooding, with jagged tops like old men’s teeth, and this forms part of one of the great watersheds of the world, known as the Congo-Nile Divide which extends south in to a national park called Nyungwe, abode of rare black and white colobus monkeys. Depending on whether the raindrops fall, either to the left or to the right of this stretch of high land, determines their Nilotic or Congolese fates; whether they journey to the Mediterranean or the Atlantic; whether they traverse deserts or jungles.
If the raindrops fall to the right of the high land, they land in the Nile river basin (most of the rivers in Rwanda are part of this) and so will start a 6,800 km journey north to the delta. The length of a river is measured from its most distant source to its mouth and although it is a point of debate, some say the start of the Nile is in Rwanda – for it is fed by Lake Victoria, whose largest feeder is the River Kagera, which is fed by the Nyabarongo River, which starts in Rwanda, specifically in the monkey-filled, bamboo-overgrown, swampy mountain rainforest of Nyungwe. (Nyungwe, incidentally, also boasts my favourite mountain name of all time: Mount Bigugu, which isn’t really that big, at just under 3,000 metres.)
And thus the raindrop that lands in the marshy bogs of Nyungwe forest, may find its way past throngs of flamingos in Lake Victoria, north past the waterfalls of Jinja, around Khartoum, past ancient Nubian pyramids and millenia-old Egyptian temples, through deserts to the Nile delta and up to Alexandria where, from its boggy origins amongst the howls of monkeys, the Rwandan raindrop finds the salty-warmth of the Mediterranean Sea.
If the raindrop lands just a millimeter to the left of this highland, it will fall in to the Congo river basin, where the River Congo meanders its course, through the world’s second largest rainforest, from the air, she appears like a black python slithering through a field of broccoli heads. The River Congo is often in the shadow of the Nile, for the Nile is longer by nearly 2,000km, but the Congo outdoes the Nile in several ways. It is the world’s deepest river, over 220 metres deep in places (the Nile in contrast barely gets deeper than 11 metres). And while the Nile has seasonal floods depending on the wet season, the Congo, has a steady flow, because it straddles the equator and at any time of the year, some of its tributaries will be having a wet season. No wonder, the Congolese call it the river that swallows all rivers. The Congo starts off sluggish, transport for rafts of logs, the home for hippos and crocodiles, meandering, slothful, and creating ox-bow lakes, winding through untouched jungle inaccessible but for the river.
But as soon as the river passes the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa, it wakes from its soporific state and gains energy in a series of waterfalls and fizzing rapids; its canyon of sheer volume of water, could, if harnessed, generate enough electricity to power the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. It is a mysterious, powerful and enigmatic river, with its verdant veil of thick jungle foliage and untold mineral wealth in its deep beds.
It introduces itself to the Atlantic without pretence – it has no fanning delta, like other great rivers like the Nile, the Mississippi or the Ganges; at its estuary, its sluggish jungle genesis is forgotten. It needs no posturing, for it has a force brutish enough to bore an entire gorge in to the bed of the ocean. The Congo needs no introduction to the Atlantic.
On my way to work, I would walk over a bridge at Gisozi, where beside clumps of reeds at a river bank, a long queue of women with yellow jerry cans would snake its way towards a public tap.
Each would wait patiently for her turn and fill a can or two and lifting them on to a small cloth on their heads. These lines of women would then cut across the bend in the road to trudge up a steep and muddy embankment. A litre of water weighs a kilogramme so some of them would be carrying ten kilogrammes of spine compressing, skull thumping dead-weight up that muddy, crumbling cliff in rubber sandals.
This activity was, for them, a mundane, daily chore performed without complaint or deliberation. And then as they cut across my paths, to climb another embankment I might notice that some of the women have babies wrapped to their backs, wide-eyed, unconcerned, waiting for mum to make breakfast.
Yes if raindrops could speak, that’s perhaps what the raindrops might say in their night-time patter, their tin-roof chatter:
You have a tap right outside your house. Stop complaining about the lack of water. You’re luckier than you’ll ever know.
This post is part of a series called Letters from the Heart of Africa. Full table of contents can be found here