The air hangs heavy, electric in the evening; lightning chases around clouds that do not yet release their rain while the wind whips the dust in a flurry. They are not ready, they are preparing – gathering energy and purpose for the upcoming torrents. The rains in Africa. I slowly bounce my basketball; shoot, swish, dribble, shoot, miss, chase in a pattern. On the other side of the walls and the concertina wire children are out of school; they are all gathering yelling and scheming around the base of the huge mango tree. Walls that divide, reminding me that while I am in this place I am not of it; I wonder what they think of my obscure patch of land beyond the wire, where somebody is bouncing a ball? They are throwing rocks now at the fruit, one climbs upon the shoulders of another, and yet another has grabbed a stick to beat down the treasures. One of the more industrious has climbed the tree, and waves at me through the razor-blades as he reaches out, grabbing a coveted fruit.
This is Africa, and the mango rains are upon us again. The air is musty, pregnant with the future. The ground waits expectantly, thirstily. The mango rains, another two months of the dry season but the rains come to announce that the harmattan is over and now people can start preparing their fields to receive the seedlings; Africa’s Groundhog Day, but have we forgotten the purpose of our own legend; remembering more of Bill Murray than we do of the delicate patterns of life lived year-to-year? Mango rains, because in a day or two there will be scattered, refreshing showers that wash off the mangos for the little African children to eat them.
This morning it was humid and expectant when I woke my little boy for school. His glass of milk, a breakfast cookie while we read – I am finally introducing him to Tolkien’s hobbits, the illustrated version; he’s of that age now, and the tales of trolls and goblins and dragons, his eyes growing wide as Gandalf summons the morning, turning the trolls to stone. Outside the children prepare also for their classes, singing and memorizing before another afternoon working on the mangos; while my little boy runs around the yard through the sand playing tag and hide-and-seek.
We all live in seasons. We all have our traditions. Though for many Americans rain has become a curiosity of nature, to be enjoyed or complained about; in Africa people await the mango rains with nervous expectation. Had they saved enough seed from last year? Were they forced to eat too many of the precious stock out of hunger or calamity; or was the long harmattan one of opportunity and were they able to save? Will the rains come? Will they come on time, and with sufficient force?
Traditions. Tolkien is for we “children of the kindly west” one of our great traditions; taken in part from days when we too sat around waiting expectantly on the weather or huddled together afraid of the earth’s often fickle temperament. I wonder how many people are reading Tolkien here in Africa? In the west…? where we no longer read, where we no longer think we need the traditions, where the siren’s song of ‘progress’ has lured the unsuspecting to perilous shores, drowned along with their ancient wisdom. When we were in Mali, I would read my boy the story of Sundiata, the Lion King and his epic struggles against the sorcerer Sumanguru. I wonder how many fathers in Mali tell their children the stories of Sundiata? Are the tales really so different? Children’s stories all that shape our view of the world and define our place in it; fights against evil and the ghastly things that occupy the night that it is our duty to defeat. The emptiness of ambition, power; joys of camaraderie; importance of sacrifice; love of liberty; and the preeminence of family and tradition.
Our stories – for how else will we preserve that which has made us human? How else will we who live in Africa know what the mango rains mean?