The African sky -- torrents and a promise

The rain does not come easily or softly as it does in England. If it comes at all, it comes with effort. The rewards can be so scant that you want to run outside with a bucket to catch the precious drops. The smell of newly wet vegetation washed of its dust covering is a sensation not appreciated where rain is a routine part of life.

Where else but in arid climates is the melancholy splash of raindrops against a windowpane a celebration. Because the rain is capricious, the Africans who walk long distances to find and collect water learn to be philosophical about it.

When asked if it will rain, they reply: "It will rain if it wants to."

Rain is key to survival here. The reminders of its dependence are everywhere. Lonely farmhouses on the parched South African veld are companioned by corrugated iron rain water tanks. They snuggle against the sides of the homes with their thirsty mouths tilted open to the empty hot skies.

Steel windmills are as common as silos. They look mournful and ominous until a brisk wind whips their broad blades into a merrier mood.

The spring rains are best. After the dry winters they slake the thirst of the land with their day in, day out penetration. You can almost feel the hard ground yield and soften to make way for the green shoots to greet the sun. a friend once noted many spring flowers were yellow -- as if they had bottled up the sunshine during their dormant months.

The spring rains turn the tired tawny hills fresh and green and bring out the wild pink peach that struggles in refuse spots and clings to the embankments of railway lines.

The dry riverbeds trickle into life in the spring and then explode with the fury of summer floods that snatch the vegetation from the banks and hurl it into the sea. In the cities there are huge circular concrete storm water drains to swallow those rains. Summer rains, when they do come, match summer heat. They're both intense.

The summer rains are not surreptitious nor sneaking, like lingering Irish showers that come and go. It's command performance stuff. Lightning forks the sky. Thunder detonates and rolls and then, like an enraged bull, charges again. Of all the dramatic thunderstorms one that broke over Swaziland is the most memorable.

It was a late October afternoon and Karen and I were hurrying through the timbered countryside to take a plane back to Johannesburg. As our rented car sped toward the Mbabane airport large heavy rainclouds sagged overhead.

The sky was not like anything we had experienced before. It was not a growling black sky or the sometimes green-tinged light that precedes an African hailstorm. It was an astonishing lavender -- like some fantasy sky. The more we sped away from these waves of lavender clouds, the more relentlessly they swept on toward us.

We reached the modest airport building in the nick of time. Hard violent drops came pounding down. One moment we noticed the small plane on the runway about 40 yards away. The next moment it disappeared. Or so it seemed.The clouds had broken like a burst dam. A solid wall of water dropped down so thick we couldn't see more than a few yards ahead.

In minutes the clouds had gone. The sun came out and glistened on the wings of the strom-washed plane. And emblazoned across the sky was the glorious promise of a refreshed earth: a beautiful rainbow.

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