A welcome rain falls in West Africa

ASK a West African how many seasons he has and he will say two: rainy and dry. Old atlas and travel guides claim four seasons (two rainy and two dry) along the coast, but that held true only before the now-famous climate change. Used to be the rains paused in August, or, rather, were pushed farther north, at which time the southern edge of the Sahara - the Sahel, with its legendary cities, Gao and Timbuktu - would enjoy some precipitation. I had consulted a 20-year-old atlas and a 15-year-old traveler's guidebook while planning a vacation to southern Ghana and Togo from my home base in Burkina Faso. The bar charts for precipitation proved it - almost no rain at all in August along the coast - there is a brief dry season in August. So I traveled in August and it rained just about every day.

I had tried to convince the students in my geography class at the Burkina high school where I taught that they have more than two seasons if one considers factors other than rain, such as wind and heat. They weren't convinced. Of what matter were the wind and heat? To them - farmers' kids - only the rains really mattered.

If Americans were to do likewise, say, define our Northern seasons based only on temperature, one might say we have merely two seasons: hot and cold. But we notice features of the transitional periods between the hot and cold and we call them seasons, too.

In Burkina Faso there is such a transitional period between the dry and the rainy - one might call it the hot season - and if it endures for a long time and the rains start late, it can mean misery for many.

The hot season begins in March when the cool, harmattan wind off the desert begins to die down. By then, the wind has been blowing steadily for five months, drying everything and lifting off the unprotected surface soils.

Much like in the old anecdote in which it is claimed that Eskimos have 26 different words for snow, the Burkinab'e seem to have as many words for dust, which can come from several directions and in various colors, densities, and weights.

So when the wind blows, it brings dust, and when it doesn't blow, one sweats in the heat. Even in the protective shade of my office I needed to place towels under my forearms while grading students' papers to keep from soaking them. Of course, no one works outdoors at midday in the hot season. By early May the noonday sun passes directly overhead at that latitude.

More than anything else, the hot season is a time of waiting. There is little work to do until the rains come, and if they come late, the growing season may be cut critically short. In 1985, farmers in my village could not start planting until late June, and after the rains stopped at the end of September, the unmatured white millet crop - their staple - simply withered away in the wind.

The rainy season of 1986 promised to be much better. By mid-May, we had had small rains of ever-increasing magnitude and the farmers could be seen in their fields with their hoes and bowls of seed doing their bent-over waddling march as they punctured the surface with hoes and dropped seed into the moist earth fully a month earlier than the year before.

One evening during this planting time I was returning to my village on a borrowed moped and stopped along the side of the paved road not far from the village of some of our students. Their village, they were proud to say, lay directly on the Greenwich meridian - zero degrees longitude - which, one could say, placed them, at that time of year with the sun passing across their zenith, at the center of the earth.

So that is how I called them: the students from the center of the earth.

The paved road along which I was traveling could be considered a major international thoroughfare, given that it is the only continuous east-west highway in the interior of West Africa.

It is fairly new - the section near my village having been paved only three years ago - and it was built to accommodate the anticipated transport needs of the region: thousands of donkey carts, bicycles, mopeds, some cars, and only occasionally large trucks. Thus the thickness of the road compares more favorably with a Western driveway than with a Western highway.

That year, this humble road strained night after night under the weight of thundering caravans of 16-wheeled trucks hauling American and European grain to the famine, north and east of us. The highway, now pockmarked and frayed at the edges, is the worse for the wear.

I had stopped by the side of the road (deserted but for my presence that evening) to gaze at the night sky. It had been several months since I had seen a sky so clear. The dust, which had obscured the view since November, had finally been washed out of the air by the most recent rain.

With no moon and no earthly sources of light nearby for visual competition, a full host of stars shone in all their glory from the heavens. To the south, just slightly off vertical and as high and as bright as it ever gets at that latitude, shone the Southern Cross with its bright companions, the two Centauri. Directly opposite hung the Big Dipper, exactly north and upside down, pointing to the North Star below, which was, uncharacteristically, faintly visible just above the horizon.

So I returned to my village on that clear, quiet, and beautiful evening from my vantage point at the center of the earth heartened in the knowledge that the farmers felt cautiously happy and hopeful. For after several cruel years, the rains had come on time.

I returned to the United States shortly thereafter, and the next news I heard about West Africa concerned a locust plague. According to the report, the heavy rains had allowed three different species of long-dormant locust to hatch simultaneously.

I wrote to my students to ask about conditions in the village, but I wasn't sure I would want to read the reply. When it arrived, I prepared myself for bad news.

But the report from the center of the earth was good:

``Bien `a vous, M. Richard.

``... The season has been very rainy. Last Sunday it rained again even though it is already the end of October. Some say that it has been at least 20 years since it has rained so much. The harvest will be without doubt better than those of years past, despite the locust pests.

``... We hope that your work goes well and that you will come back to Burkina soon.''

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