When the rains come, I won't want an umbrella

I'm waiting for the rains.

I never thought I'd say that. When I was growing up in England, rain was a bit of a pain. It meant waterproof jackets in decidedly unfashionable colors and – horror of horrors – those voluminous waterproof trousers my mother made us wear if we were bicycling to school.

Later, when I was working in Paris, the prospect of rain meant shoving an umbrella into an already-bulging handbag. It meant damp commuters crammed into a steaming rush-hour métro and wet seats on the bus.

Now, in Zimbabwe, I've learned that rain means life. It's as simple as that. The rainy season should start soon, maybe this month, most likely next. Summer should mean showers in this part of Africa, and, unlike in England, no-one wants it any other way. We're all looking up to the skies.

You see, there's been no rain here for nearly a year. The grass outside my round thatched cottage is bleached yellow. In the morning, hungry storks perch there, pecking for insects. But the ants are inside. They've invaded my house in their search for water. Myriads of red-clay ant tunnels snake up the stone walls behind the sofa.

You can't put your feet on the floor – not for any length of time. For now, I limit myself to brief e-mails, ants crawling up my ankles under the computer desk.

I dream of the sea. No longer do I laugh at my husband and the plastic water bottle he takes with him everywhere he goes.

No rain means no food, or not much of it, anyway. Half of Zimbabwe's population faces food shortages as a direct result of the drought. The corn crop failed, so there's very little of the staple mealie-meal – what Americans call cornmeal.

People line up for hours for bread, only to find that loaf sizes have mysteriously shrunk. Less patient than many, I've switched to rice, thankfully still in good supply. But there's no more hot, dripping toast or mealies (corn on the cob) for lunch. These days it's pasta al burro.

Collectively, we're a nation obsessed. Radio news bulletins urge farmers to get ready for the rains. The nightly television weather forecasts report on the cloud coverage over Zimbabwe, even though the clouds haven't actually got to breaking so far. Where there's a cloud, there's hope, apparently.

It rained during my first year here. The heavens broke the day after my wedding – rains are taken as a sure sign of blessing in this culture – and I had never seen a storm like it.

Naively, I wondered if the thatched roof would hold. It did, of course: They know how to build things to withstand Africa's harsh elements here. But we still got wet inside. The thunder and lightning knocked out the electricity for days on end, leaving the clumsy old refrigerator-freezer we'd been given to slowly but surely defrost over the floor.

As I write this, late one October afternoon, the skies are darkening and there's the rumble of thunder far away. Will it, won't it? I wonder. I long for the strong, sweet smell of damp earth in the morning and the sight of water-logged purple jacaranda blossoms carpeting the grass.

When these rains come, I won't be wanting an umbrella.

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