Travel Essay: The rains have come to Kamulu. They came at night; from my bed, I could hear the telltale roar as it began, millions of water droplets plummeting to impact, exploding like hand grenades on the corrugated tin roof over my balcony. I’ve seen rain before, but storms of this caliber are a new experience for me. At home in semiarid Southern California, we only experience one real season, a balmy, temperate spring with occasional temperature spikes in September (“spike” is generous; they’re more like gentle curves) and dips in January. In Kenya, there are two seasons: dry and wet. Each lasts for three months; from January through March, the sun cracks the soil and withers everything from long grass to acacia trees. In April, the fountains of the deep break forth, transforming the landscape into a green, sopping mass of vegetation until July, when the sun dries everything out and the cycle begins again.
Technically, the rains should have come in October. By curse or providence, the last dry season extended its stay a month longer than expected, leaving village farmers crestfallen and restless. Hunger doesn’t wait on the weather, so in extended dry spells, farmers rely on local water merchants for irrigation. These entrepreneurs ride around town on small carts drawn by a single donkey, sitting astride a stack of yellow jerrycans. Many of these containers don’t perfectly seal; weeks ago, I saw a vendor checking his smartphone, absentmindedly prodding his donkey along while his product dripped away, leaving a trail of damp clods in the dust behind him.
Unlike the farmers, I welcomed the extra dry weeks. Rain means mud, and in a village without paved roads, mud transforms life into a constant logistical challenge. The ground here is a loamy, porous variety of soil the locals call “black cotton.” In direct sunlight, it relinquishes every drop of moisture to the air within hours, leaving only cracks and crumbling dust; however, when the rains come, the soil soaks them up like a cotton swab, transforming into a thick, muddy paste that sucks and sticks to everything it touches.
Naturally, this makes road maintenance a chore. Asphalt is a luxury reserved for thoroughfares and neighborhoods with friends in government, so the villagers usually fend for themselves, tending the dirt roads which connect their properties to the village center. Those with resources will periodically lay a bed of stone and crushed concrete over the mud. As time passes, gravity and passing vehicles compact this makeshift pavement until the mud swallows it and demands another layer of stone. Sometimes the weight of traffic actually shifts the road: in the past week, I’ve watched one side of the street between my home and the boarding school where I volunteer sink by about eighteen inches.
Yesterday, our school bus got stuck in the mud. It wasn’t anyone’s fault; it took only a false flick of the steering wheel for the bus to slip off the clay-coated stone and plough into the earth, where it sank up to the running boards on the passenger side. We heard about it just before dinner. One of the teachers came into the mess hall and rounded up a dozen of us before stomping out into the night. It only took ten minutes to reach the bus; extracting it took three hours. Bit by bit, the teachers hacked away the earth around the tires, split nearby stones, and used them to pave a crude pathway beneath the wheels. The close quarters and lack of tools left most of us idle, so I spent the spare time making clay elephants with the students as lightning illuminated the distant cloud bank like a lampshade.
A summons came; we thronged around the bus and heaved. Nothing. A few clay pots later, another call, another round of shoving and slipping boots to no avail. Finally, we tried pushing in the opposite direction, and with a sucking sound accompanied by a diesel roar and victorious war-whoops, the bus tore from the mud so quickly that several of us who had propelled it fell over on top of each other. I’m still picking mud out of my leg hair.
To navigate the mud, we wear massive galoshes, affectionately known here as “gumboots.” The gumboot experience is the best part about mud. The alternating slaps on calf and shin, the way mud sticks to the soles and spreads out from the toes with each impact on solid ground, and the accumulating weight of my feet all fascinate me every time I walk. There’s also the ever-present question of how to step so mud doesn’t stick to your boots. Most of the kids have this down to a science. They can effortlessly walk across town and back, and their boots will be spotless. I, on the other hand, simply walk down the street, and by the time I finish, I’m two inches taller—the mud stuck to my feet has lifted me into the air.
Aside from growth, gumboots, and shifting roads, rain has another interesting side effect: internet and power outages, which it presumably causes by knocking over power lines on whose supports the mud has loosened its grasp. I’m still waiting for the power to go out at night, so I can go up to the roof of my tower and watch the stars. I live on the third floor—the top floor. Each floor consists of a single room; the ground level serves as a classroom for our auto mechanic students; the second serves as lodging for visitors and currently lies locked and empty. The primary chamber of my floor contains a bed, a desk, a chair, a propane stove, and a mini fridge; twin alcoves in the west wall house a toilet and shower, and a diminutive kitchen. The kitchen consists of a sink with a tiny, rutted steel countertop adjacent. It also doubles as a closet, complete with a dresser and hangers on the opposite wall. Overall, the space is delightfully compact. For an added bonus, it includes a balcony and (even better) a ladder to the roof through a porthole in the patio cover.
The roof is the best part of tower life, and I make frequent use of it. Kenya has excellent clouds, and I’ve spent many rooftop evenings watching the sun blast them with all manner of pastels, golds, and greys. Last night I took a blanket and a Bluetooth speaker up to the roof and watched the stars while listening to some old jazz hits from Glenn Miller and munching a chocolate bar. I would have brought some tea as well, but in a case of irony Coleridge would be proud of, my well pump has stopped working, leaving me without water in my home despite its abundance in every other conceivable location. Unfortunately, the power had come back on by then, so a halo of light pollution ringed the horizon in all directions, but a decent collection of stars was visible when I looked directly up. Or rather, directly out—”up” is a rather silly, relative little concept we’ve invented for ourselves, isn’t it? It’s fun to mentally shift orientations while stargazing. Lying on my back, on the roof of my tower, I’m looking out from Earth, stuck to the side of the planet like a high school student stuck to a Velcro wall. The stars are in front of us, not above us. Most of the time, we’re just too busy wading through mud to think about it, or care.
In the first glance at our village sky, only a few stars are visible. To see more, I have to wait, looking, allowing distant light to beam across galaxies and pool in my eyes before it reaches the point of visibility. Gradually, the fainter, more distant stars appear in the corners of my vision. I can’t look directly at them; if I do, my sight returns only empty space. But if I stare at that emptiness long enough, more and more texture seeps into view. A meteor stabs like a needle to the left and up. A star-sized speck of light pops into view just below and vanishes faster than I can move my eyes toward it. Who knows what I just missed—it was probably a supernova.
Eventually, the clouds came back, and I went inside. I was getting hungry anyway—a quarter of a chocolate bar only goes so far—and although I like rain, I didn’t want to get caught in it. My limited experience of rain in Southern California has always led me to associate it with a sense of clarity and renewed purpose (and traffic jams: Californian drivers are pathetic). In Los Angeles, where smog from the vehicles of a hundred thousand commuters daily pollutes the atmosphere, rain actually washes the air, adding an extra sense of both visual and olfactory clarity to the usual petrichor. The world smells better. It looks better too, and rainy days always leave me feeling energized and alive. Of course, Southern Californians lead very sanitized lives. We’ve subdued the earth with asphalt and concrete to a point where we rarely have to experience natural, inconvenient things like mud, except when we choose to. Everyone likes rain in Southern California. Although we might not know how to drive in it, rain is an unexpected yet welcome guest without any of the normal inconveniences. It bounces off our roads and into our planter boxes. It freshens our greens, and reduces our water bills. When it rains, we pull out our books, head to our favorite coffee shops, and cozy up for self-satisfied afternoons. We love rain. You can tell because we say so on Instagram.
In Kenya, rain obscures. It doesn’t shower like the cute drizzles Californians call storms. It doesn’t even pour: it unloads, like a celestial dump truck emptying its liquid cargo from the heavens in a mighty heave. Sometimes it rains so hard I can’t see down the street. Rain floods, turns the black cotton soil to soup, swallows the roads, and blocks the stars. Rain raps its tattoo on the roof of every building in town, making it impossible for me to film interviews with the school staff. Rain downs power lines, traps buses, and generally makes life difficult, but the village still welcomes it with thanks. Vegetables swell with nutrients, acacia trees put out their leaves, and even the mud becomes a toy for kids running around in what’s left of the road.
Like so many other blessings, rain doesn’t come on our terms. It brings mud with it. The same power which presses up through the cells of plants and causes them to flower and bear fruit also destroys roads, mires buses, and obscures sight. I lie in bed and listen to it now, a force which entirely eclipses my own feeble power, beating the earth with a billion liquid hammers. What world will greet me when I rise? When I step out onto my balcony at dawn, will I see the chapel, the basketball court, and the acacia tree just outside the compound wall? Or will the downpour have washed away the world, replacing it with a new and unfamiliar landscape? For which blessings must I wait, gazing, until their dim glimmer becomes visible to me like distant stars? When I see them, what metamorphosis will they begin? The rains have come to Kamulu. They come at night, and with their coming I drift to sleep, washed and swept.
BIO: DAVID HUTCHINSON: I’m a freelance documentary filmmaker, and I wrote this piece while living and volunteering in Nairobi over a period of six months. I moved to Kenya in pursuit of stories and adventure, but I quickly discovered that life in a rural neighborhood also provides wonderful opportunity for contemplating nature. “Rainy Season” (unpublished) focuses on one of my favorite parts of living in Kenya: the tropical thunderstorm.