Let the Rain Tap the Metal Roofs

The rainy season comes to Djibouti City

By / November 2012

Djibouti’s rainy season is fickle and lasts only a few days. On average, the country gets less than five inches of rain per year. It might rain in the spring and fall or it might not rain at all for six years. It might rain enough to cause the dikes to burst and bring a deadly flood or there might be a drought, complete with sun-bleached animal carcasses lining the highway to Ethiopia.

This year, it rained. For two days in a row, for three straight hours each morning. Local superstition held that if the rain had started on a Friday it would have rained every day until Friday next, but this rain started on Sunday and ended on Monday.

Before rain falls, the wind begins to swirl in random directions. The air hangs so thick with humidity I’m tempted to scoop water from it with my daughter’s beach bucket. The first awareness of rain comes with a taptaptap on metal roofs and the assumption that school children are throwing stones as they often do during recess or on the walk home. Some years, that light tapping is all the rain that comes.

But other years the tapping continues and picks up in intensity until a sudden, damp chill sweeps through the neighborhood and with a swooping whoosh, rain streams down in sheets. There is no lightning, no thunder, only wind and blooping rain and the chants of kids, cheering down the rain.

Most of the drainage holes are clogged with stones and dirt and milkweed plants and plastic bags and there is nowhere for rain to go in Djibouti Town. The water table of the Gulf of Tadjourah lies near the earth’s surface and though desperately thirsty, the land can’t drink in the rain fast enough. Instead, water streams down from the hills of Balbala and forms a raging river that cuts off the outer sections from the city.

If it rains for more than an hour, children stay home from school. Buses can’t plow through muddy puddles and the dirt roads turn into mudslides that suction off plastic flip-flops and disguise deep and dangerous potholes. In place of school, kids prance barefoot through the muck or splash in the temporary rivers.

As quickly as it starts, the rain stops and the sun bursts from behind clouds, angry, burning. Heat shoots from the sky and steam hisses from the wet earth. Djibouti becomes an instant sauna.

Women take up dried-grass brooms, bend from the waist, and sweep pools of water from their homes in brisk strokes. They hang damp curtains on clotheslines to dry, pound the bottoms of muddy shoes together, and check to make sure the day’s supply of rice isn’t ruined, that the single gas burner will still light.

Sunlight bakes the mud, forcing the reek of raw sewage, and of salt and fish from the sea, to rise. Girls lift their dresses high to step over the shimmering green pools of rain and refuse. Warmed by sun, undisturbed by wind, these toxic puddles lure female mosquitoes, who will bead the slick with a thousand invisible eggs.

While people in town draw up their dresses and pants to trudge through sewage, people inland will do so to dance a dance of thankfulness for the rain. And even in the city, there is rarely a complaint. City-dwellers know that rain is crucial to the survival of their nomadic relatives and the village communities where many still have grandparents and cousins and struggling gardens.

Rain is stinky and messy and carries the potential of disease. But rain is also barwaaqo, blessing, and when the taptaptap hits metal roofs, children in town start to sing.


Rachel Pieh Jones has written for the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Running Times. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children and blogs at djiboutijones.com.


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