The Fish in the Clouds

Unraveling a mystery on the streets of Dire Dawa

By / March 2016

If current weather patterns continue, residents of Dire Dawa might want to start wearing helmets, for on January 20, 2016, at around 11:30 p.m., fish fell from the sky. No one was injured or even struck, though the fishy rain occurred in a populated part of town, near the local police station.

No one actually saw the fish fall from the sky, but in the morning there were fish in the street. They seemed to have materialized from out of nowhere. Maybe they really did fall from nimbus clouds, or perhaps out of fish clouds. News reports of this bizarre event rely entirely on a few photos (released by the government and the police), the evidence of the fish in the street, and rumor.

Some of the fish were quite large, as long as a man’s forearm, while others were finger-sized. All seventy to eighty of them were dead by the time they were found. Did they die from being out of water? From freezing in the clouds? From the force of the impact against the dirt in the unpaved street? No one knows.

The week of the rain was unusually cold and drizzly for this area of Ethiopia near the northern Somali border, but there hadn’t been major storms, rainfall, or extreme winds, no tornados or cyclones. There had been rumblings of discontent between the people and the government, but it isn’t clear how that could affect the weather. Unless, as some people alleged, primarily university students, the fish rain was a government plot to distract the people from their grievances.

Fish have been known to rain from clouds.

I’m not sure which is more fascinating or implausible: that fish fall from clouds occasionally or that a government would come up with such a creative and unique ruse to pacify a potential conflict.

People in Dire Dawa were terrified of the fish. They did not view the fish as manna from heaven or free food. Though many said it was a sign of blessing from God, it isn’t clear how a blessing could cause such fear. And no one kept the fish as mementos or fetishes. They either brought them to the police station or threw them away.

The first question I asked after reading about this fish rain was: Is such a rain even possible, scientifically? In the US sometimes it rains ‘cats and dogs,’ but I have never seen actual furry pets falling from dark clouds.

To my surprised delight, animals raining down from the heavens is an actual, scientifically verifiable though unusual event that occurs approximately forty times per year, according to Bill Evans’ book, It Is Raining Fish and Spiders. Most of these animals are amphibious: frogs, snakes, eels, the odd alligator or two, and yes, fish.

Tornados are the culprits in these scenarios. As the tornados form over bodies of water, they become what are called waterspouts. These waterspouts suck up creatures that are happily swimming along, oblivious to the adventure they are about to embark upon. The creatures are sucked up into the vortex of the tornado and blown around in the clouds until the tornado’s speed decreases. At this point, they fall to the ground, often encased in ice. They can fall several miles from the body of water from which they were scooped.

Haramaya Lake is the nearest body of water to Dire Dawa and it is forty kilometers away. That is a long way for a tornado to carry fish, but not an impossible distance. The region, however, is in the middle of a devastating drought. The lake was once more than ten miles around and thirty feet deep in places but by now is dying, and the government has had to fill it with water several times in the past few years. Due to the drought, it is currently completely dried up. One tourist wrote of a cactus rising from what used to be the lakebed. Presumably this means there are no thriving schools of fish in Haramaya Lake.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of the fish rain. In addition to there being no water in the nearest lake, no tornadoes were reported, no one saw the fish fall, only three types of fish were seen, and those three kept repeating themselves throughout the few photos that emerged after the rainfall (fishfall?). Furthermore, the fish fell only in one part of town and a professional photographer said, upon examining the photos, that they looked photoshopped.

On the other hand, it makes sense that there wouldn’t have been any tornadoes reported in the area of the fish fall because the fish would have fallen only after the wind lost momentum and the tornado ceased. This also explains why they would only fall in one location. Assuming they were all sucked up from the same body of water, which seems the most likely possibility, it also makes sense that they would all be the same type of fish, perhaps a couple of schools turned into flying fish simultaneously.

The missing body of water and the photoshopped nature of the pictures remain the two largest mysteries. Some people in Dire Dawa believe it was a government ploy to distract them from very real political concerns, including how the country is dealing with the growing drought emergency. But is that realistic? That a group of government ministers, while brainstorming ways to keep peace in the region or considering how to provide food and water assistance, instead dreamed up the idea of causing a fish rain? How would they pull it off? How long could the distraction possibly hold?

So. Legitimate, rare, and naturally-occurring fish rain? Or creative, insidious, government-sponsored farce? I’ll let you decide. I’m going fishing.


Rachel Pieh Jones, a contributing editor for EthnoTraveler, lives and writes in Djibouti City. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Brain Child, Running Times, the Big Roundtable, and the Huffington Post.