Rainy season in West Africa is truly awesome, but nowhere more so than in the equatorial countries such as Gabon. Jean-Alfred and I lived there for more than a decade.
Gabon, a former French colony, was rich from its oil resources and relatively free of graft. It was a welcome change after the food shortages and lack of public utilities so common in the former British colonies where we had lived earlier. But the rainy season was more intense than anything we had ever experienced.
A Sierra Leonean journalist I once knew told me that, attending a conference in Europe, he had been asked if there was much contrast between the four seasons in his country. His reply was:
”We have only two seasons : dry season and rainy season.”
In Gabon the rainy season extended from November until the end of April. It started with a “small rainy season”, lasting only a few weeks and producing less than 100 inches or so of rainfall. Then there was the “small dry season” for another few weeks, followed by the “big rainy season”.
During this time it rained every day. Sometimes for an hour or so, sometimes all day long. Steam rose from pavements whenever the sun shone. Driveways turned into raging torrents. Vast, shallow lakes replaced major intersections. Huge hunks of asphalt disappeared from paved highways as if nocturnal monsters were nibbling on the edges of the roadway.
When Jean-Alfred’s employer transferred us to Gabon, we were given a brand new house in a new suburb. My husband, wise in the ways of the tropics, specified that instead of a lawn we wanted a gravel garden.
The entire area surrounding the house was covered with six inches of black volcanic sand, then four inches of pea gravel. All the material had to be imported by ship and cost a small fortune. The up side was that this cut down on the number of venomous snakes and other creepy, crawly things that would normally invade the house. And we had no problem with our residence being isolated in a flood plain during rainy season.
Because the sand and gravel were so expensive, we had treated only the area immediately surrounding the house. The entire back yard, an area roughly half the size of a football field, was left au natural. The town we lived in was at the tip of a very sandy peninsula and the only things our back yard produced were sea shells and weeds.
I was working as the onshore administrator for an oil field contractor and, in hiring casual labor, had come across a Nigerian named Amadi. He had come to Gabon on a crew boat, had lost most of the fingers of one hand in a lawn mower accident, and was more or less marooned in the country because his disability pension was paid there. As I was more comfortable in speaking English-based pidgin than French-based pidgin, I hired him as a day guard and gardener for my own household.
Amadi kept the back yard clean and bare with a machete. He grubbed out every single root and then, if anything green dared poke its head above the surface, he chopped it out. Once the back yard was organized, he decided to plant a vegetable garden there. I told him it would be flooded in rainy season but he didn’t seem to think that would be a problem.
In a far corner he dug down several feet to find a friable loam beneath the sand. He transported loads of this to a slightly elevated part of the back yard and spread it out for the garden. He planted radishes and okra, cut 6-foot poles for runner beans, cut more poles for a fence around the whole thing.
That was the year that Jean-Alfred and I went on leave for Christmas in Europe, hoping to avoid the worst of rainy season. Amadi’s garden was flourishing when we left. Bean vines were climbing up the poles, radishes were pushing out of the earth, and the okra was heading towards a bumper crop.
We returned to Gabon after the New Year. Rainy season was in full swing. A friend had not fulfilled his promise to keep the air cons running in our house. All the sparkling white woodwork was coated with a 3-inch fuzz of black mold, our leather boots and shoes were ruined, and the place stank like a root cellar. Amadi’s garden was reduced to a handful of bean poles floating on an inland sea.
He was philosophical about it, as Africans tend to be when dealing with the forces of Nature. He said, “The rain for this country, Madam, it be too much.”
January turned into February, February into March. The rains diminished, almost disappeared. The waters in my back yard began to recede, shrinking back toward the lower edge of the property. The last bit of standing water made a small pool in the area where Amadi had dug out dirt for his garden.
I came home for lunch one day and saw him taking a cigarette break by the pool, staring fixedly at the water. Later he came to me and asked, “Madam, you want them fishes for your own self?”
”What fish, Amadi?”
”Them fishes that be for water. They be good for to eat.”
”Amadi, how fish come for my garden?”
”Madam, they come from sky. Fishes come from sky for rainy season.”
I stormed out to the back yard. Yes, the pool was full of fish, foot-long carp with ugly whiskers, cruising in the now shallow water. I told Amadi that no, I did not want the fish for my own self. He could have them for his very own self. He was welcome to them.
He partly filled a plastic clothes basket with water, waded into the pool and started catching fish with his hands. Every fish he dumped into the clothes basket belched out a cloud of mud. Soon it was hard to see the fish in the murky water.
I went into the house and asked the Gabonese maid, Pauline, if fish could come from the sky. She assured me they could and did. Pauline maintained that birds bring fish, and I envisioned birds carrying little baby fish fingerlings wrapped in fish diapers, like the stork brings a human baby in a diaper sling.
Apparently it is not as colorful as all that. Someone else told me that wading birds eat fish roe, which is then deposited when the birds evacuate their droppings. But I prefer to think that Amadi’s fish were delivered in diapers.