Here but for the Grace of God

lightI was 6 years old. It was the rainy season in Yola and the rains had come in and come in hard. In Yola, rain tended to fall predictably. Mostly heavy rain was late evening into the night and could last all night with thunder and lightning punctuating the pitch black night. There was always a power cut when those thunderstorms came but we didn’t mind because it cooled down so much that we reached for blankets and hot drinks. When it rained in the day, it was usually a slow build up. We all watched the pregnant clouds gathering. There would be no wind; the still before the storm. Then there would be a lovely light breeze which would quickly whip up steam and turn into strong winds. At this point, everyone would run out and grab all the clothes hanging out to dry, put away their food, crockery, shoes, livestock and whatever else was outdoors. All windows would be closed and latched. The humidity would build and everyone would sweat. Every bucket in the house was gathered, ready to be placed under the roof of the veranda after the first rain to catch some cold pure rainwater for drinking. Our dogs would sense the storm approaching and would go into barking fits. We would hear chicken flapping and squawking from the neighbours and children letting out excited shrieks.

Then as we all withdrew and watched from the window, the gusts would pick up the sands in little whirlwinds. The leaves would be shaken off the trees and the large Neem and Baobab tree branches would sway wildly in the wind. Then the huge drops of water would begin to fall and the children would dance around with their mouths open and pointing up to catch the first drops on their tongues before the downpour. Until the mothers noticed and pulled them back and latching the door shut too.

This particular morning, we woke up to the smell of rain. The sky was overcast but as yet there were no cloud to be seen. My sister, A’i (a cousin) and I decided to chance going to A’i’s father’s house. We thought it would be the usual slow build up and we would be back well before the action began. His house was a good 30 minutes away so off we went. As we walked, the clouds began to gather and by the time we got to his house, the sky was grey and the breeze was starting up. We stayed about 30 minutes then decided we couldn’t risk staying any longer because the downpour would start and we wouldn’t be able to get home for hours, maybe even all day and night or worse, we would get caught in it. They had no phone (not everyone had a landline those days) so we couldn’t call home to warn them where we were and that we would come back after the rain. As we didn’t want them to worry, we decided going back was the best option.

5 minutes into the journey, the whirlwinds started to pick up and we had sand in our eyes. Eyes streaming, we had a short debate about whether we should turn back. In our young minds, we would rather be home for the rain and not out visiting so we decided to continue with more haste. In another 5 minutes, the sky opened and torrents of rain lashed down on us. We were soaked instantly and getting colder by the minute. The roads immediately began to flood and soon we were wading through muddy water and getting slower as we went. Before long, there was so much rain that we could barely see each other or where to place our feet. Despite our best efforts to stay together, we kept getting separated as the elements pushed us around.

I was a tiny little thing, very lightweight so when I placed a wayward foot into the unseen ditch by the side of the road, I was immediately swept away by the current of muddy water. I spluttered and shivered and tried to find my feet but I couldn’t withstand the power of the water. Several times, I was tumbled by the water so I was immersed in it and swallowed disgusting mouthfuls. I remember thinking I was going to die and panicking. A’i was skinny like me so she couldn’t be of much help. All she could do was shout my name and I shouted back, only we could hardly hear or see each other. My sister was bigger, taller and stronger so somehow, she made her way to me and she eventually caught me several hundreds of meters down the road. She clutched me to her side and A’i drew closer to her other side. In this fashion, we dragged each other all the way home.

It must have taken nearly an hour to get home. I remember how numb I was all over. I couldn’t feel my hands and feet. I had painful goosebumps all over my skin. I was filthy. I was trembling like a leaf. I couldn’t speak for trembling. We were stripped off as soon as we collapsed into the house and put in the bath where warm water was poured over us until we regained some life. Then we were all wrapped up in large blankets and given hot sweet chocolate. As I sat there, still shivering and feeling like I would never again feel warm, I felt my eyes fill with tears and I thought ‘I am alive’. When my head was under water and I couldn’t see or breathe, I was certain I was a goner. My limbs were stiff with cold and fear and I would have surely drowned. Yet again, my sister was my hero! If she hadn’t been there…

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