by Jocelyn Edwards
It’s rainy season in Accra which, if you haven’t been to Africa, is a fact that might seem incidental to the smooth functioning of society. Where I’m from, in Calgary, we drive to work on icy roads and don’t take a snow day unless it’s -40 below and blizzarding.
But here in Ghana, inclement weather can mean everyday life suddenly stops.
One recent drizzly morning, I got up early. I was supposed to meet a seamstress who had said she would be in her shop at 7:30. But when I call her after eight she still hadn’t left her house. “I’m sorry, I’m not there,” she said. “It was raining.”
I grabbed my bag and went downstairs to the courtyard below our apartment. There, our landlady stood outside her door, still wearing her nightgown.
She had offered to go to town and pick something up for me at the market, but instead she apologized. “I won’t go to town today because of the rain,” she said.
When I first moved to Africa four years ago to work at a local magazine in Uganda, I went into the office one of my first rainy mornings in the country. None of the other reporters were there.
When it rains people don’t come to work, explained my boss, with the frustrated sigh of an editor trying to get a magazine to print on time. Instead, people just stand and look out at the rain, he said, as we ourselves stood at the office door and gazed out at the drizzle.
How old-fashioned and romantic, I thought. A place where there is time to just stand quietly and watch the sky change colour and the rain streak down. I hadn’t yet experienced the frustration of trying to get things done in Africa in the rainy season.
Here in Accra, when it rains, business as usual suddenly isn’t. Empty taxis become scarce; everyone jumps in them to avoid the rain and you’re left standing in the drizzle struggling to hail one down. The few that are available suddenly jack up their prices. “It’s raining,” the drivers say, as if that should be cause for a five cedi cab ride to climb to eight.
Many shops open late or not at all. One recent drizzly afternoon I went to Oxford Street in Accra’s trendy Osu area. People stood under the eaves of restaurants and banks trying to avoid getting wet. I myself ducked into an open-fronted shop to avoid the drizzle.
The shopkeeper had returned from an errand and was holding a brown kerchief over her head to protect her hair. “I didn’t know it was raining here. If I had known it was raining, I would have stayed in the house and slept,” she said.
Further down the road another merchant was unpacking his wares, hanging up mannequins dressed in brightly coloured African fabric. Though it was already one in the afternoon, he was just opening up. “Because of the rain,” he explained.
So what explains this sudden suspension of business, commerce and even simple everyday chores?
In some instances, it’s practical. The morning my seamstress was late for work, the rain came in an epic dump from the sky. It was the kind of rain that’s liable to drench your shirt in just a two minute dash from the car to the office.
And like many people in the city, my seamstress doesn’t have even have the protection a car would have afforded. She takes a trotro (mini-bus) to work and coming from across the city, walking from one bus station to another, she would have gotten soaked.
Still, it seems there’s a strong psychological element to the widespread aversion to precipitation in this country.
“Me, when it rains, I don’t go out,” said my landlady, explaining why, yet again, she wasn’t going to town. It was cloudy morning but there wasn’t yet an actual drop of water from the sky. Still she insisted on putting off her errands until another day. Only “when the sun is out I will go,” she said.
And then there was the time that we went to Kakum National Park. It was raining as we arrived and we dashed from the taxi into a covered restaurant, soaking our shirts in the process.
Sitting in the restaurant were several rangers in green fatigues. I asked one of them when he thought it would stop raining. “God is crying. When he finishes crying it will stop,” he said, as he sat folding religious tracts to give to park visitors, fittingly enough on the topic of “Water Baptism.”
It’s understandable that he wasn’t working; as a ranger his job is to lead tours through the forest, and no one wants to go for a hike in the rain.
But then there were the reception workers sitting across from him. Though they had an indoor office, and probably paperwork to do, they were slumped across the table, their heads down on folded arms. “They are relaxing,” their colleague explained. “Because of the rain.”