Tag Archives: natal

It is an hour or less before the setting of the sun, a shadowless moment already greyed out, with an evenness of tone across the landscape, and it has begun raining, a heavy downpour, a late summer evening drenching. I first hear it, and drawn to the door, I look out and watch.

It is not just the rain, coming down in parallel lines across the trees, but the sudden humidity, a thickness in the air, and a kind of cool warmth — the air being cooler than the daytime, but the mugginess felt as summer heat. The drops splatter on the pavement outside the house and bounce up as they explode, making a kind of haze above the ground. 

It is a multi-sensory event: the hiss of the rain, the sight of the shower diagonal against the trees, the feel on the skin and the damp in the nostrils. As the weather develops, there is distant thunder. It rolls rather than claps. 

And the presence at my door cannot help but expand beyond this afternoon and its downpour. I am 70, and there are seven decades of familiarity to the rain. This moment and the emotion I feel watching is a palimpsest of all those years — each time it has rained, overlapped one on the other to make not a single day’s weather, but a book of pages, each another storm, bound in morocco to make a life. 

As a boy, growing up in what was then rural New Jersey, a brook ran through our yard and when it rained, it would flood, rushing down its channel the color of chocolate milk.

As a Boy Scout, there were camping trips in tents made from heavy oiled canvas duck, with no floors, and in the rain, the heavy drops would splatter through the weave and spray us as we tried to sleep with a mist. 

Later, in summer camp and living in large tents on wooden platforms, the rain would make a sizzle on the canvas that was pleasantly soporific. 

In my 20s, trying to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail, rain would sometimes keep us sheltered in a lean-to to wait out the weather, and after a night of downfall, we would wake up to a glazed world with leaves dripping, wet and clean, into the earth below and the long curved stamens of the rhodora flower weighted with a single bead on each tip. 

In Oslo, Norway, it rained every day in the summer at 4 p.m. You could almost set your clock by it. The downpour lasted perhaps 15 minutes and then it stopped, leaving streets running and the sound dampened by the humidity.


In South Africa, we were almost stranded on our way to Eshowe in Natal Province in 1987, when heavy rains washed out the John Ross bridge over the Tugela River. Eventually, our bus crossed the river on a railway bridge a few miles north. 

And, of course, I lived in Seattle for a while. The city is famous for its rain, but unless it was a gully-washer, no one even noticed. The constant winter mizzle was considered by most of the populace as fair weather. Or fair enough, anyway. 

Once, traveling across the continent, my wife and I were camping in Shamrock, Texas. In the middle of the night, a storm and tornado struck. First, our tent began floating as the drainwater created a flash flood, and then, when we abandoned the tent to find more secure shelter, the wind grabbed the tent like a kite, and I stood there, lit by the lightning, holding onto the airborne canvas trying to keep it from blowing off to the next county. I managed to get it caught under the tin roof of a picnic table and was able to dismantle it in the torrent. 

These and a thousand other pages in my morocco bound memory come to mind. But it isn’t merely the personal that maintains this resonance. Rain animates some of our best and most beautiful art, from Chaucer’s “shoures soote” to Lear’s “Blow winds, crack  your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes.” (When I watch Lear in the theater, I cannot help thinking of Shamrock, Texas). “Hey, Ho, for the wind and the rain. … For the rain, it raineth every day.”

There’s the thunderstorm in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the wind machine in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, and Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude. 

There’s the downpour that begins Kurosawa’s Rashomon and the hurricane in John Huston’s Key Largo. The shower in The Big Sleep, when Humphrey Bogart ducks out of the rain into the bookstore with Dorothy Malone — when I first saw the film on television as an adolescent, the scene counted as pretty racy stuff. 

Looking out my door now, the trees across the road are a grey mass, not a boring cardboard grey, but a rich, charcoal and velvet grey, a grey made up not of a lack of color, but of all the colors veiled over each other. 

The visual poet of such rich greys in the rain is the Japanese woodblock artist, Ando Hiroshige. In so many of his Ukiyo-e images, the rain has dulled the contrast of the trees, leaving them a blank wash of charcoal or slate. It is what I see across the road — the overlapping of ever lighter greys as the landscape recedes. 

In 20 minutes, it is over. The street is flowing with runoff, more leaves have blown from the trees and collect in the wash along the curb. Fall is not too far off. The sky is barely brighter than the silhouetted trees; night will be here in another 10 minutes. 

Aprill with his shoures soote cannot match the end of summer and its late afternoon drenches. Trees all leafed out are ready to give up and let go. A certain exhaustion can be felt in the air; we have pushed so hard into the growth and flowering, and in seed time, we recognize our day is over. 

I close the door; the rain is forgot. I am remembering it now — emotion recollected in tranquility. I recall to mind the humidity on my skin, the sound in my ear, the riot of greys and the street wash. 

I love the rain; it is infinitely more beautiful than sunshine, which blares and obscures in shadow. The forms of things are revealed in sunless weather that are obliterated by sunlight. You see the world the way it truly is, not split into a manichean dichotomy of bright and dark — of Ahriman and Ormazd. 

It is the middle of August. I write this with some trepidation, remembering a warning by Sylvia Plath, who wrote: “It is hot, steamy and wet. It is raining. I am tempted to write a poem. But I remember what it said on one rejection slip: ‘After a heavy rainfall, poems titled Rain pour in from across the nation.’ ” 

zulu basket

In the land of the Zulus, everything seems backward. January is the hottest month of the year. You have to drive on the left side of the road. orion upsidedownEven Orion stands on his head in the night sky; his sword becomes a celestial erection.

And, of course, white people are in the minority.

And though in America the name of a place is indicated by suffix – PIttsBURGH or FayetteVILLE — in the Nguni languages of southern Africa, it is a prefix. So Zululand is kwaZulu.

And what is more, because in that part of the South African province of Natal, where the Zulu people have traditionally lived, kwaZulu means the ”place of heaven,” heaven is underfoot. You can tell it is heaven just by looking at it.kwaZulu

The road inland from the Indian Ocean roller-coasters up and down grassy hills that have grown electric green in the nurturing humidity. In the valleys, you find a darker green of trees and the euphorbias that mimic cactuses. It is a land closed in by its own fertility, with few of the vast panoramas familiar from the desert.tugela river

January is the rainy season; the Tugela River is swollen and has washed away the bridge on Provincial Route N2, so the bus I’m riding has to detour several miles upstream and cross the churning brown water on an old railroad bridge.Eshowe

My goal is a Zulu kraal north of Eshowe in the community of kwaBhekithunga.

A kraal is an old-fashioned Zulu family settlement. The standard kraal consists of a number of beehive straw huts encircled by a palisade of wooden stakes.zulu kraal

In the center of the kraal is a corral holding the village animals, which are its wealth. Some of the huts are large enough to serve as dormitories, but most are about the size of a Navajo hogan. And as with the hogans, most people no longer live in them regularly but keep them maintained for cultural or religious reasons.

Zululand has gone through terrible cultural upheaval since it was first brought together politically in the 1820s under Shaka, the George Washington of Zululand. Nowadays, 82 percent of the population of kwaZulu is female. The men have gone to the cities to find work, mainly in the mines of the Transvaal. Those males remaining in Natal are mostly old men or children.

ZuluBut in the time of Shaka — who was born two years before Washington became president of the United States — things were different. Under the charismatic military leader, a disciplined army of 20,000 men conquered most of Natal, increasing the area of kwaZulu by a factor of more than 100 and incorporating the many small Nguni-speaking tribes into a larger political unit called Zulu.

Shaka’s kraal at kwaBulawayo was the size of a city, and he successfully negotiated treaties with the new ”sparrows,” or white men, who had recently colonized the area of Natal south of kwaZulu.

When Shaka was assassinated in 1828 by his own brothers, the kingdom began its long political decline and finally lost its sovereignty at the end of the century to the white South Africans. Zululand was annexed to Natal in 1897.

At kwaBhekithunga, there is none of the grandiosity that marked the reign of Shaka. The footpaths are muddy, the huts are dusty and several of them are under much-needed renovation.

The village’s headman is Bancusa Fakude — the ”c” is really one of those characteristic South African ”click” sounds — and he and his family spend the evening with the kraal visitors teaching us about Zulu culture and performing music and dance.Zulu dance

He explains that the hut floors are made of an adobe-like cement made of animal dung and that the door of each hut is protected by a line of animal urine drawn in the dust. ”It keeps the snakes away,” he says. ”Never had one here, so I guess it works.” We drink a cloudy liquid from a pitch-lined basket. It is the Zulu sweet-sour home-brew beer. And we eat such dishes as phutu, or cornbread crumbs, and istampu, a corn and butter bean succotash. When the village fire burns down, we head to our huts in the dark to sleep in the unsettling silence of Africa under an upside-down sky.

And when I want to point home to North America, I have to point down to the ground.