Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, mean absolutely nothing in Malawi. It’s not that we’re in the southern hemisphere, and we don’t live (like many people assume) in humid equatorial squalor. Malawi, especially the northern region of Malawi where I live, has four very distinct seasons which vary wildly by district. The mountains, Great Lake, and variations in vegetation mean that when it’s chilly and foggy in Mzuzu, less than 60km away, it can be scorching hot and sunny on the Nkhata Bay Lakeshore. But there are four general seasons that all districts experience in their own way, each with their own unique miseries and pleasures.
From December through April, the rains come down with a biblical vengeance. One night I woke up at 2AM to the sound of a gunshot. Heart pounding I sprang out of bed and raced to the window, only to see sheets of water streaming off my tin roof. The sound of heavy rain on my tin roof is deafening, to the point I need to use headphones at full blast to listen to music.
The plus side of rainy season is that I can leave my buckets out overnight and they fill up with clean, drinkable rainwater. There’s also a nice feeling to spending a rainy morning lazing about your house, reading a book or drinking a luxuriously long cup of coffee. The downside is that it traps you there.
Cabin fever is among the many infectious diseases associated with rainy season. It keeps company with dysentery, cholera, typhoid, skin infections, malaria, and the bot flies that lay eggs on your constantly damp clothes and incubate their larvae in human skin. It also causes the water level to rise, so the pit latrines rise with it. Some days it’s hard to take a solid poop without splash-back. Best bit of advice? Poop next to the hole and then push it in with a stick.
The rains can keep everyone inside their houses for days at a time, and for good reason. These aren’t cute puddle jumping showers. The rains turn houses into islands floating in a sweeping current of brown mud. Chickens, goats, and children have been known to be swept away and returned later by neighbors downstream . They also turn the local msinjis (rivers) the Kuwiya and Luweya, into raging brown channels. This time of year it’s important to avoid bathing in the lake because of the large number of hippos and crocodiles that get flushed from the river into the big water.
Aside from the fact that rains are the number one reason any of my Peace Corps programs get canceled, it’s also hard to find people with spare time this time of year. Farmers are busy planting their maize and cassava, taking advantage of this annual deluge to feed their families for the rest of the year.
It’s also the time when the freaks come out to play. Tornadoes of breeding lakeflies, cockroaches the size of my hand, wind scorpions, tarantulas, banana spiders, wolf spiders, venomous scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, ants that carry off whole loaves of bread, red ants that leave welts the size of baseballs, deadly snakes, flying termites, edible termites, termites you can hear as they walk, and the regular kind of termites all come out in full force. Keeping them out of my house is an uphill battle. Me and my army of geckos against the hoard.
But I love rainy season for the way wispy bits of clouds come rolling in from the Kondole mountains and leave droplets of condensation on the massive spiderwebs encompassing the forest canopy. I love how a near imperceptible drizzle beats steadily on my tin roof and lulls me to sleep. I love shelling groundnuts in the trading and chatting with people while I wait for my phone to charge at the barber shop because my solar hasn’t worked in a week. And I love the papaya, oranges, and avocados that come into season and flood the long barren markets with tiered pyramids of colorful fruit. And I love the season that comes after.
Or “Cold Season” as it should really be put, because it’s never truly cold here by North American standards. It spans from March through June. I arrived during cold season last year, and never felt the need to wear anything heavier than a long sleeved shirt. This year however, I don’t know if it’s actually colder or I’m becoming pseudo-Malawian but I’ve found myself breaking out a sweatshirt on occasion.
Malawians however take cold season apparel to the next level. Full-on knee length down jackets, woolen peacoats, hats, gloves, mittens, and bare feet are the norm in 55 degree weather. What would be celebrated in shorts and sunglasses back home in Minnesota April is hailed as Malawian Snowpocolypse. My favorite look is when women wear four or five colorful chitenje as shawls, wrapping them over their shoulders and head for protection against 60 degree afternoons. My new favorite response when someone asks me to take them to America is to tell them they would hate it because it’s cold outside like the inside of a freezer. It tends to deter most.
Cold season is my favorite for many reasons. Everything is still green and beautiful from rainy season, and the occasional gentle shower keeps things fresh. Clouds alternate between grey low and white and puffy, and some days I don’t have to reapply sunscreen. Wildflowers and butterflies punctuate the lush forest with neon pops of color, and birds of paradise shed their dull feathers for luxurious plumes of purple, yellow, and metallic green. The males serenade their lovers from the treetops, while females dart around with impossibly long stalks of grass weaving nests.
I love cold season because the crops have been sown and people have free time for me and my projects. I love it because people can harvest their first crop and there’s always food for the table. I love cold season because nothing feels better than a hot cup of milk tea that doesn’t make you sweat. I love cold season because I can go running any time of the day I want, and that I can sleep with clothing under a light blanket. I love it because everything is alive and breeding, and so beautiful it makes you forget what happens next.
There’s not a lot to say about dry season in my area, because Nkhata Bay is sheltered by the tree covered mountains, its winding rivers and great blue lake. Nkhata Bay is unique in Malawi for having occasional rains through this season, which is why my district is one of the most food secure and productive in Malawi. This time of year, May-September everything changes shades of green, from deep rich emerald to sickly yellow. Some of the trees may loose their leaves, but most just turn a little brown around the edges. People eat cassava year-round so there’s enough for the table, and temperatures fluctuate between low 60s at nigh to mid 80s during the day. It’s a mostly comfortable season.
The same can’t be said for other districts. Outside of the beautiful bubble which is Nkhata Bay, everything else dies. Central region turns brown and dusty, like a scene from the dustbowl. You have expect a tumble weed to go passing by. The earth turns hard as clay and shrivels and cracks like the blistered hands of an old woman. But these things happen gradually, sneaking up on you. It’s a fair warning to the hell which is approaching come October.
October through whenever the rains decide to come. My idea of hell is a never ending minibus ride during hot season. I have never experienced such miserable conditions for such a long period of time, and for the life of me I don’t know how I’m going to get through it next year knowing what’s coming. And the scary part is all the other volunteers said that this hot season wasn’t as bad as last.
You know the feeling when you get into a car that’s been parked in the sun for a few hours. That stifling heat that you can’ catch your breath in? That makes you sweat through your armpits and cause beads of sweat to roll down your back under your clothes? Hot season feels exactly like that, except for three months.
My tin roof and mud brick house felt exactly like an oven, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to make it any better. For two months the only way I could sleep was to lay naked under my mosquito net with a wet chitenje draped over me, which I would periodically get up in the night to re-saturate with a bucket of luke warm water. When that stopped working I set up my tent in the backyard and learned to sleep through the sivit’s scary calls and sounds of exorcisms from the neighboring village.
Days were almost unbearable. I’d wake up at 4:30 to try and sneak in a run before the sun rose, as 4:30-5:30 were the only hours fit for any kind of physical activity. Farmers actually become nocturnal, laboring from 9Pm until 5Am on nights the moon allows enough light. By 5:30 I’d be dripping in sweat from physical exertion, and continue the same rate of heat-induced perspiration all day.
The state of sweating where droplets fall off your jawline when you bend over became a normal state of being. My hair was constantly drenched in salt, and I had to change my t-shirt at least once a day. If this had been America, I would have been walking around in a shorts and sports bra. But this being Malawi, I dutifully sweated through my multiple layers of long dresses, leggings and chitenje, and for business occasions a button up shirt draped over it all. I had to take at least three cold bucket baths a day to survive, and wash my immediately clothes after every use otherwise ants would tear holes in them as they ate the salty sweat. Even when the first rains come it just turns the jungle into a giant, humid sponge. There is no escape.
My favorite story from hot season came one day in November, when my thermometer topped out at 110 degrees Fahrenheit. I had worked at the school in the morning, and was engaging in my typical midday activity which was lying half naked on my concrete floor and staring at the humidity drip from the ceiling. But today everything just seemed too awful to handle, so I called my friend crying hysterically over how I was “tired of eating beans and planting trees is boring and if I was in America I could meet friends for coffee and do yoga and make myself kale smoothies and be a normal person!” this freakout lasted for roughly twenty minutes before I was instructed to hang up the phone and drink a liter of oral re-hydration salts (ORS). I proceeded to do so and call him back, apologize for the dehydration induced mania.
An hour later I got a call from my friend Torey, who lives an hour south along lakeshore. She’d been on the phone crying with her friend over how her new haircut stuck to the back of her neck, before she drank an ORS and everything was okay again.
Hot season is miserable. I have no optimistic note to end on. I can only pray that hot season is like childbirth, and by October I won’t remember how freaking awful it is.