Saturday, April 23, 2016

Constant Rains and Missing Umbrellas

It is a common sight among all tropical countries with distinct rain seasons.  When the monsoon is in town, a moment of completely unhindered sunshine is followed by draining downpour, with consistent, rapidly falling water drops better than anything created with the finest of man-made shower heads.  Streets turn into rivers after minutes, and visibility becomes no more than a curtain of watery white.  People quickly run under the nearest roofs, into their houses, deserting the busy streets of the central market, that, moments ago, was bustling with street-side vendors and pedestrians.

But something is amiss in the rain-soaked streets of Iringa, or at least, different.  People sheltering themselves from the aggressive rains hurdle under the nearest roof, shoulder-to-shoulder, front-to-back.  Yet, the few vendors with umbrellas, still moving around their shops and carts at an unhurried pace, shows no desire to take advantage of the situation by peddling overpriced umbrellas or raincoats to the hurdled, immovable masses.  The "business is temporarily closed" behavior of these merchants cannot be any different from the enthusiastic crowds of Southeast Asia when rain falls.

In fact, nobody peddling umbrellas and raincoats is not even an issue reserved for when the downpours happen: it is actually a constant issue.  The author's coworker complain that nowhere in town sell umbrellas, and it is not rare to hear of people walking around half the town just to find something to cover themselves with in times of rains.  It simply does not make sense when one considers the fact that, in a regular year, at least four months of rainy season that should see constant precipitation, if the Gods answer prayers of the drought-stricken farmers.

Common logic can only interpret the meager supplies of rainwear as lack of local demand for these products.  And indeed, casual observation on the streets seem to confirm the lack of demand.  As torrential downpours are reduced in intensity, the hurdled masses under random roofs quickly dissipate, each casually strolling through the more manageable, but still definitely umbrella-worthy light rain.  None shows any hurry to make a dash to their destinations or the next available roof, and none indicate any signs of searching out a place to buy an umbrella.

Honestly, the author has never seen a people so comfortable walking around in rains.  With their heads held up high, smiles on the face, these people maintain a steady but nonchalant pace forward while their non-rainproof clothing get noticed drained in rainwater after their long, long walks under the uncovered sky.  They just seem so relaxed that a newbie expat to the locale might even think these people to completely enjoy the idea of getting soaking wet in the rain...and interpret it as some eco-friendly local way of becoming one with Mother Nature.

Who knows, maybe they do really enjoy being under the rain.  Once a local newspaper carried an op-ed article that discussed the extensiveness of urban African youths' Westernization have caused them to forget their African roots.  One example used was these Westernized youth's inability to smell and handle raw, unprocessed animal meat.  Surely if handling raw meat is an "African trait," there is no reason that being soaked in rain, a much less disgusting venture, cannot also be considered an "African trait."  Neither, for the real African, should require intervention by some man-made tool.

Of course, there can also be a less idealistic/romantic-sounding theory.  People do not buy umbrellas because they have no money set aside for such an expense.  In a culture where all available money is instantly converted to goods, rainwear is not some "desirable" life-enhancing product that people would immediately think about when they get their hands on some cash.  The idea that "the rain will stop soon anyways even if it is really big now" means that an umbrella will never be considered an essential item in daily life even if the person receives some dispensable income when it rains hard.

But underneath both of these theories is probably something even less palatable (from the expat perspective).  It is the idea that people never need to be in a hurry to get anywhere on a scheduled time, because for many, "close enough is more than good enough."  Punctuality (or by extension, any sort of perfectionism) at expense of great efforts cannot be considered a virtue for a population that is easily satisfied by minimal positives in their lives.  Hence, it simply makes no sense to brave heavy rains to get to destination on time.  Waiting the rain out is a good excuse to be late, and wet clothing upon arrival is good proof.  Umbrellas will unlikely to sell well here unless this "African trait" is completely stamped out.

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