(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Flood

Still way behind in my blog, I’m trying to dedicate some time each week to catch up. Getting closer.

It’s been a long dry season. I’m not sure why it has seemed so long but it just has. In the two years that we’ve been in Burundi, I’ve begun to develop a bit of an understanding of the seasons. It’s not much of a sample size but you at least get the idea as to the difference between, for example, Dar es Salaam and Bujumbura. In Dar it was either hot and wet or hot and dry. Here the heat seems to be less tolerable since the weather is near perfect all year round. One simply develops higher expectations.

There have been indications that the rainy season is on the way. It hasn’t been consistent but there have been some rather dramatic messages from planet Earth that the clouds above us will be delivering once again.

About two and a half weeks ago we were at home enjoying a cloudy Saturday. Priya was at the dining table and I had just made the bold announcement that I was off to take a nap. A light rain seemed to be turning into a heavier rain and there is nothing better to provide background sound as I would drift off and make up some ground on a rather large sleep deficit. Immediately after my ill-fated announcement, a loud and sustained noise came from outside. It sounded a long thunder but soon became apparent that it was something quite different.

I looked out the front window to see huge amounts of reddish-brown water flooding into the front garden. I hurriedly put on my shoes and went out to see what was going on. It became apparent that the deep drainage ditch that flows along our property to the south was blocked. The rain was still pouring and my pathetic umbrella seemed to be providing no shelter and I soon tossed it aside. Upon closer inspection my heart sank as I saw what had happened. Above our property is another property with a tall rock wall between us. Beneath the wall is a grate which was cemented into the one meter deep ditch to prevent bad guys from entering our property. The problem was that there was no similar grate on the upper end of the neighbor’s property which allowed the debris to flow down and block the water’s passage as it would pass down through our property. With walls on three sides, the water began to build up behind what was essentially a dam. From the water marks we saw later it rose to nearly two meters before the wall couldn’t handle the pressure. Large rocks, cement and water exploded down the hill heading to our lower wall. As that lower grate was immediately blocked by the debris, the water, seeking lower ground, then flowed into our garden. The massive wave made its way across the lawn looking for someplace to escape, eventually pouring over into the driveway and out the gate.
the river through the front yard

The flood took everything in its path: bushes, small trees, flowers, etc. The cobblestone driveway was quickly reduced to mud as the stones were dislodged and driven not only out into the road in front of our house but also across it and into the median. Traffic was immediately halted and had to be redirected. Layers of dirt that were underneath the cobblestones quickly eroded.
there goes the driveway

Rain continued to fall and it wasn't clear if the situation would deteriorate further. I was trying to decide what to do first. I figured that the initial thing to do was clear the road given that the ejected cobblestones could be a hazard. Unfortunately the rush of water flowing out our gate was too deep made it impossible to get outside. Before too long the water began to carve down into the sediment and created an ankle-deep passageway. I headed out and the guard followed. 
moving stones and watching for traffic

One by one we began to remove the stones from the road. Since traffic on this particular road is generally quite fast, the guard split his time between signaling to the arriving cars of our little hazard, directing them to turn around and returning to tossing stones in between. In Bujumbura, Saturdays are big wedding days. One tradition is for the multi-car wedding entourage to honk their horns as they follow the decorated wedding couple’s car across town, usually with a front vehicle containing a cameraman filming the event (must make for some fascinating viewing later). 
lots of water

Given that it was a Saturday and that this is a common thoroughfare, we were subjected to a significant number of gawkers. However I was in no mood to care and we persisted in our work to clear the road. By the time we’d finished, the rain had slowed and I was able to make my way back into the compound to my next task which was to unblock the lower grate so that the water would stop flowing into the yard and out the ever-eroding driveway. The flooding had abated considerably but it nonetheless continued as water was arriving from many kilometers up the hill. Ankle deep in water, I began to dislodge some of the large rocks from the lower grate to enable the water to start flowing out again rather than into the yard. It turned out to be a bigger job than I had anticipated. There was about a meter of large rocks and debris to remove just to get to the top of the ditch. One by one I hoisted the rocks up and out of the way. I kept looking at the sky to see if more was on the way. After about a half hour I started to hear the first trickle of water beginning to escape through the passageway beneath the wall and on its normal path towards the culvert beneath the road, hopefully taking it on to the lake where it belongs. The water flowing into our garden finally stopped.
the path of the water; note the mark on the wall where the electrical wire is missing and showing how high the water was

Sewage is not a pretty thing. In Burundi it is particularly unpleasant. In the water floating around me were all kinds of treasures. In addition to plastic bags and other rubbish there were dead lizards and mice that had obviously been as caught off guard as we were by the flood (the consequences for them were a bit more dire, however). The broken bottles were a problem as well and contributed to some cuts that are still healing. Over the next couple of hours we spent digging out the ditch, removing rocks, etc. A water main had been taken out by the deluge and was blasting tap water into the ditch. The government water department was quite responsive and soon they were working on a temporary solution. Have to hand it to them, they’re resourceful. One worker asked for a machete, a plastic bag and a broken broom handle. Once the central water flow was shut off the guy could go about capping the pipe. He sharpened the broken broom handle, wrapped it in plastic bag to help it seal and then used the handle of the machete to pound the stick into the end of the pipe. The water was turned on and the stick held nicely. 
the path of destruction with the broken water pipe in the foreground

The clean-up lasted for several days. The driveway was finished a week or so ago. The plants that were wiped out are still laying where they were immediately after the flood. Our devastated gardener is sort of at a loss as to what where to start with the mess. I think for the most part he’s been avoiding it and keeping up the rest of the garden. He just broke his leg on Saturday so my guess is that we’ll be dealing with the destroyed foliage for another couple of months.
no more wall

Overall it wasn’t that big of a deal when compared to what real flooding does. That same Saturday many poor people in the area lost their homes. As I was blistering and cutting my hands picking up rocks, I kept thinking about how blessed we are and how I need to shut up and not complain. I have a slightly deeper respect for the power of water and how quickly it can turn into a violent and destructive force. Though I’m still looking forward to the rainy season, I do have a better understanding of the apprehension some feel as they hear that rumble of thunder off in the distance.

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