Monday, December 11, 2006

The sky is falling – A tale of natural disaster

At first I thought someone had thrown rocks through my windows. Then I thought better. Swaziland, after all, is not a violent place. Nor does the rock hypothesis explain the rest of the damage.

As I looked around my house, I saw fallen trees, grounded power lines, holes in neighboring roofs, and, scattered throughout the lawn, branches and white plastic. The white plastic was a bit of a mystery until I realized that the plastic gutters lining my roof were swiss cheese, and each plastic piece corresponded to an identically shaped hole overhead.

While I still have no notion of how they make the holes in swiss cheese, I quickly realized that my Swazi homestead (and its gutters) had been the victim of a sizeable hailstorm.

The air was cold. Really cold. Not Africa-in-summer-time-unseasonably-cool, but cold.

A group of my colleagues and I had been in Mozambique for the weekend and arrived home at dusk last night, an hour or so after the storm, when we first noticed the carnage.

I was glad that we had stopped for a half hour for gelato on the way out of Maputo, and that we had been detained for a similar time period by a stern, ill-tempered Mozambican highway patrol cop. That had saved us from driving through during the frozen barrage.

As soon as we switched our phone cards to the Swaziland network, we began hearing the stories. A man hit in the face by falling ice, now at the hospital for reparative surgery. Ice penetrating tiles and wood around Mbabane and landing in peoples living rooms. Ice destroying cars, crushing windshields. Hail the size of small cantelopes.

I am no meteorologist, and I am no physicist. If I were, perhaps I would understand how a chunk of ice smaller than a small cantelope remains airborne long enough to reach a small cantelope’s size. As a non-weatherman, I assume that a bit of airborne ice must be like a snowball rolling downhill, gathering mass and momentum as it descends, until eventually it crashes missile-like to earth.

One does not come to Africa expected to be bombarded with large chunks of ice from the sky. I expected swelter and sweat, not melon-sized hail, especially in December, one of the subcontinent’s hottest months.


According to those watching the storm, the hail lasted a minute or so.

I wondered if anyone had died. (I will check the newspaper.)

I wondered if, for that one minute, the hail storm caused as much damage to Swaziland as HIV did.

If HIV fell from the icy sky and broke things, would we pay it more attention?



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