May it rain on you a lot!

Summoned from the MarginI have just started to read Lamin Sanneh’s memoir, Summoned from the Margin. Sanneh reflects on his experience of growing up in the Gambia. I enjoyed the following passage (p. 10). It illustrates admirably the fascinating diversity of idioms that are found among different peoples; a beautifully experiential means of describing the passing of time; and the deep appreciation of so many Africans for rain, the element that shapes their lives-for good or ill-according to the measure and regularity with which it comes. My friends in South Africa would often speak of the ‘lovely rain’ that brought refreshment and life after a period when the ground became increasingly dusty and barren. Similarly, Ladysmith Black Mambazo sang of ‘Beautiful Rain’. This was not an easy concept for a Scotsman to grasp! The longer I lived in Africa, the more I started to understand. Sanneh writes:

The years are measured by the annual rain cycle: so many rains make so many years. People enquire about how old you are by asking how many rains you have. The proper answer is “a lot of rains,” never “not many rains,” for that means, not that you are young, but that you do not wish longevity for yourself. The idiom here is the clue to the right answer. A person had so many rains at death, and a town is so many rains old. When someone dies people say he or she has run out of rains. Life ends when we run dry. Prayers for newborns go something like, “may the new baby see many, many rains,” followed by looking up to the sky, spitting into the cupped hands, and rubbing the face, as if the cupped hands are a vessel that catch[es] the rain to drench the face, which is the symbol of earth.

When people thank you they say, “May it rain on you a lot,” or, with a pious flourish, “May God let you see many more rains.” Not to see many rains is a misfortune not to be wished on anyone.