Amidst the bucket “showers”, episodes of South African soap operas, and discussing politics with my mama, the culture shock of the lightning storm that transpired on February 16th was the most memorable. I was walking with my sister and my friend Ariana when we first noticed the sky getting darker. My sister, Sanele, told us that she was scared and thought that we ought to go back to our house before it started raining. Sanele is probably the most fearless and outgoing 14 year old I have ever met so hearing her mutter any sounds of vulnerability was something highly unusual. When we finally reached our house, it had already started raining.
There was an odd quiet and calmness to the house. When all of my siblings and mother were home, the television was kept on, house music blasted out of the stereo and my brother, Simphiwe was always laughing and text messaging his friends. Sanele was usually outside singing and dancing with her friends or neighbors. Now, however, everyone was seated in the couches and lounge chairs in the living room area. My mama started preparing the house for the thunderstorm. She covered the mirror with a blanket, turned off the radio and television and covered the windows with the shades. As the rain started to pour, the house became increasingly quieter. Whenever I attempted to peer outside of the windows by pulling back a curtain, my mama shot me a subtle glance of disapproval. My mother sat on couch and covered her head with her hands and slowly rocked back and forth. My brothers also became eerily silent and looked at the floor. Kuhlekan, my 20-year old brother, had a newspaper over his face.
I finally decided that I had to walk Ariana part of the way back to her house and informed my mama that I would be right back. “Oh!” she said, mouth agape as I pulled on my rain jacket. When I got back 5 minutes later, my mama was still in her paralyzed position. She seemed grateful that I had come back in one piece. Kuhlekan joked that I had never looked better. The rain was less torrential at this point, but my mama hadn’t left her position. Sanele had already cooked dinner, but the pots filled with food were still untouched. It was about 7:30, and my family usually eats dinner together at around 6:30 or 7. At this point my mama asked if I was hungry and I said yes. She still looked a bit uncomfortable about leaving the living room section to walk the few meters to the kitchen. I offered to bring her dinner, and she said okay. In the two weeks I had been at my homestay I had never been asked to do anything, and usually my offers were turned down. After dinner, the rain had started to slow down, and I decided to go into my room to do my reading. I could hear Simphiwe singing from the other room, while the rest of my siblings remained silent.
The next day in the car on the way to school, everyone shared their shocking stories about their families’ reactions during the storm. After I got home that afternoon, discussion continued with my family. Sanele explained that black Africans “respect” the rain. My mama said three people had died yesterday. I told them that the odds are much greater of one getting hit by a car than getting struck by lightning. She didn’t understand probability, but said they would just rather not take that risk. Eventually we started debating about how unreasonable it was to take these extra precautions.
Although I have been in thunderstorms in different countries, it was fascinating to watch another reaction from South Africans. It was also interesting to hear them say they were terrified of thunder and lightning but not walking down the street near the squatter camps. When talked to my brothers and sister about crime in the Bonella area, stabbings and shootings were taken very lightly. Sanele even said that if someone were to hold her up at gun-point she would kick them in the leg.
I’m still intrigued to learn more about this fear because I still have numerous questions unanswered. I assumed that it stemmed from an old Zulu superstition but Sanele said that most black South Africans were simply scared of the rain. I explained that in the United States when it rains no one takes any precautions. Activities continue, people go to work, and some people love watching lightning storms. It also gave me some insight about how schools are horrendously under-resourced. Sanele told me that some elementary school children went to school the next day only to be told to go back home because the school was flooded.