Writing Creatively With Spirit

A journey of psychic discovery


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Cameroon Experience – Polling day

Monday 30th September 2013

It Election Day here today, which is also a bank holiday. Everything is closed. I’ve never known the place as quiet – not even on Sundays as most places are open on Sundays.

We’ve been advised to stay indoors because of possible over-zealous military and police officials who are out in force today to ensure peace is maintained. It’s incredibly unfortunate that the Calor gas choose today to run out as there’s nowhere where we can buy another. Even more unfortunate because three of the volunteers leave tomorrow and were hoping to cook a big meal  tonight as our movement is restricted.

This enforced inactivity has given me the opportunity to catch up on a few administrative tasks. I’ll be finishing the story I began for the three forms I’m doing creative writing with. I’ll also be able to do some long overdue editing. I haven’t even completed one story yet – only six pages edited so far.

Chima washing shoes

Chima washing shoes

It seems many people are also catching up on some jobs. Chima is cleaning shoes. Washing them is a more accurate description. Seems its the most effective way to remove the encrusted mud. He offered to wash mine for me. I didn’t hesitate too long in accepting.

The bright hot sun of a few minutes ago has just given way to a heavy downpour. As I’m sitting on the verandah I’m able to observe people setting buckets out to catch water, and they, like me have rushed to bring in their washing.

The downpour was short – the sun is out again, but the soil is so saturated that there are little rivulets running down the hill – the same hill I fell down yesterday. Serves me right for drinking beer at 10.30 in the morning.

I’m now on line in my own right. I bought an internet dongle from CAMTEL, the local internet provider. Contrary to the advise that I’d be able to purchase 100 hours for 5000 franks, the truth was that the dongle cost £15,000F and even with the special promotion for teachers I only got 20 hours included in the price. The higher rate only applies if you already have a dongle.

It was the second time in an hour that I had to face an unexpected price hike. I paid 1000F for a sim card a few days earlier on the understanding that it had credit on it. The phone refused to work, not allowing me to send messages – receiving was fine, but it would not facilitate outgoing messages or calls.

Chima and I took it back to the man we bought it from, who suggested that we take it back to the main office in Squares and complain to them, or buy some credit for 500F. My sense of injustice kicked in as I argued that if the sim wes faulty and I’d bought it from him then it was his responsibility to replace it. He said that may be how it is where I lived but here in Cameroon if the sim is faulty it’s up to me to take it back. I could feel myself becoming incensed.

Immaculate and Chima

Immaculate and Chima

A woman who overheard us said the way it worked is that I have to buy 500F of credit to access the bonus credits on the 1000F sim.

There was a split second when I realised that I was arguing over the equivalent of 80 English pence and my sense of proportion kicked in. I bought the extra credits.

‘You look as though you’re still doubting me,’ the salesman said as I walked away.

‘Guess I am,’ I admitted.

Anyway, as a result of the time Chima was prepared to spend guiding me around I now have a local phone and internet connection.

2013-09-26 19.28.14We met the lady who is responsible for making me some beautiful garments in local materials. Immaculate came with us for a late lunch. If we hadn’t been late I would have been able to have the mashed yams which were on special offer earlier. I would have happily settled for the plantains and beans but Chima thought it would be good to try something new and ordered the water fufu with eru for me.

Water fufu is a cassava abased dish which no longer taste of cassava because it’s been processed into tastelessness. There was therefore nothing to detract from overly salty green vegetable eru served in a side dish. At the risk of being offensive it tasted to me like baby’s vomit smells, and the heaps of pepper I loaded it with did little to improve the taste. It isn’t often I leave food, but I had to pass on that one.

Saturday I went to the market for the first time by myself. It was a leisurely experience and I was able to take in much more that when I’d been previously dashing around with a guide.

Live chickens at market

Live chickens at market

I hadn’t noticed before the chickens brought to market still alive. There are so few refrigerators here that people buy their meet fresh to use that day, or alive if they want to use it on another day.

I had some interesting conversations about herbal versus traditional medicines, and Christianity versus traditional religion, but that’s for another blog.

Three of the volunteers leave tomorrow and three more will replace them. I’m quite excited to meet the new ones. I’ll no longer be the newest on in the house.

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Cameroon Experience – End of the school week

Saturday 28th September 2013

School children on the way home at the end of the week

School children on the way home at the end of the week

I’ve done a complete week at the school. I’d forgotten how exhausting teaching can be – and I’m not even doing a full time-table.

When the other volunteer teacher and I arrived all the children were in lines in the yard and one of the prefects was addressing them.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked her.

‘It’s just assembly,’ she replied, ‘they have it every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.’

‘Oh. It’s the first of these mornings I’ve been here.’

As the prefect was winding up he asked us, the teachers, if we had anything to say to the school. My colleague asked if she could take pictures and I seized the opportunity to tell them how welcomed the school had made me feel in my first week. As I’d now had a chance to teach all the classes I was happy to report that all had worked well in my lessons and had produced some good work.

I thanked them again for my new name of Bongkiyung and for their assistance in helping me to live up to it. I was indeed a fool learning a lot.

My first lesson was with form 2 and I was surprised to find that five of them were missing. They were outside sweeping the yard as punishment for a previous misdemeanour. I was alarmed and went outside to talk to the prefect, to ask if they could do their punishment in the break when they would not be missing part of the lesson.

He could understand my rationale about not wishing to begin the lesson again when they joined the class, but it was the rule and they had to do their punishment.

I decided to respect the rule, and indeed had to begin the lesson again for the five who joined the class ten minutes late.

There was a Lambso (the local language) lesson going on next door with class 1 and I encountered the same issue of noise as I did the first time. The dividing wall between the classrooms is a plywood screen and may just as well not have been there. It was an oral class and I really struggled to make myself heard during whole class repetitions – which were frequent.

It was a real credit to class 2 that they not only worked hard, but produced some good work. I’d forgotten to take the animal cards I’d intended to use with them so asked them instead to think of their own animal and we did a lesson on characterisation in preparation for writing a story next week.

I even managed to fit in a couple of affirmations by asking them to repeat with me ‘I am creative. I am very creative.’

Some of them were a little sceptical at first, especially as I’d explained what it means to be creative, i.e. to bring something into the world that had not existed before. But when they saw the gusto with which I approached the affirmations, and the ease with which some of the others did it, they joined in. I stopped them periodically to re-affirm their creativity.

There was a direct swop to form 1 at the end of an hour, with the noise coming from class 2 as the Lambso teacher launched them into the national anthem and other songs. I felt despondent. How was I expected to teach in these conditions?

These are the only classes in which I have to shout. Not because the children are talking or disruptive, but because it’s the only way they can hear me.

I discovered that one young man who had been extremely resistive to working in the previous lesson couldn’t spell, or read from the board properly. Once I gave him, and the others permission to raise their hands and to ask for me to spell the words they couldn’t, the level of talking dropped considerably. It realised that most of them were asking each other how to spell words.

The surly disruptive young man of the previous lesson managed to complete his work and was enormously pleased with himself. I was exceptionally pleased to note that some of them stayed in during the break to catch up with those who were ahead.

At the end of the lesson I read them the beginning of the story I’ve been writing about a buffalo called Abundance. A by product of teaching creative writing to younger children is that it’s forcing me to write for children. They’re very keen to get going on their own stories.

At the break the cleaning monitors got buckets of water and floor cloths ready to clean the floors of their classrooms. It’s the students’ responsibility to keep the school clean, and even to help out with some of the building work where appropriate. Imagine that happening in the UK!!


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Cameroon Experience – Lightening up

Thursday 26th September 2013

I arrived a week ago today. A few days ago this place was very bewildering. It’s still bewildering despite the many people I’ve met and the things I’ve done.

Children at the SEREP school

Children at the SEREP school

I’ve now met all the classes at the school. Ages range from 12 – 23 years. After school on Tuesday I was very depressed. It was the day I taught Form 1 and couldn’t hear myself or the children because the teacher and the students in the form next door were so noisy.

This was not unruly noise, just the exuberant noise of a class enjoying the subject and teacher and children being expressive.

The difficultly was that there is no proper dividing wall between the classes. It’s just a screen. When the two classes are running the quieter of the two suffers.

I was also timetabled to teach this class for two hours. These are 12-14 year olds who are expected to sit and be attentive for two hours at a time. Fortunately I was doing practical things with them – creative writing. I had pitched the exercises way too high (compared to British standards) and many of them were confused. After a slight restructuring they were better able to cope.

I’m using the same exercises for Forms 1-3 all 12-16 year olds. I had a better grasp of it by the time I taught it to Form 3 yesterday.

The difficulty they are experiencing is that only English grammar is taught. Almost all of the subjects are factual and delivered in a ‘chalk and talk’ manner, how it used to be so many years ago in Britain.

What was depressing was that I know they are doing the best that they can with very limited resources, but it seems so woefully inadequate. Even if the building is brought up to scratch and each class has a classroom of its own there is still the issue of teaching style and consistency of teachers.

The school relies heavily on volunteers. This morning, for instance, the only three teachers for the first session were volunteers, two of whom are young and not trained as teachers. Their level of commitment is amazing, but they question their efficacy.

In my own classes my biggest challenge is trying to get the children to think creatively. They are so used to being told what to do, how to do it and to get right or wrong answers that they are afraid to express themselves imaginatively.

Council House - Tobin - Kumbo

Council House – Tobin – Kumbo

Also on Tuesday as a result of delays I was unable to register my document with the police as we were too late getting there and the office was closed.

It had been a particularly wet day and my thin raincoat had barely stood up to the constant drumming of the rain. Yet, I will now have to make this journey again as it is a legal requirement that my papers are registered, and even more so with the impending elections on Monday.

We have been warned not to travel outside of our district as many soldiers and extra police officers have been drafted in to monitor the streets and to quell any disquiet if it arises.

‘It is unlikely,’ the director said in our meeting on Monday night, ‘but please take the precaution of staying close to home as there may be the odd over-zealous official who is looking for some means of exercising his powers.’

By the end of Tuesday it felt like I was carrying weight of Cameroon’s problems on my shoulders. I wanted to go out and show them that there’s a better way, that it doesn’t have to take four people in the supermarket to sell you one item. That by getting to places on time you waste less time and are able to do more things.

By today, after a good rest and some reflection, I realised that I’m not here to change anything. I’m here to do what I can, to learn as much as I can, and if something changes as a result of me being here that’s a bonus.

My card today was the humming bird, which means ‘lighten-up.’ In the spirit of the card I’m going to collect some garments being made for me in African fabrics. I’m going to stop stressing about how messy the house is, about how long everything takes and about setting Cameroon to rights.

I’ve finished work for the day. I’m going to lighten up.

 


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Cameroon Experience – Take care the juju man

Sunday 22nd September 2013

Where to begin? Start at the beginning, go to the end and there stop! Can’t remember who said it but it’s probably the best plan for this blog.

My escort

My escort

I went to church. We were a little late getting there as my escort was on Africa time, but we were only ten minutes late due to some gentle prodding from me. I think they’d just sung a song and said a prayer by the time we arrived, and were splitting into seminar groups.

Young people had a choice of four as did the adults. I attended the one entitled ‘no limits with faith.’ I think the title ‘seminar’ was misleading. My understanding of splitting people into seminar groups is that they can explore a topic in a more interactive way than in a big group.

Not so here. It was 30 minutes of mini preaching by a young woman with a round, well scrubbed face, sensible clothes and the mandatory head wrap. I was the only woman in the church who didn’t have her hair covered. Also the only one wearing jewellery and make up. Of the 60 or so members the women out numbered the men by 3:1.

About ten minutes into the seminar my mind began drifting and I looked around at the other groups. (We were in different parts of the room). Pretty much the same thing was going on in the other groups, and I noticed a number of members who wasn’t even trying to hide their boredom.

I was thinking that at least it was only 30 minutes and that we must be coming near the end when the pastor announced that there was 15 minutes left. I almost groaned out loud. As he announced the 8 minutes left mark I wondered how seven minutes could have gone by so slowly.

That torture ended only to be replaced by a televised sermon, beamed live from Nigeria, by the founder of the ministry. Two hours was more than I could stand. After the lengthy testimonies I tried to keep up with his sermon with the many Bible reference, before consciousness abdicated and I drifted in and out of sleep.

It wasn’t that I disagreed with anything he was saying. I believe that if God is protecting you nothing can harm you. I believe that if you surrender your life to spirit that you will be provided for in every way possible in order to fulfil your life purpose. I just didn’t need to be told it in so many different ways in two hours.

After the sermon I was invited to stand and be welcomed to the church formally. I was also invited to meet the pastor after what turned out to be three hours and twenty minutes service.

‘How was it?’ he enquired as I sat opposite him as if being interviewed.

‘Long.’ I replied.

He seemed a little taken aback and said that today was a special meeting; normally they finish at 11 a.m. which would have shaved a whole hour off.

I couldn’t promise that I’d be coming back, but said I’d think about it.

Rick, my escort, invited me to have lunch with him. I got to try the local dish that I’d heard so much about, cornmeal fufu. I was convinced it was going to be like Jamaican turn cornmeal, but alas it was a much stodgier, more tasteless affair.

I enjoyed the pumpkin leaves it was served with though. So much so that I bought some in the market later to use as part of the meal I cooked for the house.

He’s part of the housekeepers household and gave me the opportunity to ask if there was a picture of the man who is buried at the front of the house we’re living in. I was curious to see if his was the face I saw on my drive into Kumbo on my first day.

The man in the photo they showed me didn’t have a beard, and the face I saw definitely did.

‘Did he ever have a beard?’ I asked.

‘He did once,’ said the housekeeper who knew him well.

His was exactly the type of beard I’d seen, and I was convinced it was the same man. Maybe he was just welcoming me to his house in the way everyone keeps welcoming me to Cameroon generally, and Kumbo specifically.

We spent a while talking about his mother who is a visionary, and why Christianity is on the rise in Africa, yet declining rapidly in the West.

Prison shop and disused hen house

Prison shop and disused hen house

He then took me on a mini tour of Kumbo. I fell in love with and bought some material from a seamstress who will make me several garments as soon as I can tell her what I want.

We had an impromptu tour of the prison grounds with its farm, fishing lakes and pig farm before heading to the administrative centre, and the town hall which guarded by a lion. Pleasant as it was it was nowhere near as interesting as seeing Squares in the daytime (where we had that delicious fish on my birthday).

Lion like

Lion like

My treat was seeing some juju dancers and getting to dance with one of them. The bells on their ankles reminded me of Morris dancers, but that’s where the similarities ended. They were masked and remained so throughout. They danced to drums and xylophones, big wooden ones that I realised were the ones also used in the funeral rituals Malidoma Patrice Some writes about.

When they finished we wandered down to the palace which was fairly quiet as most people had been watching the juju dancers.

Juju dancers

Juju dancers

Rick pointed out a doorway with many symbols around it and said it was the home of the jujus. I took a picture and was trying to peep into the dark cave- like room when I heard someone shouting at me.

I looked up to see a man running towards me.

‘You can’t go in there?’ he said sternly, and said something to Chima that I didn’t understand.

‘Why?’ I asked curiously.

‘Because it’s secret. You shouldn’t be taking photo or going in there.’

‘I was only looking,’ I protested. ‘Why is it secret?’

Dancing with the juju man

Dancing with the juju man

He just repeated, ‘because it’s secret’ and spoke to Rick again. Chima later explained that he was asking him why he hadn’t explained to me that I couldn’t take pictures or go in there.

‘So why can’t I go in there?’ I wanted to know.

‘Because that’s where the serious juju men live. The ones who can say some words and disappear in front of your eyes. The ones its best to run if you see them. They’re the ones that can do serious things to you.’

2013-09-21 21.07.00‘But I was dancing with them just now, they didn’t seem that scary,’ I protested.

‘They are the ones in training. They haven’t been initiated yet. Once that get initiated things change, they learn how to do some serious magic.’

The interesting thing is that just a few doors down from the juju house is a mosque. Religion and magic side by side.

It was getting close to the time when the market would close so we headed back on a bike, our third of the day. I’m getting used to them now. After haggling over a whole hand of plantains we went back home where Rick proceeded to kill the chicken we were going to have for dinner.

Killing the chicken for dinner

Killing the chicken for dinner

A day-to-day thing for him, it was pure drama for us. I passed on choosing which one of the hens to kill. I didn’t want to look into its eyes and risk seeing it pleading for its life.

It’s such a long time since I saw a chicken being killed that I asked if I could film it. As Chima pulled the knife across the chicken’s neck a cock crowed. As if it knew one of its kind was laying down its life to feed some hungry people.

As I was up to by elbow in frying chicken someone said, ‘This is Banner. He’s the natural medicine man we told you about.’

Nearly ready for the pot

Nearly ready for the pot

He was apparently in a bar across the road and wanted to meet me, but as I couldn’t go to him, he came to me. There I was, hugging this man in my own kitchen and arranging to meet him tomorrow.

It’s been a long time since I ate chicken so fresh. Chima and the housekeeper joined us for dinner. It was a real community affair. It fed eight of us comfortably.

Tomorrow I begin my first day of teaching.


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Cameroon Experience – Building the site

Saturday 21st September 2013

The trip to see the natural medicine doctor didn’t happen. The electricity was down for the whole day which delayed a lot of things. It looks likely it will be on Monday now.

Fred mixing concrete

Fred mixing concrete

I used the time to clean my room and the bathroom, (big difference between me and some of the other house mates in terms of standards) and to visit the school to take pictures of the building work.

I was so humbled to see Fred fetching and carrying water and mixing concrete that I was moved not only to take pictures, but to film the work. In that moment I knew I wanted to make a small film about the amazing work this organisation is doing.

I was also moved to go and don some working clothes and get stuck in myself. All offers of help was gratefully received and so I too took my turn to fill buckets with gravel and sand and wobble with them up the steep wooden ladder to the men working on the upper storey.

They are desperately trying to complete the top storey of the building as there are not enough class rooms for the children. One of the classrooms has been covered with some tarpaulin that Fred brought back from Bamenda on Thursday. He hoped it would help the room to dry out so that the children could use the room on Monday.

Giving a helping hand

Giving a helping hand

When I think of some of the state-of-the-art schools in the UK that children are being coerced into attending, it makes me want to weep. I’m not getting mushy and sentimental, just noting the difference in the way education is valued.

The next stage was to fill buckets from the small lake at the bottom of a steep hill and take them back to the men.

Although physically the most arduous part of the work, it was aesthetically the most pleasing. (Although the views from the school are actually quite beautiful) The narrow path took us past a plantation of coco yams, their broad majestic leaves in rows like maidens at a dance waiting to be asked to dance.

The tinkling waterfall massaged my ears well before it came into view. Clear water ran into a red lake, a reflection of the red clay that is so prevalent here, and that clings so persistently to the soles of one’s shoes when it rains. It’s also blown into every exposed crevice during the dry season when the ground turns to dust.

I think I’ve found a new hidey hole, somewhere to go when I want to download the day’s information and rest my brain.

I worked for two hours solidly alongside one of the workers from the office. He’d been called in as there was no electricity and there was nothing he could do as he manages the internet cafe.

He was more than happy to get stuck in, and we worked side by side for nearly two hours. I said it beat going to the gym. He didn’t know what a gym is!! There’s so much physical work still done here that gyms are not required.

I met a young man who invited me to the church the girls were talking about last night. I’ll be setting off with him at 8.25 a.m. tomorrow to get there in time for an 8.30 a.m. start. It’s that close, and even if it pours with rain we’re close enough not to get too wet.


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Cameroon experience – Fish and chips

Saturday 21st 2013

When the four English girls said they were going out for a drink and fish and chips I replied that I hadn’t been away from it long enough to miss it yet.

‘Oh, it’s not the usual fish and chips,’ Joanne assured me. It’s local fish and the chips are not the same as in England.

‘Is it far?’ I asked, still a little hesitant and looking for a reason to back out.

‘It’s a little way but we just jump on a bike,’ she replied.

Again I hesitated.

Birthday at Squares - Cameroon

Birthday at Squares – Cameroon

‘Come on you’ll enjoy it, and it’s your birthday after all.’

‘OK.’ I gave in. But when I realised that they planned to go straight from the office where we’d just had a meeting with the director, I saw another get out clause.

‘I can’t go with all these bags,’ I said looking at my shopping and the bag containing the cassava and pear that one of the office workers had given me to take back for all the housemates.

I thought I’d cinched it as they had already hailed bikes, and three of them were already mounting them.

‘No worries,’ Joanne said. ‘I’ll come back to the house with you then we can get a bike together.’

There was no get out. Did I really want to go out with a bunch of 21 year olds drinking on a Friday night? Even if it was my birthday.

English and German volunteers

English and German volunteers

But what was the alternative? Staying in with a bunch of 18 – 25 year old Germans who were having a party at the house? Well, with that option I could always have gone to my room.

I’m so pleased I went out. The bike was a humorous experience. Joanne suggested that I sat in the middle between her and the rider and hold on tight, as it was my first time. I put my arms around the young man’s waist and as we negotiated our way around the potholes (bikes do this easier than cars) I asked if it was OK to hold him that tight.

‘It’s OK because I’m a single man,’ he replied laughing. ‘It would be a different matter if I was a married man because then I’d belong to somebody. But you can hold me as tight as you like.’

We paid about 60 pence for the ten minute ride, that for the two of us, when he deposited us in what Joanne called the Square.

It was like a much scaled down version of Broad Street with lots of bars and eateries. The difference was that the eateries were mostly on the street. Food is bought and prepared on the street and brought to you in the bar. It’s just like a restaurant in that they wait till you’ve eaten before asking for payment. It’s incredibly trusting of them as we could have just left and not paid. But there seem to be that trust here.

I ordered what looked like a large snapper for and chips for less than a pound. It was beautifully BBQed and very, very, tasty. The chips were small round pieces of potatoes that tasted as if they’d been cooked in salt. That’s something I’ve noticed here. Lots of salt and lots of sugar. I guess there will be the commensurate health issues but I haven’t checked yet.

Anyway, the night was delightful. The girls were great company and even pointed me in the direction of what seem to be an African spiritual church not far from our house. They’re also going to see a natural health practitioner tomorrow. I begged to tag along.

Birthday party atmosphere

Birthday party atmosphere

As it was bucketing down with rain by the time we were ready to leave, we got a taxi back. We arrived to a warm chorus of ‘happy birthday to you’ which was begun by the German people and ended by everyone.

I stayed with the party for about an hour sipping on my gin and tonic and marvelling at the strangeness of life. Who would have thought I’d be spending my birthday with 16 Europeans in a house in Cameroon?


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Cameroon – The experience – To school on my birthday

Friday 20th September 2013

I woke to cocks crowing and a wailing baby at 6.30 a.m. I had slept soundly and was feeling more myself.

I ran yesterday through my head trying to make sense of all that had happened. There are definitely time management issues in this country, and also issues of capacity building.

The whole school sang 'Happy Birthday'

The whole school sang ‘Happy Birthday’

The director of SEREP  (Self Reliance Promoters) is an incredible person, a true human dynamite. He is genuinely concerned about all the people he works with, and is constantly looking for more ways to help. But I can’t see a natural replacement for him if he was to unfortunately be run over by a bus tomorrow, (or knocked off his bike).

So many people here have great ideas but through lack of succession planning the empires they build slowly crumble when they die, often through over work. It’s an issue I hope to raise with him before I leave.

By the time I got past the shock of a cold shower and into the lounge everyone had left. There was, however, a large home-made birthday card on the table for me, signed by all the other residents. Six signatures. I was wrong there are seven of us in the house. Two Germans and five British.

I was touched for the first time today. The second time was when Fred took me to the school to meet the children. After inviting me to introduce myself he cleverly engineered the topic around to my birthday, and the whole school wished me happy birthday in song. I didn’t see that one coming.

I sat and watched the annual prefect election. With only 60 pupils a total of 12 prefects were being elected. The exercise took about two hours, but it was Friday, the end of the week, and there was a healthy mix of seriousness and humour.

I was later given my time-table. I’m mostly going to be teaching what appears on the time-table as ‘Inter Active’. It will be a mixture of performance arts, personal development including public speaking, and moral development.

I think I sold myself well to the school and most of the students appeared keen to begin working with me. I start on Monday with Class 4 – 16-17 year olds. As it’s a secondary + school the youngest pupil I’ll teach is 12, and the oldest is 20.

I’m looking forward to beginning, but also looking forward to seeing the health and advocacy projects. With approximately 14 hours per week teaching I should be able to fit them in within the week.

I also asked if I could stay with a family at some stage. It looks as though a weekend will be most appropriate. They may not necessarily be Tikar but certainly it should be possible.

I also realised that Fred, the director is Tikar. He’s going to give me a book to read to find out more about the history of the Tikar people.

There’s been some talk about going out to listen to some music tonight – if it doesn’t rain.