Katma Dikun and Bama Yadum were on their way to school, gliding over the blue sand, when they saw the dust devils. It was Katma who saw them first and her scream of glee drew Bama’s attention to them.
He powered down his solar-powered hoverbike and called out, “Come on!” to Katma, who was keeping pace with him on a similar vehicle. They dismounted and raced unsteadily down the wavy slipface of the dune, into the valley below.
The two dust devils were whirling what used to be a riverbed when the dry deserts of Arid were forests and grasslands. The valley ran from the hills to the northern border of Bitu town.
Katma, 14, the daughter of Arnold Dikun, headman of Bitu, wanted the bigger dust devil and jostled with Bama for position to claim it. Bama, who’d been born off-planet, didn’t budge and answered her shove for shove until she gave up and turned to the second dust devil.
Dust devils were common in the deserts of Arid, but twin devils running side by side were a rare sight. The people who’d found a home among the dunes believed they could gift a wish to anyone brave enough to stand in their path until they passed.
“What will you wish for?” Katma asked Bama as she braced herself to meet the oncoming dust devil.
Bama pretended he couldn’t hear her above the roar of the wind and sand. “Mask!” he called out as he tugged his facemask downward from its perch on his forehead.
“What?” Katma asked, not hearing him, but then she nodded when she saw him secure his mask and goggles over his face with the ease of long practice. Her mask was fashioned from recycled plastic and bore the likeness of a snarling cat. Unlike his which came without protection for the eyes, forcing him to combine with ski goggles, hers was a one-piece. It took only a moment for her to pull it from its resting place on her belt and clasp it over her face. “I want to see the stars!” she shouted, her voice a woosh over the roar of the twin dust devils. She hoped that telling him hers would prompt him to tell his.
“Rain,” Bama whispered as the dust devil swallowed him.
The school was housed in 10 discarded transport containers arranged in a semi-circle on one of the few expanses of herd ground in the area. The very first time he saw it four years before, Bama deduced from the charred space station custom entry and exit markings that crisscrossed them and the smell of smoke that years of scrubbing had not been able to mask that they must have come from a crashed space transport.
He eased his hoverbike onto the hardened earth of the school’s vehicle park. He heard the soft crunch that followed the weight of the vehicle breaking sprouts of the soft, grass-like plant that grew rapidly in the morning and withered at night, spreading spores that sought for and clung to the faintest hint of moisture with which to begin the 43-hour daily life cycle all over again. Condensation from the cooling systems of vehicles made the school’s vehicle park one of the few perpetually green areas.
By the time Bama finished storing his helmet and gloves inside the storage compartment of his bike, Katma was already running towards the container buildings that made up what the sign the government at Port Complex had put up identified as “Bitu Nomad School”.
He ran to catch up with her. “What’s the hurry?” he asked.
“We are late,” she said.
Bama didn’t argue. He blamed himself for their lateness because he had taken her father’s Weals – the native species that the Bedouin had domesticated for milk and meat – to the water dispenser and then found some of the town boys had gotten there before him, so, he had to wait for them to fill dozens of water carts before he had a chance to key in his credits and commence the wait for the beat-up machine to draw enough water to satisfy the two dozen animals in his care from the borehole the first settlers built over 100 years before.
“You know, we didn’t see any other dust devils after those two,” Katma said, throwing a look at him over her shoulder as she slowed down a bit.
“It’s still morning Katma,” Bama stated, “the suns will have to warm up before the wind will whip up more dust devils.”
“You don’t know that. You just like sounding smart.” Katma said, walking faster.
Bama lengthened his stride and was just about to catch up with her when they crossed into the classroom.
“The soil here is exquisite. The mineral composition… Geological records show that millions of years ago, Arid was full of towering forests and there were only a few deserts in solar overlap zone. We are not yet sure what happened to all those trees and grass and shrubs and the animals that fed on them, but we know at some point in our planet’s history, they died off. Current scientific consensus it that it was likely due to a rare and destructive shift in solar orbits, triggering a series of dual solar hyperflares. The abundance of rich organic matter is why we have so many fossil fuel deposits and such rich soil,” the holographic projection of the teacher was saying as Bama and Katma walked by to take their seats at the back of the class.
It was geography and Bama hated it, and as always happened when he got that way, his mind started to wander, helped along by the mention of soil and nutrients.
His father used to talk about the soil of Arid with words that sounded like the ones the teacher used, only his had carried more passion.
“The soil here is the best on any world I’ve seen. No, haven’t tested it but I can smell just how rich it is. Feel the texture! You’ve seen the terrariums. All you need is water and this whole planet will be one big beautiful garden,” Basil Yadum had said to his family as they stood looking down at Bitu from the dunes on the day they arrived.
Knowing what would come next, Bama had shut his eyes, tight, not wishing to hear that phrase that had brought them only misery.
He struggled but failed to stop his ears from hearing his father say, “If only Amadioha will bless us again. Bless us with the rainmaking gift of our fathers.”
“I believe the blessing is still there, what we lack are the tools. Where will you get fresh palm fronds on this planet? And if you have it, will the rain gods hear your chants from here? We are light years away from home” Bama’s mother said.
“The gods go where we go. The palm fronds are but a prop. We will call them with whatever is native here. The gods will answer. Sometimes though, they answer too well. Did I ever tell you about my great grandfather’s quest in Accra?” Yadum Basil asked as he led the way down the dune, towards the town the family would call home.
His father had told them the story before, but Bama didn’t remind him. He instead hoisted their youngest on his shoulder and walked after his father, his legs sinking calf-deep into the blue sand as he leaned back to avoid plunging head-first down the dune.
His father’s voice carried back to them, borne by the wind that snatched words from his mouth and hurled them back along with the loose end of the scarf he used to cover his mouth and nose.
“My great grandfather was resting at home when a loud knock greeted him. He opened the door to find palace guards standing there. They told him the Oba needed his services. The scientists had forecasted dry heat and they needed him to quench the heat of the day before the king came out to welcome the new yam, only it wasn’t that simple. Amadioha answered Papa Yadum, as always. It marked the start of the glory days of clan Yadum. We feasted with kings,” Basil said, smiling broadly.
Bama had sighed. His father didn’t tell of his own father’s adventure in Benin and the rain that wasn’t a shower or the drizzle that was asked for. Benin was flooded and the Oba’s feast ruined. Many died and family Yadum fled to the stars for a chance to live.
The fear of capture also meant they couldn’t live in Port Complex, Arid’s main town, where the presence of a Federation government outpost meant their presence could easily be reported back to Earth. Among the Bedouin tribes that had migrated here and saw Arid’s native grass-like plant and the Weals they domesticated as vital to sustaining their traditional semi-nomadic life, clan Yadum found safety.
He always wondered if making rain here would redeem them and give their lives a semblance of normality.
“Rain…” Bama muttered under his breath as he returned to the moment.
“What did you say?” Katma asked.
“Nothing. I was just remembering something.”
“Katma Dikun and Bama Yadum, I will not have you two come late to class and then not pay attention. If I catch you distracted again you will be punished,” the teacher’s projection warned from the surround speakers in the wall.
Katma made a face at Bama and smiled.
“Simulations have shown that if only we had more rainfall in Arid like we have on some of the other green planets in the Federation, this would be one of the most prosperous planets in the quadrant,” The teacher continued, and Bama found he didn’t need the story to keep his interest.
“Federation scientists at Port Complex have tried for years to use cloud-seeding and solar radiation management – which you will learn about next year in your general science class – to alter the climate and make more rain, but so far, nothing has worked to scale.”
A freckle-faced boy in the front raised his hands, interrupting the teacher’s flow, much to Bama”s annoyance.
“Yes Karid, what is it?” The teacher asked.
“My father said that if we get the mining companies to ship ice from one of the faraway moons here, we wouldn’t need to worry about water in Arid,” Karid answered.
“Your father is potentially right Karid, but the ice mining companies want large payments and exclusive contracts to exploit the land and resources. Negotiations have been ongoing with them for years but Arid is not a wealthy planet and the Federation government on Earth has other planets that are of higher priority. Besides, the tribes that first settled this planet only use the most rudimentary technology and are wary of large-scale ice processing facilities. I am afraid Arid may remain the way it is for the foreseeable future, with sparse rainfall, until something is eventually worked out or there is another, less destructive, shift in solar orbits” the teacher said.
“What about the rainmakers?” Karid asked.
Bama didn’t need to turn to see that Katma was staring at him.
“The rainmakers are not real. They are just a legend from Earth. On Arid, you need science and a lot of money to make rain,” the teacher said.
Bama knew he shouldn’t speak but the words came tumbling out, “That’s not true. The rainmakers can make rain. They commune with Amadioha and he gathers the rainclouds. The ability to speak to the gods is transferred from one generation to the next. Because you don’t know this doesn’t mean it is not true!”
The class was silent for a while. The teacher appeared taken aback by Bama’s outburst, or maybe it was just a delay in the transmission.
“Who told you this?” she finally asked.
“My father,” Bama said matching her gaze. “His father, my grandfather, was a rainmaker. My father also said the gods go where we go.”
“Can you make rain then?” Karid asked.
“I…” Bama struggled to form words, instead his mind flew back to all the times he had watched his father dance and chant the rainmaking songs but failed to draw even a droplet from the skies.
“What?” Karid taunted, “Are you a rainmaker or not?”
“Stop it, Karid,” the teacher said, but it was Bama she was looking at, electronic eyes echoing the pity she must have been feeling.
Around the classroom, people were either openly snickering or doing their best to hide their bemusement.
Katma was looking at Bama, saying nothing.
“Didn’t he just say he is a rainmaker?” Karid asked, spreading his arm askance.
Bama didn’t know how the chant started, but he was determined not to give his classmates the benefit of seeing him cry as he grabbed his bag and ran out of the class.
He could still hear the words “rainmaker, rainmaker!” following him even when he had driven too far away for the voices to carry to him.
Bama could feel the heat of the sand pebbles beneath his bottom as stared into the distance.
Holding his face still, his eyes scanned the horizon where the gunmetal hue of one of Arid’s two large moons held his eyes and compelled him to scan up to her sister, a red orb with a halo that he had learnt in astronomy class was made up of fragments from a time when another moon, or an asteroid, had crashed into her a millennia ago.
Local legend held that the moons were sisters on Arid who fell out after the metallic one killed the red one’s lover. The sisters were depicted as a silver-haired maid that was always laughing while in flight and the other a sad-eyed and red-haired, halo-wearing virgin running after her.
Bama no longer believed the story, but he liked hearing it told, if nothing else, it made the names of the moons of Arid easier to memorise: Evil Aryana and Good Rowna. Everything in Arid came in twos. It was a planet of duality, except when it came to rain.
“Don’t tell me you ran away from class to stare at the two sisters?” Katma said as she walked up to him.
“Why did you follow me?” Bama asked, grateful for her company but in need of a stern exterior.
“What? You want me to leave you out here alone, miserable?”
“I am not miserable. I left before I broke someone’s head.”
Katma laughed and passed a skin bag of water to him.
“Will you try to make rain now?” She asked, a twinkle in her eyes.
“What?” Bama was taken aback by her question.
“Don’t pretend you are not thinking about it. Will you, like your father before you, try to make rain?” she pressed.
Bama didn’t reply he turned away from her to stare at the two sisters.
“You know that as far as you are your father’s son, the blood of you forefathers flows in you?”
Bama laughed. “Those are my words.”
“You also said the gods are where you are, and I say your father’s failure isn’t yours. Anyway, you also told me about this, so here, take it.” She said, handing him a desiccated palm frond preserved in wax.
Bama took the palm frond from her, “where did you find this?” He asked, incredulous.
“There is no mystery Bama. I stole it from the biology lab. We will have to put it back, soon.” She said. “Now, will you make rain?”
The blade of palm leaf felt strangely heavy in Bama’s hand as he rubbed it inside his shoulder-strung bag.
He kept touching the leaf intermittently throughout the short journey back to school and the punishment that he knew awaited him.
He would have preferred to hold it all the way back to school but besides the fact that it was dry and brittle, it was a bad idea to be seen with it. That would have led to more trouble for him. Katma too. He would rather suffer a thousand years of after school detention than snitch on his friend.
Touching the leaf gave Bama hope.
If he closed his eyes a for bit, he could see the palm forests back on earth. If he allowed his mind wander, he could see the branches swaying in the wind and smell the moist odour of the tropical forest.
When Katma gave him the leaf, Bama was sure she wanted him to chant and make rain. He had seen the disappointment in her eyes when he had instead started talking about his grandfather and how his father had said that he preached against using the power of his clan frivolously.
Later, he would tell himself that it was his fear that was talking. He was afraid of trying because he was afraid of failing.
“Will you be at the two sister’s dance today?” Katma asked, breaking the silence that had marked their ride back to school.
“I don’t know. I still need to water your father’s Weals and fill my mother’s water drum,” Bama replied.
“Okay, I will fill your mother’s drum while you take care of the Weals, just transfer the credits to me. That way, you will be ready before the dance begins,” Katma said, the flare of her eyes daring him to reject her proposal.
“Okay. You do know I will probably be punished for leaving class and that will mean getting back home very late?”
“You won’t,” Katma said with an assurance that caused Bama to turn sharply to look at her. “You won’t because it was Miss Rethabile that asked me to go get you. She is not mad at you, you see.”
Katma slid down from her bike and ran towards the classroom before Bama had the chance to reply.
Two rusty rocket wings with the snarling visage of hill cats painted on in luminescent green were the only thing that marked the gates of the tent town of Bitu as the two teenagers rode in under the gaze of Arid’s twin suns and moons. The ground in and around the town were littered with junk from the time Arid functioned as a scrapyard for the mining companies and their sleeper ships that populated this quadrant. Scavengers, the first settlers of Bitu, had moved the scraps to the edge of their town as they expanded, and it looked like the eye of a storm of debris when viewed from the large dune overlooking it.
Bitu was abandoned for almost a century when the scavengers followed the sleeper ships to more profitable parts of space, but they left more than their town behind. Much of Bitu was powered by the solar cells the original settlers had scavenged from discarded supply ships and installed when they ran the town. They also built the large water dispenser that tapped into an underground, plant-wide ocean and was one of the things that attracted the Bedouin who now ran the town to settle in what was essentially then a ghost town.
The Bedouin tribe that settled in Bitu weren’t so keen on technology and still insisted on not having artificial lights in Bitu.
“There are only 3 hours of night here and they say it blots out the stars,” Katma’s father had replied when Bama had inquired why.
“How about the dance,” Katma called out to Bama.
“I don’t know,” Bama said, slowing down as they reached the biggest tent in the town, “Father might need me.”
Katma nodded. “Come find me if you make it,” she said as she parked her bike near the entrance of the tent.
“Okay,” Bama said and swung his bike towards the western part of town where shipping crate house his family now called home was.
As Bama shut down his bike, he could hear his father’s voice from upstairs, telling one of his usual stories.
Bama felt he was too old for tall tales, but he found himself drawn to his father’s narration. It wasn’t like the story he was telling was new, Bama had heard it a thousand times, told with the same baritone that he remembered from his childhood. With his back to the family gathered around the wind-fed coal fire in front of the family tent, Bama feigned disinterest even as he followed his father’s words, forming them with his mouth, but never saying them out loud. He could tell the story with the same drama his father brought to it and knew that one day it would be him telling it to his own children, like his father’s father had told his father and his uncles before. The story of the rainmaker was theirs; a part of family Yadum’s legacy, one Basil Yadum had brought to the stars with him when he left earth to escape the Oba of Benin’s wrath and seek his fortune with the tens of thousands who boarded the sleeper ships that lazy harmattan in 2187.
“…Ciril Yadum opened the palm fronds he had collected from the Awka spirit forest. Knotting them together to form a rope, he closed his eyes and willed the droplets of water in the sky to come together like the rope and become clouds that would give rain. Amadioha heard and before the gathered town, the sky darkened and droplets of rain as big as a man’s fist started dropping to the earth. The long dry season was over and there was joy in the land,” Basil Yadum ended his tale to wild clapping from his audience.
Bama smiled at the fact that his father had cut the story short, ending it before he got to the part where Ciril Yadum was carried shoulder high into Accra and feted for ending the draught. He also didn’t add the part that spoke about every first born Yadum child having the ability to control weather. He also didn’t chant the rain god’s song, the one they were supposed to commit to memory and use when they desperately needed rain to fall. He also failed to mention his father’s death in Benin, their escape to the stars and the bounty that still lies on the head of everyone with Yadum blood.
Bama wasn’t shocked that his father abridged the story. He had started doing that years ago. Bama felt his father had stopped believing and he thought he knew why.
5 years before, the Yadum tribe had arrived at Arid, hoping for a short stopover before continuing to their destination, the agricultural planet of Falk. His father had said they would be on Arid for not more than a month, but his mother had gotten ill and by the time they had exhausted their resources treating her, 3 years had gone by and 2 years after, they were still planet bound, with no resources to buy a ticket off planet.
If there was any planet ever in need of the services of a rainmaker, it was this one. Bama wasn’t sure how it happened, but he couldn’t forget the day his father left home, promising to have a solution to all their problems by the time he got back. The short night flew by and he didn’t come back. Fretful sleep later calmed a home that went to bed without a father. The next day saw dawn ushering urgent raps on the plastic door. It was opened to a ragged-looking and dirt-covered Basil Yadum who staggered in.
He didn’t talk about it, but Bama later learnt that he had tried to make rain, but unlike his legendary grandfather, he had failed and was set upon by those who thought he was a fraud.
Failure was still following them.
Bama shrugged away his recollection and walked into the tent, smiling as he hugged his brothers, 6-year-old twins who had taken to life among the dunes of Bitu like fish to water. His sister, ten-year-old Adama waved at him and returned to stirring what he knew was dinner. “Another night of sour milk,” He thought, as he threw the twins in the air one after the other and then stilled their shouts for “more! more!” with a steely gaze.
“Bama, come sit with us,” his mother called from the far end. He bowed as he walked past his father to take his mother’s frail form in a bear hug before accepting the bowl of sour camel milk from Adama.
“Sorry, we don’t have fura,” his mother said.
Bama frowned at the apology he heard in her voice.
“It is okay mama. I prefer the milk without fura,” he said, giving her his best smile.
“There is sweetener on the table behind you,” his father said, avoiding his eyes.
One rule of the Two Sisters’ dance was not to wear any face covering. The dance was an avenue for young people to find mates and thus everyone was supposed to keep their masks at home and brave the dust that the dancers’ feet swept up in the hope of locking eyes with the person that they would most likely spend the rest of their life with.
Bama didn’t get to the dance early so people had already paired off and were nose-to-nose by the time he reached the square.
They called it a square, but it was actually an open, circular space in the middle of the tent town that all the four main streets led to.
Bama clutched his shoulder bag tightly as he made his way towards the dancers and stood at the edge of the circle within which thousands of feet had stamped porcelain-blue sand into firm earth over the years. He watched, his mind far away.
Paired dancers came together and swung apart in a tease that Bama found too intimate for his comfort. If he must dance the banta then it must be with someone he cared enough for to ignore the foul breaths that must follow the rubbing of noses which marked the beginning and ending of each dance cycle.
Katma had asked him to dance but he had demurred, and she was at that moment dancing with her cousin, one of several female-to-female pairings in the square. He noted some male-to-male pairings, but these were few.
Dust swirled around Bama as a couple, nosed squashed together, swirled past him, dancing out of sync with the beat of the drums and horns and guitars from the energetic band in the middle of the square.
Bama coughed as dust overwhelmed him.
He backed away, trying to create more space between himself and the melee of dancers, and bumped into someone.
“Oh! it’s the rainmaker from Earth,” ` Karid’s scornful voice greeted Bama.
“Sorry, I wasn’t looking,” Bama said to Karid and his two older cousins.
“Hamish, Bole, this is the Earth boy that claimed he can make rain,” Karid said, his voicing rising to draw in more spectators. Sensing mischief that would gift more fun than the song and dancers, many people within the immediate vicinity started moving towards Karid’s voice.
“Is it true that you can make rain, Earth boy?” Hamish asked.
“I…” Bama began but Karid cut him off, “He absolutely says he can make rain.”
“Well can you, or can’t you? The dust here needs some settling.” Bole said.
Bama turned, meaning to walk away, only to come face to face with Katma.
She didn’t say anything, just looked at him strangely before clasping his hand in hers and turning to face the crowd.
“Bama may not be able to make rain, but he can teach us the rain dance.”
Bama didn’t want to dance.
He shook his head at Katma, pulling at her hand as he did so to convey the depth of his disagreement.
She persisted, leaning to whisper in his ear, “you either dance, make rain or walk away and be the butt of Karid and his goon’s jokes forever. I say dance, I’ve seen you dance before, it is magical.”
“But why do I need to prove anything to Karid? He is just a loudmouth.,” Bama whispered back.
“A loudmouth he is, but he has challenged you here and you know the roles of a challenge tonight?” she asked.
Bama knew. He just had not realised that was what Karid was doing.
A challenge issued during the Two Sisters’ dance, which happened once a cycle, must be answered, or forfeited. The rule also stated that the challenge must be something that the challenged party had admitted to been capable of undertaking. Bama’s family had claimed rainmaking powers, Karid is asking him to put up or shut up.
Katma squeezed his hand and a courage that hadn’t been there before surged in his heart. Bama looked up at the twin moons, bright in the faded light of their twin sun cousins. They seemed to pulse at him, as though telling him some larger cosmic secret about himself, his father, his family, his gods. He let go of Katma’s hand and reached into his bag to touch the wax-encased palm frond.
Bama turned away from her and faced Karid. “Okay, I will do the rain dance,” he said.
“Not make rain?” Karid asked, making a shocked look that drew laughter from the growing crowd.
“No, not rain. Take what’s on offer or forfeit,” Katma said, using her shoulders to push Bama behind her.
“Okay. We will take the dance if it is as good as the ones we’ve seen from Earth,” Karid said.
Bama nodded and moved to the middle of the square. He took the dance stance and was about to start the incantations that preceded the first movement when a thought struck him. People challenge others when they are rivals in the affairs of the heart and wanted to diminish them in the eyes of the desired.
He walked back to Katma. “Why has Karid challenged me here?” he asked her.
Katma laughed and pushed him back into the square.
“Dance Bama Yadum!” she yelled after him.
Bama resumed the dance stance. Without meaning to, he found himself thinking about the dust and how the square would look and feel more different if the ground was wet and the earth held together so as not to give up easily to the press and pull of stamping and shoving feet.
He felt his feet moving and soon he was cutting the air with his hands as the familiar pattern of the rain dance took shape in his mind and his body responded.
He remembered earth and the smell of wet soil and grass and pollen and the wetness of rain running down his face. He recalled the taste of the droplets and the crunchiness of hail between his teeth.
Dust whirled around him and seemed to pick up speed as his dancing became more energetic.
The song started as a whisper but soon became a buzz and the names of ancestors who had called upon the rain gods came faster and faster to his lips.
Bama didn’t think about the words as he said his father’s name and then his before leaping up and finishing the dance with a flourish.
He had never done the rain dance with this much passion. Now that he was through, he could feel the eye of everyone in the square upon him. About him, stamped into the ground, were patterns
The crowd stood around him, still stunned.
Bama knew it when the first raindrop hit his forehead and when the next one smashed unto his eyelids, but he thought it was still a memory. He closed his eyes as the third, fourth and fifth drops hit, and he would have remained that way but for the shouts of glee that erupted around him.
He opened his eyes to find people in a state of uproar as raindrops poured from the sky, quickly turning the dust around the dancer’s ankles to mud as their glee intensified.
He turned around to see Katma standing still in the pouring rain, staring at him with a knowing smile on her face.
He ran to her and engulfed her in an embrace and spinning her around as the rain fell around them.
Bama watched the planet receding against a sea of black from the view port the same way he had watched it enlarging when he’d first arrived on Arid with his family, the two suns shining like curious eyes in the distance. It was still mostly porcelain blue and brown and white as it had been then but now there were pockets of a new colour – green.
“Do you think they will change the name of the planet? It isn’t arid anymore,” Katma asked, as she came to stand beside him.
“No, the name will probably stay,” Bama said. “People grow attached to names, likes ways of life. And since we are asking questions, how do you like being the partner of a star travelling rainmaker?”
“I like it, very much. Although, you know, there are some that say you were just lucky, Mr. Rainmaker, that the binary suns had already shifted orbits, and the increased rainfall is a natural climate adjustment to their new positions.”
“Maybe. Or maybe, Amadioha shifted the suns to make more rain. Who’s to say? We shall see. For now, we get to travel the quadrant together, making rain.”
She laughed. “It’s funny, you know what I wished for when we saw the dust devils eight years ago?”
“What did you ask for?” Bama asked, laughing.
“I asked to see the stars. What did you ask of your dust devil?” Katma asked.
“Rain,” Bama answered, pointing towards the receding planet. “I asked for rain.”