The Star (Nairobi)

18 August 2012

Kenya: Snowy Day in Jo'burg Gives Something to Tweet About

column

By the time you read this hopefully the weather in Johannesburg will have improved and the things I intend to write about will have been consigned to memory. As I sit down to write this column I am sitting about four hours flight away or 4,247 kilometres south of Nairobi , still on the African continent and watching snowflakes fall from the skies. According to friends here, in recent memory similar snowfalls in

Johannesburg occurred in 1964, the early 1970s, 1981, 2007 and now 2012. Normally the worst is a brief sighting of sleet. All morning South Africans have been on the social networks reporting snow in their areas as winter takes hold of the country. Tweets from all over Gauteng province, which is home to Johannesburg, the nation's commercial capital, were reporting snow falling before I looked out of the window and saw it for myself.

Across the country on Monday and Tuesday temperatures were reported to be extremely low and I can predict that electricity bills will be sky high as people turn on their space heaters to keep warm. Thankfully the TV meteorologists had warned that very cold and windy conditions would continue across the country. Temperatures in Gauteng, we were warned, would drop to below freezing on Tuesday morning - and it came to pass.

All of this weather talk reminds me of a business dinner function my partner and I attended recently where we sat at the same table as some of his colleagues. I have met some of these people before and though I can't say I know them well or even consider them friends, the situation we found ourselves in forced us to engage in the sort of small-talk and chatter that passes for conversation at some of these events.

If you've ever been to a cocktail party full of people you are not particularly friendly with, you'll understand what I mean. It is all meaningless and fairly harmless chit chat about neutral topics such as the food being served at the function, the entertainment that the hosts laid on - Madame Zingara, a dream-like dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment extravaganza that every person should experience at least once - and of course the weather.

I've always laughed when ordinary people (i.e. not Britons, farmers or meteorologists) have resorted to speaking about the weather in an effort to keep the conversation alive. Having said that, I've been stuck for a topic of discussion a few times myself and had to chat about the weather just to seem polite at similar functions. During dinner, one of my neighbours at the table asked me what I missabout Kenya.

I told them I missed things like the 24-hour shopping, and the ease and convenience of things such as M-Pesa, the poussin chicken at Hashmi's and of course some of my friends and family. Had we been having the conversation after today when, as I write this it has been snowing outside, I would have added that I also miss the generally moderate weather of Nairobi. I was going to say here that the last time I was in a place where it snowed, I was in Berlin during the bitter winter month of February back in 2007.

Of course that was a heck of a lot worse than this. Then I remembered that back in late 2008 parts of central Kenya in the the Mt Kenya neighbourhood were surprised to wake up one morning and see the land covered in a blanket of what seemed to be snow. When I got online to confirm whether my memory served me correctly, I found a story reporting the incident but which added that "the meteorological department dismissed claims that the area had experienced snowfall, saying it was just hail which did not melt because of cold weather."

Nevertheless, for the people of the village there was no difference between the unmelted hail and the now sadly dwindling white stuff on the summit of nearby Mt Kenya. The hail then was reported as having covered 100 acres of land and to be at least four inches deep. This crazy weather, which is not unusual during the winter here in South Africa, makes chatting about the weather a perfectly acceptable pastime and not just during cocktail parties and awkward pauses in a conversation.

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