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A Shocking Toll : In Kenya, Lightning Hits Hard

December 02, 1987|SCOTT KRAFT | Times Staff Writer

KISII, Kenya — A mighty noontime thunderstorm drenched the green slopes here a few days ago and sent a dagger of lightning toward Mary Raita's one-room dry goods store.

Raita, napping inside, and three young women who had taken shelter under the metal eaves outside were killed instantly.

By the next afternoon, the towering clouds had retreated to faraway hills, and a crowd of stoic men and sobbing women were gathered around the blanket-covered bodies. The mourners' faces, although wrinkled in grief, registered little surprise at the manner of death.

Instead, they waited patiently for the village elder and the amanyansi , the lightning ritual. No lightning victim may be touched before the amanyansi.

These densely populated rural highlands, with huts of grass and metal sprouting like mushrooms on spongy hills more than a mile high, have one of the world's highest lightning death tolls.

30 Killed Annually

Lightning kills about 30 people each year in Kenya, and nearly all of those deaths occur near Kisii in a farming region about half the size of Missouri. (The entire United States records only about 70 lightning deaths a year.)

The tragedy at the store brought the 1987 toll to 23 dead and more than 50 injured. In addition, scores of cattle were killed.

Over the years, folks here have developed a healthy fear of thunderclouds, plus the certain knowledge that lightning sometimes strikes not just twice but perhaps dozens of times.

"We always hide when there is a thunderstorm," said John Nyakundi, a high school teacher. "Like when you see a snake, you don't try to fight it. Lightning can strike anyone. Nobody can tell us why."

Lightning bolts, as much a part of the weather here as sun and rain, are steeped in mysticism and tradition. Don't touch a lightning victim or you will become one, too, it is said. Lizards attract lightning, so stay away from trees with lizards, says traditional wisdom. Similarly, people wearing red shirts are asking for trouble.

Lake Air, Cool Winds

Western Kenya is one of the stormiest places on earth, meteorologists say, because it is wedged on an escarpment between the moist, warm winds of Lake Victoria on the west and the cool, high-altitude winds prevailing year-round from the east.

The cumulonimbus clouds that form in the skies here--10 or more miles tall and highly charged--make fertile farms for hail and lightning.

"As scientists, it is easy to explain what happens in western Kenya," said Alexander L. Alusa, an American-trained cloud physicist and former director of the meteorological department of the Kenyan government. "What is not easy to know is what you can do about it."

Scientists say more people are struck by lightning here than in other areas because their exposure is so great. Large numbers live on mountains, the population is growing at a world-high rate, and metal roofs are becoming increasingly popular for homes and stores.

"In the old days, it happened once in a decade," said Richard Nyakundi, the tribal chief here. "Now it happens every week." He shook his head, adding, "Every other time it rains, we get news of another death."

Schools are a common target, and about 75% of the victims have been children. An October rainstorm interrupted a soccer game at a school a few miles south of here. The boys ran for cover in the school building, but lightning struck the roof and five children died. It was the third time since 1980 that lightning had hit the same school.

Although stormy weather occurs nearly year-round, electrical storms are most common during the "short rains," a season of sporadic and isolated thundershowers that runs from mid-October to mid-December. (During the "long rains," from March to May, the rain is heavier but the clouds tend to be less highly charged.)

The thunderstorm that produced Kisii's recent fatal bolt had a typical beginning, according to Kenya meteorologists.

The morning was sunny, hot and humid. Warm, moist air swept off Lake Victoria, the world's third-largest lake located about 50 miles west of here. Those breezes climbed above this fertile tea-producing area, at an elevation of 6,500 feet just south of the Equator. Eventually they converged with 10,000-foot-high cool winds from the east, and then thunderclouds began to appear.

The rain began shortly after noon. Eight women waiting for buses by the roadside ran up the hill for shelter beneath Mary Raita's store roof.

About 100 yards farther up the slope, Raita's brother-in-law, Charles Omoke, was sitting down to lunch with his six children when the rain, so loud on the roof that it drowned their conversation, suddenly paused.

"Then I heard a very sharp-- taa!" remembered Omoke, a school principal. "I looked around and couldn't see my children. They were hiding under the table."

He figured the lightning had simply hit a tree, but minutes later he heard his relatives crying. He ran down to the store, where he was joined by John Nyakundi, the schoolteacher, who lives across the street.

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