Zimbabwe's unwelcome rain
However, the onset of the rainy season brings with it a frightening phenomenon that claims dozens of lives until the season ends in April. Zimbabwe is one of the world’s most lightning-prone countries: the holder of a world record in lightning-related fatalities.
During the rainy season, lightning strikes normally kill up to 100 people, mostly rural children. Many more people are maimed and countless livestock lost.
Yet the Meteorological
Services Department of Zimbabwe says it is possible that lightning deaths
in the country might actually be under-reported by 20 to 30 percent
and lightning injuries by more than 40 percent, as many deaths and injuries
“The high number of lightning confirmation claims forwarded to the Department for processing by property insurance companies, confirms that damage to equipment supplying electric power and telecommunications services, as well as to business and domestic premises is quite immense,” says meteorologist Desmond Manatsa.
Annual Fatalities Average 90 to 120
Zimbabwe has the uncanny distinction of being one of lightning’s most favorite places. It is even cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the country where a single bolt of lightning claimed its largest number of victims. This occurred in a village near the eastern border town of Mutare in 1975 when 21 people were killed while sheltering in a hut.
The majority of lightning-related fatalities and injuries in the country are usually recorded in rural rather than urban areas. This is simply because large buildings provide protection for those within due to the metal frame of the building and specially designed lightning conductors. People in buses and cars are also safe because of the metal frames around them.
Lightning has continued to be a worrying blight in the country. For instance, it struck and killed 10 people attending a church service on a Sunday afternoon in November 2002. Sixty-one others attending the service in the town of Chitungwiza, 35 kilometers south of the capital Harare, were hospitalized with burns. The dead and injured were members of the Johane Masowe sect, the country’s largest religious group, which normally conducts meetings in the open air, often under trees.
So far in the current season, 39 deaths attributed to lightning have been reported. Police say most of the dead are children sheltering under trees.
Study results released by the University of Zimbabwe in 1991 after research spanning seven years showed that lightning fatalities in the country average 90 to 120 per annum. Of all the districts, Gutu, which is quite populous, led with about 10 fatalities per annum. Binga, Marondera and Rusape follow a long way behind with three to four deaths per annum.
Amazingly, lightning figures recorded in Zimbabwe (150,873 sq. miles- 390,761 sq. km.) were higher than those recorded in the whole of the USA. (3,537,441 sq. miles- 9,161,972 sq. km.) where, according to the Lightning Safety Tips Board of America, the phenomenon kills an average of 73 people per year.
Since the surface
area of Zimbabwe is many times smaller than that of the United States,
these statistics stick out prominently on the global scale. “Even
when comparing us to our neighboring South Africa, whose storms are
just as fierce as ours, we still find that it has a record of a total
of 400 fatalities in 10 years,” Manatsa says.
The high lightning toll in Zimbabwe can be explained by the prevalence of granite outcrops all over the country.
The University of Zimbabwe established that granite is radioactive and discharges gamma rays up to the cloud, thus ionizing the air molecules. Abundant granite outcrops, together with soot from the numerous kitchen huts, offer the much-needed opposite charge on the ground, while tall objects offer the easiest route for electrical discharges to steer its way to the ground.
Manatsa says a point was also found in the Rhino and Lion Game Reserve in northeastern South Africa where lightning struck repeatedly and had been doing so since the beginning of time. Here, unusually high concentrations of dolomite rock draw 15 lightning strikes a month. In 1996, lightning struck and killed an 18-foot (5,5m) tall giraffe while standing on a hill in the reserve. A year later, lightning electrocuted his mate. Shortly afterwards, lightning struck and injured a young giraffe in the park. Consequently, the reserve sold its last giraffe in 1998 and turned down more.
An additional explanation of the high number of deaths attributable to lightning is the effect deforestation has had on leaving huts and standing people as the highest objects around.
The Zimbabwe power corporation has, as a result, designed a simple, cheap lightning conductor to protect huts and small buildings.
The high lightning incidence in Zimbabwe has its own traditional explanations. Among the Shona-speaking people, the traditional belief is that healers can control the phenomenon, directing it to foes as they please.
Samuel Moyana is
one such traditionalist who believes lightning is not just a force of
nature. He says lightning does not kill anyone without having been sent
by an adversary. “God’s lightning, which is normally accompanied
by a storm," he explains, "does not attack people but will
strike a tree.”
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