News / Opinion / Editorials
It’s the funny colour and shape of it I still remember after all these years. I suppose you do pay attention to the thing which almost kills you. It was nothing like I expected from a bolt of lightning: It was about the size of a tennis ball and a blend of yellow and orange in colour. It hit our gate as I was less than a metre away and reaching to open it.
I remember nothing after seeing that – I even didn’t hear the instantaneous ear-shattering bang accompanying the bolt – until about 15 minutes later when I realised I was lying on the lounge settee. I could feel a strange tingling sensation which went up and down my arm and right side.
My mother was waiting in the car for me to open the gate in the middle of a typical Zimbabwean summer afternoon thunderstorm. She described to me later how the strike was like a camera flashgun going off and that I had fallen backwards, throwing the umbrella I was holding into the air.
That is why, to this day, I cower away when the thunderstorms roll over Johannesburg. My kids used to laugh at me – possibly wondering why someone who had been through plenty of flashes and bangs as a soldier would be so scared of a meteorological phenomenon.
Well, lightning will get you as surely as a 7.62mm round from an AK-47. And, in that part of Africa, lightning kills scores of people every year. Only a few years previously, a friend of mine lost his nine-year-old brother, killed by a bolt which struck the area where he and his mates were playing around some rocks.
One of my first memories as a child was of an angry black burn mark running right up the wall from the reading light over my parents’ bed. The house had been struck so badly that the electrical wiring in the wall had burnt out.
We lived opposite a park with enormous granite outcrops and not far away was a line of tall electricity pylons… Lightning Alley you could have called it.
Every time a storm approached, my father would engage in his DIY load shedding and turn off all the switches on the mainboard. I have retained a bit of that myself… when the bangs close in, I pull the plug on the desktop computer and the Wi-Fi router. A surge of electricity through your system with a direct lightning strike can make the power spikes after load shedding look like amateur half hour.
As kids, we were indoctrinated at school about lightning safety. Don’t swim when there’s a storm about. Avoid shelter in the open and avoid huddling under a tree. Don’t touch metal objects in the house, like taps, because they might not be earthed properly.
I discovered later, as a junior reporter covering courts, that, in superstitious parts of Africa it kills twice – first in the actual strike and then again in the revenge murders carried out by the victim’s family on the “witches” who brought about the first death.
Here in Joburg, we’ve been lucky because this Highveld city is one of the world’s lightning hotspots. We’ve only ever lost one appliance.
Our new rescue dog is terrified of the bangs accompanying the storms and shivers in terror. I often enfold her in my arms because when it comes to lightning, two cowards are better than one.