A couple of weeks ago these appeared out of nowhere in my garden.
A little gentle Googling revealed that they are apparently a variety of stinkhorn mushroom, from which those of an etymological bent will deduce that in addition to being distressing on a visual level, they also smell appalling.
In spite of this, one website I looked at advised that the ‘egg’ of some stinkhorns, from which they grow, is apparently edible, though goes on to note thoughtfully that few people choose to take advantage of this.
In Switzerland, where we lived for three years before coming to Zambia, and where they take seasonal food rather more seriously than many places, autumn was heralded by the appearance of a staggering array of mushrooms and pumpkins in shops and street markets. Their wildly varying colours, shapes and flavours helped make months of dark evenings and cold, wet days much more bearable.
Here in Zambia, as everywhere else, mushrooms and other fungi grow when it’s damp, so I should really be welcoming the appearance of these phallic monstrosities, since they have sprung up with the coming of rain. The shallow bit of me (embarrassingly large) that has to walk the dog and hates my hair going frizzy would be perfectly happy for the hot, dry weather that has prevailed since last April to continue. But I’m married to a farmer, and our neighbours include smallholders whose tenuous hold on economic survival is wholly dependent on rain to feed their crops of maize and beans, so in fact I’m just as eager for cloudbursts as anyone.
Although there has been only a feeble amount of rain so far, there are noticeable changes. My morning dog walk takes me past a small and simple house built from concrete blocks, lacking both electricity and glass in the windows. A young Zambian family lives there, with two sweet, saucer-eyed, barefoot boys of maybe two or three years old. Every morning the boys squeal with excitement as I approach as if they have never seen me before, and run towards me waving and shrieking ‘how-are-you-fine-how-are-you-fine’.
For several days after the first storms I missed my morning greeting, as the whole family, together with their neighbours and a large flock of small children, were busy preparing their handkerchief plots of land and planting them with maize. I stood and watched them crouched between the raised beds they’d fashioned with basic tools and much determination, ensuring their precious seeds were bedded in.
The transformation in the vegetation is staggering. Yellowed grass that crackled and stabbed underfoot is now an almost hallucinogenic green, and you can practically hear it growing. Around Christmas time a visiting daughter was walking with me one morning when she stopped and said, ‘Mum, it’s so beautiful.’ I stopped too, and looked. Our fenceline borders rolling, tree-covered hills and golden wheat fields. I realized that I’d stopped noticing how gorgeous it is, walking head down in an effort to avoid termite holes and spot snakes. It IS beautiful. Beautiful in any season, but especially now with a million shades of green in every direction.
Soon, when the ‘real’ rain starts – if indeed it does – the red earth will turn to gloop and the verandah furniture will sprout mould, and our towels will remain damp from one shower to the next. I’ll be sick of dripping trees and muddy clothes and giving up wine for January will be even more of a torture than it already is.
But then apparently stinkhorns like damp rather than properly wet conditions, so they’ll disappear.
There’s usually something to look forward to, if you think hard enough.