“I hear the drums echoing tonight
But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation
She’s coming in, 12:30 flight
The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation
I stopped an old man along the way
Hoping to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say, ‘Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you…’”
So begins the song “Africa” by Toto, the 1982 hit that reached all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. So far in the song, we’ve got the scene set of a man waiting in an airport for a woman with a 12:30 arrival time. Soon though, the song descends into nonsensical lyrics, talking about the moonlit wings reflecting the stars, and then out of nowhere he’s talking to some old dude and demanding that he sing to him.
It only gets stranger from there, with mentions of “wild dogs,” “Kilimanjaro,” and for some reason, the “100 men” who are trying to drag him away from his soon-to-arrive beloved.
Frankly, the song seems to be just a jumble of lyrics sung by guys who have never actually been to the African continent, but since the regular refrain in the song goes, “I bless the rains down in Africa,” we thought perhaps some experts on African weather might be able to make sense of it for us. Worth a try… right? RIGHT?
On the Song
Peter Knippertz, Professor of Meteorology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany: Sometimes when I give scientific presentations about African meteorology, it can make things more entertaining if you can connect the subject to a song, a book, a film or similar. So, depending on the context, I like to quote Out of Africa or something like that. Not so long ago, I looked at Toto’s “Africa” again to check whether there’s anything in it to use for that purpose. In the end, I concluded that there isn’t anything that I could use.
Kenya Samson Levi, Meteorologist and Oceanographer with the Nigerian Navy: Africans have really lost the glory in Africa, and when I was listening to the lyrics of that song, I saw the beauty of it again. I saw that there was hope for Africa. If only we Africans could share the light and get the right information, I can say confidently that we can be the best in the entire world. As an African and a Nigerian, I know we can be the best in the world. Too often, Nigerians feel they need to leave Nigeria to make it out in the world, but everything we need is right here. Africa has all the resources it needs and that song gave me hope that Africans can return Africa to its former glory and that others — like the singers — believe in Africa.
Simon Gear, South African Weatherman and TV Presenter: I know the song very, very well. The song occupies a weird space in South African culture — we’re all in love with it because it’s speaking about Africa, and it’s often performed by choirs here in South Africa. We even had a very popular choir here just recently go viral because they performed it on one of these international singing competitions. So it’s a hugely popular song here and very highly regarded.
That said, when you actually go and read the lyrics, it’s a jolly weird song. It reads like a bunch of guys who’ve never been to Africa writing a song about Africa: “Let’s find something that rhymes with Serengeti!”
On What It’s Even About
Knippertz: If you live in a climate like parts of Africa where people have long, dry seasons, people there really wait a lot for the rain to come, and in some years, the rain is late and people suffer. So, to my understanding, they only use this image of rains in Africa to say that this person has been waiting for something for a long time. It’s all about love.
Gear: Here’s my theory about what the song is about. I can’t be sure, but I think that he’s been on safari, and he has met this girl who has been his safari guide — this is a common thing, for tourists to come here and fall in love with their guides, we actually call it “khaki fever.” It’s very common. Anyway, he’s got khaki fever and he’s now flying her back to Europe with the hopes of getting with her. These were the days pre-Tinder, of course.
On the Actual Rains Down in Africa
Knippertz: I did a bit of research on this, and because the song came out in 1982, during that time, in large parts of Africa there were drought and hunger, so it seems that there was some kind of inspiration from news reports from that period. But in the song, there’s just images and a feeling of mystery. Africa is simply used as something mysterious, but there’s little of the real Africa in that song.
During that time in Africa, there was widespread hunger mostly in the Sahel area south of the Sahara desert. This area is very particular in the sense that they have what we call a monsoon climate, so they have a very short rainy season and a very, very long dry season — little changes in the atmosphere can make this rainy season come too late or withdraw too early, so it’s a very sensitive region. During this time, a lot of people were affected and a lot of people died, which led to political instability.
While sometimes people don’t always connect the two, weather can often lead to political instability. In recent history, prior to the Syrian War, there was the longest period of drought in recent history and a lot of people were struggling because of it. Of course it’s not only the meteorology, as the political situation also matters, but problems in the food supply can cause a little spark, and that could be enough to create a war. The same can be said of the Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011, which was preceded by a food shortage due to drought, but that was because of a Russian and Ukrainian drought, as they grow lots of cereals that were imported to Africa and the Middle East.
Us Europeans and Americans can always find enough food — it’s never a problem for us as a society overall, but in these more fragile societies, things like this can lead to major disruptions.
Gear: Primarily, we have three types of rain in Africa, the most famous of which are the big storms. Where I live in Johannesburg, we often have big storms over our city and this is part of tropical rain, which is the same rain that reaches to the Amazon basin and through the Congo to the jungles of Sumatra. That’s the band that goes around the equator and stretches all the way down to Johannesburg.
Then there are the frontal rains that come off the sea, which move quickly over the land. Finally, there’s the mists that come to places like Namibia, where there’s a light mist or fog, but it never really rains properly in the desert.
Levi: Where I live, in Nigeria, greenhouse effects have threatened major cities with massive flooding, which is expected to be extensive in 2020. These effects have been caused by the depletion of the ozone layer, which has been caused by a few major industries here that cause excessive pollution. [The depletion of the ozone layer] causes more rainfall and threatens us.
On the Lyrics
Knippertz: If you read through the lyrics, you read about drums, wild dogs and the wise man with ancient melodies — it’s like a tourist catalog of images from Africa, which of course has little to do with the day-to-day realities of the real Africa.
“The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company”
Gear: There are no wild dogs calling to each other in the night! That doesn’t exist. I’m not only a meteorologist, I’m also a Savannah ecologist, and the concept of wild dogs calling to each other in the night irritates me immensely, because wild dogs don’t call to each other in the night at all. They don’t even really call to each other during the day! They’re thinking of hyenas, not dogs.
“As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become”
Gear: It’s mildly insulting that they even mention Olympus in this song because Kilimanjaro is maybe five, even 10 times higher than Olympus. It’s a massive mountain, whereas Olympus is a pimple. Though it is indeed the Serengeti that it looks over, so that was accurate.
Knippertz: In the video, there’s the camera zooming in on a map of Africa, and I was wondering why they were turning to this particular part of Africa — perhaps maybe this was the part of Africa they were referring to? But, of course, this isn’t the part of Africa where Kilimanjaro is. It’s kind of like it was someone who was just asked to write down the first six words that came into people’s heads about Africa without ever having been there. So they have Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, drums, ancient melodies and so on. There’s also the end of the video where there’s the lion head on the wall for no reason.
“I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had (ooh, ooh)”
Gear: I must admit that for most of my life, I thought the lyrics “I bless the rains down in Africa” were “I guess it rains down in Africa,” which is a slightly different vibe, though probably more appropriate to the song now that I think about it.