Thursday, January 20, 2011

Red skies at night… and in the morning… and all day long

During the time I was gone on holiday, Ghana went from the end of the wet season to the start of the dry season, bringing with it the harmattan, one of the few words in the local language of Twi to have entered the English language.  Every year around this time, the harmattan winds come down from the north of Ghana, bringing a thick cloud of dust from the Sahara desert that hangs dead in the air, giving the country the appearance of LA on a smoggy summer’s day.  Flying into Kumasi on Tuesday, the top of the harmattan haze could be seen just below the plane’s cruising altitude.  Descending through the haze, I was shocked that they still allowed planes to fly in something with that low of visibility.  Within hours of landing, I could feel my throat getting dry and scratchy from the dust particles suspended in the air.  I was painfully reminded of my experience with our road trip to the north in December and am crossing my fingers that I don’t come down with another respiratory infection.  No wonder people get sick here much more easily at this time of year. 

The importance of the harmattan was brought home to me by seeing today’s editoral column in “The Daily Graphic” (“Ghana’s biggest selling newspaper since 1950”).  Harmattan is blamed for all sorts of ills, from the expected dry skin and respiratory infections to an increase in both car accidents (from the poor visibility) and food-borne diseases (from microorganisms carried on the harmattan winds).  

Rumor has it that harmattan normally lasts only about a month, ending in late January or early February.  Unfortunately, the weather experts say that we’re in for an especially harsh harmattan season this year.  Record-low temperatures in the range of 12-16 Celsius (53-61 Fahrenheit for my fellow Americans) have been recorded in the northern regions.  Those temperatures may not sound that cold to those of you experiencing a snowy winter, but this is a country where people put on sweaters when the temperature drops below 22 Celsius.  I prefer the humid, hot days when I arrived to the cooler but dusty weather of harmattan, especially when I read on Wikipedia that “spontaneous nosebleeds may occur for some [people]”, since I know from my years living in Colorado that I fall into that category.  Details of the predictions can be found here, along with an all-too-accurate picture of what the sky looks like these days.  Somebody wake me when the harmattan ends.

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