Strange morning

In March 1996, in the middle of Harmattan season, I was scheduled to make a trip to visit translation projects. I got up before dawn to the strong smell of dust. Then, instead of dawn, a sinister crimson radiance came through the windows, painting everything with the same tint. Outside, I felt like I was living in the aftermath of some nuclear disaster. I discovered that a gusty wind, saturated with particles of deep red laterite was the source of the strange morning colors. In short, it was a dust storm.

Banana tree covered in Harmattan dust

Banana tree covered in Harmattan dust

As I drove out of town, the headlights of other cars looked blue. The sky turned blood-red with the sun a mere disk of only slightly brighter red. At the checkpoint on the outskirts of town, the officials were troubled. They had never seen anything like it. Someone said that according to the radio news, the dust storm covered all of Burkina Faso, Mali and a large part of Algeria. One policeman, his eyebrows covered with a layer of the red dust, said: “Good, that way we won’t die alone.”

We traveled all morning and part of the afternoon to our destination, always in the grimy wind, marveling at the blue headlights of oncoming vehicles. Late in the morning, we went through a city; its streetlights still blazing as though they could dispel the gloom. It lasted 2 1/2 days. The grit got between our teeth, in our food and, well, everywhere. Ladies who like to keep a spotless house were propelled to the threshold of psychosis.

It was quite an experience. My only regret is that I did not take even one photo! The photos you see here were taken later under conditions which were not nearly as extreme.

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Papaya tree in sunset

Papaya tree in sunset during Harmattan in Accra

Harmattan is a weather pattern in Africa in which dry, dust-laden winds from the Sahara desert in the north blow south. For most of the year, the winds go the other direction, bringing valuable moisture inland from the Gulf of Guinea. In October, the direction changes. The air made warm and moist by the waters of the Atlantic is progressively chased off the land by air bearing a dry, cool and dusty heritage from the broad expanse of the Sahara Desert. The air’s load of reddish particles makes for model sunsets to please any photographer, as in this photo, the colors of which have not been enhanced.

But the Harmattan is not all beauty. I remember times in Burkina Faso when the humidity would drop to zero percent, and it would hurt just to breath. We would retaliate by putting damp wash cloths over our mouths as we slept. I also remember air so soupy thick with dust that the streetlights stayed on all day and the sun was nothing but a deep red disk in the sky, even at noon.

Harmattan dusty bannana tree

Banana leaf covered with Harmattan dust

Harmattan’s foreign powder covers leaves progressively until they have the ashen countenance of the critically ill. They stand in miserable patience; hoping for a rain to cleanse them of their distressing ailment.

Every household and office surface collects a gritty deposit of imported particles. At first, newcomers dust incessantly. Usually sooner, and only rarely later, do they acknowledge the comic futility of skirmishing with one of the world’s major weather systems armed only with a dust cloth and broom.

Then the season changes. Abruptly, the air takes back its muggy normality. There is a magnificent, decontaminating downpour. The world is no longer a study in shades of earth red. The predictable pendulum is swinging the other way; but the cleansing is temporary. More assuredly than MacArthur, next season, the Harmattan will return.

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If you liked this you might also like Kente, Advice from taxi windows, or Festooned with signs.

If you liked this you might also like Kente, Advice from taxi windows, or Festooned with signs.