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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