Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Harmattan

Jackson Bentley: What attracts you personally to the desert?
T.E. Lawrence: It’s clean.
- Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

Lawrence’s desert may have been spotless. David Lean’s camera certainly captured an unspoiled expanse of sand and sky as the backdrop for the greatest love affair between desert and man ever put on film. But love affair is perhaps the wrong descriptor to use, implying as it does that the desert can love in return. Infatuation may be the better term, for it more correctly captures the one-sided obsession of the would-be suitor and the absolute indifference of the object of affection. For Lawrence and adventurers like him, the tendency to romanticize the bleakness of the desert is irresistible. It justifies, if only to them, a devotion that others might dismiss as madness.

That same blind adulation is as much a part of the mythologizing of the Sahara desert of northern Africa as it is for Lawrence’s desert a continent away. The mere mention of the word “Sahara” to most people conjures up images of hardy Bedouins, ill-tempered camels and Lawrence of Arabia (for the geographically challenged). When I arrived in Nigeria, I was told of the Harmattan, a wind that blows across Nigeria from the North, bringing with it sand from the Sahara. The Harmattan! Its name alone was exotic and full of the promise of sandy adventure. My inner Lawrence was captivated; my eyes glazed over in anticipation of racing camels with Omar Sharif. Yes, I’m one of the geographically challenged. But I’d rather daydream to the classics than get bogged down in details.

It’s been three months since I arrived, and my camel remains untested. Omar still hasn’t shown up. What has arrived in abundance is the Saharan sand, and as is so often the case, the reality is much different from the romance. The amount of sand in the air is staggering, but it hasn’t been delivered by the raging sandstorms typical in any tale of desert derring do. Rather, the particles of sand are so fine that they hang in the air like a fog and are almost unnoticeable until one realizes that a familiar landmark, like the Kagoro Mountains, has disappeared. That’s no exaggeration. Kafanchan is a ten-minute drive from Kagoro, and I was amazed to find nothing but a blank wall of grey greeting us on a return trip two weeks ago. The mountains were completely invisible. I almost became nostalgic for the North Atlantic fog of my Nova Scotia youth, until I remembered that it was always a pain in the ass as well.

Such a huge amount of sand deposited in the atmosphere has effects extending beyond David Copperfield illusions. The drop in temperature is significant, with daily lows in the mid-teens and highs barely touching twenty-five. Perfect weather for this Canuck, but you would think the next Ice Age had arrived if you gauged it by the reaction of the local community. People here have outfitted themselves in tuques and parkas that wouldn’t be out of place on a Yellowknife sleighride. My coworkers raise their eyebrows in surprise when they see me in short sleeves, as though they expect to witness the immediate onset of frostbite. “Yaya sanyi?” (“How’s the cold?”) has become a question that I get asked every morning. “Ba sanyi!” (“There is no cold!”) is my reply, often followed by a hearty lumberjack laugh. But in the back of this Paul Bunyan’s mind, one alarm bell is going off continuously: if they consider this weather to be cold, what is waiting for me when the temperatures heat up? A visible shudder goes through me, confirming the diagnosis of hypothermia in the minds of my co-workers.

Despite my Canadian ruggedness, it didn’t take long for me to catch my first Harmattan cold, another byproduct of the extreme amount of dust blowing everywhere. One can’t help but inhale more than the recommended daily serving of sand, which has the effect of drying out one’s insides and making a person more susceptible to the germs also carried by the breeze. It seems bizarre to suffer from a cold when the temperatures are this warm, but maybe it’s my destiny to scarf down Sudafed and Fishermen’s Friend in February, regardless of where I am. My co-workers suffer much more than I do, as their limited diet does not provide them with the vitamins and minerals needed to fend off and recover from the Harmattan cold. A number of them showed the telltale signs of colds the minute the wind blew into town, and many have stayed ill for the duration of its residency here.

As we rattle along the dirt road leading to the Foundation, the dust blows in through the hole in the Batmobile’s dash where the radio used to be and chokes those unlucky enough to draw the backseat. That would be me. I ask Philip between wheezes when the last rain fell in Kafanchan, and he estimates the drought at six months. Six months! I try to imagine a six-month window in Canada without precipitation and realize that I've likely never experienced that in my lifetime. So, the Harmattan is not solely to blame for turning my new hometowns into dustbowls to rival those of the clapboard towns of the Old West. The landscape surrounding us is as parched as any scene recalled from the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. The only things missing are tumbleweeds, stagecoaches and bad dubbing.

Walking along the dirt roads of Kagoro, I imagine myself to be Nigeria’s version of the Man With No Name, as the distant cries of “Batauri!” fill my ears. I push on through the Harmattan fog toward the lone tavern in town, a sandblasted hovel sporting a paint job as faded as the dreams of the men who drink there. Walking through the doorway, my eyes still stinging with Saharan sand, I spot Lawrence of Arabia sitting by himself in the corner, a Star beer in one hand and his head in the other. The scuffling of my sandals on the gritty floor shakes him from his torpor, and he motions for me to join him. I signal the barkeep for two fresh bottles, and Lawrence and I drink in agreeable silence. Once our beers have bottomed out, I get up to leave him to his solitude. “What attracts you personally to the Harmattan?”, I ask with a wink. He grins a weary drunken smile and rasps out a chuckle as dry as the dust devils circling our feet. Through the sand coating our table, he traces out “It’s clean” with a shaky finger, dragging the last letter across the table to the edge before dropping his hand in his lap.


Anonymous said...

First comment on you, Glenn: if you don't keep this Blog and publish these stories, I will never speak to you again. Your talent slays me. I so look forward to receiving each instalment as much for the style as for the story. You write so beautifully. I am speechless. Victor

Anonymous said...

Second comment...not so speechless, esp when Canadians talk about the weather [and specifically about temperatures]. I've come to realize that one of the most significant Canadian characteristics, despite our fondness for beer and hockey, is to talk about the weather. Wherever I go, I seem to make that a topic of conversation, and my non Canadian colleagues find it so amusing. After all, weather is something that simply is, so why talk about it?
It seems indelible in our national psyches to talk about the weather. I've seen Canadians meet in foreign lands for the first time and spend most of their time swapping stories about surviving winter. It becomes a one-up-man-ship deal -- Winnipeg is colder than Calgary which is colder than Edmonton [not], etc.
And if it isn't winter cold, then it's summer humidity and the attendant fight with black flies, mozzies, and such like. Alas, the mozzies in The Peg swarm in big dark black packs large enough to sweep small children away, almost pteradactyl like.
But my fun with weather as a Canuck on the road often focuses on tolerance -- not socio-economic issues, but abilities to cope. I was in Shanghai one December where the temps hovered around +12 Celsius. I had arrived from Toronto where the temps got up to a high of minus 12, and even lower with the wind chill, so I was as happy as a lark in spring. I shed my winter coat and walked around in a sweater -- it was downright balmy [in all senses of the word]. My Chinese colleagues wore winter coats, ear muffs, gloves, boots, and still shivered like hell... they wondered just how balmy I was in that light sweater. It turned out, however, that the outdoor temperatures told only part of the story. Central heating is rare in Shanghai, except in newly built westernized complexes. So my partner's offices were cold in a terribly damp way. They actually opened the windows to bring in the "relatively warmer outside air". Sitting at a desk with that dampness crawling up your leg and cramping your muscles was not fun. Even I had to admit that. Hot tea always helps.
But the opposite is even more oppressive...as in the summer heat of China. With temps hovering around +40 and humidity they don't even measure, discomfort reigns supreme. Central airconditioning is also relatively new, although area or room conditioners are found everywhere. Sitting in front of one of those in a local restaurant entails developing icicles on your nose as you fend off the heat and humidity outside. Interesting way to deal with weather other than speaking about it.
My Chinese friends took inordinate delight in having me visit Buddhist temples on the hottest most humid days. They were totally convinced that westerners are fat lazy sluggards unable to climb the simplest of mountains on a summer day. What they never understood [probably intentionally] was that it's more about metabolism and blood thickness and the need for insulation against winter than about being a slug. They would die in one of our winters, just as I was dying in all those temples on hot humid summer days. The great irony of a Buddhist temple is that it always entails some kind of climb "up the mountain" -- be it a real hill or never ending stair cases. The key to enlightenment is to climb to the top, sweating off buckets along the way. The irony is not in the sweat or pain, but in the fact that you reached the statue of the beatific Buddha at the top of this climb, and I could swear his smile was really a muted laugh at the expense of this sweaty, short, fat, balding white guy huffing and puffing his way to the top. While I was not amused, he certainly was.
In the end, it's what you see that counts the most. The Harmattan's fine particles of Saharan sand that hang in the air blotting out the mountains, is matched by the particulate hanging in the air in most Asian cities -- not natural by any means, but man-made pollution brought on by coal burning belchers. I have only rarely been in an Asian city where I can see the sky, and determine it is actually blue. Now that's frightening.
Keep the stories coming....Victor