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.