by Ian McCall

Chapter 50 - HARMATTAN

It has to be experienced to be appreciated, this desiccating Harmattan wind. Yet another wind to join the Mistral, the Sirocco and the Golf as creators of temporary changes in climate. Before we know it there will be a Volkswagen car named after it.

This Harmattan most resembles the Sirocco but makes its effect felt from a north-easterly direction rather than the south or south-easterly direction of that wind. In the latter part of the year, clouds of dust from the Sahara are blown into the sky and can blot out the sun. While it can be devastating to people, produce and goods in Northern Nigeria where it is like a thick, cold mist, reminiscent of an east coast haar in Scotland or seafret in eastern parts of England. The cold dryness is so different from the normal weather in the south of the country even in the more innocuous form that it takes there, that it can create all sorts of havoc. A report in the Nigerian press noted on a date in December 1956 that the temperature at Cape Wrath in north west Scotland (latitude 59°N) was higher than that in Lagos (latitude 5°N).

The physical effects of the harmattan could be seen, heard and felt. The unaccustomed dryness in a region where a humidity in the 90’s and a temperature of similar proportions (35º Celsius) was normal, did a number of things. It made life pleasant for those of us without air-conditioning. It also occasioned unfamiliar sounds. Joints on wooden furniture, even when seasoned before manufacture, would crack and split and ghostly sounds would emanate from the oddest places in the night. So long as the air is drier than the wood, the latter will give up moisture to it. As soon as the amount of moisture in the wood is the same as that in the air, the wood cannot get any drier in that condition of atmosphere, no matter how long it is left. If, however, for some reason the air becomes drier, as is the case when the harmattan arrives, then further loss of moisture from the wood, together with further shrinkage, must take place. Drawers that could once be pulled out easily were now difficult to open. Stored produce could have its oil content lowered and hence its value reduced necessitating some kind of remedial action. Groundnuts bought during the dry harmattan season gained about ¼-½% in weight between purchase in Kano and delivery in north-west Europe. Wise buyers put their maximum effort into buying the nuts during that season as it could mean they increased in weight when stored in the high humidity of Lagos or Port Harcourt. It affected people too. Their skin would go dry and lips would get chapped. A bonus was the blooming of the harmattan lilies which lined many a drive in residential compounds (an English word derived from the Malayan kampong). They brightened up an often dismal scene.

The harmattan time was the gardening season. These harmattan lilies together with cannas and portulacas and perhaps zinnias were the basics of flower gardening in Nigeria. Charlie McIvor, a friend who worked with the John Holt Company, always referred to the basic red portulacas as ‘government flowers’ because of the number of government offices which had masses of them planted outside presumably to keep the weeds down. Gardening in Nigeria should always be done with gloves despite the discomfort in the heat. Working with the soil anywhere can seriously damage your health. My own was affected only mildly. I began to get an irritating itch on one finger which could not be identified by the local medical officer. It began to spread and leave long weals on the fingers. When I returned on leave to Scotland, I was sent to the Eastern General Hospital in Leith where there was a tropical diseases unit. The doctors there immediately diagnosed canine hookworm. The treatment was to freeze it with ethyl chloride which did the worm no good. It put up a fight in its host against the cold which meant an uncomfortable day or two only and then all was well. To let drop the fact that I had had canine hookworm was a good conversation stopper.

Mary’s love of gardening and its facilitation by the relatively cool conditions of the harmattan had one unfortunate outcome. While tussling with some plant or other she damaged her back. It turned out to be a slipped disc. The upshot was that she had to undergo lumbar traction at Agodi hospital in Lagos. She had to wear a plaster of Paris corset from top to bottom of her spine. The restriction this put on her breathing became alarming and she had to be cut out of it in the middle of the night while staying at the house of friends. To have to wear a plaster cast in the damp heat of the tropics is a tribulation I would wish on no one.

The psychological effects of the harmattan were positive. People laughed at the various things it did. Schoolchildren, for whom this was a joyful time, would touch each other lightly on their lips dried out by the lack of accustomed moisture and blood would begin to flow but was easily stemmed. Any aberrant behaviour was blamed on it. When the first traffic lights in Lagos were installed, taxi drivers who disobeyed the signals and were charged, pleaded in mitigation that the Harmattan made them do things they didn’t want to do.

Decisions made during the harmattan were better reviewed when normal weather resumed. By and large it was a happy time rather like when the first rains came after a particularly trying dry season when people would exult in the wetness and hold their heads up to the downpour in a welcome to the stimulating freshness of the air, laughing and joking as they did so. Only, in these conditions it stimulated physical activity like playing tennis more vigorously or encouraged the indulgence of pulling up a blanket at night.

If the cocoa main crop is light, the tick bird has deserted the backs of the goats, the music of the licensed drummers has changed rhythm from all previous nights, the iroko tree has shed a limb, the cockerel in Igwe Kalu’s compound has failed to crow, the newly coiffed hair sticks up on end and the ladies in white have not turned up for their trysts, it is no one’s fault. It must have been the harmattan.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003