by Camille Armantrout
When Bob and I relocated to Ghana from the US in the summer of 2012, he warned me that the Harmattan wind might be my undoing.
It drove his mother into a housecleaning frenzy every year when he lived here as a boy. My husband supports my need for cleanliness by prompting visitors to remove their shoes before stepping foot in our home. “Camille’s a floor Nazi,” he says cheerfully.
Bob was lured back to his childhood stomping grounds by a grant-funded research project. He’d had mixed feelings about returning to Ghana but I urged him to apply for the job. All my life I’d wanted to visit Africa and here was my chance!
Bob and our housemate Justin were part of a team looking into the feasibility of making biodiesel from fecal sludge. Sadly, it was a lot cheaper to dump septic tank waste directly into the waterways than pay to have it treated. If you could remove the water and turn the dried sludge into a commodity, truckers would have incentive to pay the tipping fees.
I did my Harmattan homework, digging up everything I could find addressing this phenomenon. Harmattan happens when the winds shift from south to north, bringing with them the mighty sands of the Sahara. I asked my expat friends what to expect and although they tried to paint a picture of what was in store, I knew I would have to see, feel and taste it for myself.
In October we noticed a slight shift in wind direction. The smoke from cook fires and burning garbage piles began drifting south.
In mid-December the sky went from blue to red and we were no longer able to see across the neighborhoods from our second floor balcony.
This wasn’t too bad, I thought and I started mopping the floor twice a week. The 500 louvered windows were more of a pain as they now demanded weekly washing. In January I found myself mopping every other day but still, coping. And then one day we were hit by a grit storm.
Apocalyptic is the word that kept coming to mind as I made my way up the dirt paths between the produce vendors. The sky was thick with smoke and grit. The charcoal plant seemed to be out of control and Bob called to report a tire fire at the Abattoir. Fortunately for me, the Abattoir is south of our neighborhood but he and Justin were downwind at the Biodiesel plant and so got their share of black smoke.
The easiest way to prepare a cow hide for tanning was to throw the carcass on a hot fire. Tires were abundant and burned hot, so the Abattoir always had some burning. Sometimes their stockpile of tires would catch fire.
Against the wind, with the wind, it didn’t matter.
My eyes stung even though I kept them half closed behind my sunglasses and at one point I spat out dirt that had made its way into my mouth.
I still managed to extend greetings to people I passed and we shared our struggle with tight-lipped chuckles. Back home, the Pied Crows hunkered down in the big tree and the breakfast dishes were covered in soot and had to be rewashed.
It was all Justin’s fault, we agreed. When he returned after five weeks away and heard he had missed the fabled Harmattan, he had been disappointed. The dusty season had indeed been short. It rained the day after Christmas and then the hot, dry dusty winds from the north moved in for a mere three or four weeks. When the skies cleared, we had trouble daring to hope that it was over.
But neighborhood taxi driver, Owusu confirmed Harmattan was over, our expat friend Elodie agreed and I’d not needed chap stick for a week. Turned out there was one last round heading our way.
The day began refreshingly cool and fresh until the grit began to reach us. At that point, we knew Justin had gotten his wish. Harmattan had resumed with a vengeance. The raging fires added eye-stinging soot to the grit until it lay on every surface, inside and out, like a salt and pepper garnish.
Sirens pierced the thick air. Dirt whistled through the house. I felt every bit of moisture leave my skin and my lips cried out hourly for balm. I wiped down a counter to lay out the produce and by the time I pulled all the fruit and vegetables out, the counter was peppered again. I mopped the floor three times.
Eventually everything calmed down. We went out to the garden to plant beans and harvest dandelion greens for dinner. I made a stir fry with tofu and rice. Justin brought out a big box of mouth-watering mochi from Japan and we played five rounds of “Big Two.”
We laughed about the day, teasing Justin for wishing the grit storm upon us. I now knew what to expect next year. But while I was proud to have survivied my first Harmattan, I was quite relieved that this years’ cleaning frenzy was behind me.
If you travel to West Africa, you can expect an encounter with the willful winds of Harmattan during December, January and February.
The local lore, at least where we lived in Kumasi is that the rains will return on Valentine’s day and with it a welcome shift in the winds.
Camille Armantrout repatriated to her homeland in the U.S. after living in Africa, Nicaragua, Guam, China and Belize with her globetrotting husband, Bob. She wrote about their year and a half in Africa in “Two Brauds Abroad” a travelogue she co-authored with a friend.