The harmattan has arrived in West Africa! We had heard about it, but we had not personally experienced it until now. The Harmattan is a dry and dusty trade wind. It blows south from the Sahara into the Gulf of Guinea, off and on, between the end of November and the middle of March. On its passage over the desert it picks up fine dust particles and carries them to our doorstep. It reminds us of a bad air inversion day in Salt Lake City.
The word "harmattan" comes from the Twi dialect which is widely spoken in West Africa. As early as 1671 English adventurers spoke of the harmattan. And it is one of the few words of Twi that have entered the English vocabulary.
At its worst, the heavy airborn dust can severely limit visibility and block the sun for several days, comparable to a heavy fog. The effect caused by the dust and sand stirred by these winds is known as "harmattan haze." On bad days it can costs airlines millions of dollars in cancelled and diverted flights.
Humidity drops very low during the harmattan and locals can experience nosebleeds, as they are used to humidty in the 90% range. Now we know why we brought lotion and chapstick!
Some people say that men and animals become increasingly irritable when this wind has been blowing for a while, giving it a bad reputation. However, some feel the cool wind brings relief from the oppressive heat, which is why the harmattan, in some places, has earned the nickname "The Doctor."
So far, it has been a mild harmattan season. When we flew into Accra Jan. 14, the haze was almost eerie and we didn't see the sun for days. Temperatures were cooler and the humidity was lower. We even got goose bumps when we went swimming. However, most of February has been clear, warm and humid.