The writer
The writer

The nasty ill wind hanging over us - Elizabeth Ohene writes

I have lived through many, many harmattans, but this one is defeating me.


I have even gone to the dictionary to see how it is defined; just in case I have forgotten what harmattan is supposed to be.

One definition says “a very dry, dusty, easterly or north-easterly wind on the West African coast, occurring from December to February”.

Another definition says the Harmattan is “a cool, dry wind that blows from the northeast or east in the western Sahara and is strongest from late November to mid-March.

 It usually carries large amounts of dust, which it can transport hundreds of miles out over the Atlantic Ocean; the dust often interferes with local aircraft operations”.

The last time the harmattan got to me this intensely, or maybe I should say the last time it got under my skin, my nostril, my eyes, in my hair and inside all my crevices so badly, was about seven years ago and I wrote a column about it.

At that time, there were lots of complaints about planes unable to land at our airports due to poor visibility.

This time around, I have not heard of any such problems affecting aviation services.

But the conditions generally seem much worse to me. 

The entire atmosphere of the country has been saturated with a sand-laden wind and I have not seen the sky for weeks and that is getting to me.

I feel oppressed, I feel deprived and I am distressed that I am unable to see the skies when I get up in the morning, and the sun is unable to force its way through the sand-laden, stationary blanket that is hanging over us and I have no idea if the moon is out and if there are stars.

I cannot see the beautiful night skies that we take for granted.  

The harmattan is a natural phenomenon and I thought I knew all about it, having lived through so many episodes.

The problem is that it is not behaving as it is supposed to. 

First of all, there was no sign of the harmattan here in the south of the country all the way through to the end of the past year.

It did not start in November, nor in December.

Indeed, the grass was green and it kept raining through November and all the way to the second week of January this year. 

Then the blanket of sand arrived.

I can’t say that it is anything like the harmattan that I used to know, which is why I have been trying to read about a phenomenon that I ought to know inside out.
I found the following in one of the definitions of the harmattan: “On its passage over the Sahara, the Harmattan picks fine dust and sand particles.

 It is also known as the “doctor wind” because of its invigorating dryness, compared with humid tropical air”.

Well, we do have the fine dust and the sand particles, but what we have now can certainly not be called the “doctor wind”, as it has no such thing as “invigorating dryness”.

This unmoving, sandy air is as humid as you would get at the height of the heat in April. 


What we used to know as harmattan had dry, very dry air; now the air is humid.

It is not normal to sweat during the harmattan season but now I am sweating all the time. 


Early mornings during harmattan used to be cold and you would need a warm bath.

Now, you sweat after a cold shower in the morning. 


I am not even sure people are having to use as much shea butter to moisturise their skin as would normally be the case during a real harmattan when skins are parched dry and cracking; now we are wet with sweat.      

However, when it comes to poor visibility, this is as true a harmattan as you would ever get.

Poor visibility is at dangerous levels, making driving conditions even more hazardous than usual. 

And the poor visibility does not affect only driving conditions, our whole world appears to have been blanketed in dust and it is difficult to make out anything clearly.


One main characteristic of harmattan is dirt.

 That has not changed.

The dirt is overpowering.  

It does not matter how often you dust your windows; they will not look or feel clean.

 If you have books you would notice they are having a hard time of it.

Curtains take the brunt of it all as they absorb the sand and dust and end up looking thoroughly miserable.

I resist the urge to take them down to be washed and I pretend I can’t see how dirty they are and wait until it is all over. 


I must confess that takes some courage but you learn that the harmattan is not friendly, and you are not the only one with dirty floors, furniture, curtains and windows.

This fine film of sand finds its way everywhere.

The clothes in my closets get dirty simply hanging in there and the clothes on my body get dirty within minutes of my wearing them.

Every crevice on my body is covered with sand and I can even feel the sand when I lick my lips.  

The consequences are telling on our health as well.

Almost everybody has had or has a cough. 

Those with Asthma are really struggling. 

I had a cough which lasted for about three weeks and I can’t even say it is fully gone.

Indeed, the Ghana Medical Association has issued a statement reiterating what we are all going through, which is an increase in respiratory diseases. 

We have been urged to wear face masks and limit outdoor activities.

Unfortunately, none of these two admonitions really work. 


The density of the sand in the air makes wearing masks most uncomfortable, and as for limiting outdoor activities, I am not sure how that works.

It feels as bad inside as it does outside.

 It is airless inside and only slightly less sandy.

I take a look at the film of dust on the cars and I realise the amount of sand I am taking into my nostrils when I breathe; I take a look at the film of dust on the furniture inside the room and I accept there is no hiding place from this dust.  

I notice that drivers are dusting their cars all the time.

I take the view it is a waste of time and energy and I offer no apologies for my car being dusty. 

My garden is thirsty and looking unloved, but here we are, with the water company saying the population of Accra has outgrown the capacity of what the water company can provide; I feel terribly guilty putting water on my grass even when it is coming from my rainwater harvested tank.

I know I have said it before, but I will say it again: the harmattan is an ill wind that blows no good.   

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