Have you ever tried to look directly at the sun? If you have, you know that it's nearly impossible. And you've all heard the warnings about the sun's damaging effects on the eyes if you look at the sun. Well, here's a new twist on that story.
In Niger, there are times you can look directly at the sun without any effect on your eyes. Yes, it's true. It's because of a weather phenomenon known as the "harmattan." The harmattan is a wind that blows from the north and east during the dry months of the year. For us in West Africa, that means off the Sahara. Often, especially from November to March the wind is laden with a fine, gray, Sahara dust. This dust chokes up the atmosphere and may reduce visibility to less than a mile. It also chokes up your lungs, and for those who are allergic to dust (like my daughter Suzanne and me), it can make it hard to breathe. Notice the picture above. This is what the air looks like on a dusty, harmattan day. It's gray and looks like it might be about to snow. That's the actual color in the late afternoon. I haven't doctored up the picture at all.
The word "harmattan" technically refers to the wind, but it is often used simply to refer to the dust blown in by the wind, as in, "The harmattan is thick today." All in all, the harmattan dust creates a ghostly glow day and night while it lasts. The harmattan does not continue incessantly for five months. Some days are clear, crisp, and cool. But it may last as long as seven days at a time, sometimes longer. When the harmattan is bad, you can wipe your table off in the morning, and you can come back at lunchtime and write your name in the dust that has collected on the table in the past four hours. It doesn't do any good to close your windows, either. The dust has an uncanny ability to find all the little cracks and holes in your house's armor and seeps in on the fierce wind. It is hard to keep your house clean, but remember: eveyone's house looks like this, so you either live with it or spend your entire day cleaning and then starting all over again.
When the dust is really thick, you can look directly at the sun without any problem. And it won't hurt your eyes. The following picture was taken just outside of Tera at about 8 a.m. Notice the dusky yellow orb in the sky. That is the sun.
Now doesn't that make you want to come and see Niger? There are advantages to living here. You can do things you would never be able to do back "home."
This year we've had some of the worst dust I've ever seen, and it's lasted longer than most times I can remember in the past, sometimes more than a week. We've also had some of the coldest temperatures on record. On Dec 10, we recorded 49 F, the second lowest temperature we've ever seen in Niger. Since the beginning of December most nights have been in the low to mid 50s. December's average high was about 10 F lower than last year. The same is true of the average low. So, we're having a lot more dust and cold this year than normal. And we hear that the northeast US is having a much warmer winter than normal. Go figure.