What’s Hot in Tamale?

I wrote about the cold in Mongolia as it was an important part of life and culture. Although they don’t use frozen cow’s tails as a metric here, the heat in Ghana is still a powerful force that pervades and affects all aspects of life. Since heat is so diffuse and insipid there is less of a battle mentality (as in the case of cold) and more of a brooding, uneasy standoff between life and the climate. This stalemate reaches a crescendo during the two hottest months of February and March and relents with the beginning of the rainy season in April. I was warned that March would be the most trying month as far as heat, but I am happy to report I seem to be managing with only a few more weeks of very hot weather left. For reference, we’re in and around 40C most days and 30C at night. This isn’t too shocking, but the fact that it lasts for several months and there is little A/C to be had, makes it more of a grinding psychological challenge. I’ve been looking into the cultural, physiological and psychological aspects of heat lately and have found, like everything else weather related, you can either ineffectively rage against it or try to adapt.

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The weather in Tamale is characterized by pronounced wet and dry seasons lasting April – September for the former and October – March for the latter. The Harmattan winds blow in off the Sahara from the Northeast during December and January bringing in tons of dust and dropping the temperature below 20C at night. When the Harmattan ends, the heat continues to build to a peak in March before breaking with the first real rains in April. After that, the winds pick up from the Southwest and bring rainstorm after rainstorm, like clockwork, up from the Atlantic.

This ongoing battle between wet and dry has been fairly predictable for the past several thousand years, but climate change is beginning to amplify this bi-polar behaviour leading to more extreme heat and precipitation. This has huge implications for crop production, especially for staples like maize which operates within a fairly narrow temperature band and can take decades to breed up to higher temperature tolerances [1]. The need for climate adapted crops is crucial for the ongoing food security of countries like Ghana and an important element of the raging battle over GMO foods that is taking place here [2].

African Maize Production (Source: http://www.climatechange-foodsecurity.org/)
African Maize Production (Source: http://www.climatechange-foodsecurity.org/)
Growing Season Average Temperatures (Source: http://www.ted.com/talks/cary_fowler_one_seed_at_a_time_protecting_the_future_of_food)
Growing Season Average Temperatures (Source: http://www.ted.com/talks/cary_fowler_one_seed_at_a_time_protecting_the_future_of_food)


Culturally, other than the regular rhythms of planting and harvesting crops and the associated festivals like Homowo, I haven’t heard too many urban legends with regards to the heat. I think there is a tacit acknowledgement that “you can’t change the weather” so most people don’t discuss it too often. Still, there are a few key phrases in Dagbani such as “Ti maasim” (“the morning is cool” used as a greeting) and “Ni ti wuntanga/wari” (roughly “sorry for you and the sun/heat”). Another important element is the acceptance of sweat as normal and natural part of life and not something you try to hide or are embarrassed about, which seems to be the case in the West.

Physiologically, it’s very important to have at least a basic grasp of the body’s mechanisms for thermoregulation in order to maximize the effectiveness of whatever method of cooling you are trying to employ. Below is illustration of how the body responds to and counteracts various ambient temperatures to maintain a steady core temperature. It’s important to note that evaporative cooling from sweating greatly depends on both the humidity and air flow. Luckily, in the North, the relative humidity is around 20-30% most of the dry season, which keeps the humidex quite reasonable. It’s like living in a giant dehumidifier so sweating can be quite effective, though water intake needs to greatly increase in order to keep up. It’s possible to lose as much as 10L of water per day [3], and dehydration, even if you spend most of your days like me sitting under a whirling ceiling fan, is still a risk.  As part of the body’s acclimation process [4], the water to salt composition of sweat readjusts, your overall output increases, and the hypothalamus becomes better adapted to the new temperature range. So, there is some truth to the idea that you can “get used to” to heat after some time.

(source: http://dwb.unl.edu/teacher/nsf/c01/c01links/www.science.mcmaster.ca/biology/4s03/thermoregulation.html)
(source: http://dwb.unl.edu/teacher/nsf/c01/c01links/www.science.mcmaster.ca/biology/4s03/thermoregulation.html)


Psychologically, I find dealing with heat is very similar to dealing with cold or any other external factor: you often can’t do anything about it other than to alter your psychological response. With cold I find the best strategy is to get positive and energized before going outside and generally being a lot more active and animated. With heat, obviously, it’s more a case of economy of motion, acceptance and calmness. The biggest issues are trying to sleep on foam mattress (pro tip: wet socks!) or sitting for long periods in a packed tro-tro. There is a powerful urge to “escape” and it takes a lot of willpower to avoid the agitation and anxiety that goes along with this discomfort. Like studying in a noisy environment, running a marathon or sitting through a Nigerian movie on the bus, it’s a mind over matter thing that takes time to develop. On the positive side, the appreciation for the slightest breeze, the few degrees drop of evening coolness, or amazing satisfaction derived from simply drinking water are all greatly amplified. The occasional Fan-Ice (ice cream in a bag) doesn’t hurt either!



[1] http://www.ted.com/talks/cary_fowler_one_seed_at_a_time_protecting_the_future_of_food

[2] http://foodsecurityghana.com/category/climate-change/

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perspiration

[4] http://www.usariem.army.mil/download/heatacclimatizationguide.pdf

4 Replies to “What’s Hot in Tamale?”

  1. Mindfulness is the key and you seem to have got that right. Have been reading lately in Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. You seem to be following some of his approach to stress and doing a great job of educating us all with your blog. Thanks, Jon.

  2. Do people go on long bicycle trips using pedal power? What is the distance that is usual for people there to ride their bikes or walk ?? Amber asks

    1. I can’t speak much for everywhere else, but Tamale is the land of the motor scooter (“moto”), followed closely by a growing number of SOVs. Surprisingly, there are actual bike lanes along the sides of the main roads. This doesn’t make it particularly safer as they also host two-way moto traffic, pedestrians, roadside businesses and many other obstacles. Bikes (Chinese made) are still very popular and I’d say they are a preferred choice for students and older gentlemen. Tamale is fairly flat so it’s possible to ride for long distances, but due to the road hazards, heat, fumes and cheapness of shared taxis (about $0.40 per trip), there are easier ways of getting around. In the countryside bicycles are probably more common, but the roads are in worst shape.

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