Winds and Wakayarum

From bellowing gusts to thin wafts of air, people across cultures implicate the wind for causing illness and misfortune.

Avoid drafts American grandmothers advise. In Ethiopia, the wind induces joint and bone pain. Vigilant Nankani mothers in Ghana cover infants (particularly their faces) and sequester newborns inside. They need protection from dubious winds. Some cultures view breezes as a luge for itinerant ghosts. “Spirits are like the wind,” a Ghanaian man told me. “They are perhaps listening to what we are saying right now.”

Was it the Scorpions who sang the Wind of Change? The 1991 anthem for glasnost and the fall of Communist-run governments. Winds can signal a positive change in politics or society. But they also mark pending adversity or foreboding circumstances. Calamity rides them.

“Tell me how the wind carries sickness,” I asked Ayanobasiya.

She said the wind might cause disease, but whirlwinds or dust devils, wakayarum, are the cause for concern. “It is not always the air that is blowing steady, that type of wind,” she said. “It’s the kind that starts in one place and moves around like that.” She spun her finger in a circle. “Our ancestors cautioned us. If you have children, when you see that wind coming, you should take them inside. When the dust devil gets to them, they’ll fall sick. We don’t encourage children, when they see those winds, to go to them. But sometimes we can’t stop them from running.”

“Is it the wind that makes you sick, or are there things traveling in it?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “The ancestors say it comes from the bush and it brings sickness from there.”

Nothing can escape the Harmattan, including some time away from my desk

Americans are told how chilly winds can cause a cold or flu. In West Africa, the Harmattan, a northeasterly trade wind emanating from the Sahara Desert, is likewise blamed. This zealous migrant blows dust and sand thousands of miles to the south, clouding the sky. The fog can become so severe that airlines cancel flights as far away as Accra. The term is Twi (haramata), and probably derived from the Arabic word harama, to prohibit. That it does. Elijah, my Nankani friend, suffered the most. He cursed the coming of the Harmattan and its illnesses. The cool, dry wind carries the “catarrh,” he said—an exotic, ancient term for nothing more than a cold or runny nose. On some days, catarrh does sound exactly like what the Harmattan put in your throat.

A typical Harmattan haze over Sirigu

Ayanobasiya inspired my curiosity. I began to take note of dust devils and observed how people avoided them by moving to the opposite side of the road or by bolting from a path for the safety of trees. When one appears, people hurry to gather their belongings and elude the looming defilement. A group of us couldn’t stop laughing as one chased an old man through the dry season heat. I shouted, “We should help him!” But what could anyone do?

I asked Asorigiya to talk about the wakayarum.

“Sometimes you can go to certain places and notice how the wind is always there,” he said. “It will also be very warm. Upon arriving at that place, your whole body becomes weak. That is sickness. You know there are also people who can see the wind and the diseases it carries.”

“How? What can they see?” I asked.

“These people are powerful. When they see the wakayarum passing they know the wind carries a disease. You will see them: They stop, the wakayarum passes, and then they walk again. Those that don’t know just walk in and before they know it, they have caught something.”

“Tell me more.”

“So, in the old days, I had an herbalist friend. He was walking with another friend. As they were chatting, they saw the wakayarum approaching. The herbalist saw it was carrying diarrhea. The other man wanted to cross the road into the path of the wind, but the herbalist said he shouldn’t go.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘the wind is coming with diarrhea. Don’t do it.’

The other man refused to believe him. ‘What wind carries sickness? You’re telling lies!’

The man crossed the road while the herbalist remained. The moment he got home he soiled himself.” Asorigya chuckled at the man’s stupidity. “He called his friend to come and treat him. But when the herbalist arrived, there was nothing he could do.

‘I advised you to avoid the wind,’ the herbalist said. ‘You refused and went in anyway. You will die because of that.’”

“Did he die?” I asked.

“Of course he did.”

Wind disorders were a part of ancient Greek medicine. Windy conditions can aggravate black bile imbalances and provoke a melancholic disposition. Greek medicine influenced contemporary medicine, and we can still find traces of Greek practices in our own folk healing methods. My favorite belief is the ancient miasma theory. It holds that some diseases, such as malaria, cholera, and even the plague, result from bad air or pollution that usually circulates at night. People thought this effluvium emanated from decaying organic matter and poor neighborhoods—places where the outcasts, the unwanted, and racial and cultural others lived. Miasmas explained why certain people got sick and others did not. Germ theory replaced it in the 1880s, but not without debate. The founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, defended miasmas and dismissed the emerging germ and contagion theories.

The Cholera Miasma. Robert Seymour (1831)

It makes sense to protect infants from the wind. Soils contain pathogens. In North and South America, the coccidioidomycosis fungus, which causes valley fever, spreads on the wind. Dust devils can pick it up and, if inhaled, it can cause fungal pneumonia. As with other diseases carried by the wind, the young and old are most at risk.

Dust devils travel well across cultures. A wakayarum materialized before me in a Sydney alley filled with rubbish. The devil whipped around, following an erratic path, rampaging blindly, hunting for victims to inhale. Fast food wrappers ascended. Detritus marked its expanding perimeter. As if back in Ghana, I laughed. Who’s going to get it? Few people here needed the herbalist’s advice. Everyone scattered, dodging its ruin.

Yet one man was steadfast. “Don’t do it,” I whispered. He lowered his head anyway, and pressed forth through the flurry.

Check out my book “Spirit Children.” What’s the value in talking about the weather? Read here.

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