Harmattan by Gaye Shortland

I actually read up to about a third of the book last year around October, then misplaced it shortly after. Gosh that’s almost a year ago. It was very annoying because I was so into the book. Fortunately I found it a few weeks ago in a backpack I had chucked someplace and only found it because I wanted to use that bag again. So I started all over again. I devoured it in one sitting earlier today.

Harmattan by Gaye Shortland, published in 1999 by Poolbeg Press Ltd of Dublin, Ireland

The protagonist is Ellen, an Irish expat lecturer in the city of Zaria in Nigeria, who was pining for her missing lover Amodi. They were supposed to meet in Zaria upon her return from Ireland on leave, but weeks passed with no news of him. Amodi is a Tuareg from Niger, nomads of the Saharan desert who also form a small community in neighbouring Nigeria, where the men work as security guards and nightwatchmen.

When Yusuf, another Tuareg watchman who was a friend of Ellen’s and who was working for her acquaintances in the expat community, died in an accident, his employers made the request to Ellen to personally deliver his belongings and wages to Yusuf’s wife and daughters in Niger.

It was a huge favour to ask, as she would need to take time off from work and the destination was some five hundred kilometres away, not to mention the fact that it was dangerous to be on the road due to the political unrest in Niger. But Ellen grabbed the chance to hit the road to find her beloved Amodi. She set off for the journey in her Land Cruiser with three young local friends: Haruna, Ataka and Ilyas. Lads who did odd jobs for her.

Their journey hit a snag practically right at the beginning, when they were told at the border that the military were not allowing vehicles to travel to their destination, which resulted in them having to take an alternative route that was a massive loop, a long way round which added another thousand kilometres to their journey.

The book is far too short (207 pages), or at least I wish more was revealed about how some of the characters fared in the end. It’s a bit painful to fall for characters and root for them yet not know by the time the book’s ended whether they’re safe or not. Well maybe not fall for them, but become fond of them as Ellen was. I need the closure dammit. Yeah it’s a novel, fiction, but still. I think I’m just sad, and a bit shaken by what happened to some of the other villagers towards the end of the book, especially one of the women.

Ms. Shortland describes Ellen’s shock and grief so eloquently. Words which brutally cut through to what Ellen saw and what her mind registered and which slyly snaked around my heart. It was a painful scene to read, especially since it came quite suddenly. Most of the book were Ellen’s accounts of her interactions and relationships with the nomadic people she met along the way, immersed in a huge and entertaining dose of wit and humour and her no-nonsense attitude. Her observations of the different aspects of their culture, sometimes touchingly comparing their quirks to her own Irish people. Her extensive knowledge of the region and its people, spurred by her passion and deep love for them. However she’s no sentimental fool; she’s infuriated and pained by some of their ways, and to add to her frustration she had to rein in her anger and keep her honest thoughts to herself so as not to alienate them.

I was hoping to read some reviews of this beautiful book I’ll never forget, but I can’t seem to find them though. I’m so lucky to have come across it at a second-hand bookstore.

Oh and Harmattan is the name of the wind that blows south to the area from the Sahara between the end of November and the middle of March.

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