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30/05/2007

Black Christmas

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells of stifling heat in harmattan season.

Climate change is altering the face of the planet. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung asked writers from zones far and wide for first-hand accounts of how it is affecting them. Read also Hans Maarten van den Brink on keeping one's head above water in the Netherlands, Leo Tuor on thawing snow in Surselva, Romesh Gunesekera on how the rain foiled the plans of the perfect farmer, and Kiran Nagarkar on the smogs of Bombay. All the stories here.

It is Christmas of 2006 and I am in our ancestral home in Abba, a small dusty village in Anambra State. It is a joyful time, my parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and distant relatives are catching up and laughing and eating. There is a new bustling motor park just outside our gates. In the morning, horning wakes me up. My uncle is pleased that Abba is 'developing' – a motel has been built, more expensive houses are springing up, there is a tiny shop nearby that rents Nigerian and foreign films. But I find myself noting only how things have changed. We spent every Christmas in Abba when I was a child and I remember how it was not as noisy, how there were fewer cars, less aggression. My cousins say maybe it was quieter, but we also had to go and fetch water from the stream. Now we have water tanks. Most of all, I remember how much cooler Abba used to be.

Christmas falls into harmattan, the short season of heat during the day and cold in the evenings when winds whip through and cover everything with a thin film of yellow-brown, when we rub globs of Vaseline into our skin and lips to prevent cracking. But the harmattan feels different this Christmas. It is much hotter. And in the evenings, the weather seems undecided; one night it is incredibly hot so that I lie on my bed with my skin and bedsheets clammy with sweat. On another night, the temperature dips and I wear a sweater, tie a scarf around my neck. Something is happening to the weather and to the world that baffles me. I feel helpless thinking about it. I see, in my mind, a picture of Abba getting so hot that it is unbearable for anybody. Or perhaps I am imagining this change, perhaps it is because I have film images of melting ice in my mind.

After Christmas, I go to Lagos and the heat is unbearable, makes it difficult to breathe. It saps my energy. To be in a car without air conditioning is torture. Was it always like this? People walk around with dark sweat patches under their arms. I watch the old cars and buses in the traffic that cough out deep gray exhaust fumes and I wonder how connected it all is: the exhaust, my air conditioning, the unbearable heat. Next to the car in which I am riding, a bus driver has his elbow resting on the open window of his bus, which is so old and creaky it looks like harsh piece of metal held together. He is drinking a plastic sachet of Pure Water and he later flings the sachet through the window. He overtakes us. The fumes from his car are almost black. I wonder how much of a luxury it is, this awareness of weather change that I have. I wonder if, in his struggle to make enough naira to feed his family, the taxi driver has the time to worry about how much hotter the weather has become.

*

The story, written in English, originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on March 11, 2007.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in 1977 in Enugu, Nigeria. Her first novel, "Purple Hibiscus," received the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book (2005). Her second novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun" is set before and during the Biafran War. She is now pursuing graduate work in African Studies at Yale University. In June 2007 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi was awarded the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction for "Half of a Yellow Sun."

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