Chika, my 11- year old son returned home from school recently and complained of redness and itching of his right eye. I immediately brought out a bottle of an eye medicine I bought from a pharmacy shop a few days earlier and put some drops in both eyes.

The medicine was handy because a few days earlier, I experienced similar symptoms, though not as pronounced as my son’s. I quickly bought the eye drop and applied to my eyes which prevented the redness and severe itching of my eyes.

After the application, I told my son he had Apollo. “Daddy, what is Apollo?” he asked full of curiosity. I tried to explain hoping he will understand “Apollo is the name for the eye infection that afflicts many Nigerians just before the Christmas season and lasts till the New Year. It is caused by the harmattan cold wind which blows across Nigeria from North Africa during this season every year.”

Medical practitioners call the eye disease, conjunctivitis, a viral infection. You know a person has Apollo with redness of the eye and severe itching and irritation of the eyeballs. It is highly infectious and creates great discomfort for victims. For many victims the disease runs its full course of six days even if you apply medication. If any member of the family picks it, it literally afflicts other family members.

For school pupils it is nightmare. If your child’s classmate gets it, oh, it is a sure bet your child will get it. In fact some school authorities stop a child afflicted with Apollo from coming to school until healing is complete for fear of spreading the disease.

A person afflicted with Apollo can hardly look at sunlight. It can be very painful. To reduce the pain, the Apollo victim wears dark eye glasses. Apollo afflicts the old and young. It does not spare anybody.

If you are a victim, anywhere you go, people make fun of you. They point at you and jest, “Oh you have Apollo” and they laugh only to be afflicted the next week.

For school pupils suffering from Apollo, the experience can be traumatic. In addition to the pains and itching, their classmates taunt them and make fun of them. Some of them who cannot stand the psychological bashing stay away from school until they get well. And if it happens in the period of examinations, that child is in a dilemma.

It is not clear how this eye problem was branded Apollo in Nigeria.

Legend has it that the disease became more severe in Nigeria at end of year after the United States sent man to the moon in the Apollo spacecraft in 1969. And since then, come December every year, many Nigerians suffer from the eye affliction during the Xmas/New Year period when the cold, dry harmattan wind blows at full throttle.

A good number of Nigerians welcome the harmattan saying the cold wind keeps them comfortable as it makes the tropical hot weather in Nigeria bearable within the December-January period. But many say it is an unwanted guest that causes many medical problems apart from Apollo as the following story illustrates.

Three year old Ifeoma let out a high pitched, piercing scream as Doctor Henry pressed her ribs with his stethoscope, in the course of his diagnosis. Finally he removed the diagnostic equipment from his ear looked at Ifeoma with the re-assuring mien of a medical practitioner who has completed the diagnosis of a patient and said to girl’s mother:

“Your daughter is down with pneumonia. The cold penetrated her lungs making breathing difficult. She is in pains too. She has to be admitted into the hospital for five days and placed on anti-biotic injections.”

“Its okay, Doc if you say so,” Ifeoma’s mom replied. We just want her to get well. I have to dash home to make necessary adjustments to cope with this development. But what could have caused this, doctor?

“The harmattan winds,” Dr. Henry replied. This wind can be wicked on children who are not protected. It is cold and dry and is a regular visitor to Nigeria every December-January. Technically, it is known as the North-East Trade Winds which sweeps from North Africa down to sub-Saharan Africa. In Nigeria, it is known as the Harmattam. This dry wind is a regular visitor to many homes in Nigeria at this period. It comes t very low temperatures. Its major characteristic is that it is cold and dry. It throws up lot of dust and causes a lot of medical problems, especially difficulty in breathing.

“The signs are many: Chills, flu, catarrh, chesty coughs, pains, dry skins, and blisters on the lips, blurred vision, and respiratory diseases such as pneumonia which has afflicted your daughter. Go to many hospitals in the city and see how doctors are battling with these ailments. This wind poses a great challenge for us in the medical profession at this time of the year, and we are always ready for it.

“The message is that adults should wear thick clothes during the Harmattam season, and mothers should cover up their children properly against the cold winds and give them plenty of water and fruit drinks that contain Vit. ‘C’ to drink. This vitamin fortifies a person’s immune system against colds and flu.”

When the harmattam wind blows, it changes the weather and raises plenty of dust which cast a haze in the atmosphere and impairs vision.

Airline pilots find it challenging to take -off and land during the harmattan. It alters lifestyles in many homes and offices. You just have to be ready for the coming of Harmattan, else you suffer discomfort.

Mr. Harmattan is an annual visitor. He comes every year un-invited and stays for a minimum of 8 weeks. Is he welcome? Yes, for many who like him, and No, for those who suffer discomfort. He is a friend or foe depending on your preparation and how he affects your health and your job.

If he takes you unawares, he will deal with you. But if you are prepared, he can be a good friend. He has no apologies for coming and you cannot stop him. He comes, once every year, at a particular time and season, December to January, depending on the part of Nigeria where you live.

Those who live in the Northern states of Nigeria such as Abuja (Nigeria’s capital city), Kano, Kaduna, and Bauchi receive this visitor earlier in late November. In this part of the country the wind is very harsh. You will know Mr. Harmattan has come when the winds become dry and cold and raise plenty of dust. If you wash your clothes and hang them on the line, they dry up at far less time than usual.

If you spill water on the floor, do not bother to mop it. Mr Harmattan will do it quickly for you without any charges. He is a good friend for those in the laundry business

Eric Okeke is a storyteller, editor, business writer, motivational speaker and author of the best selling book: I Want a Husband. He is one of Nigeria’s most experienced financial journalists. He has published several articles in local and foreign publications and in websites such as, and He is currently running Infomedia Company, a media consulting and information marketing company. Visit his blog at

Click here to return to the index of stories for Infosynthesis

Facebook Comments