The temperature is dropping across northern Nigeria as the seasonal Harmattan winds blow in a haze of dust from the Sahara, blotting out the sun for days on end. It’s miserable at the best of times, worse still if you’ve been made homeless by Boko Haram violence and don’t have decent shelter.
“It has not been easy since we came to this camp 11 months ago,” said Mama Aisha, who fled Maiduguri, the main city in the northeast, and now lives 800 kilometres away in north-central Kaduna State. “We don’t have blankets to keep us warm.”
Aisha is just one of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have set up informal camps throughout the northern region, with little to no protection from the low temperatures.
For those lucky enough to have ‘proper’ shelters, the structures often still lack doors and windows. “We need blankets to cover ourselves and to protect the children from catching cold,” Aisha told IRIN.
The Harmattan usually arrives in late December and lasts until mid-March. People stay indoors as much as possible during this period, especially in the evenings. While average temperatures range from 23 to 31 degrees Celsius throughout much of the year, they fall to as low as 6 degrees at night during the Harmattan season.
For most, this is considered “freezing”.
“I don’t like this weather,” said 65-year-old Haruna Abdullahi. “People of my age find it difficult to stay outdoors because it gives us a cough and runny nose. Every night we must use local lanterns to keep our room warm before going to bed, but it is not enough.”
Twelve-year-old Muhammed* (last name withheld) fled Maiduguri – the birthplace of Boko Haram – with his mother, brothers, and sisters a few months ago. They settled in an IDP camp in Kaduna State, but life has not been easy.
“We don’t have blankets or mattresses,” he told IRIN. “My siblings and I sleep on the bare floor.”
Hajiya Mariya Mohammad, a refugee from Borno State, told a similar story. “We need assistance… to protect our children from cold weather. Things are hard for us,” she said, unsure how they would all survive the cold.
A need for aid
A few organisations, including a Muslim women’s group led by Rabi’atu Sufyan, have begun donating food items, blankets, and warm clothes to the IDPs in Kaduna. But they can only reach a small percentage of the more than 2.2 million Nigerians displaced by the Boko Haram jihadists.
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“They [the IDPs] are really in need of food and blankets to keep them warm throughout the Harmattan season,” Sufyan said.
Usman Bappa Aliyu, a doctor at Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital in Zaria, Kaduna State, told IRIN that the Harmattan poses a number of risks for those made homeless by the six years of insurgent attacks in the northeast, which have mainly targeted civilians.
"I'm worried for these IDPs who stay in tents at camps because the Harmattan comes with many health challenges,” he said. “It's not going to be easy because it causes asthma, pneumonia, and cough, particularly for children, which may lead to death if not properly taken care of.”
He added that the number of respiratory cases they’ve seen at local hospitals has already increased since the Harmattan began last month.
"We are aware of their presence at various camps and houses within the state, but we are only waiting for the right time to start distributing the items to them," Abubakar Zakari Adamu, a spokesman from the state’s emergency management agency, told IRIN.
When asked about the delay, he explained that the majority of the IDPs in Kaduna took refuge at relations’ houses, scattered across the state, making it difficult for agencies to have correct data about those in need.
"The right time is when we have their full numbers and enough materials to distribute," he said.