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In Uganda, they wonder about Minnesota’s winters: How can you survive?

On a trip to Africa, I realized the absurdity of our northern lives on a planet where most of the seven billion people cope with excessive heat, not cold.

Near the equator, the issue is staying cool, not keeping warm.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle

I said goodbye to winter when I left Minnesota in early March to work on a journalism training project in Africa. Surely the snow would melt over the month, I thought. Maybe I’d even see the tips of early tulips poking up in my garden when I returned.

Dreamer! If anything, we had more snow and ice on the ground when I came home on Saturday.

This was the latest of several trips I have made during the past year to help with a journalism training project in sub-Saharan Africa. Being journalists, the people I’ve met over there have asked a lot of questions. Among other things, they’ve asked about the place where I live.

It is a long stretch trying to explain Minnesota winters to people who have spent their lives near the equator — alternating between rainy and dry seasons but secure in a natural order where snow is something you see on mountain tops, if at all.

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The typical Q & A went something like this one in Uganda:

“How can you survive?” a journalists asked. “Isn’t it dangerous when it gets so cold?”

Indeed it is, I answered. If you go outdoors on the coldest Minnesota days you could suffer frostbite on your skin. Even worse, you could freeze a finger, a toe, a limb or your whole body. It happens sometimes.

“So you have to stay indoors all winter,” another journalist concluded.

No we don’t, I said. Then I explained how I protect my body toe to head: thick socks, fleece-lined boots, heavy pants covering long johns on the coldest days, layers of sweaters under a thick jacket, lined gloves, neck scarf, warm hat – and, on the most frigid days, another scarf over the face.

I’m a native Minnesotan, and only when I described that routine defense against winter did I appreciate the absurdity of our northern lives on a planet where most of the seven billion people cope with excessive heat, not cold.

“It must be terrible for the children,” one of the journalists said.

They love it, I answered.

How could I explain the activities I grew up assuming were perfectly normal: skiing, ice fishing and sledding, to say nothing of snow forts, snow angels and snowmen?

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I’m supposed to be skilled with words, but I couldn’t quite convey the magic of a morning when fresh, sparkly snow coats everything in sight — every tree branch, lamp post and rooftop. And I didn’t even try getting into the scary stuff, like driving on icy roads.

Best and worst of the heat

This latest trip was to Ghana and Nigeria with a quick stop in Togo.

During a week in Accra, Ghana, I fell in love with the neighborhood where I was staying. Families there lived largely outdoors in a way we never could copy in March in Minnesota.

From my third-floor hotel room I could see into the yard of a family living across the dirt road. The house was made of cement blocks painted yellow with a corrugated tin roof. Some of the outbuildings were flimsier, made of sticks. The resident rooster did a lot of crowing, even before sunrise.

The first person I saw each morning was a boy who came out of the house carrying buckets; he disappeared briefly and came back with the buckets full of water. Next came a woman who took one of the buckets, washed clothes in it and hung them on a line to dry. Then she swept the dirt yard with a stick broom.

Soon, it was time for the kids to go to school. They came out in uniforms — yellow shirts and tan skirts on the girls, tan pants on the boys. They walked along the dirt road, past a small store with no real door and past a woman balancing on her head a large tray of bread for sale. Two chickens followed them.

Idyllic, of course. Especially to a Minnesotan who had been cooped up indoors for months.

fish market photo
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
A fish market in Dar es Salaam turns steamy in the late morning heat.

But I had no envy for the street vendors in Abuja, Nigeria, who stood for hours on the steaming pavement trying to sell snacks, chewing gum and newspapers to passengers in the passing cars. With mid-day temperatures in the 90s, the heat they endured was almost as dangerous as our cold. And while we are free to add layer upon layer of protection, they could strip only so far. Decency demanded that they work fully clothed.

In a couple of weeks, I’m off again – this time going back to Uganda and to Tanzania. I’ll say goodbye to winter again. And this time, I’ll really mean it.