TIMBUKTU, MALI—Every half hour, he climbs the steps of a worn lookout tower at the dusty airfield and squints into the distance over a land of scrub brush and desert dunes.
His eyes are his radar. His nose is a barometer. His body instinctively measures the force of the approaching gusts by how terribly they whip him. His senses are the only sophisticated weather vanes for more than a thousand miles around.
Awesome, he thinks- a thought more of apprehension than admiration. Bandiougou Diallo is the regional weatherman in Timbuktu, Mali. But by the time he sizes up the storms, it's already too late.
Lashed by nature's fury
The people of Timbuktu, their faces covered in protective turbans and their houses layered in sand, are being lashed again by nature's fury.
As the rainy season intensifies from June to October, the lid blows off nature's pressure cooker in West Africa. The volatile mix of steamy temperatures on the ground and colliding, streaking molecules in the upper atmosphere acts like matches to kerosene.
If a rickety Russian-made plane is due to land on one of its three weekly passenger runs, Diallo will get on the shortwave radio and plead with the pilot to turn around.
Then he hunkers down in his office until the storm rumbles to the west.
He'll take down a few primitive readings of temperature, wind speed and barometric pressure from instruments that look old enough to have belonged to Ben Franklin.
He'll record them in a weathered notebook and send them to headquarters whenever a plane happens to be headed to the capital city of Bamako, 600 miles to the southwest.
Diallo, a trained meteorologist, has no idea what happens to the storms after they tear through Timbuktu. But he pities the next victims, because he knows that those systems will gather steam and punish others as they push toward the Atlantic coast to the west.
The names Andrew, Mitch, Hugo, Georges and Gilbert, though, mean nothing to him.
"Who are they?" he asks.
Almost nothing lives here
About 60 miles to the south of Timbuktu in central Mali, a dozen vultures stand at attention. One of the birds, acting like a drill sergeant, paces back and forth as if dispensing the day's orders. Its piercing squawk sends shivers up the spine.
Vultures reign free here. Whenever a camel or donkey or mangy dog succumbs to the oppressive heat, the birds pounce on the carcass. Vulture heaven is hell for everything else. The landscape is barren and depressing. It is natures deathbed. Save for a few passing tribesmen, their camels and slaves, few things live here. This is not Isak Dinesens Africa of romance and adventure or the Africa of lush jungles where Dian Fossey frolicked with mountain gorillas.
Much of the core of West Africa is a wasteland. From the mountains of Chad to the Atlantic Ocean in Senegal, a vast, depressing nothingness -- at some points 300 miles wide -- stretches as far as New York is from San Francisco.
This is where hurricanes are born