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Opinion: Growing Up In Kenya Really Does Not Prepare You For Chicago's Deep Freeze

Esther Ngumbi, who now lives in Chicago, gets a taste of the big chill. She grew up in Kenya, where 60 degrees was about as cold as it got.
Alex Mutiso
Esther Ngumbi, who now lives in Chicago, gets a taste of the big chill. She grew up in Kenya, where 60 degrees was about as cold as it got.

On Tuesday night, the state of Illinois where I live, and many surrounding states, were bracing for bone-chilling temperatures as low as minus 23 degrees with a wind chill temperature of around minus 40.

Having grown up in Kenya, where the 60s is as low as it usually goes, I was worried about how I'd cope. So were my family and friends back home. They could not fathom how I would make it through the cold — or if I would even make it at all. And they were extremely curious about what that extreme cold would feel like.

My dad, as all fathers like to do, wanted to give me advice. But he was at a loss. I chuckled as he said, "I can only tell you how to behave when you get extreme heat — to go under tree shade. But I am afraid what you are about to experience tomorrow is something I do not know or cannot wrap my mind around. I am sorry my daughter, I cannot be of help."

I said, "Daddy, worry not, I will bundle up. I will be okay."

My sisters simply let me know that they would rather get roasted by the Kenyan sun than face the wintry wind. Hmm, I thought, you are not being helpful. A word of encouragement would have gone a long way.

Nevertheless, they had valid reasons for alarm. Mayor Rahm Emanuel warned Chicagoans to "please avoid the outdoors."

When the university where I work sent an email notifying us that Wednesday classes had been cancelled, I became even more worried. If Americans born and raised in the Midwest were scared, how would a Kenyan cope?

Yet I decided to take a risk. The first thing on my agenda this morning was to go outside and experience the polar vortex of 2019. I ventured outdoors at 6 a.m. wearing just one jacket. I wanted to experience the cold as directly as possible.

I hesitated for a minute before setting foot outside. What if I get frostbite? And how would frostbite look on black skin? Should I stay inside? Or not?

But I was like: fear not – experience it!

To my surprise, even though it was very cold, with wind that cut right through you, it was bearable. I didn't curl up into a little ball. I stood tall (well, maybe a little hunched over to keep warm) and breathed in the frigid air. I gave myself five more minutes in the cold to ensure that I could still survive.

After five minutes, the wind was beginning to get to my bones. Ouch — it felt cold. Brr ... yikes ... chills.

I could no longer stand being out with just one coat. I had to dash back inside.

But I did indeed survive.

Then I made that call I had promised my parents. They were eager to learn how it felt. It was hard to explain to people who have never experienced such freezing temperatures. But I did manage to find a comparison. I compared the Chicago cold chills to the shivers you get when you suffer from malaria as the parasite multiplies inside your body.

So now I've been through extreme cold and the extreme heat of Kenya's hottest months, January and February, when temperatures reach the mid-90s. There was no air-conditioning in my village. I'd move from the shade of one tree to another, just trying to cool off. The heat was torturous.

If you ask me, what I prefer — extreme heat or extreme cold — I would say, I have yet to make the decision. Let me see how cold it is tomorrow and then I'll get back to you.

Esther Ngumbi is a researcher at the University of Illinois and a at the Aspen Institute.

Your Turn

If you grew up in an extremely hot climate and are now living in place where it gets quite cold, we'd love to hear from you. What was it like when you experienced your first taste of extreme cold? What did it feel like? How did you cope? Reply to this Twitter thread with your response and we may feature it on NPR's website.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Esther Ngumbi
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