By Alex Njeru
I met the young man at Kenyatta National Hospital ward, where my dad was convalescing from an operation. Years and years of smoking tobacco cigarettes had done things to my dad’s body and this time round arteries in his lower limbs had constricted and reneged on their function to supply enough blood to his right leg muscles. This gave him a limp, pain and numbness, “intermittent claudication”, the doctors had diagnosed.
In the same ward, there was another old man from Nyeri. He had undergone an operation due to a growth in his lungs, he too had been a tobacco smoker since the colonial days, his daughters around him wondering aloud why he had not made the right choices in his youth.
There was a shop-keeper who wore a pressure sock because of bulging varicose veins, a rare condition in men and a middle aged man by the name Kitonga who had had his throat slit opened by thugs in Embu but miraculously survived. He however developed an infection in his trachea which meant that he fed only on liquid foods through a tube in his throat, he hardly spoke to, his speech was muffled off by the plastic socket in his throat.
But somehow, amongst all this infirm adult men, some suffering from lifestyle inflicted conditions, some not, the story that had to be told was of this young man. A lanky, copper colored young fellow, who never left his bedside because he was tethered to the wall by a transparent catheter in which his rich-red blood run. In the evenings, during the hospital visiting hours, family relatives visited their seek kin in hospital.
This time was dedicated to discussing medical bills and how people would meet them. His family, which consisted of a group of women relatives of the young man who wore long dresses and religious headgear would come and turn this small ward into a worship center. They would sing songs of praise and worship and lead everyone into prayers to banish the evils infirmity.
His name was Boni, short for Boniface. Before his illness, he had been a budding welder in a Dandora, a semi-informal settlement of Nairobi that suffered from the infamous ignominy of bordering the largest solid waste dumpsite in Kenya. An expansive wasted land which receives more than 2000 tons of solid waste a day.
The thing about being a welder in Dandora was that he could not escape the pungent and putrid smell emanating from dumpsite, especially being that it is that most of the waste is openly combusted by human scavengers in such of recyclables and other materials.
As it turned out, the pungent smells of the dumpsite were not innocuous to health. Many years of breathing Cadmium, Lead, and arsenic infested air many times beyond the recommended parts per million, exposes one to health challenges ranging from respiratory to gastrointestinal infections. That was the tragedy that befell Boniface.
He started suffering from a fungal lung infection that was probably caused by too much exposure to airborne environmental pollutants, which incapacitated him and left in and out of hospital. Though infirm, his face had radiant hope, it was palpable that he was one among whose shoulders this nation’s hope rested.
A week after my dad left the hospital, he received a text message from Kitonga that Boni had passed on. I wrestled with the fact that a young man upon whom his nation’s hopes rested was no more. Why did a connivance of environmental factors kill him? I would often ask myself. He died like a favourite character of mine by the name, Munoo in Mulk Raj Anand’s book Coolie, whose life’s zest was killed by nothing else but poverty, race and caste.
Sad as it is, Boniface is not the only one upon whom this tragedy befell, he was merely the personification of it. His death, the suffering of the poor embodied. A tragedy of the socially wretched, who could not afford to run-way from an early death.
The problem though is much more pronounced, with a geographic distribution, but ultimately the public health burden of the big environmental conundrum is borne by the poor. In Nairobi the urban poor live in a debilitating poverty, wretched by poverty and wretched by the urban sprawl. A situation so dire that their very existence is tragic and for what?
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 3.3 million people die annually due to environmental related respiratory infections, but speaking about figures in their abstract sense is unhelpful. Could Boniface and a million others of his kind who shoulder the brunt of environmental pollution get justice? Who was culpable for his death? Are the City authorities culpable?
Whereas the Kenyan National Environmental and Coordination Act (NEMA) makes fleeting mention of restitution due to environmental crimes and offenses, very few in evidence has gone to show that victims have taken this up. It seems the victims have been too poor to take notice. Besides, what to do if the culprit is the state itself? Do the poor have the mettle against the powerful state?
The poor do have the moral claim for environmental justice, but they simply do not have the spirit to demand, this situation presents an opportunity, for all of us, we who know and can seek the truth, by making their lives better we can make ours to.
Boniface had the culprit of his death socialized, every waste producer in Nairobi had killed him, and in that sense a quest of justice, a restitution of sorts was impossible. He is gone, but so many will follow suit sooner rather than latter, or until the whole lot of us all responsible come up with mitigating measures of ensuring that those responsible for pollution of any sort reimburse mankind for the luxuries of life lost.