I was 24 when I fled Rwanda for the UK in 2007. A successful political reporter, I had just been made head of the flagship investigative pull-out magazine The Insight, whose work was gaining the admiration of many inside Rwanda. I also ran a weekly column, The Municipal Watchdog, writing about topical social issues, and was filing for Reuters, Al Jazeera, Xhinua, as well as the Associated Press. This was my life, and I loved every bit of it.
Meanwhile, some 4,000 miles away in the UK, and in my case Glasgow, a city that had now become home, a dangerous and sustained campaign against people like myself was taking shape. Britain was in the tenth year of a Labour government, and while the party had transformed the country’s economic fortunes, a particular kind of malaise was beginning to set in. Desperate for power, opposition party politicians (mainly Conservatives and UKIP) as well as sections of the media were starting to whip up public anger over two issues: immigration and welfare. Debates around immigration were getting nastier, often with racist undertones. The BBC broadcast The Poles are Coming, a 50-minute television documentary and part of the White Season Series in which filmmaker Timothy Samuels set out to interrogate the growing narrative against immigration.
“You don’t have to go far these days to find a little slice of Poland or Eastern Europe in your town,” he says, before adding, “But for some in Peterborough it’s all too much.” The film cuts to a crowded doctor’s surgery and school before a visibly irate middle-aged British man retorts that Peterborough is “completely and utterly swamped”. Seconds later, a town councillor chips in to say that the country has had enough of immigration.
I remember watching the documentary in my one-bedroom flat in Glasgow, and feeling scared. There is a tendency to think that asylum ends the day you become resettled. While this is somewhat accurate, it is far from the truth. The loneliness, the worry about all the things left behind, family and friends, keeps one wondering. Nothing is ever certain. It also depends on one’s specific threat. I know of people, myself included, who continue to look over their shoulder years after we were granted protection – because the truth is, you can never be sure. The question that kept coming back to me was, if this is how Eastern Europeans are treated, the majority of them white with blue eyes and so able to blend in, what chance is there for us Africans?
After all, I was already living in a high-rise building, with all sorts of neighbours, some of them active drug addicts or recovering addicts. But life goes on, and indeed it did. Despite the occasional noise, I got on well with my addict neighbours and was never subjected to insults or troubled in any way for the six months I lived in the flat.
A common misconception about those of us seeking refuge is the almost universal condemnation as to why we didn’t seek protection from the first safe country we entered. “France is a perfectly peaceful country, they could have stayed there,” I have heard people say of those crossing the Channel in dinghies. There are of course a myriad reasons why people may not avail themselves for protection in certain countries despite passing through them. People want to settle in countries where they have a local connection – friends, relatives, or because they speak the language.
I passed through Uganda, Kenya, and Holland before landing at Heathrow. In my asylum interview, I was asked why I did not seek protection in Uganda or Kenya. My answer was always the same: Rwanda continues to have very good relations with its neighbours, and in the case of Uganda, they share a border. The possibility of being harmed is increased the closer you are to the country you fled, and the better its relationship with one’s host country. Besides, there is no legal obligation for refugees to claim asylum in the safe countries they pass through. Declining to do so does not disqualify them from refugee status.
People want to settle in countries where they have a local connection – friends, relatives, or because they speak the language.
Most of these conjectures are built around a lack of understanding of the diversity of African migration. Anyone following debates on migration from Africa to the Global North might think that the burden is too much. But as studies have shown, this is not true. As The Elephant has previously reported, most African migration remains on the continent. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt being some of the main destinations. Targeted anti-migration policies against Africans, implemented in part through stringent visa policies, and a general climate of persecution against foreigners in Europe and North America, have seen would-be African migrants head to new and more receptive destinations such as China, Turkey, the Middle East and, in some cases, South America.
From my own experience as a former asylum seeker, I know that migrants are not necessarily fleeing war or poverty. Those who saw me land at Heathrow on the morning of 22 July 2007 might have thought I was another African immigrant, escaping poverty and disease. But the truth is that, like the majority of the people who make it out of Africa into Europe and the Americas, I wasn’t. If anything, I was part of the African elite that is able to cut through the stringent visa requirements, can afford the pocket-busting airfares, and is able to take risks to come to countries where, whether they are seeking asylum or not, they are not exactly sure of the final outcome of their case. To the suffering Africans, this is often too much of an outlay, especially so when the country next door or the country a few countries north or south can welcome you and provide sanctuary for less than the cost of a UK visa. When it comes to migration into the Global North, Africans will only migrate if they have the ambitions and resources to make this happen.
Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt being some of the main destinations.
In the lead-up to the Brexit vote – which was heavily influenced by what those campaigning to leave the EU kept referring to as uncontrolled immigration – there were more Eastern Europeans in the UK than migrants from Africa or Asia combined. Yet the entire campaign was dominated by discussions about illegal immigration – deliberately painting the picture that the country was being swamped by foreigners, many of whom were already subjected to some of the most stringent visa requirements. Even Nigel Farage’s infamous Breaking Point poster, which was correctly reported to the police as inciting racial hatred, was deliberately punctuated with brown faces as if to emphasize the point that white migration is OK, non-white not as good.
I was having a discussion with one of my neighbours a few weeks ago – a son of Irish folk who migrated to Birmingham, England, in the 1950s. He has only been to Ireland twice in his life and while he considers himself Irish, he doesn’t think he is regarded as Irish. He speaks with a Birmingham accent and has lived in the South East of England for over 30 years now. I do not believe him to be racist but some of his views could be very easily construed as racist towards “these foreigners that can’t stop complaining”.
“Why is it only young men that are crossing the Channel?” he asked. “If the situation in their countries is so dire that they have to flee, why are they leaving behind their family? Would you leave your wife and children to be killed or even raped? I wouldn’t.” When I asked him what he would do if the only money he had left after selling most of his possessions was enough to transport one person out of a family of four, he replied: “I don’t know but I would have to think of something”. And when I pestered him to tell me what that something was, he responded: “I don’t know.”
And herein lies the folly of the dangerous migration rhetoric that has been carefully promoted by right-wing politicians with the help of an increasingly agenda-driven media. A son of an Irish couple, who left Ireland for a better life in Birmingham, and were most likely subjected to discrimination as IRA sympathisers during the Troubles, has grown up to Other those doing exactly what his parents did all those years ago. “We can’t let in everyone,” he says. Except we are not.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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The Enemy Within
Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.
So, this is what happens when a doctor tells you that you have cancer. The first response is disbelief (how can this be true?), followed by anger (I don’t deserve this, I never hurt anyone), and then a deep sense of grief and loss (what will I miss when I die, and how will my loved ones cope without me?)
They say cancer is the result of pent-up anger and resentment. Apparently, years of holding on to these emotions make your cells misbehave and become toxic. Cancer cells end up eating up healthy cells, leaving the body so full of poison that it collapses from lack of vitality. The jury is still out on whether lifestyle choices generate cancer in the body because people who lead healthy lives seem to be as prone to cancer as those who don’t. Nonetheless, when you find out you have cancer, your first reaction is to blame yourself. It is sort of like being told you have HIV. (Was I responsible for this? Was I reckless? Should I have used a condom?)
Friends and relatives will tell you that breast cancer is beatable, that they know so many women who had breast cancer and lived healthy lives years after treatment. What they don’t tell you is that all the literature points to a short life expectancy after the discovery of cancer. The chances of recurrence are high, even with chemotherapy, mastectomy or radiation, the traditional methods to “cure” breast cancer. I have read studies where women who had chemotherapy had an equal chance of recurrence as those who didn’t. So, death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, constantly reminding you of your mortality.
Most people are so afraid of cancer that they can’t even say the word. The receptionist at an oncologist’s office actually asked me what kind of “C” I had – never used the word cancer. Yet she deals with cancer patients every day. Another oncologist I consulted couldn’t even make eye contact with me and rushed me through a diagnosis I couldn’t understand, perhaps believing that my cancer was contagious?
The thing is that cancer is not like any other disease that can be cured through surgery or drugs. It requires months of treatment and constant monitoring. It’s not like having malaria or a broken bone. It is like having an enemy residing in your body, hostile, predatory, waiting to pounce at any moment.
It seems a positive frame of mind is critical in recovering from cancer. I got calls from women who told me they bounced right back into their lives after months of treatment as if nothing had happened, that I mustn’t believe all the literature, that I should get all the treatments done and go back to living a normal life. They didn’t explain to me why they have been working from home since their treatment started and since their so-called “recovery”. Others are more honest about their experiences. A South African women called to tell me that her experience with chemotherapy had damaged her heart, and she is on life-long medication that makes her urinate every few minutes, which means she can no longer work in an office. Instead of destroying the cancer, the chemo destroyed healthy cells in her heart. She is cancer-free but now disabled in other ways. Another friend told me her aunt died not from the cancer, but from the chemo.
What the doctors and the optimists don’t tell you is that both chemotherapy and radiation have debilitating impacts on your body. They literally are poisons injected into your body to kill another poison. Sort of like a vaccine but not quite because they do not boost your immunity. Both chemotherapy and radiation therapies involve weeks of hospital visits that cost an arm and leg. Nausea, burns on your body, fatigue are common side effects.
A friend from Boston who has studied alternative ways of healing from cancer (including not getting any treatment at all) tells me that each woman with breast cancer has to make an individual choice about what kind of treatment she should get. Doctors trained in Western medicine will be quick to put you on chemotherapy and the other treatments without giving you other options. Desperate and eager to cling onto life, the patient with cancer readily accepts any treatment, not realising that not only is it a very long process, but very costly as well. Mental preparation and psychological support are also necessary before embarking on the long and arduous journey called cancer treatment. People become life-long patients; some recover well, others not so well. Some women opt for no treatment, preferring to lead a good quality of life before the disease ravages the body.
I am looking at alternative methods of healing, including Pranic healing that works on your energy fields and chakras. So far it seems to be helping me, but only time will tell if I will be a success story. I have certainly started eating more, and those dizzy spells in the morning seem to be getting rarer.
The biopsy results are not yet out, so I am still not sure what the oncologist will prescribe, but in Kenya, the modus operandi seems to follow the same script: mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation and some kind of hormone treatment. Am I ready to go there? Not sure. Women who lose their breasts speak of feeling like an amputee; the loss of an organ that defines their femininity impacts their identity and self-esteem. Others are more casual about losing their breasts, (“It’s just fat,” one woman told me). `
The other thing about cancer is that when you have it, you think of nothing else. Everything is a blur. Someone wants to make small talk, and all you want to do is look the other way or scream. (Can’t you see I have cancer? Do you really want to discuss the weather?) You think about your life in vivid film shots. Your past suddenly comes into sharp focus, both the happy and sad days. You begin questioning the meaning of life in ways you never did before. Cancer prepares you for death the way a fatal car accident doesn’t. Is sudden death preferable to dying slowly because you can’t see it coming? Not sure.
But let me not be the purveyor of doom and gloom. The reason I am writing this article is that I have learned wonderful things about myself and other people. One of the things I have learned is that people can be kind and generous when they know you are in pain. People I don’t even know and have never met have sent me good wishes, prayers and even money for my treatment. Friends and family have sent food and offered accommodation. An Indian friend called to say that if I opted to go to India for treatment, I could stay in his home for as long as I needed. These generous and kind offers have literally brought tears to my eyes.
What I also learned is that my life’s work has not been a waste, and that my readers love and admire me for my writing. I didn’t realise I had inspired so many people, not just in Kenya but around the world, through words I have penned. That is a really important things for me to know and hold onto right now – to realise that I had a gift that I used well, and which helped others. And to know that when I go, my writing will live on.
I also learned that life is very, very short. So, we must not postpone the things we need to do. If your job makes you unhappy, quit. If a relationship is toxic, leave it. If people around you are making you feel bad about yourself, walk away. Surround yourself with people who love and cherish you. Love is very important for human survival, so distribute it freely. Be kind and generous. This thing called life is temporary, so enjoy every moment and live it as if every day is your last.
Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!
It is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I watched the televised service at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh attended by the royals and various Scottish dignitaries, as well as the many hundreds who came out to pay their respects or to be a part of this historical event.
As I watched the outpouring of public emotion, I couldn’t help but wonder what emotions the queen’s death would invoke in those whose lives have been blighted because of the British colonial policies that killed millions and left a legacy of misery and disenfranchisement in countries far too many to name.
At first I was saddened by the news. But then came the reactions of global figures the world over, with some proclaiming outright that Queen Elizabeth had been a guiding light, a symbol of hope and stability in the world. One broadcaster went so far as to say “She was everybody’s grandmother.” My problem was that she wasn’t mine.
My grandmother, born in 1923, was just three years old when the Queen was born, my 81-year-old mother told me when I called to get her reaction to the news that the Queen had died. “She would’ve been 99 years old today if she had she lived,” my mom said. I could hear the emotion in her voice as she remembered her mother. My grandmother died in 1983; she was 59 years old. I was then just 18 years old. I said, “Mom with all the things we know about the racist systems that have kept Black and Brown people oppressed, I really don’t know how I want to feel about the death of the British Queen.” Never one to mince her words, my mom replied, “She was a human being, and we, well you know, we mourn the loss of any life.”
Yes. She may have been a grandmother to many but to me she was a symbol of institutionalized racism in its clearest form. Images of British dynasty have been present in the education of every American who has gone through the public school system since the Second World War during which the United States allied with Britain in their quest for global power and dominance. Yet here was the evil of the Crown being portrayed in the media—as it’s always been portrayed—as providence, something divine. As I listened to a special broadcast by the popular British talk show host James Corden talking to an American audience about the Queen’s passing, his tone struck me as odd: “She will be missed, she was everybody’s grandmother,” he said, going on to tell us how well she had served the country and the world.
As I was listening to Corden and wondering why I was so irritated by his outpouring of emotion, it dawned on me that racism moves from generation to generation, falling back on the old practices of how to colonize a nation: You teach them to love you more than they love themselves. Racism survives because the symbols of racism never die. We carry the symbols in our hearts and in our minds and once we have identified with them, we seek to justify their existence. While I could empathise with those that felt a special connection to the Crown, what I realized and felt most immediately, was the insensitivity I received as an African American who bears the scars of the legacy of slavery that has made the British Empire one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world today.
The next day I watched the funeral procession move through the streets of Edinburgh, the commentators conveying the solemn mood of the people who came out to pay tribute to their Queen. All the while I couldn’t see past the 1989 image of Princess Diana hugging a child suffering from HIV/AIDS. On her first unaccompanied trip overseas, Princess Diana spontaneously broke with protocol and showed compassion towards a suffering Black child with all the world watching, at a time when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was as bad as the disease, and Blacks were being impacted the most and no one else seemed to care. Diana’s humanity helped solidify her reputation as the “People’s Princess” and it radically changed the way AIDS sufferers were perceived.
While the news played on I thought about two recent exchanges I had had in Amsterdam, just outside my front door. The first exchange took place in a cafe.
I was sitting at the bar having a coffee. Another Black male of Surinamese origin was sitting a couple of tables away. It was midmorning and we were the only ones there. In an attempt to start a conversation, as men do, he asked my opinion on the war in Ukraine. I told him I thought it was crazy, all too unreal. The white Dutchman behind the counter leaned over and candidly shared, “I don’t give a shit about the war in Ukraine.” I didn’t speak again and left the bar so abruptly the young brother asked, “You leaving?” I was in no mood to have that conversation so early in the day, having experienced the backlash of the “Black Lives Matter” protest with the counter-narrative that All Lives Matter; I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just hold one’s peace and walk away. (It literally is your peace.)
Shortly after that incident, a couple of days later, I had another encounter that made me realize that we simply can’t afford not to care. I had wandered into a tool shop on the corner of my street that looks more like a men’s gift shop inside than a hardware store selling nails, drills and plywood. Behind me walked in a man who apparently knew what he wanted because we reached the cash register at the same time, he with a power drill in his hand. I moved aside to let him be the first in line, not sure if I was done.
The Dutchman behind the counter seemed not to have noticed that the man with the drill wasn’t Dutch and didn’t speak the language. But to his credit, he did know what he wanted: the drill and a bag in which to put the canisters of spray paint he had already placed on the counter. Being familiar with Eastern Europeans, I assumed the man was Polish and asked “Polske?” “No! Ukraine!” he said, then, smiling, added, “Close.”
“Hij wil een tas.” He wants a bag, I said to the clerk; bags are not automatically handed out after a purchase these days. The clerk then understood and reached under the counter. I was pleased I could help and the Ukrainian was happy as well. To my surprise, as I placed my items on the counter, the Ukrainian tapped my shoulder and offered a fist bump.
I say all this to say of the human condition that people appreciate what they understand. And sadly enough, we rarely think about injustice until it is visited upon us.
Whose permission do we now need to talk about racism and the policies that still impact us today? Africa and the African diaspora’s historical issues are and always have been about racism and this is why members of this group, my group, will always hold a contrarian view when the West attempts to compel us to join them in their moment of grief. My grandmother died in 1983, at the young age of 59, in a small southern town next to a river; there was no horse and carriage, no media. The British Empire once covered the whole world, a dominance that was achieved through suppression and oppression. Many atrocities were committed and entire communities decimated under the authority of the Queen. I was raised never to speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves but I will submit this: it is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed. Where is the same fervour and energy for those issues that matter to us?
When we as Black people keep the peace, we empower the presence of the historical lie that we are inferior and thus require control. When we remain silent we allow the systems of the institutions and the prejudices that block our collective growth to thrive. Why should we care about the death of the Queen when the Queen has stood for the oppression of our people? Why should we be guilt-tripped into silence, into not speaking out about the dead, into not pursuing our freedom? When will our emergency, the issues that impact Black and Brown people, become a top concern for the White world? When will I be able speak without fear of being branded just another angry black man, angry for what I don’t have that others do?
Sad as the Queen’s death is to those that survive her, honouring her service is a symbolic gesture that must be contextualized because, for many, and not just in the UK but all over the world, the English monarchy is a symbol of oppression. I recently listened to a podcast in which a Black podcaster scolded an guest who said this of the Queen: “She is the symbol of colonialism and racism for many; however much we want to romanticize the Queen of England’s long reign on the throne as a stabilizing force on earth, she has also allowed many human rights violations on her watch”. The podcaster’s response was a classic putdown, “Why do Black people have to always bring up racism? Someone’s grandmother just died!”
Racism endures because when we identify with its symbols, we will do anything and everything in our power to justify and defend them.
The Scourge of the Disposable Diaper in Rural Kenya
By incentivizing manufacturers of disposable diapers, the government has sacrificed the gains made with the banning of plastic carrier bags in 2017 and worsened the problem of plastic pollution throughout the country.
With a million babies born each year, Kenya’s annual diaper consumption is estimated at 800 million pieces. The government considers them “essential items” and has lately been encouraging manufacturing firms to set up shop in the country to supply the East African region. As of June 2021, the country had a total of seven diaper firms which were allowed to import manufacturing materials, largely plastics, duty-free.
However, there has been much less attention paid to where the diapers end up. One group of researchers found that in Kenya, as in many developing countries, “it appears that little information is available regarding handling and the proper disposal of disposable diapers despite a significant rise in usage of such during the last decade by women of child bearing age”.
As a result, diapers are contributing to a dramatic increase in plastic pollution, one that has raised concerns in government and in Kenya’s mainstream media. By 2013, the Department of Public Health was warning that poor disposal of diapers was a leading cause of disease as well as blocked drainage in major urban areas. And the problem is intensifying as diapers become cheaper and mothers in rural Kenya gravitate to them for their convenience. In fact, around the world, disposable diapers represent about 4 per cent of all solid waste and are the third largest contributor to single-use consumer items in landfills.
When my neighbour Esther was expecting her fourth child a few years ago, she took a ride with me into Nakuru town to buy supplies in anticipation of the happy event. On her shopping list were washable nappies. I have since learned that among her peers, Esther is the exception; the vast majority of mothers here have adopted the disposable diaper.
We live on the edge of a small township in Nyandarua County that boasts a health centre complete with a maternity wing. Our local minimarket, a family-run business, stocks most of the diaper brands available in Kenya, from those targeting the young mum living in Nairobi’s leafy suburbs, to those made specifically for the mother who earns a KSh250 daily wage selling her labour to neighbouring farms or ekes out a living selling vegetables or second-hand clothes at our local market. Competition among manufacturers and importers of baby diapers has drastically reduced prices. Local producers have also adapted to the kadogo economy, selling individually wrapped baby diapers for as little as KSh20 apiece.
The Clinical Officer at our health centre informs me that, on average, the maternity wing delivers 250 babies a year. Alice, who runs the minimarket and who is herself a mother of twins, told me that before they were toilet-trained at just over two years old, her bundles of joy were using up to six diapers each per day. The math is very worrying; it will take about 20 generations of Alice’s descendants for the diapers used by her children to decompose. Early 21st-century disposable diapers will finish biodegrading in 2500.
Washable nappies are not a choice for Alice, however. Not unless she is willing to finish a 14-hour day with her hands deep in a bucket of soiled nappies. Alice tells me that, unlike in the past, women employed by families to take care of babies and young children have become accustomed to the convenience of diapers and are no longer willing to take on the additional task of washing soiled cloth nappies.
Our little township borders the Aberdare Forest, which has become a dumping ground for soiled diapers. I became aware of the dumping after I found mounds of used diapers on a piece of fallow land adjacent to my property. Worried that I would soon find myself living next to a growing garbage dump, I determined to find out the source of the dumping. Ours is a small community and my enquiries led me straight to the offending mother who, challenged, complained that her children had not done as they had been told; she normally dumps her used diapers in the forest when she goes to gather firewood, so she told me. A stroll into the forest confirmed that, indeed, our forest was being used as a dumping ground for diapers. One pile had been left so perilously close to the river that come the rains, it would soon add to the growing menace that is river pollution by diapers.
But why was this happening?
A Department of Health official attached to our local health centre told me that the problem was directly linked to inadequate resources and personnel. Solid waste management falls under the Department of Health Services of the Nyandarua County Government. For the 2019/2020 fiscal year, the approved budget allocation “to ensure the controlled disposal of solid waste and human remains” within the entire county of 638,289 people was KSh7,603,000, projected to rise to KSh8 million for the 2021/2022 fiscal year. Nyandarua has four sub-counties: Kinangop, Kipipiri, Ol Joro Orok and Ndaragwa.
Ndaragwa Sub-County covers a total surface area of 653 km² and has four wards: Leshau, Kiriita, Central and Shamata with a total population of approximately 92,626 people. The sub-county is served by one of only three garbage trucks owned by the county government. The truck collects waste from our township once a week and takes it 60 kilometres away to the municipal dump at Ol Kalou, the county capital. However, frequent breakdowns and lack of fuel mean that we can go weeks without having our garbage collected. And since the county government’s budget has not stretched to refuse bins, residents resort to digging pits into which they throw their household waste, consisting mostly of plastic wrapping, plastic bottles, torn shopping bags, and the now ubiquitous disposable face masks. The single-use plastic bags that were banned by the government in 2017 are also sneaking their way back into the environment, used by unscrupulous butchers as packaging. A visit to our local slaughterhouse is enough to put you off your meat; bits of plastic show up in the guts of the carcasses of goats and cows that have been grazing in our public spaces.
The accumulating mounds of rubbish are set alight, releasing toxic fumes into the air. Used diapers, however, are notoriously difficult to burn; you need a lot of kerosene. So where do they end up? In our surrounding environment, of course. Soiled diapers are rolled up and dumped in ditches and on open ground under cover of darkness, to be torn open by stray dogs and picked over by fowl let loose. More fastidious mothers pay people to dispose of them in the bush or, like my neighbour, take them there themselves.
When I asked about the options open to those living in areas without waste collection services, on farms and villages deep in the countryside, the Department of Health official told me that they are encouraged to bury soiled diapers on their land, thus introducing the concept of landfill to individual households. As for the mounds now festering in our forest, the official told me that it would be up to the forestry department to clear up the waste since it had been dumped within their jurisdiction.
A call to the local office of the forest service made it clear that the answer was not that clear-cut; the official I spoke to informed me that the matter had been raised with the local administration through the chief’s office and a solution was awaited. He did not sound hopeful.
Manufacturers of disposable diapers give very clear instructions about how to use them and warn parents to keep the packaging out of the reach of children because of the danger of suffocation. I found only one that specifically urged users not to throw soiled diapers into the toilet but to put them out with the trash instead. Bizarrely, this manufacturer also encouraged the user to return the plastic packaging to the company’s offices in Nairobi. None advised against throwing them out into the environment where they add to the growing volume of human faecal matter and the attendant pathogens. And nor were users encouraged to empty the waste into the toilet before disposing of diapers.
This lack of information means that there is a lack of awareness among the population as to the true cost of opting for disposable diapers; many mothers only see the advantages of using them, complaining only that they are difficult to burn. None that I spoke to knew that their used diapers would take centuries to biodegrade, and that they are polluting our sources of water.
This story is not unique to Nyandarua County, however. Residents in the urban areas of Kisumu County have also taken to disposing soiled diapers in the environment in the dead of night. The situation is no better in Kilifi County where in June 2019 the Chief Officer for Environment and Natural Resources, Mariam Jenneby, called for a total ban on single-use plastics and disposable diapers, saying that they were a major cause of ocean pollution.
Kilifi County’s solid waste management budget for the 2020/2021 fiscal year stood at KSh14,100,000 of which KSh5.1 million was for the purchase of a double-cabin vehicle for “environmental conservation and management extension services”. The rest would go to “fencing and rehabilitating” the Mariakani dumpsite, installing refuse bins in Mariakani municipality and purchasing assorted tools and equipment; no mention is made of recycling. The county has a population of 1,109,735 people (2019) and covers an area of 12,610km² — 2.17 per cent of Kenya’s total surface area.
On the other side of the country, in Kisumu County, whose population stands at 1,155,574 people spread out over an area of 2,086km², the budget allocation for solid waste management for the 2020/2021 financial year was KSh3,190,998, all of it earmarked for the purchase of goods and services; no mention is made of recycling. It is however observed in the document that the objective to “strengthen solid waste management in Kisumu County” has been met, and that effective planning, management and execution of service delivery outcomes are at 100 per cent. The residents of Kisumu tell a somewhat different story, however.
There is no objective reason to believe that the situation of solid waste management in the other 44 counties of Kenya is any different. On the contrary, it would appear that the 2015 National Solid Waste Management Strategy developed by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), and whose main guiding principle is “Zero Waste”, remains a dead letter. The short-term goal of the strategy is to “achieve approximately 80% waste recovery (recycling, composting and waste energy) and 20% landfilling in a Sanitary landfill (inert material) by 2030” but as observed above, the budget allocations for Nyandarua, Kisumu and Kilifi do not cater for the cost of recycling.
And while it is a fact that most solid waste is generated in urban areas, disposable diapers have made their way into the rural areas where, as observed, they are playing havoc with the environment.
At its unveiling, the Constitution of Kenya 2010 was hailed as among the most progressive world-wide for addressing issues that are seldom addressed by national law. Indeed, Article 42 of the constitution recognises the right of every person to a clean and healthy environment while Article 69 provides the obligations of the state in this regard that include the obligation to “eliminate processes and activities that are likely to endanger the environment”.
Diaper manufacturers were among the beneficiaries of the decision announced by Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yattani in his June 2020 budget to remove import duty on inputs in order to boost local manufacturing and create jobs. But even as the government incentivises manufacturers and encourages investment in the production of a highly polluting product, there is no policy in place on how to manage the growing waste resulting from the increased use of disposable diapers.
Barely two decades ago, single-use diapers were alien to the majority of Kenyan mothers; they should have remained so. By incentivising the production and imports of disposable diapers under the guise of creating employment and using the argument that “Baby diapers are essential products and there is a need to supply them at affordable prices,” the government has not only failed in its constitutional obligation to deter activities that are a menace to the environment, but has also needlessly compounded the challenges of solid waste management in the country.
Moreover, Kenya has squandered the reputational capital earned with the 2017 ban on plastic carrier bags. By resisting the introduction of disposable diapers — one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste globally — Kenya could have taken the lead in halting the progression of a disposable diaper pandemic that began in the United States over 70 years ago. Every minute, 300,000 more diapers are released into the environment that could be replaced with compostable nappies, for example. However, the adoption of an alternative to the disposable diaper would require the full commitment of governments and manufacturers.
The second part of Article 69 of the constitution states that “every person has a duty to cooperate with State organs and other persons to protect and conserve the environment. . .” However, both the national government and the county governments have failed to take the lead and it has been left to youthful civil society organizations such as the Kenya Environmental Action Network (KEAN) to raise awareness regarding the polluting effects of the disposable diaper. In September 2021 KEAN partnered with Kisumu Environmental Champions — who describe themselves as “a group of kids, teenagers and youths from Kisumu County working on Environmental education and Climate Action” — to organize a “climate strike” where they called for a ban on plastic diapers and plastics in general.
The recently concluded United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) issued a resolution calling on UN member states to “continue and step up activities and adopt voluntary measures to combat plastic pollution, including measures related to sustainable consumption and production, which may include circular economy approaches.”
In the absence of such measures, youthful Kenyans are stepping into the breach, too keenly aware of the environmental future that awaits them if no action is taken. LeafyLife is a Kenyan start-up that is using Green Chemistry to recycle waste diapers and sanitary pads sustainably. Using a circular economy approach, the social enterprise has developed a chemical process that recycles the waste into a fuel gel that lasts 10 per cent longer than kerosene, emits 76 per cent less carbon dioxide, and no carbon monoxide, smoke or soot.
LeafyLife was founded by a trio of graduates from the Department of Chemistry of the University of Nairobi who were moved to act in 2019 when they became aware of the threat posed by discarded disposable diapers. Peter Gachanja, Denis Muguta and Melvin Kizito received recognition for their innovation on the occasion of the Global Sustainable Chemistry Week organized by the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in November 2021.
But can initiatives such as LeafyLife become successful without the development and implementation of a robust framework that actively encourages local innovation in the field of solid waste management? The global baby disposable diaper industry was valued at US$43 billion in 2020 and continues to grow. Without decisive government action, and if the UNEA call for an end to plastic pollution remains another dead letter, the industry will continue to thrive and a product designed to lessen the burden of caring for a toddler will continue to generate waste that will become that child’s legacy. And the legacy of that child’s descendants for many generations to come.
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