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Earth is breathing; let’s reset our relationship with nature

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MAGESHA NGWIRI

By MAGESHA NGWIRI
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Last month a Nairobi photographer, Osman Siddiqi, took a picture of Mt Kenya from a seventh-floor apartment in Westlands and somehow, it ended up in social media, where a disbelieving public made fun of it, some arguing that it must have been photoshopped.

How, they asked, could a mountain which is 138 kilometres away be so clearly outlined in a photograph? All they knew about the second highest mountain in Africa was that it gave their country its name and was for a decade the ancestral home of a ruling “Mafia”.

It is not clear whether Mr Siddiqi succeeded in convincing them that it is, indeed, possible to see the mountain on a clear day if one looks hard enough, and you cannot tell from the hilarious memes that followed on Twitter.

In one such meme, the pyramids of Giza in Egypt are visible from Thika Road, the White House from Isinya, as well as the Statue of Liberty in New York from Nairobi.

However, as in most things, there is a dose of truth in the levity, and the memes under the header “The Earth is Breathing” are a classic case.

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However, the truth is, as late as 20 years ago, it was possible to see the mountain in its snow-capped glory from hundreds of kilometres away.

I know for sure that during my childhood, I could see the mountain every morning on my way to school. And I am not talking about seeing it through a telephoto lens; it was visible through the naked eye.

No wonder that in the past, the Kikuyu and their close relatives, the Embu, believed that God dwelt on it: its majesty was overwhelming.

Today, you can’t see the mountain unless you are close to its slopes, and the reason is simple — pollution. Today, this lesson is being driven home to us in the most tragic manner.

It seems it took a global pandemic, the coronavirus, to realise that environmental degradation has been so extensive and debilitating that only when we are forced to stay at home by extremely tragic circumstances do we recognise our folly.

This is when it is dawning on us that the air we breathe contains microscopic disease-causing bacteria organisms and viruses that are a mortal threat to our very existence as human beings.

It also contains inanimate particulates that humankind has been mass-producing for centuries, and which are also exceedingly lethal.

The finer ones among these particles have a propensity for lodging deep into human lungs, making breathing difficult and leading to death from myriads of ailments.

I am aware I may be accused of perpetrating a false equivalence, but let me put it this way: the reason we can now see things that have always been there is that they have been hidden from our sight by something else.

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We can now see mountains which have always existed because all the fumes we have been producing have been hiding them from our sight. This, in layman’s terms, is known as air pollution.

There is something about environmental degradation that defies clear exposition. Very few people really care about it because it does not impact on them directly.

But if they only thought about it, now that they are virtually locked up in place, now that they don’t have to move round in heavy traffic every day, life has become simpler, albeit a lot emptier and unbearably boring.

They can’t go far because there is nowhere to go and they can’t hang out with friends because even if they did, they would have to stay a metre and half away. Not even a simple handshake, let alone a hug or a cuddle, is allowed.

But Kenyans have more to worry about than the virus and the boredom brought about by travel restrictions; the air they breathe is also killing them and no number of face masks will help them on this one.

Most of the air pollution in Kenya is caused by seemingly mundane factors like day-long traffic jams in its cities, industrial carbon emissions, widespread deforestation, charcoal burning, and, of course, inefficient cooking stoves which have become leading causes of death from lung cancer among the rural poor.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, seven million people die of unclean air in the world every year, 18,000 of them Kenyans (2019 statistics), which indicates that air pollution is, in effect, a lot more dangerous than Covid-19.

However, it is early days yet and one cannot with any certainty say that at this rate, death rates from the pandemic will not have soared to such grim heights by the end of the year.

What is most regrettable is that when the world opens up again, we will go back to our carefree ways of destroying the earth.

In that case, a complete and thorough reset in our relationship with nature is imperative for our very survival. This is the most opportune moment to control air pollution so that the earth can breathe again.





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