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February 2007
It’s a Dirty Ol’ World But We’re Used to It
By Rachel Cernansky


“It’s Africa, we’re used to it.” This was the response I got after asking the driver of a matatu (the minivan-like vehicle that dominates mass transportation in Africa), why the engine was kept idling while waiting for passengers—a process that can take up to several hours. His logic: “It’s diesel! It’s cheap!”?When I raised the issue of pollution—and that burning fuel, diesel in particular, is not good for the air or the people who breathe it—he chuckled, “This is Africa! We’re used to it.”

It’s like saying, “Africa is already polluted; why bother trying to clean it up?” This debilitating all-or-nothing mindset is infectious and manifests in innumerable ways around the globe, yet seems applicable only when accompanied by convenient benefits. I’ve heard people excuse themselves from all types of behavior, but I’ve never heard, “I missed breakfast today, so I’m not going to eat this week.” In pockets of the world, many people aren’t happy unless, or until, they get everything they want. Ironically, in Kenya, this mindset emerges most significantly in the context of poverty and the environment. People are ‘used to’ being poor, used to the pollution, the litter... so they keep polluting and littering.

In Kenya, plastic bags are everywhere—in trees, lakes and rivers, probably in the stomachs of many children. The bags are a semblance of modernity. People have adopted them in place of their traditional baskets, forgetting it wasn’t like this all along.

One morning I found myself discussing this issue with Sylvia, a woman who sold peas at the market outside my apartment building in Nairobi. The conversation was prompted by her curiosity about my constant refusal of bags when shopping—“What’s wrong with plastic bags? What would we do without them?” In reply, I asked what people did before such bags were so readily available. She answered her own question—they carried ‘these,’ holding up a kikapu, a woven basket she now uses for storage.

Meanwhile, off to the side of the market children play soccer in a small dirt clearing surrounded by piles of rubbish, the primary component of which is plastic. The garbage is often being burned, producing an unmistakable odor that one comes to know unfortunately well. These kids shouldn’t be spending their recreational time breathing toxic air in makeshift playing grounds. They deserve better.

People in Kenya don’t enjoy being surrounded by trash. They cast it aside as an innate disadvantage of living in a developing country. One might argue that we Americans are just as apathetic about our waste. While we produce an obscene amount of it, we do so with the knowledge that it gets carted away.

But It’s So Convenient…
Certainly, plastic bags and other disposables are more convenient. No worries about remembering to leave home with your kikapu, no need to deal with the mess of washing paper plates, or damage to your cell phone—in the end it’s all garbage and easily replaced. However, when a country lacks full-scale infrastructure that doesn’t equally distribute waste disposal, the result is a partnership of convenience and its adverse effects.

My aversion to waste is symbolic and universal, and not restricted to Kenya. Nor is it restricted to plastic bags. I find the entire culture of disposability extremely disconcerting—both the tangible consequences, and the mentality that produces it. Refusing bags when buying things or bringing your own is an action that should be part of everybody’s autopilot programming. Yet even these minimal efforts often come with struggle. Our society is so ingrained with waste that it’s not only unavoidable, but also accepted. People are employed just to bag items for you at checkout and getting to the groceries before they do is sometimes a race. But while you can refuse a shopping bag, you can’t avoid the extra shrink-wrap products are packaged in.

Getting individuals to see what’s wrong with extra packaging and a disposable culture is one of the most difficult challenges currently facing the health of our world.

Always a Choice
Writing from my desk in New York, I attempt to process and reconcile my experiences in Kenya with the world that now surrounds me.

I grew up surrounded by privilege. I was raised in a big suburban house and had the freedom to choose between trashing and recycling my waste at no extra cost or effort. Later on, I was fortunate to work and save up for a plane ticket to Kenya. I lived there for two years, the second of which was spent in a mud hut without electricity or running water, with the hopes I’d contribute as much to the village as I knew I would take away from it.

That certain people are born with advantages others aren’t has always been an uncomfortable concept for me, but it was driven home in entirely new ways in Kenya. Not everyone has obvious choices handed to them. In fact, large portions of people’s lives are dictated to them by circumstance. I chose to live without electricity. And while I enjoyed it, I was fully aware it was a decision I could abandon at any time. While I always had the option of returning to the land of vegan desserts and coffee machines, others lived in mud houses, not for the rustic appeal, but out of necessity.

But even under these circumstances, there is still a choice. While it may not bear the ideal outcome, there’s always an opportunity to do what you can in a given situation.

Toward the end of my stay on a small island in Lake Victoria, I met Evance, a local farmer. He was looking for information on organic agriculture. Up to that point, I’d wondered why no one seemed to have a problem putting chemicals into the ground. They quickly leach into the lake—the only water supply for large populations of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, for all purposes: bathing, drinking, washing clothes, etc. But people depend on the success of their crops even more. If a harvest is bad one season, at best they have no surplus to sell for cash; at worst, they can’t sufficiently feed their family. Pesticide use has come to be the dominant practice. Without wanting to risk failure, it’s understandable why people adhere to the rules of farming they’re told work best. Evance and his friend, however, have managed to reach out of their community and educate themselves about organic agriculture. I was intrigued by what the impetus was that set them on this path. Evance told me about reading up on concepts like the 3Rs and sustainability. The two now run an organic farm that saw a successful first harvest, and next year will expand acreage as well as crop variety.

Rural Kenya is not a land of limitless opportunity, but Evance is an example of creating choice where there seemingly wasn’t any.

Back to the Matatu
As busy individuals, we have become acclimated to a certain lifestyle and certainly don’t want to spend our limited free time thinking about changing it. Habit is a tough thing to break.

The idling matatu is an example of complacency. Because it’s cheap, people don’t think twice about burning diesel unnecessarily; never mind the effects on one’s lungs. And because it’s already a habit they seem to like, why should they change?

Africa might be “used to” pollution, but that doesn’t lessen the harm it inflicts on its people and its beauty. If people everywhere would learn to take control of their actions, and recognize the consequences they bear, the world would be a lot better off. It might transform the response to, “This is Africa. It’s a beautiful place. Why pollute it?”

Rachel Cernansky is a consulting editor for Satya. She spent the last year on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, working with Kageno Kenya, a community development project. Visit


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