On a Sunday, I am in church at the Corpus Christi Cathedral for the 8.am mass. Usually, it starts 30 minutes after the 6.am mass ends by 7.30. Finding a seat around my usual position at the back of the church, I unconsciously swipe a finger over the wooden pew and my finger feels what seems to be dust on the seat’s surface. Turning it to my face, I see that my finger has been coated in a blackness that tells me this cannot be dust. Since there are no rags in sight, it is my handkerchief that suffers. Sundays are for looking good and I am not sure I have qualms with sacrificing my handkerchief for the purpose of saving my clothes.
But these seats were used 30 minutes ago. It is a scary possibility that that is enough time for these black particles to re-settle in the quantity that turns my handkerchief completely black. It is a scarier possibility that I have even more stuck in my lungs.
In the city of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria, people are slowly but surely breathing in the poisons that will eventually kill them. Every morning, the skyline is covered in a dark fog, a fog which carries particles of fossils and soot that go on to settle on surfaces, clothes and nostrils. The health awareness around here is very poor, so people are yet to resort to the use of face masks. We are only scared of the hazards with the potential for immediate harm.
The State government is yet to shed the irresponsibility of politics and blame games and provide information as to the health risks of the soot situation, but common sense suffices to instruct that inhaling these particles every day cannot possibly amount to nourishment for the body. There is a health crisis around the corner and the fact that it affects both the rich and poor is no consolation. Nobody wants to die. Not like this.
Probably the saddest thing about the situation is the fact that the government is not unaware of this danger. For the past two years, there have been sustained campaigns and protests that have drawn the attention of both state and federal authorities.
The latest was a well-attended protest organized by a #Stopthesoot movement in the Port Harcourt city on Thursday, 19th April where they besieged both the state’s government house and its legislative chambers. At both venues, they met with officials who reflected the baffling laziness with which this issue has been so far addressed. No urgency was shown to fix a problem that has a truly scary potential. The state government is blaming the federal government. They say all the places where the soot has been identified to be coming from are under the control of the federal government. It is sad to see the government admit helplessness in a situation as grievous as this.
The Niger Delta has generally been a place with some of the worst environmental degradation examples of the country. Rumors have identified the source of the soot to be the activities of illegal bunkers and operators of illegal refineries that dot the waterfronts in the state.
It is a sensational story that ropes in the nation’s military and its involvement in the seizure, partial destruction and criminal resale of these illegal petroleum products. But no one is truly interested in these stories or their veracity. What we want is action – for the sake of ourselves and our children. They deserve the longest, healthiest lives they can live.
The residents of the state are refusing to give in. They don’t exactly have a choice. More protests are planned in the coming weeks and the campaign is getting louder both on and off social media. The hope is that the pressure of their voices become too loud for the government to conveniently ignore.