Good times don’t last for long — we’re back to breathing foul air

Saturday June 06 2020

Kampala air has for a few years been the second dirtiest of cities on the African continent. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA


We are back to the Old Normal in Kampala and it all so familiar. The cars are back in full force except the unruly matatus. These will come a week or two later. But the usual traffic jam is back. The only difference is that it stops around 7pm or 8pm in the evening because of the Covid-19 curfew which is not yet lifted.

But the couple of months that we lived under lockdown were worth it. For how would most of us ever know that breathing unpolluted air can be so nice!

For those of us who have put away a number of decades, those two days were a sweet return to our childhood days, when the sky was blue during sunshine, not some queer shade of grey.

We would gaze at distinct clouds, which as children we used to scan for different shapes, competing with playmates to see who spotted the best image. It could be an animal, a person, anything!

It was difficult for me to describe to youngsters what it feels like to breathe unpolluted air; the change of the atmosphere’s natural flavours with seasons like maize harvesting when it was hot or in November when the rains came with swarms of grasshoppers.

Sometimes when I told the youth that for us we grew up when breathing on its own was a pleasurable, constant experience, they would look at me like I was losing my mind.


Now they know that my memory is not playing tricks, having tasted the clean air for themselves for two months.

So the best part of the brief paradise was the breathing of clean air.

It has been many years without savouring the pleasure of breathing — just breathing. But apparently good things never last. Not for long at least. So we are back to the foul air, poisoning us slowly.

The one thing to note is that the return of pollution, occasioned by the unregulated import of old cars, is that it has brought us closer to our president.

During some of the more than 15 televised addresses on Covid-19 guidelines, President Yoweri Museveni told us that he has banned air conditioning at State House. This is because AC operates in sealed off rooms which means the viruses breathed out by any infected persons remain in the room to be picked by the other persons who are not infected.

As such, the State House windows now remain open and there is no more AC. But that means letting in the polluted Kampala air. So we are being poisoned together with our president.

In case you didn’t know, Kampala air has for a few years been the second dirtiest of cities on the African continent. Old cars that spend long in the jam and unpaved roads — whose dust is kicked up by the cars — have earned our city that dubious honour.

The air in Kampala is six times the levels deemed safe by World Health Organisation guidelines. Therefore, living in Kampala is on its own an act of damaging, not just risking, your health. It cuts about eight years off your life.

So the Uganda president literally sacrifices his life to rule the country, shortening his life by so many years than if he was to live on his farm during his old age.

And the busiest State House (there are several state houses and lodges in the country) is in the middle of the city, so those of us in the suburbs should be breathing slightly less dirty air than he does.

Behavioural scientists and medical practitioners will tell you that breaking a habit becomes all the harder after attempting to fight it and then backsliding.

Even the Bible says something about a demon that leaves a person but when it is allowed to come back it comes with seven of its buddies and the victim is worse off than he was before he got saved temporarily. Kampala and the Kampalans could be heading in this direction. Our pollution could become chronic after the two months’ respite.

The returning vehicular exhaust pipes will be accompanied with a million others soon; what with the exporters in Japan and Dubai who will be in a hurry to dispose of the rusting contraptions that have been sitting in the dispatch yards for months!

Our importers will get them for a song, and a government wanting to collect import duties may not be too strict about the age and state of the cars and voila! The number of old smoky cars will double in a couple of years.

The jam will of course increase and the pollution will worsen. God save Kampala!

Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]