I was trying to relax in the evening, ignoring to analyse political developments at home, in the neighbourhood and abroad because it is 2020 and everybody is angry. There was also a suspicious itch in the back of my throat.
Then the dreaded thing happened: the electricity went off. In December. In Dar es Salaam. At sunset, when the mosquitoes come out in full force.
How horrible to complain about the lack of electricity when clean running water isn’t even a universal in my city. Please understand that it is because of a few deprivations here and there that I cling so pathetically to what small creature comforts come my way. Nothing like air-conditioning, to be sure, but a much more energy-kind fan is key to surviving the Eternal Damnation heat levels of summer on this beautiful Swahili Coast.
Mindfulness is key. The whine of the mosquitoes could be ignored, like the increasing itch in the back of my throat. The heat could also be tolerated with a bit of mindful relaxation and the willingness to lie on the floor where all the cold air sinks to.
The dark is not a problem and with the dawn often comes the reprieve of the electricity back. Things are not that bad — just a few years ago reliable power off the national grid during a Dar summer was more of a hope and a prayer than anything to be taken for granted.
What broke me was the scent of burning plastic. Someone in the neighbourhood had decided that we should all partake of the wretchedness of an immolated tire and whatever else they were illegally disposing of that night whether we wanted to or not. As if the tickle/cough gathering in my nostrils wasn’t frightening enough.
If ever there was a year when “sharing is caring” from strangers turned into a threat it would be 2020. And this neighbour had just shared their petrochemical gassing right into everyone’s living spaces.
Alright, I thought: part of the mental discipline of ignoring discomfort is to take yourself out if it by thinking of something bigger than yourself. It is hot, this always makes me think of climate change. There are disease-bearing flying insects, again makes me think of the environment. And my current bugbear: plastics, burnt and choking us all. This makes me think of the environment. So I sat in the hot, insect-ridden, polluted dark and thought about us and our environment.
Last year or maybe it was earlier than that, I rejoiced that Tanzania had banned plastic shopping bags. It didn’t take long to realise the victory was a very small and tenuous one in the battle against plastic pollution. It’s not just the images of suffocating sea life, or the putrid clogged city drains, the garlands of discarded bottles along highways that have me deeply worried. It is how easy it is to be part of the problem, whether you want to or not, especially in a developing country like mine.
Of all the plastic things there are, the one I am most angered by in Tanzania is the scam of the disposable drink bottles. We had a good thing going for a long time: glass bottles.
Poverty made us frugal, recycling when there isn’t plenty comes easily. And bottled water wasn’t even a thing until recently. Now plastics are here and they are helping us to forget how to be ‘green.’ The sea reminds us, regurgitating fetid bits of waste on our public beaches.
In the heat and the toxic fumes, thinking sad thoughts about plastics I took a drink of clean water. The answer to despair that you can’t do much to help slow the world’s rush towards environmental disaster is to ‘act local’ by taking charge of yourself. Thus resolved, I settled for a night of physical and moral discomfort.
The next day I counted the plastic bottles, containers and packaging in my life. This was followed by some research on the plastic recycling industry and an incredibly depressing and informative Frontline PBS documentary released this year titled Plastic Wars.
As I suspected, by virtue of participating in the modern world I am an entrenched contributor to the plastics problem. It appears that the plastics manufacturers are behind the “recycling” industry which can only recycle a small fraction of what we discard at the very best of times in economies that can handle it. Surprise!
In the end the tickle in my throat resolved into a wicked flu, I stayed home to avoid sharing it with a greater public in these uncertain times. I cannot solve Covid-19 but maybe I can try to avoid sharing it if I am asymptomatic? Similarly, being adamant about disposing of my rubbish ‘responsibly’ by refusing to litter and using the municipal waste collection service barely can’t solve the strangulation of the planet by plastic.
But it is 2020, I’ll take whatever victories come, such as this opportunity to make anyone who is still burning their trash illegally at night feel guilty about making horrible choices that will doom us all.
We can do better. Next stop: solar electricity, because these night-time electricity outages fuelled heat-stroke revelations are not something I want to get used to.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]