Life in the 80s vs now: A doctor’s sad climate change experience

A woman carries water containers on her back from a natural spring at Njiku village in Murang'a County on February 2, 2023. Many natural springs have dried up following agricultural activities along the wetlands. 


What you need to know:

  • April holidays were my favourite. This is because of the long rains and the most amazing green that covered the rolling hills of my village.
  • I loved the heavy steady pounding on the mabati roofs while we snuggled in our Raymond blankets and told stories at night.

In Kenya, and likely in most of Africa, the millennial generation is probably the one that has witnessed the most remarkable transformation all around, in the shortest duration this far.

In the last four decades, this generation has lived through massive strides in political transformation, advances in African industrialisation, the astronomical rise in technology, the economic catapult, the phenomenal growth in human rights and in the same breath, the undeniable change in climate and its impact.

Growing up in the 80s, we were the children of adults coming to terms with the whirlwind of independence from the British and the sudden loss of the expected freedoms to a tyrannical one-party state that was turning out to be just as oppressive. They were the golden children, sent to school to acquire the necessary skills to grow this newly birthed state. They worked in government, mostly in technical positions, fully dedicated to service.

They may have been uncomfortable in the oppressive political space, but they raised us differently. We grew up starry-eyed, drinking Nyayo milk and singing cheesy patriotic songs that made our political leaders look like deities, largely untouched by the real political scenario playing out after the 1982 coup attempt.

Though we grew up in small towns across the country because our parents worked as civil servants, posted everywhere, we were privileged to experience a one-of-a-kind lifestyle. The towns had distinctive character, blending in with the local culture, but were also strongly cosmopolitan, mostly driven by the Indian traders. They were modern but laid back and easy-going. This was interspersed with the popular Kenyan culture of spending the holiday season back in our village homes.

April holidays were my favourite. This is because of the long rains and the most amazing green that covered the rolling hills of my village. I loved the heavy steady pounding on the mabati roofs while we snuggled in our Raymond blankets and told stories at night. The mornings were dark and misty but it did not stop the villagers from getting up and heading to their farms to tend to their crop.

It was the weeding season for the maize crop and the time when wild mushrooms sprouted freely, turning patches of the meadows white like a sprinkle of snow. The crop thrived and assured families of full granaries to feed them for the year. Despite the main cash crop, tea, blooming, the roads were impassable due to the mud, making it almost impossible to get the tea to the factories, causing the farmers heavy losses.

The best part was the afternoons when we snuck off to play. With the topography of the land in the larger Kisii, almost all farms ended in a stream downhill, and the area was reserved for grazing and watering of the animals. It also made for great playing fields! In this season, the streams would break their banks, seasonal springs would burst through the tea plantations, and these fields would be submerged in water in the afternoons as the rains poured. We played in the rain, splashing the puddles, soaked to the skin, living in the moment.

The August holidays held their own charm, with the harvest all around. Fresh grain was threshed and stored for the next year and farms were allowed to lie fallow to regenerate, and animals were allowed to roam there freely, feeding on the stalks and leaving manure behind. Modern fertilisers were a foreign concept. We sought for fresh berries and fruit flourishing freely in the wild, not realising the nourishing goodness that we had access to.

The rains washed away the dirt, dust and smog. The air was clean and crisp. We ate fresh vegetables picked from the garden, milk fresh from the cow, eggs collected warm from the chicken coop and if you wanted meat, you would have to slaughter your own animal. Children played outdoors, healthy, well-nourished and active. Our Maendeleo ya Wanawake mothers, who had been educated on nutrition and sanitation nurtured us by the script they were taught, saving us a lot of grief.

With development, urbanisation, population explosion, encroachment on forests and loss of green spaces, we have lost this natural protection from disease, hunger and malnutrition. Climate change has resulted in diminished rain, reduced food crops, overreliance on fertiliser and overuse of the land. The streams are fading off and the seasonal springs haven’t visited for a while.

Despite making so many steps forward, we are still sliding back because of climate change. Global warming has altered the quality of air we breathe because of the perpetual smog. The rate of allergic childhood asthma in urban-dwelling children is astronomical compared to those still spared the effects in the villages. Even the village child is not spared. 

I haven’t seen a wild blackberry bush in over a decade. The wild guava bushes that were synonymous with the Koru area are gone, and mushrooms now only thrive in greenhouses.

The fight for food security is one we have to contend with. Globalisation has allowed access to food imports to ensure we can feed the nation, but this should not be at the detriment of local production. It is extremely sad when a tomato farmer in Nyeri says he cannot eat what he grows for sale because of the chemicals he uses, yet this is what is fed to the public. The deterioration of the environment has made it harder for organic food to thrive. Yet all these chemicals are contaminating our drinking water sources and contributing to development of cancers and damage to the immune system.

Climate change should not be politicised. It affects all of us and makes each of us pay the price individually through our health. We just survived a harsh drought in 2022, taking our child nutrition indices back by a decade. We have seen great losses occasioned by floods in North Eastern Kenya this past month, a ticking time bomb for waterborne diseases like cholera. As the floods sweep by, they destroy our infrastructure, including health facilities that are supposed to respond to the medical emergencies, even when we are not at war like in Palestine.

Our climate is our health. Let us collectively slow down the changes that are hurting us!

The writer is an obstetrician/ gynaecologist