• Caleb Atemi

We lived with death every day, breathing it and drinking from it

I struggled to hold back tears a few days ago when my childhood friend Joseph Olweny called me to break the good news. “The roof of death was finally being lifted from our former home

Kivumbini Number Four, the estate of my childhood, is a place I will cherish for the rest of my life. With all its hardships and challenges, it is this dusty estate within Nakuru County that shaped my destiny.

However, it is also here that I learned only in adulthood that we lived with death every day, breathing it and drinking from it. Now, almost 80 years after it was constructed by the colonial government, the County Government of Nakuru has found it fit to enact the law that abolishes the use of asbestos roofing. It has initiated a multimillion shilling programme to strip off the deadly material under which we were born and grew.

Am grief stricken as I recall the number of men and women within Kivumbini that I watched die; Then, I never knew what was killing them. However, when I recall the last moments I shared with my father, my heart sinks to the bottom of my stomach.

Struggling to breath, I watched as his eyes rolled in their sockets. The old man tightly held on to my hand. He had been trying to say something for the past twenty minutes or so. Eventually, he muttered: “My son, I leave you my blessings. May you live long to take care of my great grandchildren.” He then went into a slight seizure for some seconds before his face relaxed into a calm smile. He died smiling. My dad died smiling despite the pain he was experiencing. He died on my lap.

It was November 8 1990. Mzee Phillip Oyieri Okalo eventually gave up his battle with cancer of the throat at Victoria Hospital in Kisumu County. He had struggled with the killer cancer for years. I watched this tall, giant of a man shrink into a miserable bag of bones. By the time he was breathing his last, I could carry him in my hands like a baby.

One can never finish mourning a parent. Before I could place my father into a relaxed chamber of my mind, my mother too closed her eyes on July 1st 2005. Mama Ruth Nyangasi Okalo succumbed to cancer of the colon. Hers was a most painful and excruciating war with the slow insidious killer.

On the day she died, we performed a short prayer by her bedside at the Metropolitan Hospital in Nairobi’s Buru Buru estate.

It is after my mother’s demise that I started to take a keen interest in cancer and its causes. Many people I had known growing up in Kivumbini had died in similar circumstances as my parents. My research into what is becoming one of Kenya’s leading killer shook me to the core.

When I dug into some of the cancer causing agents, asbestos came up. I was shocked. I grew up in Kivumbini estate in a one room house. Our houses were roofed using asbestos and so were all the other neighbouring estates, health clinics and schools within Nakuru Municipality. All these years we lived with death hovering above our heads every day and every night. Those of us still living, can we seek redress? Should we? Can we sue the government and the former colonial Master for exposing us to death?

In 2015, while working on an assignment for a client, TradeMark East Africa, I visited the Kenya Ports Authority headquarters in Mombasa. I shuddered when I realised that for years, just like my parents and I, hundreds of workers at the Port of Mombasa had lived under the sinister watchful eye of death. Every move, every turn, every twist, every breath of air they inhaled, meant brushing shoulders with the grim reaper.

Just like us, whenever the fierce sun burnt down with fury blowing up dust, they would breathe in the dust of death. Each time rain poured and workers drank from the roof water, they imbibed death in piecemeal. Many aged buildings within the port were roofed with asbestos, a roofing material that was devouring the users.

Hundreds of Kenyans to date go about their business and chores oblivious to the dangers posed by asbestos, a material used in the construction of many buildings, estates, schools, hospitals, workshops and offices.

I learned that asbestos exposure leads to the development of serious respiratory diseases and cancers. It causes numerous undesirable health conditions.

When asbestos deteriorates like it has in Kivumbini and did at the port, exposure becomes deadlier. It becomes lethal when cut, sanded or drilled releasing microscopic fibre or dust into the air. The harmful dust can remain airborne for hours and when inhaled they become trapped in the respiratory tract and lungs where they can lead to scarring and inflammation. Sometimes the damage to the human anatomy can stay hidden for 10 to 50 years after the initial exposure to asbestos.

At least KPA, through its Green Port Policy, embarked on the systematic and delicate process of removal and disposal of asbestos roof covers. They replaced asbestos with aluminium steel. Other companies, government institutions and schools have retained the roofs of death long after the material was banned in Kenya.

Used extensively in the 1950s and 1960s, asbestos, became popular because of its resistance to heat, fire, and chemicals. Since asbestos does not conduct electricity, it became widely used in industries around the world. This deadly material was for decades popular in the construction, manufacturing, shipbuilding and automotive industries. It was used for strengthening cement and plastics as well as for insulation, roofing, fireproofing, and sound absorption. Asbestos was also used in ceiling and floor tiles; paints, coatings, and adhesives.

In 2006, the Government of Kenya banned the use of asbestos. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), published national guidelines on safe management and disposal of asbestos in 2013. NEMA stated that asbestos waste could be found in waste from renovation, demolitions and repair of asbestos ceiling boards and asbestos clutch plates, brake pads and linings and insulation materials.

However, there has been almost no follow-up on its replacement countrywide. The national government and NEMA, have failed millions of Kenyans. I visited Kivumbini decades later and found the same old asbestos roofing in existence. The material does not seem to grow old. Sadly, many families continue harvesting rain water from the rooftops for drinking and domestic use. They have no idea that they are dancing with death. I can only say Kudos to the County Government of Nakuru. If only Olweny’s call had come many years before my parents had moved into Kivumbini. If only…but that is a wishful impossibility!

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