The air we breathe

Alright, for once a domestic topic and an important one. When you return to your flat here, after two weeks of travelling, you’ll find the smooth shiny stone floor you left behind covered in a layer of…well, what is it?

Dust? Certainly.

Sand. Yep.

But the black stuff that clings to your broom like glue? Soot – more like. Get it off the floor and then go after the remainder with water and cloth. Honestly, I’m doing more housekeeping work here in a single day than in Amsterdam in, say, one week…….

And I really need to stop smoking, if for one reason alone: it’s entirely superfluous. One day in Dakar (or anywhere else in urban Africa for that matter) and you will be subjected to sand and dust and smoke and soot coming from:

burning rubbish (cardboard, paper, organic waste – and plastic, which reigns supreme);

ancient cars, lorries, buses, minivans and pickup trucks that leave smoking trails that would be the eternal envy of our cigar puffing grandfathers;

the sweeping of streets and courts, which means moving gazillions of nose-blocking particles from one place to another;

open wood fires for grilling meat and preparing other meals (one local favourite is “dibi”, basically a pile of grilled beef of mutton or goat’s meat served on a piece of greasy paper with copious amounts of pepper – an acquired taste);

fumes from businesses that work out in the open, like welding, repair shops, car maintenance, furniture production, tyre retreading, you name it;

I’m sure I am forgetting things but you get the drift. So gather up yet another thick thread of this soot-laden dust and toss it in a plastic (yep!) bag to take outside for the rubbish collector and think: ‘I’m also breathing this in….’ Yes, you are and so are your neighbours and so, in a manner of speaking, is every electrical appliance in the house, including your laptop.

(Wonder who will conk out first, my MacBook or me…)

Air quality. Or rather: its complete absence. It’s a problem in every single African city. You really have no idea how bad it is until you leave for a less urbanised area and are amazed at the quality of the air. (That’s apart from the indoor cooking – again on wood fires – yet another story.)

There are no quick fixes here. You can think of solar powered ovens. You can think of cleaner cars. Four years ago, the Senegalese government banned the importation of cars over 5 years old and while there are still plenty of clapped-out taxis on the streets the situation has definitely improved. You can think of better public transport. Bamako is the first city I know of (in this region) that’s having a think about a tramway – I guess their biggest headache will be finding a place to put it…

And it will definitely get worse. Soon we’ll have dozens of cities of a million plus, Lagos and Kinshasa being by far the largest with 16 million each, according to a Jeune Afrique special on African urbanisation recently. Luanda will have 8 million in 2025; Abidjan, Addis Ababa and Nairobi will have 6 million each. And Dakar? 4 million plus. That’s twice its current size.

Whenever I take a flight out of these places (like Yaoundé – 2 million – yesterday) I never cease to be amazed at the thick layer of black sky that hangs suspended over the entire place. You can only see that clearly as the plane takes off. And there it is, the same thought: ‘I’ve been breathing this in…’ And another one: ‘The folks down there are still breathing this in….’

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2 Responses to “The air we breathe”

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  2. John J. Hall Says:

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