Everything in it’s own time

child beggars-net image

Everything in it’s own time, right? Hello, i am back after a five week vac. It did me some good, now i am back into harness. While i was gone, i had a long thought on my blog and where i want it to go. I came back not having answered that question but i will know soon. Some decisions must be differed. As soon as i got back though, and without a moment’s notice, i was immediately confronted with troublesome news. Apparently, its going to take $76bn/yr to conserve the most endangered species on our planet. The researchers say they do not know where this money will come from especially seeing as we are, the dire conditions the world’s economy is in right now. Each time this kind of thing is discussed, it sounds as if scientists have just stumbled on the discovery that mother earth is dying, chocked by pollution. The land on which we carry out life-activities e.g farming is polluted so much so that parts of it are no longer productive, we have maxed out on optimal use and any further pressure on it will lead to it’s being labelled ‘fragile’ or in danger of environmental destruction. We all have acquired a culture of living for the moment and not making considerate decisions regarding our future, that is why we are confused and panicky when we are roused out of a deep sleep of forgetfulness and carelessness. Yes, carefree living is the culprit, this wanton behavior whereby  nobody is held accountable or feels responsible for anything. So when we get a little reminder, we move haphazardly, bumping into one another, like members of a disorganized herd. Everything is suddenly urgent and here-and-now. We wait until things get out of control and then we begin dashing in all sorts of directions. It comes down to poor planning, lack of oversight, wishful thinking, of people sleeping on the job. Did you hear that the oceans are almost depleted of fish stocks? Where is the fish gone to? The air is foul and those with bad lungs are about to join the list of endangered species. Sometimes i too, don’t care; i just sit back, open a beer and stretch my legs. I’ve  got to live too. Let them solve their problems, after all it is their own doing. Who ami talking about? Government. It is the failure of government to legislate or to enforce legislation. Take the case of the floating garbage patch out in the pacific. Do you know how that came to be? It has been alleged that some of the waste in the garbage patch is of industrial origin, dumped in the sea from ships whose captains have been bribed by waste-producing industry owners who are unwilling to pay the high fees for conventional waste disposal. This is done anonymously and is difficult to monitor out there on the high seas. Ships also dump a significant tonnage of their own waste while at sea. The waste, most of it plastic will slowly break down further into smaller particles which are ingested by marine animals. Much of it is toxic. There are scientists who have investigated this extensively. The marine biologists who try to pursue the big-money people soon lose interest after presenting their meticulously researched data because the big-money people are also the same people who fund the institutions to which these biologists are attached and all they do is appear to understand, accept the research findings, give a prestigious award to the biologist (coupled with grant money) knowing fully well that they do not support the scientist’s position. It’s a difficult task exposing corruption.

In another everyday scenario removed from the science environment where things are done with clinical precision, we see people tossing garbage out of car windows on the highways, leaving garbage in alleyways or in parking lots at shopping malls. Some of the garbage is hazardous. It goes back to the old adage: “monkey see monkey do” as in i saw somebody do it and get away with it so i will do the same; it’s no big deal. It is these small, compounded legal infractions that lead to the big garbage/sanitation problems, that spoil the environment and endanger public health and lead to envoronmental degradation-foul smells, discolored fluids oozing out of trash bags, stains on the pavements etc. Governments must lead the efforts to educate society on the benefits of living in a clean environment, it must also provide resources to reclaim abandoned living spaces, to put in place checks and balances, to force industries to institute reform such as efforts to increase production of environment-friendly products and increased focus on biodegradable products. Things will move once some of this is done. Also, the role models in society; the politicians, they must begin leading by example and not mere rhetoric. I think this goes a long way in changing public perceptions rather than coming up with brilliant speeches during campaign season. Everybody else needs to play their part-you don’t have to be a scientist to be an activist, we all breathe the same air and the world belongs to all of us. let us start with this thought in mind, a thought of what is possible and together we will make a difference.

“If i could do it again?”

A Herd boy. Notice the loose earth. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

I come from farming stock but i am not a farmer, not yet, but i know someday am going to venture into it. My late grandfather went into farming after being discharged from the army at the end of ww2. He had a good hand at it and succeeded quite well, receiving certificates of recognition for it. He used the income to build a two-storey house and went on to marry several wives. He put more land under farming and enlarged his acreage and reaped great profits out of the venture. He used his profits to buy a truck with which he ferried his produce to the market. He did quite well, so much in fact that he was able to construct a church and help build a school named in his honor. He sired over 40 kids. He stayed a farmer for the rest of his life. That was a long time ago. Today’s farmers are dealing with extreme weather. In the best of times, farming is not for the faint of heart. It is at best, grim business and i don’t mean to be scary but let’s face it how many people do you know who will drop seeds in the ground, wait for them to sprout and come back several times to weed, spray, spray again, then wait for the harvest? That is the normal cycle of things if you are lucky and there is no drought or too much precipitation. Farming revolves around being in sync with the seasons, planting early, if the farmer misses his cue, the season is lost. Farming is a waiting game. The farmer knows it and the farmer must be patient. There are crops such as coffee which won’t be ready until a couple of years after planting. It is risky, long-term back-breaking business being a farmer. There is also no guarantee that one will realize profits, there are people who will be waiting to cheat you, give you bad prices. Sometimes the quality is poor and so you are forced to sell just to break even. Not all are cut out to be farmers. Successful farmers are hard, resilient men.

Farmers are the world’s native businessmen, all other enterprises are secondary to farming (and that is my opinion). Let me explain it this way: if  i am a cattle breeder and i also have my own abattoir, that means that i slaughter the cattle, and do the skinning and treatment of the hides. If i decide to deal with the by-products of meat slaughter, the hides, i may choose to employ people who know all about curing and tanning or i may decide to strictly deal with slaughter and give the hides business to a specialist in the field. It depends on me if i want to do all that work and get my profits. I may simply sell the meat and dispose of the hides as i see fit. So there is all this work that is associated with the meat industry, it is a chain which begins with me as the stock breeder and carries forward to the consumer. There are many steps in-between and many skills to be put to use. There are thousands of people employed in the shoe industry, belts, upholstery, wallets, furniture industry, clothing industry you name it. What this amounts to is that i make it possible for these jobs to continue existing if i choose to stay in business. That is a good thing don’t you think? Alright, now when you think of it that way, it becomes easier to understand why i say that the farmer is the native businessman. It then becomes necessary to inquire why the farmer’s welfare is not a priority to governments in poorly-developed parts of the world.

Many people in the developing world depend on farming, in my own country of Uganda, the figure is 80%. There are however, distinctions in this business. In that percentage, a big number is engaged in small-scale, peasant or primitive production, which means that there is underutilization of land. Why do i say this? I say this because with primitive labor a farmer can only produce so much. With a tractor, the same piece of land he works in a month can be worked in a fraction of a day. But being a small-scale farmer one cannot justify renting it. Also, such a farmer has no access to credit. He also has no insurance against crop failure. Therefore when a drought occurs, he can neither feed his family nor pay his debts. Now with the change in weather patterns, it is predicted that such events will occur with greater frequency. When i look at where we are going and with the uncertainties that the future holds, the only solution remaining for small-scale farmers is to join co-operative societies whereby they have access to legal advice, loans, markets and other forms of help. In times past, we used to have them and of late some of them have been revived. These are the kinds of efforts we need to make in order to ensure food security as the world prepares to face more adverse weather.

“With a quivering hand…”

Deforestation. We need to take a pause.

In yahoo science news this morning, i read an intriguing article about plastic-eating mushrooms. I take myself to be a science buff, therefore i read it through and at the end, i was pleasantly surprised to discover that that which we have tried so hard to destroy was the same environment to which we return when we need an urgent solution to our problems.  What i am referring to here is the capability of our natural environment to provide for and sustain us. I can visualize the research scientists in the forest moving in unison towards their find. Upon  encounter, they very likely took a reverential pause and looked on in wonderment as one of them stooped and plucked a mushroom out of the spongy mass, everybody staring at their peers as they gathered to analyze and mentally take notes. After deep mystical considerations had been made, the one with mushroom-in a  quasi-ecclesiastical exclamation-must have gone like, “oh mother earth we have so much to thank you for…” looking around him warily as if they were on some alien planet (and here the voice may trail off, replaced by an enigmatic silence). We have got to get back to the wild and re-discover what was lost a long time ago, the knowledge of plants and their various attributes. So much is now unknown. Other cures for what ails society today have been found in nature, a good example being natural water-purification which can be done by certain bacteria. Back to the topic, the discovery was made by Yale University researchers in a part of the Amazon forest, in Ecuador. The issue of plastics has been a thorn in the flesh for a long time because plastics are  non-biodegradable.  In fact it is mind-boggling for me to imagine anything that feeds on plastic! Brings you to the unsettling issue of how much else that we don’t know about that’s out there. Hope you enjoy!!

Finest hour pt 2: origins of the automobile

The Ford 1920s Model T

Two Frenchmen, Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor were the first to manufacture cars. They were the first to build whole cars in 1889.  They built cars and installed Daimler engines under licence.  Their work led to further improvements but they were not the “inventors” of the car.  There were other inventors as well or let me say that over the years, numerous inventions  of assorted car parts like  internal combustion engine etc took place. Subsequent innovations improved on earlier design.   Their key contributions to car manufacture was the Systeme Panhard. Rene and Levassor didn’t mass-produce their cars. It was American Ransome Eli Olds who first mass-produced cars and started the Olds motor company in Detroit. He was the pioneer of the assembly line production mode. The industrialist Henry Ford improved upon an earlier design and invented his own assembly line which relied on the conveyor belt and was the first commercially-successful mass-production car manufacturer. He sold millions of the ford model T in the 1920s. I will go back a little on Ford’s early days: He said; “i will build a car for the great multitude”. His ford  model T was very successful (approx. 15m of them sold during those days) with it’s production introducing the automobile to America and the world.  This led to the growth in other areas; roads, rapid urbanization and of course it must have influenced city planning for packing etc. Ford’s invention revolutionized transportation; it shortened the time taken to travel from one place to the next. The air was euphoric. Where i come from, old men still remember the days they sold so much coffee to buy their first car. What had not been foreseen was the effects on the general life of everyday people. The availability of the new form of transportation started the urbanization phenomena and ford himself became, in later years, nostalgic for the simpler farm life he had grown up living. So much for that. Several decades later the car has continued to improve in many ways, including the dizzying array of accessories they fit inside  cars nowadays.  However, in terms of performance and aesthetics, the cars of old were much more sturdier and efficient. I have seen many such cars and ridden in one or two and i also like to watch shows where they restore classic cars. One truth i have discovered is that on average, not much goes into making modern cars. There is no craftsmanship like it used to be. With all the new car companies in the industry, it is just a mad rush to fit the pieces together once the chassis is on the assembly line. Take a good look at most of the cars coming on the market today, all sleek and shiny when still new but  once they crash, they get mangled up pretty bad. Like i said in the post prior to this one, i am beginning to believe that without regulation, the car industry will do more harm than good.  A car kills the same way a gun does and there are restrictions on gun ownership. Guns are essential, cars are not. Except for the initial bang when fired, there is little environmental degradation produced by small, personal protection firearms. There are many times i have been appalled by the fact some people don’t see anything wrong with having 3-5 cars! What’s the point of having all those where 1-2 can do the job? I honestly think there ought to be a law against having more than 2 cars ( for a family of 6-8) There ought to be the same type of law against this kind of profligacy  as there is the  one child-policy in China. How do you think they enforced it? I am sure it was initially very unpopular but it passed. How about Singapore’s law against gum? It is simple. It just costs too much to produce a car. It costs iron ore and ties up the finite supply of this metal that could be used to produce appliances.  This resource will not last forever, oil will run out and then we will start a brawl for the remaining barrels of oil. Electric cars are an innovation but it takes water to produce electricity and water is also getting scarce. I already envision a return to the mass transit, tried-and-tested trains and buses.

Big Things

We are living in frightful times, folks. Last week i read about the “discovery” of a new, “shrimp-like” species of marine life found off of New Zealand that had not been seen before. Then this morning i read about the beached Whale Shark in Karachi, Pakistan. Did anybody see the picture? Man, that’s a huge shark! These are beginning to look like the deep-sea creatures of myth which have probably not been seen in eons because they swim on the bottom of sea-floors scouring the sand deserts for food, undisturbed in their daily rhythms of life, probably faintly aware of man but with no need to make contact. My theory is that, as normally occurs, there has been disturbance in their natural habitat which has caused them to “roam” out of their immediate circle and into our own. I will not fret too much about it anyway, i live far from the sea and out in the country where i am surrounded by mountains. The only threats are grizzly bears but somehow am comforted by the thought that there are plenty of orchards and farms in my vicinity (yawn) and anyway, i live on the second floor of my apartment block. That’s alright though. Stay tuned, i’ll keep you posted about anything else i see out here.

Slums in the modern city

Shacks in Kibera. For a long time, there were no sewerage services, no garbage collection and no police but it has changed gradually.

Definition of a slum:

A run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security(UN-HABITAT United Nations).

This definition applies to kibera the biggest slum in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi . The proliferation of slums in urban areas is  indicative of urban poverty. I would like to characterize the problems associated with occurence of slum dwellings in East Africa by using the existence of kibera slums, Nairobi, as my focal point.

The history of the Kibera slums reads like this: It began as a settlement for Nubian Ex-soldiers who had been part of  the KAR (King’s African Rifles) British  World War 1  effort. After the war, they were granted land on which to settle and this is what  later became kibera. At that time the area was still forested and the Nubians called it ‘Kibra’, Nubian for forest. This was however only a grant, not ownership due to the fact they did not  obtain a title to the land. The structures that were built served the Nubians as sources of income through rent. Subsequent populations arrived and the settlement grew. In the 1970s, the Nairobi city government removed building restrictions, an act that encouraged the sprouting up of numerous structures overnight. This led to an influx of new rent-paying residents and the growth of Kibera as a slum for those who sought basic accommodations. Over time, there developed ethno-based population clusters like the Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya etc, which later on grew into ethnic neighborhoods, all in Kibera.

The growth of Kibera is an example of unplanned development one finds in third world cities. Kibera is classified by Nairobi City as “unauthorized settlement” with a population said to be between 300,000-1,000,000 inhabitants. Nairobi is a densely populated city, a fact that accounts for the immense pressure on land; rents are prohibitively high. This has prompted real-estate developers to build upwards and to build high. Thus one finds that majority of Nairobians live in flats or high-rises and this is true mostly for the outlying areas of eastlands and southlands regions of the city. The growth and expansion of Kibera slums has continued to the present day mostly because it continues to attract the blue-collar, low rent variety of residents. This is not worthy of note to the casual observer passing through the area but a more analytic eye reveals the ‘other reasons’ that attract new residents.

Slums generally start up as temporary, semi-permanent settlements a fact which ultimately determines the choice of building materials, forming myriad styles of dwellings. These range from the simplest cardboard shacks, to structures of wooden polls and tinned roofing or adobe and wattle(mud with grass thatching or corrugated sheets for roofing). Thus the quality of the buildings is what classifies a slum as such and almost all slums are located near cities to take advantage of proximity to sources of employment and also ease of access to markets, schools etc. Kibera’s workforce consists of low-skilled rural transplants who arrive with minimal qualifications and no industrial skills. 50% of the workforce is employed by Nairobi’s industrial sector near where they live and they do mostly semi-professional work consisting of construction labor, manufacturing-fabrication(welding), carpentry, craftmanships e.g car repair etc. There are many who become skilled artisans and these start up their own side businesses and form part of the economy of kibera. There are other economic activities such as petty trading(grocery stores, household items, artisan products). The problems in Kibera are the problems of slum dwellers everywhere: vagabondage, alcoholism, drug usage and abuse, thefts, forgery, prostitution, criminal syndicates, petty crime and all vices found in areas of low social expectations. There was no running water in Kibera for a long time but The World Bank has helped with that and there is some areas with access to clean water now. There are officially no municipal services-no garbage collection, sewarage system, health centers, drainage etc. Thus there are periodic disease outbreaks such as Cholera.
Recently, the government has instituted a “slum upgrade” project in conjunction with the UN-HABITAT and other well-wishers to build permanent structures in which the Kibera residents can be relocated. It is a planned settlement with running water, Electricity, Garbage collection, shopping areas etc. Those who hope to live in the new housing will be required to pay minimal rent. With such good news, one is tempted to heave a sigh of relief but alas! There are those who see loss in these developments-the landlords who will lose tenants. I will still say thanks to those doing a commendable job.

Deadlock in Durban

A farmer carrying plantain from his garden. It is a staple food for many Ugandans.

While everybody knows the science behind global warming, to a polished few it is very much still a mystery, ‘the true source’ of this problem.  Why? Well, how true is it that the developed nations produce the bigger percentage of emissions? This is a valid question. Also how do you determine what percentage agricultural activities contribute to Greenhouse gases? These are baffling questions even for the experts who compiled the data. That i think explains for the refusal, so far, of developed countries to renew the 1997 Kyoto protocol. This refusal(negotiations are still going on in Durban, South Africa) on the part of developed countries has ruffled the feathers of representatives from the developing countries who are seeking to have the protocol renewed/extended as a way to retain earlier commitments to reduce emissions. The developed world does not wish to be bound up in these agreements even as statistics continue to show that we all face a bleak future of apocalyptic proportions if we do not act. But who cares and whose world will it be when that time comes anyway?

I bet you we will not miss the well until we have dredged it’s bottom for the last drops of water. Meanwhile as we squabble and maneuver to disengage ourselves from shared mutual responsibility, the world will keep turning. Life will go on for sure. Everyday the sun will rise but it will do so as a red ball of unbearable heat. When the rain falls it will wash away the crops and topsoil stratum. Then we will stare at the horizon. Perhaps then we will think of a distant disengaged God’s indifference to our plight.