Imagine a scantily-dressed young man having to pronounce the village name 'Kanyeinyaini' of an early July morning in the hills of central Kenya. I believe it is Meja Mwangi who, in one of his early works, asks his reader to do this. Mwangi’s quiet and esoteric humour lies in the effort involved in uttering the jawbreaker with chattering teeth in the wintry chill.
I guess you understand why I am thinking of Kanyeinyaini and chattering teeth in a Kenyan winter. I have told you that the first time I felt really cold is when I landed in Nairobi on July 25, 1965. But even then, it was not quite as bad as what we have witnessed over the past few weeks.
When I came “home” from Arusha the other day, I had intended to stay in Nairobi for a couple of weeks, look up my friends and maybe gently “quarrel” with those of my publishers who are permanently late with my royalties. But I had to flee after just two days in town. I found I just could not go out and do anything until and unless the temperatures picked up, late in the mornings, despite my being wrapped up in clothing equivalent to my own body weight.
My inability to cope may have something to do with the fact that I am no longer 21, as I was when I hit the ground running 53 years ago. But the recent extremes of inclement weather have left me feeling thoroughly convinced that climate change is real, and not an “Obama fabrication”. The times (and the climes) “they are a-changing”, and obstinately refusing to face up to this reality cannot be good for the future of humankind.
Those of us who have been blessed with relatively long lives are eyewitnesses to the changes over the decades and we know that they matter, and matter seriously. They will probably determine the difference between our continued existence and our extinction.
If reason and empirical scientific evidence were not enough to persuade us of the severity of these changes and their effects, actual current events should shake us into sober realisation. Even a tiny choice of relevant “disasters” within the past few months would easily fill the space allocated to me in these columns. The one that particularly caught my attention was the deluge-proportioned flooding in the Hiroshima Prefecture of Japan.
Hiroshima, together with Nagasaki, is, of course, iconic of disaster, including the first (and mercifully, so far only) nuclear bombing, in 1945. But the tragedy this summer came in the form of several rivers bursting their banks, owing to unprecedented heavy rains, causing widespread flooding in which dozens of people died. The army was called in and rendered sterling rescue service, but the damage was done and the trauma registered.
The Hiroshima case stands out mainly because Japan has the deserved reputation of being a very well-organised, innovative and resilient country. If such devastating weather-related calamities can happen there, it does not require exceptional imagination to anticipate what can and does happen in some other countries, which shall remain unnamed for now. But even elsewhere in the relatively developed world, the outlook is not less depressing, ranging from India, where air pollution forced the cancellation of an international cricket match (no small matter for that country) to the currently raging infernal forest fires in California and Sweden.
From every corner the code is the same: record high (or low) temperatures, phenomenal pollution, exceptional rainfall, or drought. What more do we need to convince us that these drastic and extreme changes are sending us hurtling towards our demise as a race, unless we radically change the way we do things today?
Some smart scholars are already referring to our (post-extinction) time here as the “Anthropocene Age”, the brief spell of the existence of “Anthropos”, the human, on this planet.
Our eventual departure may be inevitable, as prophesied in the scriptures and increasingly predicted by science. However, there is a lot that we ourselves can and should do to significantly extend our existence here, especially for our descendants. We should also ensure the best quality of life in the challenging, changing circumstances.
Maybe our elder and linguistic guru, Philip Ochieng, was correcting more than our English when he told us to not merely “brace” but brace ourselves for the conspicuous climate and weather changes. Bracing ourselves crucially includes changing our awareness, attitudes and actions.
We may not be able to stop those so-inclined from abruptly “tearing up” international pacts on the reduction of global warming. We may even feel helpless against the rich and mighty who abuse their immunity and impunity to ruin our forests and wetlands with their “development” projects.
The hereditary guardians of the Semalizi sacred wood in Kitukutwe, where I have a rural home, were overcome with greed and recently sold it to a “developer”, who hewed it down and divided it into plots for sale.
Prior to that, no one was allowed to collect even a fallen dry tree branch from the wood. Today, the homeless vervet monkeys, which used to inhabit the wood, have invaded all our shambas and we can hardly harvest a cob of maize for ourselves.
But there is a lot we can do to improve the quality of life in the little corners where we live, whether in Kawangware, Kasensero or Kanyeinyaini.
That little tree that you preserve on your handkerchief-sized shamba may have more to do with adequate rainfall than you realise. Similarly, that little pack of household garbage that you refrain from dumping into the upper reaches of the Nairobi River may determine the occurrence or absence of city floods during the next long rains. Do you remember the Michuki experiment?
I am still figuring out how we can reduce the chill of the next highlands winter. Maybe we can work on that project together. After all, this is the age of interactive and proactive cooperation.
So, here is Kanyeinyaini to you, my friend!
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]