The first thing I noticed was the smell. A cursory glance along the road revealed the source: burning garbage. We were driving through Mombasa on the way to my father’s house. It was my first time back in Kenya in ten years.

It feels like I’ve always been aware of sustainability and climate change. Growing up in Canada, reduce, reuse and recycle were literally part of the curriculum.

Confronting the reality of our impact on the environment and the amount of waste we produce was an eye opening experience. Kenya is what we have decided to call “a developing country”. This means that, amongst many other socioeconomic indicators, they don’t have a comprehensive waste management system. At least not in the way we’re used to thinking about it.

My stepmother told me a story. When she was growing up in Mombasa in the 1950s they used public latrines, which were simply huge twenty-foot deep pits. It was someone’s job to be lowered into them once a week, with a bucket, to empty the pits.

My father and I would walk along the beach for a few hours in the evening. This wasn’t pristine western holiday beach – Kenya’s tourism industry’s been in the shitter, so to speak, for a while, and newly capitalist Tanzania to the south has better game parks (N’goro N’goro and the Serengeti), comparable beaches, and bloody mount Kilimanjaro. It’s hard to compete with Kilimanjaro.

The beach isn’t cleaned, which means you see how much garbage gets washed in with the tide every day. I’d joke with my dad: “you know, that bottle could be from China”. But there were hundreds, thousands of bottles and plastic bags and shoes and buckets creating a wonderfully post modern collage along the beach, intertwined with seaweed and children playing soccer.

My stepmother was complaining to me about food prices, about how her staples – tomatoes, potatoes, beans, carrots, onions and flour had all doubled in price in the last month. The annual monsoon rains were a month late. Which left me wondering about climate change.

But back to that smell.

It was everywhere. In the village by the beach. On the road to Mombasa. In Mombasa. Burning garbage. In the middle of the city, in broad daylight. Mouldering and smouldering.

I asked my stepmother about it.

“What are we supposed to do?” was her reply.

It’s all dirt roads by my father’s house. The power goes out every few days, and most of the people in the village don’t have running water in their homes. There are bigger fish to fry.

In Mombasa, I would occasionally spy a single garbage truck, always overburdened, and always being loaded manually by a team of men – because it wasn’t actually a garbage truck. It was just a dump truck that looked to be forty years old, rusted, creaking and heaving. They were definitely not keeping up with the waste produced by a city of a million people, which also happens to be the biggest port in East Africa, and China’s route to the riches of the Congo.

“What are we supposed to do?”

Africa entered the global economy as a net exporter of natural resources. In the 1880s the European colonial powers carved Africa up on a map in an effort to cooperatively share the continent’s natural resource wealth. Starting with gold, diamonds and rubber, African resources were funneled into European industrial economies, manufactured into products, bought and sold around the world – which happens to produce a ton of waste.

Waste that, here in Canada, we don’t really see.

We are a “developed” country – we have an effective waste management system. Once a week, you take your garbage, compost and recycling to the curb, and poof the magic garbage fairy takes it away. You flush, and clean water reappears. We don’t see how much waste we produce, or where it actually goes, at least not in our day-to-day lives. Because we have the infrastructure to take it far away and process it.

“What are we supposed to do?”

In a country with forty percent unemployment, there are more pressing existential concerns than “climate change.” Ensuring people have jobs, running water and free primary education are much higher on the priority list than recycling.

But our impact on the environment is the reason the rains are late, and food prices are going up. They burn garbage and we burn oil. And we in the West contribute so much more to environmental degradation. The statistics back it up. Every day in Kenya I was confronted by the waste our society produces. Bottles washing up on the shore from literally anywhere in the world. Piles of burning plastic, manufactured in India by an American multinational, affiliated with Wal-Mart. I buy plenty of things that are made in other countries, and shipped around the world. I’m complicit. And I don’t even see it.

“What are we supposed to do?”

I don’t have an answer. But I think I’ll try to be a little more diligent about my own consumption habits. It’s the least I can do.

By Rashid Mohiddin

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.