Indoor Air Population: Not Just A Public Health Concern But A Human Rights Issue

Diana Wangari, CNS Correspondent, Kenya
(First publish in The Star News, Kenya): Early in the morning, the scene in large areas of rural Kenya is that of women walking towards their kitchen, often situated in a separate structure next to their living quarters. Homestead after homestead, the woman gathers firewood beneath her three stone make shift cooker or begins the process of getting the coal on the jiko to light.

Tabitha Ibeere has to go through this same process every morning where in a few minutes later smoke begins to fill the kitchen that has one small window to act as a source of ventilation. She has to squint to prevent her eyes from watering. She cannot let this slow her down-- she must prepare breakfast before her children wake up and her husband gets back from delivering milk. Her husband arrives and Tabitha has to take his breakfast to him, he does not like eating in the kitchen and in fact he rarely enters it. He expects his wife to handle all matters involving the kitchen and if he ever wants anything he only needs to call out her name. The process of preparing meals, accompanied by hours of blowing into a metal cylinder, just to keep the embers from dying out, is not his concern, as per most traditional African cultures. He does, however, notice that his wife is coughing as she serves him breakfast. He assumes it must be the cold and advises her to wear a warmer sweater.

Tabitha's children are by now awake and fully dressed for school. They, unlike their father, prefer to have their meals in the kitchen, right next to their mother who is much more tolerant of their playful ways than her husband. Her eldest child Dennis is six years old, and he does not mind the smoke in the kitchen that much, as he has got used to it by now. What he does mind is the smell of smoke on his clothes. Earlier, he would be forced to hang his school sweater outside for aeration every evening, but he is wiser now. He simply does not wear his sweater until he is about to leave for school, despite the chilly morning weather. Dennis he does not want to be teased at school.

"Some of my friends use stoves in their homes and they tease the rest of us who come to school smelling like smoke," says Dennis. Once he is done, he quickly runs out of the kitchen and one is left wondering if he is excited to go to school or just to be out of the smoke filled kitchen with soot covering its walls.

Her husband having already left to work in the nearby quarry, Tabitha is now left alone with Joyce, her 4 years old daughter. The two have a long day ahead of them. They have to trek to their farm and must return by 1pm-- not just for lunch but also to prepare for the evening. On their way back, they gather firewood, some of which the little girl carries in an attempt to lighten her mother's load. She understands from an early age that this is the role her community has assigned to women.

Mother and daughter sit side by side as Tabitha prepares the evening meal until Joyce starts coughing. The cough does not abate and soon a wheeze can be heard. Her mother tells her to wear a sweater and stay in the main house where the smoke will not aggravate her cough. This is not the first time that Joyce has had a bout of cough and wheeze. Tabitha thinks it is simply a reaction to the cold evening weather as the symptoms present themselves only in the early morning hours or late evening. Son and husband eventually return, hungry for their evening meal. Tabitha spends over 6 hours in her kitchen every day. She has accepted this as her way of life. But as I leave, I ask if she wished life was different. Her crisp response is, "No, I only wish it was better."

We often approach indoor air pollution as a public health issue and rightly so. The health issues surrounding traditional cooking methods that utilize firewood and coal are numerous: asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, lung and other respiratory diseases, among others. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly four million people worldwide die prematurely from illnesses attributable to indoor air pollution.

As Dr. Jared Mecha, a consultant on respiratory diseases in the School of Medicine, University of Nairobi, Kenya says, "When it comes to indoor air pollution, we have a long way to go, more so in the rural setting. It is not simply a matter of raising awareness but also providing solutions that are relevant to the community. We have to be practical in the options we present and consider the social, economic and cultural aspects as well."

This is a message that came across strongly after going through a day in the life of Tabitha Ibeere, for whom (like most women in her setting), provision of better cooking technologies is not simply a matter of improving livelihoods but of empowering women as well. An initiative has been taken up by the Global Alliance for clean stoves and echoed by the work of the Kenya Medical Research Institute by formation of partnerships that strive to lower indoor pollution in households in rural Kenya. This is the way forward, as indoor air pollution is not just a public health concern but a human rights issue as well. All living beings, including women and children, have the right to breathe clean air inside, as well as outside, their homes.

(First publish in The Star News, Kenya)

Diana Wangari, Citizen News Service - CNS 
5 September 2014