by Ebenezar Wikina
I’m sure you’ve seen the posts on social media. In fact, last week #StoptheSoot trended for days. I was out of town for work, and it was very interesting to meet people and introduce myself as someone from Port Harcourt and get comments like, “Hey! Port Harcourt! How are you people surviving?” “So you’ve been inhaling black smoke?” “Are people there dead?” Haha! Others made comments like, “I won’t come to Port Harcourt again, never!” All this made me think twice about social media campaigns; its pros and cons juxtaposed with the media’s ability to magnify and make obscure at the same time. Yes, the soot pollution is real and it’s quite bad—there’s need for urgent action and I’m happy that the advocacy has been strong and led by us, the people. However, it’s not as bad as people outside Port Harcourt perceive. Port Harcourt is not a death zone. Hey! Even the Vice President was here yesterday.
The funniest thing is people who are freaking out the most about the soot are people who just got to know about it only few weeks or days ago. The soot thing was first noticed by Port Harcourt residents as far back as October 2016. Yes, October. However, at that time we just didn’t make much sense out of it. The Port Harcourt Global Shapers had this viral tweet in December that showed people were interested in the conversation but, somehow we all went quiet by Christmas—perhaps we were too bust eating rice and chicken.
My younger brothers and I cofounded a chair and canopy rental business, EKM, sometime in 2015—to meet the needs of people who have outdoor events—and one thing Mum always fights us with is keeping the chairs and canopies clean (It takes serious dedication to keep them clean); and we try to wash them as frequent as possible to please our customers but at the latter part of January we started to notice the notorious soot settle on the white chairs again. Then everyone got upset seeing that the authorities had not done much or even said much about it besides a press release from the Ministry of Environment distributed sometime in December.
Although the Commissioner for Environment, Prof Roseline Konya, eventually came out to engage citizens through various radio stations in Port Harcourt, but in the heat of our advocacy the authorities were silent. The best we heard was that testing was currently being done. Testing, Testing. Testing what? Is it a microphone? People were vexed! The hashtag trended for days as people kept showing evidence of the soot around them—at home, at work, and even in their nostrils.
It was at this time the Port Harcourt Global Shapers decided to call for higher powers. We started a petition on Change.org (which at the moment is closing in on 300 signatures). We have taken it further by informing UN Environment officially about the issues. Of course, the UN cannot come down to solve our problems for us but maybe if the international community is aware, the challenge we’re facing will be handled with more urgency.
You can help make our voices louder by signing the petition here bit.ly/stopthesoot
In all fairness to the government, as a result of the cries (on and off social media) by residents of Rivers State, the Governor set up a special taskforce which has moved fast in shutting down a couple of suspected companies and is currently investigating industrial practices in the state. We hope it doesn’t end there.
Can We Learn from China?
Recent happenings with the soot got me thinking and researching more about China’s industrial practices. The fact that ‘canned fresh air’ is even a thing in China makes me scared that we might have just set ourselves on that path China is on. When we ‘make money’ without thinking of how to safeguard where we will spend that money, we end up having to buy canned fresh air to stay alive because we have already polluted our environment.
My sisters, Jennifer and Adiya wrote a very important ebook about Business Sustainability and I think every policy maker should check it out. We need to start drafting policies to protect our environment. Companies should not be allowed to do whatever they want just because they want to—or because it helps increase their profit at the expense of others.
Hopefully, we will have our fresh-Port Harcourt-air back again, and the cause of this soot will be found and destroyed.
I really hope we learn from China.
Ebenezar Wikina is a Mobile Journalist, Global Shaper, and Development Communications Expert whose experience in the media space is drawn from working in the public, private, and non-profit sectors respectively.