By Momanyi Lilian
A review from the book titled: Dreams of Soot.
The boy died after a severe asthma attack, the local newspaper reported, caused by the air pollution from Zima Coal.
Tabitha stared at the headline unblinking with a handkerchief pressed to her cheek.
Her son, Nzioka had been reduced to a few paragraphs and grainy picture because of these monsters.
The story glossed over other contributing facts like how unaffordable cans of oxgen cost and how the bodies of low-wage from neighbouring towns were dumped in the sea with their families receiving compensation not worthy of their deceased.
When her son Nzioka came down with the first coughing bout, she had sat by his bed all night her face twisted in agony as she fervently prayed.
His breathing was labored and the occasional piteous wheeze alarmed even the doctors.
This was not the only case of severe asthma that night because two of his friends had been brought in as well.
They had been playing near the coal plant because there was a field close by which was fit for their football game.
Despite their parents’ warnings and the frequent guard chasing them away, their game went on until Nzioka started coughing uncontrollably.
That hacking cough alarmed his friends and they run back to the estate to get an adult.
In the hours that followed it became hard to explain what they had been doing there in the first place.
When they finally made it to the local clinic, nurses shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders in indifference.
They tucked cans of oxgen in her hands and sent them to the district hospital.
When two of the other boys accompanying Nzioka and his mother began coughing the severity of it caused the nurses to cram them all in an ambulance immediately.
At Viwayu District Hospital doctors worked to revive Nzioka while Tabitha screamed at them to work faster.
Meanwhile the nurses were swarmed by other irate parents demanding answers and begging to see their children.
She still clutched at her prayer beads even after the grim news that all the boys would need to stay overnight for observation.
She had been hoping for a miracle and that alone was the only thing that held her together even as the faces of other parents creased up in agony and worry.
She sat on a chair by his bed trembling, unseeing, and didn’t notice that her son had woken up and was staring at her.
It was his gentle tag on her wrist that she became aware of how taut her stomach had been stretched in worry.
“Si we talked about that field,” she huffed, straightening a pillow and smoothing the bedcover.
“I know Ma. It was just a game we were playing and I..,” Nzioka placated before she interrupted.
“But why did you stay in there so long. I told you that field isn’t safe,” said Tabitha.
He nodded and coughed slightly twisting the bedsheet in his fingers. She stared lovingly at him wondering how they had got here.
“Okay, okay,” she said, hurrying off to call a nurse for his medicine.
The tall columns at Zima Coal steadily chugged dark soot in the air. As it got dark, the plumes curled into patterns like hands grabbing at the orange dusk sky.
She remembered how her neighbourhood watch group had opposed the building of that coal plant in their area for months even obtaining an injunction from court.
While the construction had halted temporarily, the company had offered some of the estate residents work within their facility and the vigour with which they resisted them waned over time. Soon one by one, they fell away from the petition and ignored her calls.
In the years that followed, more workers were brought in from neighbouring towns which accepted low-wage contracts from recruiters.
The plant was expanding and taking with it countless shambas and seafront properties.
Oxygen cannisters became a regular commodity in the shops as the smog lingered longer above the town.
Traces of soot would deposit on every available surface.
The ships that docked further up the port would come in at night and dispose young men who acted as security with big guns, army fatigues and dark sunglasses.
She had heard how farmers around the plant had been encouraged to give up their land after a visit from those boys.
Nzioka’s death came abruptly with the silence of the beeping machines by his bed.
His sleep during the third night at the hospital had been restless. Nurses had come in and out trying different doses to keep him comfortable.
Tabitha who had nodded off in a chair next to his bed woke up in a confused haze wondering why she was being shuttled away from his bedside.
Doctors had run in with nurses in tow and were trying to resuscitate Nzioka as she watched behind the glass partition.
She could see his body lying on the bed rigidly as they continued to try all they could. She knew he was dead even before the nurse crossed the room to where she stood.
Her vision blurred as she held on to his hand for what seemed like days.
Mourners came by her house after the funeral to condole her and the neighbourhood watch group enlisted the chief to demand compensation for her.
The death of her son drained her of all the body functions. She could hardly walk let alone sit up.
Anger churned in her like a storm and when she could walk on her own, she made her way to the chief’s office to follow up with him.
With the postmortem results backing her claim she felt hopeful for justice.
This was a conversation that the chief had had with the plant managers for three years.
He had called out the company for the toxic waste they were illegally disposing in the community.
Local news vans had camped outside the plant hoping to talk to the manager and they got the same response each time.
That it was the choice of the residents to host the company and they had done it with consent from the government.
The chief had started receiving complaints few weeks after set up and from then on, a barrage of disgruntled residents would show up at his office waiting for him to expel the company.
It had been an arduous task even getting the factory to comply with an inspection which they had surprisingly passed.
And so he made a point to visit them every six months to make sure they were complying.
Muriu Livingstone, the plant manager was even more elusive to find until an exposé revealed how one of the engineers had fallen ill while at work and died but her husband had hurriedly moved to another part of the country after being paid off.
Then he made a big show of donating millions of shillings to fund research on why coal wasn’t harmful as the media had accused, he even went ahead to give the press a tour of the new wing he was opening.
Protests arose soon after that.
Tabitha joined the initial call to expel the company purely out of curiosity.
She was encouraged by the daily turn out at Zima Coal’s gate and continued joining them in their cause.
This went on for weeks with more people joining the demonstrations from neighbouring towns.
When the chief authorized a crew to cordon part of the coal plant fence which was close to the playground, a grenade was hurled through his office window injuring some of his staff.
It was suspected that the security guards at the plant had done it.
And so the next day he enlisted his askaris who stood by as a fence and barbed wire was put around the field.
The first shots rang out the next morning.
In retaliation, the plant’s security was firing at anyone who came close to the company gate.
They said they viewed it as aggression by the local government because despite the fence, the demonstrators were aggressively seeking immediate expulsion of the company.
Round after round echoed across the estate as people run haphazardly towards safety.
Tabitha run hard gripping her leso around her waist as she weaved past traffic and other protestors.
She could hear sharp cries as bullets connected with targets. Screams rent the air as more bullets were fired on the crowd.
Sweat poured from her brow as she turned a corner onto the street that led to her house. She didn’t stop until she had latched the door behind her with her heart pounding wildly.
An uneasy silence fell over the estate when the firing stopped, no one ventured out to assess the damage.
Even as evening came Tabitha was too frightened to turn on her lights so she squatted by the stove cooking her supper with the light from her phone’s screen.
The next morning was buzzing with rumuors of dead protestors.
They were yet to be confirmed and no one wanted to make the trip to the morgue.
The chief had been compelled to call in the National Guard after the incident.
The streets were filled with policemen in antiriot gear while others directed traffic away from the plant.
When she made her way to the market Mama Opiyo beckoned to her.
“I told you Zima has an army,” she proclaimed.
“Did you hear the gunshots? Twa twa twa,” a shopper chimed in.
“I was there,” exclaimed yet another shopper.
“They call them Muriu’s army,” Mama Opiyo added.
“Muriu?” asked Tabitha.
“Yeah, Muriu the CEO’s army.” Mama Opiyo confirmed emphatically.
The chat lasted longer with Tabitha learning that the chief was helping to round up the leaders of the demonstration to help with investigations.
An insistent pound on her door caused her to run past her kitchen straightening her back against a wall that was closest to her door.
As she peered out, she saw the chief accompanied by men who she recognized were guards at the plant as well as police from the National Guard. In tiptoe she creeped back to an exit door close to her store and unlatched the door, running to safety.
She hid in several of her friends’ homes until it became clear that she was endangering their lives.
Tabitha was among the few who were lucky to escape because the company had called for arrest of many of the demonstrators and pressed for their prosecution.
It was part of the agreement they had made with the national government to the chief’s chagrin.
The national government had also enforced a sundown curfew which had turned the attention of the country to the district.
It took six months for the curfew to be lifted and things to return to normalcy and even longer for environmentalists and health investigators to declare the plant unfit for society.
They sued the government for loss of property and won with the district shouldering the heaviest burden with increased debt.
In another six months the company was dismantled and a land reclamation commission was formed.
The residents celebrated this victory with a somber service at the estate chapel to commemorate the lives lost.
At the end-of-year district baraza, Tabitha’s voice shook as she narrated the misery that Zima Coal had brought to her estate.
It was the first time since she came out of hiding that she was able to speak of it.
With her grief somewhat dulled, she empathized with those whose dreams of a better life had been quashed by unscrupulous investors.
As the smog let up the air became clear enough to breath without canned oxygen.
Farmers had begun tilling the land even as huge swathes of it was still in ruin.
The neighbourhood watch was still keen on sustainable energy for the community and had had discussions with experts to implement solar panels on a small-scale trial basis.
The air was still, balmy and down by the sea Tabitha could see the moon dipping away far down on the shore’s edge.
She sighed as she tossed a forgotten oxygen can with a name squiggled on the side in blue ink in the trash then she turned and climbed up the steps to her house.