The Power of One – Oluwatoni Adesanya

The triumph of this text is the way it exemplifies how personal choices shape social change in a relatable and, in many ways, actionable way.” – Dan Bernardo

Eniola sprawled on the aged one-seater and switched on the TV, hacking as the sulphurous odour of smog filtered in through the shut windows. She navigated through the channels until a news story on the BBC caught her eye. The news anchor spoke, but images flashed across the screen, showing pristine streets and well-maintained buildings.

‘…and once again, the United Kingdom has won the award for the cleanest country in the world, producing only 10 million tonnes of waste last year, meaning cleaner oceans and less decomposition of toxic materials in our landfills.’

‘Other countries in the top ten include Finland, Amsterdam, Germany and Denmark. The 2050s have certainly been a good decade for Europe and set to…’

Eniola sighed and turned off the news, knowing why the UK’s waste seemed to have reduced so quickly and why her own country, Nigeria, never made it into the top 100 of the world’s cleanest.

Walking over to a window, she pulled the curtain away and felt a storm of rage brewing as she saw the landfill a couple of miles away growing. Yet more waste, kindly donated from the UK and USA. For decades now containers from the rich countries had been crossing the high seas full of unrecyclable waste, used electronics, wreaked cars and other nameless things, finding their way to landfills in poor countries in exchange for money. Over time the landfills had grown into towering monoliths bearing silent testimony to an untenable Faustian pact. The UK and US never spoke of it (of course), but neither did the Nigerian government. Did they not realise that climate issues needed to be addressed as a global effort? Did they not care about future generations yet unborn? Either way, not only did the rubbish smell, but as it decomposed, it released toxic fumes into the air, grotesque and threatening in colour and quickly spread.

Now almost everyone Eniola knew was asthmatic, lungs destroyed by the polluted air and plastic microfibres free-floating. Animals were choking on pieces of plastic and metal, dying by the dozens on the road. More and more dumps were popping up across Lagos, even in the urban areas. The situation was declining, and here she was, living in a hell created by those praised for bringing about heaven.

She slumped on the couch, having another violent coughing fit. She realised that she would probably be dead within the next 10 years. A waste of life and the same thing would happen to the next generation. And the one after that, and the one after that. 

Later that evening, she picked up the newspaper she had neglected all day. There had been a chemical waste dumping in Abidjan (involving hydrogen sulphide) where 17 citizens died immediately, and tens of thousands fell seriously ill. The citizens eventually got justice for their pain and suffering when the Dutch company paid a fine of a million euros. The crises had led to the payment of compensation, but this, Eniola thought, would never bring back the dead or heal the wasting relatives. No amount of money would ever take away the pain. ‘Why can’t our leaders ever do anything?’ she muttered in frustration. ‘Things are only getting worse’.

She felt trapped and helpless. Sighing deeply, she wondered why she was not born in another country. Listless, she opened her old family photo album, the one under her table, and started to flip through. In one photo, her mom, dad, her Aunt Bola, cousins and herself were taking a group photo outside in a beautiful park, laughing and sharing high fives. She smiled, remembering that day 23 years ago. The photo had been taken just after a lively game of football. Indignant, she wondered to herself. Why couldn’t she do any of these things anymore? Why was the ‘great’ outdoors so wasted now? As she gazed wistfully at the photo, something in the background that she had never noticed before caught her eye. A billboard. Squinting, she read:

‘Change begins with you.’

Then it struck her – instead of moaning, she had to get up and do something!

The next morning, she got to work doing research on her computer and making phone calls. After several weeks of tedious research, editing and redrafting, proof-reading and sleepless nights, she had written a comprehensive expose of countries involved in dumping, along with case studies involving specific companies, locations and their effects on the local communities. Then, she compiled the email addresses of every major news network she could think of, home and away, and emailed it to all of them.

The only thing left to do was wait.

Two weeks. Three weeks. A month. Month and a half, and nothing. She had all but given up hope when she heard a line from a news channel:

‘…an anonymous author exposing the shocking climate crimes taking place in these times…’

Screaming elatedly, she tuned in to it. Everything was coming full circle. The news channel reporting on the expose was the BBC.

Within weeks, the UN had drawn up a treaty stopping the dumping which the countries involved had agreed to sign. She’d succeeded in lighting the spark, getting people angry and moving, but despite all this, the streets remained basically empty, except for the occasional peddler or hawker or delivery guy, people who couldn’t help being out on the road. The waste had stopped coming. But the existing mess needed to be cleaned up.

And even though it scared her to death, even though her life was in danger from the smell worth a thousand deaths, she knew she had to take the first step. Because if she didn’t, she would die, and so would all the next generations. Nigeria would die.

The next day, wearing a surgical mask, covered from head to toe, she stepped out of her 3-year self-imposed quarantine and into the sunlight. As the treaties were being signed in the Hague, she lifted her shovel and set to work.