What do we know about air quality in Nairobi?

A road packed with buses in central Nairobi

Packed streets at rush hour in downtown Nairobi (via the New York Times)

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole on Nairobi air quality the other weekend, after I went for a long bike ride, and ended up chugging up a steep hill alongside a matatu emitting black smoke directly into my face.  I wanted to know if I could pick specific areas or specific times of the week when it would be safer to ride.  (Research suggests that the health benefits of cycling probably outweigh the costs of pollution exposure in all but the most polluted cities, but I’m still not keen on breathing in matatu exhaust.)

What I found is that there’s a strong consensus that Nairobi’s air quality is poor, but very limited data about variations in air quality by neighborhood or time of day.  An MIT project shared data from five locations around the city collected from 2016 – 2017, and found that timing of the highest levels of pollution varied significantly between sites.  (Thus, no possibility of making a uniform recommendation like “avoid cycling in the afternoon” across the city.)

Three graphs showing pollution by time of day in Kibera, St Scholastika, and the United Nations in Nairobi

What about real-time data?  Air-quality.com offers data from two sensors in Kilimani and Kitisuru.  They’re currently suggesting that the air quality index is around 54 by US standards, which stands for “moderate pollution with mild impacts on extremely sensitive groups.”  However, these are also relatively wealthy neighborhoods that don’t see much traffic from buses and trucks, which tend to be the worst polluters.  We clearly can’t extrapolate from this to the whole city.

Another project called sensors.AFRICA is supposed to be launching an air quality monitoring network with 22 sensors across the city.  However, they don’t appear to be operating yet.  In short, Nairobi has a lot of work to do to provide adequate real-time data on its air quality.

Depression and recovery, one year on

A green journal with a pen on top of it sitting next to a cup of tea on a wooden table

Morning journaling

Almost a year after my earlier post about my experience of depression in grad school, I wanted to discuss some of what I’ve learned about recovering from depression.  I expected that recovery would be nonlinear, with good days and bad, and that’s been accurate.  I also expected that at some point, I would pass an obvious milestone labeled “fully recovered,” and would go on feeling happy and engaged with the world without needing to consciously work towards that goal.  This doesn’t actually seem to be the way that recovery functions.  I’ve come to find that preventing relapses of depressive symptoms requires consistent and active work on my part, and I suspect that it always will.  I wanted to share this in case it might be useful for anyone else in a similar position.

The Half-Life of Depression

One thing that really surprised me during the earlier stages of my recovery was that even after I’d dealt with some of the underlying problems which were leaving me depressed, I would still have days when I felt inexplicably sad or unable to focus.  I suppose I’d assumed that I would bounce right back to my usual self once my stress levels had gone down.  However, I’ve noticed three ways in which the effects of depression can persist beyond an immediately stressful situation.

First, untreated depression changes your brain.  In the short run, it shrinks the hippocampus and makes it more difficult to form new memories, although these effects appear to be reversible once the depression improves.  In the long run, it increases inflammation in various parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, which helps to govern executive function and reasoning skills.  I’ve found that while I can still produce high quality work, I can’t maintain intensive focus for quite as long, and I need to take breaks more consistently.

Second, depression can lead to shifts in your habits which require some effort to undo.  At my worst, I was ignoring my email, letting all the dishes go unwashed for days, and so forth because I couldn’t get out of bed.  I’ve had to consciously work to re-develop all my previous good habits of time management and organization.  This has also led to some interesting new challenges.  For example, if I’m consistently washing the dishes and keeping on top of my email, this helps me to focus on my other work.  If I let the dishes pile up a bit, however, I’ve found that this sets off an anxiety klaxon in my brain saying “Look at this mess!  You’re getting depressed again!  You’ll never recover!”  Over time I’ve learned to acknowledge that klaxon and then think about all the ways that I am recovering, rather panicking over it, but that was another totally new habit to develop.

Third, the process of recovering from depression might also bring up other mental health challenges that you hadn’t previously dealt with.  For me, a big part of my recovery was journaling about my emotions, and trying to figure out why I was feeling sad or stressed rather than just ignoring those feelings.  In the process, I realized that I’ve probably had a mild-to-moderate anxiety disorder for most of my life.  It’s ultimately been good to address this more openly, but at the time it felt like a big setback as I tried to reach my goal of Being Mentally Healthy, and led to a relapse of depressive symptoms for a while.  (As it turns out, most of the steps for dealing with depression also work on anxiety, at least for me.)

Rethinking Recovery and Productivity

The other thing that’s struck me about recovery is how much more sensitive my moods are to my general level of self-care.  If I’m getting enough sleep, exercise, and time to journal, then I can bounce back from stressful events pretty quickly.  If I’m not, stressful events can quickly lead me to feel depressed again.  I’ve come to think about self-care not as something indulgent, but as a process of investing in resilience.

This has required some fundamental shifts in how I think about my productivity.  There are strong narratives within American academia and American culture more broadly about how productivity can only be achieved at the expense of one’s physical and emotional health.  When I was younger, before my period of severe depression, I absolutely lived into this.  I was regularly overcommitting myself at school and at work, and skipping sleep and social events so that I could finish my projects.

In some ways, that mindset has been the biggest reason why I don’t think I’ll ever arrive at “fully recovered” — because my idea of what being fully recovered looks like is actually an unhealthy one.  I’ve held on to the perception that “recovery” means being able to work extremely long hours without ever having to take care of myself, and without suffering ill effects.  Uprooting this deeply held belief is still a work in progress for me.  In particular, I’ve had to really work to not compare my current rate of productivity to the unsustainably high rates I could produce in my teens and twenties.

One thing I’ve found helpful here is trying to focus more on process than on outputs.  If I get too focused on how soon I’m going to finish a report or an article, I end up falling back into unsustainable habits, like working late or skipping the gym.  I can do this for a few days, but I’ve found that I inevitably crash after that, and will then lose the next few days to another wave of depressive symptoms.  Conversely, when I prioritize meeting my standards for self-care, this leaves me feeling rested and focused for the rest of the day.  I’m trying to remind myself that working consistently is more sustainable in the long run than working intensely, if the latter pattern forces me to alternate between working intensely and not working at all.

Self-Care Suggestions

Here are the aspects of self-care which I’ve found most helpful during my recovery.  Everyone’s experience is different, and I don’t mean to claim that this is the royal road to mental health — simply things that have worked for me.  Also, I’ll note that I haven’t to deal with very inflexible work or caregiving responsibilities, which would definitely have made this more challenging.

  • Getting enough sleep.  I cut down on caffeine and stopped using an alarm clock if I didn’t have any early meetings, both of which help me to get the amount of sleep my body actually needs.  (The tea in the photo is caffeine free!)
  • Regular exercise.  Doing some moderate cardio every other day helps me to feel much more focused.  Being outside for a workout also seems to help, although if I’m working out indoors I’ll try to spend a bit of time outside at another point during the day.
  • Journaling.  If I wake up with something on my mind, I’ll write about it right away, so that I’m not worrying about it for the rest of the day.  I try to use the journal for immediate problem solving during the week (like “how should I handle this challenging conversation I’ve got coming up?”), and take time to write about bigger issues on the weekends.
  • Solving small problems right away.  If I notice a small issue that I need to resolve, I try to handle it promptly, so it’s not distracting me.  This seems trivial, but I’ve found that I otherwise get stuck in a cycle of being distracted, then blaming myself for being distracted about something small, then being even more distracted.  Something about the experience with depression means that I have a hard time snapping out of these cycles if I get into them, so I try to just avoid them.
  • No mind-reading.  Lots of people hesitate to bring up difficult topics with their partners or colleagues.  When I do this, I find that I often end up trying to guess at how the other person feels, or imagining worst-case scenarios for the conversation, and that’s a definite trigger for depressive symptoms for me.  Raising difficult topics directly and trying to resolve them helps me avoid that outcome.

Also, lots of other things haven’t worked for me!  Among them are giving up alcohol, cutting back on screen time, and meditating, none of which seemed to have any correlation with my mood.  I also haven’t tried any medication, although I’m open to that in the future if my current set of self-care practices no longer seems to be enough to keep depression at bay.  Recovery is definitely a trial and error process.

Meet the door-to-door family planning salespeople of Nigeria

A Nigerian woman in a blue hijab printed with the words "child spacing saves lives" holds a blue box labeled "choice kit," in the courtyard of a house with green walls

Aishatu Abdullahi at work, via the CSM

Over at the Christian Science Monitor, Ryan Lenora Brown (who’s quickly turning into one of my favorite journalists) has a fantastic piece on alternative delivery mechanisms for birth control in northern Nigeria.

In another time, in a different place, [Aishatu Abdullahi] might have been an Avon Lady, unzipping her bag to reveal tiny samples of lotions and lipsticks to neighborhood homemakers. But in northern Nigeria, in 2019, her powers of persuasion are directed toward unloading a very different kind of product.

“There are condoms, there are pills, there are implants, there is a shot,” she says cheerily, unsnapping a box of samples to show two potential customers. “It all depends on the type of method you’re looking for.”

Mrs. Abdullahi is part of a team of door-to-door contraceptive saleswomen hired by the family-planning charity Marie Stopes International to bring birth control to women here who can’t – or won’t – get it elsewhere.

The program is sensitive to local cultural norms and gendered power relations as well.

[Abdullahi has] learned to hustle her products at the few public events that bring women together, like weddings and baby-naming ceremonies, where she often sidles up to women she doesn’t know and asks them, quietly, if they know about child spacing.

That’s the way she phrases it, she says, because the idea isn’t to wag a finger at women who want big families. Abdullahi herself has seven kids, and says her only goal is to give women control over when they get pregnant.

That choice has proved powerful. Local women now pass her number furtively among themselves, so that Abdullahi’s phone is constantly lighting up with unknown numbers. Can you come to my house tonight? Can I have it done at your place? I can’t pay, can you help?

Africa Update for March 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the professional mourners of the DRC, Somalia’s unique mobile money ecosystem, the Lagos art scene, Rwanda’s first female neurosurgeon, and more.

A Ghanaian man and his young daughter, with text superimposed next to the reading "justice is what love looks like in public" - Cornel West

Thought for the day, via Òman Baako

West Africa: This was a difficult but important read about rape culture in Ghana.  In Nigeria, “men are always having transactional sex, and they are fine with it as long as they are the ones setting the terms of the transaction.” Technology is making it more difficult to rig elections by stuffing ballot boxes in Nigeria.  Sierra Leone has declared a national emergency over high rates of sexual assault of teenage girls. Survivors of the West African Ebola epidemic are complaining after it emerged that their blood samples have been shipped worldwide for research without their consent.

Central Africa: Uganda is running sting operations to catch healthcare providers who ask for bribes.  If your career is lagging in eastern Congo, you might consider becoming a professional mourner.  This is a remarkable story about how one Congolese doctor worked closely with armed groups to vaccinate people in a remote town against Ebola.  Rwanda has launched a new University of Global Health Equity to train future doctors.  Read this moving piece on Burundi’s tiny lesbian community.

Two young boys sit at wooden desks inside an ornate, palatial room

Apparently the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s former palace in Lisala was turned into a school at one point (via Nicolas-Patience Basabose)

East Africa: Here’s some background on the case currently being heard in Kenyan courts that could decriminalize homosexuality.  Kenya’s new educational policy will give students several more years of instruction in their local languages before switching to English, which should boost their overall literacy.  Read about the rise of rollerblading culture in Nairobi. Two Eritrean brothers are bringing solar panels to markets which big Western solar firms won’t touch. Tanzania has begun offering land titles to people in poor neighborhoods, rather than driving them away for lacking titles.  Here are the historical precedents of the current uprising in Sudan.  This is a great profile of the unique mobile money ecosystem in Somalia, where as much as 98% of all paper currency in circulation may be counterfeit.

Southern Africa: More than 900 people, most of them children, have died in a measles outbreak in Madagascar.  A hospital in Malawi has carried out its first-ever brain surgery.  Malawi’s healthcare system calls for women to get regular medical care for themselves and their children, but some are questioning whether this disconnects men from care.  South Africa has passed a law which would require disclosure of political parties’ funding sources for the first time.  Zambia just made a rare move to revert from a value-added tax (VAT) back to a sales tax, which will probably increase tax evasion.

An overhead view of a pick-up truck painted with camouflage, with several Sudanese men sitting in the back, and a very large Sudanese flag waving overhead

An artistic interpretation of Sudan’s current protests by Jaili Hajo, via Shado Magazine

Conflict: Read this critique of the NYT’s reporting on armed groups and US counterinsurgency operations in Burkina Faso.  France is carrying out airstrikes in Chad against “terrorist” groups which some say are just the government’s political opponents.  Years of attacks by armed groups have shaped Kenya’s public architecture with a focus on (often ineffective) security features.  This is a remarkable story about the Kenyan citizens who went to Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab.  Here are the roadblocks to integrating rebels into the army in South Sudan. In the Central African Republic, a high profile panel of religious leaders calls for peace but faces obstacles in convincing the public that they’re credible.

Politics + economics: African governments are increasingly likely to tax mobile money transactions, but even small taxes may drive so many users back to cash that the revenue effects are null.  Here’s a good summary of the expansion of welfare programs across Africa.  The children of immigrants in Africa face the risk of being stateless, as neither their host country nor their parents’ country of origin may recognize their citizenship.  Read about the political business cycles which make elections expensive undertakings in many African countries.

An Ethiopian woman with the bottom half of her face painted blue, wearing a red cape, in front of a blue background

Check out all of the wonderful female photographers highlighted by Sarah Waiswa on Twitter.  This photo is from Ethiopia’s Aïda Muluneh.

Women’s empowerment: Check out these books by Nigerian authors on the longlist of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Maria Obonyo of Uganda gave new meaning to “life-long learning” when she enrolled in primary school at the age of 80 to learn how to write.   OkayAfrica has released their list of 100 influential African women for 2019.  A protest at a Nigerian market has encouraged male vendors to stop catcalling women in order to get them to buy their products.  Meet Claire Karekezi, who is Rwanda’s first female neurosurgeon.

Arts + culture: This library inside a converted mosque in Niger is beautiful.   Nigeria’s burgeoning art scene looks amazing.  This is a wonderful piece about the place of kitenge fabric in a contemporary pan-African aesthetic.  I can’t wait to see Blitz the Ambassador’s magical realist film “The Burial of Kojo” about one family’s life in Ghana.  Bakwa Magazine is seeking submissions by March 15 for an issue about the experience of traveling while African.

An infographic about scientific research output in Africa

Facts about African research output via the Mawazo Institute

AcademiaThe 2nd African Evidence to Action Conference is being held in Accra from July 11 – 12.  Submit a manuscript to the Working Group in African Political Economy by March 27 for a meeting held in Cape Town, also on July 10 – 12.  African scholars are encouraged to apply to the Africa Research Development Group at the American Political Science Association annual meeting (due March 10; meeting from August 28 – September 1).  If you’re looking for research collaborators, check out the newly launched Network of Impact Evaluation Researchers in Africa.

The local politics of Ebola vaccination in eastern DRC

A group of about 12 people stand in front of a thatched roof hut. One man is carrying a machine gun

Dr Jean-Christophe Shako with Mai-Mai militia members (via IRIN)

IRIN recently published a remarkable article about the hyperlocal politics of vaccinating people against Ebola in eastern Congo — a place where governance structures can change from town to town depending on which rebel group is in charge.  Dr Jean-Christophe Shako, the Ebola response coordinator in Butembo, had an interesting story about building relationships with the Mai-Mai militia in one town in order to vaccinate people after a young boy died of the disease.

[After I arrived in the town and met the Mai-Mai leaders], my hosts remained silent, observing and analysing my behaviour. Only when I began eating did the atmosphere lighten. My hosts started smiling and talking. The chief told me they appreciated my humility by agreeing to eat with them.

That is when our conversation finally started. They had never heard about Ebola nor the vaccination. So I spent more than 30 minutes explaining the virus to them, how it spreads, what the preventative measures are, and how the vaccination works.

Without saying a word, the village chief went outside and gathered the villagers. Then he allowed the titulaire to list all those who had been in contact with the baby boy so we could follow the chain of transmission. In total, 75 people came forward.

Everyone who had been in contact with the child was vaccinated the next day, and no one else in the town developed the virus.  As Dr Shako noted,

Earning trust during such a deadly outbreak is always hard. Which showed me yet again that respect, compassion, and humility can go a long way – even saving your life and the life of an entire community.

Africa Update for February 2019

Here’s my latest link roundup, crossposted as usual from Africa Update.  We’ve got Sudanese clones of Nigerian politicians, books on ancient West African empires, the hidden toilet taxes of Tanzania, Uganda’s “herbal Viagra” which is actually just Viagra, and more.

A young Ghanaian man in a colorful jacket standing in front of a black star against a pink backgroundLove this photos series done around Accra by Prince Gyasi

West Africa: Here’s how false information spreads in Nigeria ahead of elections, including rumors that the country’s president has been replaced by a Sudanese clone.  Follow all of these female Nigerian political analysts for your election updates.  New research in Senegal finds that people who have better political connections benefit more from policies to get informal businesses to register with the government.  Senegal and Gambia have just opened the first-ever bridge between the two countries.  Liberia is considering a controversial amendment to its citizenship law, which currently states that only people of African descent can become citizens or own land.  This was a fantastic summary of the dynastic politics of the Northern Ghanaian kingdoms.  Here’s what’s going on with the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon.  Read all about urbanization in West Africa with this new report from the Center for Democratic Development.

Central Africa: The government of the Central African Republic has reached a peace deal with 14 major armed groups — the fourth such agreement the country has had since 2014.  Ugandan postgrad students must often stay enrolled in their university for months or years after they submit their theses to be examined, as the examiners are not paid for their work on time.  The DRC’s contested election ended with Félix Tshisekedi in power even though he lost the popular vote — a result which was rapidly accepted by the United States out of concern that challenging the results would lead to violence.

IMG_0871Here’s a photo of the beautiful Kenyan countryside from a recent trip on the Madaraka Express

East Africa: People with albinism in Tanzania say that beauty pageants and improved media coverage are lessening stigma against them, but they still face the risk of violent witchcraft-related attacks.  In the urban markets of Tanzania, male and female traders pay the same market taxes, but women pay up to 18 times more per day to use the toilets.  Kenya has banned several companies from producing peanut butter after finding it to be contaminated with aflatoxin, a carcinogenic mold that grows on improperly stored grains and legumes.  A new report finds that minority communities in Kenya face greater difficulties getting state ID cards, which are necessary for access to many public services.  Muslim students in Kenya may also be forced to remove their hijabs if they want to enroll in public school.  Check out this set by the first female Kenyan-Somali comedian in Nairobi. Read about the reintroduction of paper currency in Somalia, after yeras of the exclusive use of mobile money.  This was a good article on the regional geopolitics of the fight against al-Shabaab in East Africa.

Southern Africa: Zimbabwe’s government has ordered public hospitals to provide renal dialysis for free, which increased uptake rates but strained the underfunded hospitals.  South African law says that schools must provide transport for disabled pupils, but many are being left behind as schools say they live too far away or don’t have maintenance money for their vehicles.  This was a fascinating profile of the mineworkers’ trade union in Zambia, which operates more like a business than an advocacy group.

ebola drc“The Ebola outbreak in DRC is really several distinct outbreaks in different areas,” according to Peter Salama

Public health: Restrictive opioid policies mean that cancer patients or people who need palliative care rarely get sufficient pain relief in African countries, although Uganda is a rare exception.  This report finds that nearly 25% of Ugandan women have given birth by the age of 17, and over 50% by the age of 19.  In other Ugandan health news, more than half the “herbal” aphrodisiacs in the country are actually mixed with the drug used in Viagra. This was an insightful article about the ways the DR Congo and its neighbors are trying to prevent the spread of Ebola across borders.  Read these profiles of activists in six African countries working to end female genital cutting.  Listen to this podcast about the politics of abortion in Kenya.  Aid agencies and government need to provide better mental health support for refugees in Africa.

Politics and economics: This book looks like a fascinating economic history of pre-colonial West Africa.  Check out the latest Afrobarometer report on African citizens’ attitudes towards immigration.  African industrialization is unlikely to follow the European experience because of the coercive techniques European countries used to restrict wages at home and forcibly open new markets abroad when they were industrializing.  This was an unusually even-handed discussion of China’s multifaceted approach to diplomacy in Africa.  China also helped Nigeria build a nuclear reactor for research purposes in the 1990s, and they’re now helping remove the fissile material so that Boko Haram can’t access it.  This article points out that internet service providers in African countries have to obey government orders to turn off the internet because their staff might get imprisoned if they don’t do so.  Ghana is encouraging members of the African diaspora to relocate to the country in the “Return to Africa” project, on the 400th anniversary of the kidnapping of the first enslaved African people to the US in 1619.

A cloth printed with blue cherries on a purple background

This kanga honors the LGBT community in Tanzania (via Kawira Mwirichia)

Academic updates: Apply to this conference on African feminisms by March 31, and this one on gender and justice in Africa by April 30.  Submit a contribution to this edited volume on “The Gambia in Transition.”  The University of York is offering scholarships for African students doing the MPA degree.  SOAS has scholarships for two African studentsdoing PhDs in the social sciences.  Strathmore University in Kenya is offering five PhD scholarships in health management for African citizens.  Check out Mawazo’s monthly list of opportunities for African scholars.  Nominations are open for the Royal Africa Society Prize for African scientists.