Many years ago as a masters student in upstate New York, I hired a car to visit some friends in Syracuse which was about 100 kilometres north of my college town. It was still winter and the roads were slick with precipitation and ice, so it was a slow drive back late in the night after a lovely afternoon of social engagement. Alone in the rental car, I pumped the music high to keep me stimulated on the lonely drive. Halfway through the 90- minute journey, my headlights flashed on something small, furry and dark that crossed the road right in front of my car quickly followed by a resounding thump as I ran over the nocturnal animal. Remember it was late at night in wintry conditions so I wasn’t trying to stop and figure out what part of nature I had just terminated. But that animal ensured it left a post humus enduring legacy for the rest of my trip. Within seconds of the collision, the whole car was infiltrated by a noxious odour that filled my nostrils, coating the inside of my mouth all the way to the back of my throat which subsequently began to sting as my burning eyes simultaneously began to water.
Without being told, I instinctively knew I had hit a skunk, a cat-sized mammal that is native to north and south America. When in danger, it emits a spray from its anus which is a mixture of sulphur containing chemicals that are so offensive that even grizzly bears run away. I had to open all four windows of the car and brave the freezing temperatures, as I imagined myself to be dying from a yet to be determined cause by those who would find my body in a mangled wreck somewhere on the highway. I eventually arrived safely back at my college residence, my hands clamped frozen on the steering wheel, nauseated, weak and praying for the stinking soul of the offending skunk to never smell in peace.
Fast forward to about seven years later and I was back in Nairobi driving to see some friends on a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon. I slowed down at the Kenyatta Avenue-Uhuru Highway roundabout to let the cars on the highway pass. My window was down as it was very warm inside the car, when I heard someone just outside my car say “Aunty leta pesa” (bring some money). A street kid in an oversize jacket stood right by my window holding a concealed faecal weapon in the right hand sleeve which I could smell from the constrained confines of my vehicle. I quickly hit the automatic window button, while trying not to accelerate into the highway with oncoming vehicles. The street kid’s reflexes were good as he tried to push the contents of his hand into a rapidly shrinking space, but not as fast as the window closed. Unfortunately the cuffs of the jacket ended up being trapped inside my car and the street kid had to miraculously slip off the garment since I was still gradually stepping on the accelerator. Long story short, me and the offending piece of cloth fishtailed onto the highway, escaping to a very short lived freedom as the fetid fumes of his faecal weapon, which still remained in the sleeve proudly fluttering outside the car, began to consume the whole vehicle. Safely on the highway, I opened the window to let the jacket fall, gagging and almost choking on my own vomit as I rushed to my destination. On arrival, my friend’s extremely gracious husband took one pitiful look at me as I stumbled out of my car and offered to take it to a car wash to be hosed down of all the nauseating memories. He continues to receive my prayer for blessings abundantly.
Both these situations have made me extremely aware of one fundamental human right: the freedom to breath. As we navigate our new normal, unwittingly trapped in our residences and gasping for any external social interaction that may not endanger our lives, we are also being forced to take stock of our freedoms of which there are quite a few. Freedom to deeply innovate our businesses and deliver our products and services differently. Freedom to immerse ourselves in the virtual academic space and learn something new since many academic institutions are now offering free virtual learning programmes. Freedom to innovate on how to deliver food and water to those living on less than a dollar a day, whose lives are about to become very hard and are therefore socially vulnerable. This is not the time to be trapped in a freezing, pungent hellhole of skunk-sized despair. Not when you have the financial capacity to read this from your virtual comfort.