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Mother's agony as son suffers in River Thange petroleum spill aftermath

By Philip Muasya | November 9th 2015
Children eat tomatoes planted along River Thange in Kibwezi, Makueni County. Six months ago, a pipeline ruptured and spilled oil into the river. [Photo: Boniface Okendo/Standard]

A woman at Moki village in Thange has borne the brunt of living in an oil-polluted environment.

The pain in Christine Paul's voice tells of the trauma she has undergone for months while trying to seek medication for her last born son, who has since dropped out of school.

We traced the mother of four to her farm, lush with kale crops and other vegetables. During the entire period of the interview, her sickly son never left her side.

Although agricultural officers have sounded the alarm to the locals not to eat the farm produce, which might be contaminated with dangerous chemicals from the oil leak, Christine says she has no otherwise but to eat what is available.

Her five-year-old son, who is in nursery school, has been complaining of a constant headache and chest pains. Christine says the boy has been treated in different hospitals in Kibwezi, Machinery and Makindu towns, but is getting worse by the day.

"He suffers from constant high fever and doctors have not been able to diagnose his sickness. Every time he goes to school, I am called by teachers to collect him after he falls sick. He has now dropped out completely," she says, adding: "The boy has now started coughing and vomits regularly."

She says in July and August this year, the situation in the village was so bad as choking oil fumes affected them, especially at night, where everyone would wake up with sore throats. Her home is only about 100 metres away from the polluted Thange river.

"We would wake up suffocating and tie pieces of cloths across our faces to muffle the pungent smell," she recalls. Christine is almost certain that the choking fumes are what affected her son.

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A subsistence farmer, Christine is calling for help so that her son can get specialised treatment.

'Safe' water

Christine's husband Paul Kalai says what astounded the farmers in the area was the shocking advice they got from Kenya Pipeline Company technical staff that although polluted with oil, the water was still safe for irrigation because "water and oil don't mix."

"They advised that we place the pipes deeper into the water, claiming the oil was floating on top thus the underneath water was not contaminated. They would come and supervise as we irrigated our crops," he says.

After watering their crops, mostly grown in furrow irrigation, Mr Kalai says shiny layers of oil would be left on the furrows with the unmistakable smell of oil on the leaves. "Although their theory was convincing, we were disturbed by traces of oil and the bad smell from the crops."

For lack of anything else to eat, Kalai and his family have been consuming the same crops, thereby exposing themselves to the danger. They are anxiously awaiting medical screening, which is being organised by the county government.

"Our land has been rendered barren, the crops are drying up," says Kalai, noting that their produce was sold in Machinery market and they depended on farming to pay school fees and other needs.

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