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Where’s the outrage and where’s the learning?

Grenfell Tower London

Photo credit: ChiralJon/Flickr

I began worrying about collapsing buildings in Nairobi more than a decade ago on this page. Over the years, I have written increasingly vociferous pieces warning that if shoddy building standards are not addressed, we will kill many more of our citizens. If consequences are not visited upon those who build badly, and upon those who allow them to, we can expect this carnage to continue.

Nothing has ever really been done about the problem. Dozens of structures have fallen over the past ten years or so. And so another building collapsed recently, this time in the Embakasi area. I suspect most people have forgotten about it already.

Meanwhile, across the world, something even worse happened. A tower block housing poor folk in London’s affluent Kensington borough caught fire. The fire spread rapidly and could not be contained. Scenes of horror ensued as families and children were trapped in the inferno. Many dozens died.

What caught my attention was a conversation I overheard where some Kenyans were remarking that perhaps we are not so bad after all and we should not complain too much. Even in London they can’t look after their poor; even in London they couldn’t prevent many deaths. So perhaps it’s just the nature of the world and we shouldn’t chastise ourselves too much.

No, folks. No.

Let’s be clear: London’s fire disaster was also an outrage. The building in question had no smoke detectors, no fire alarm, no external fire escape, no sprinkler system. The cladding used was at fault. Many more people died than needed to because of this negligence. And the suspicion is that this was allowed to happen because buildings like these house poor immigrants and their offspring rather than ‘proper’ Brits.

That is unforgivable. For a rich nation that prides itself on its building standards and its sense of fairness to behave like that is an awful thing. But let the comparisons end there.

The London fire brigade was on site in six minutes after the fire was reported, and then 40 fire engines and 200 firefighters tried to tackle the blaze. It is hard to imagine our local brigade even getting out of its station in that time.

When London’s mayor went to visit the site, he was subjected to a barrage of anger from residents and the families of victims. He took it on the chin and did not retreat to safety. His aides did not shut anyone up. The common folk did not feel any hesitation in expressing their outrage to an important personage. They felt let down, woefully so, and said so.

Can you imagine that here?

Britain’s prime minister was the next to feel the heat. She avoided facing the wrath of residents directly, but had to endure shouts of “coward” when she visited a cordoned-off area. She was roasted in the media for not showing any genuine sympathy. Coming so soon after an election debacle she initiated, this has left her premiership in tatters. Even those who supported her after the election losses are now calling for her to go for her muted response to the fire.

That would simply not happen here.

The PM did declare an emergency fund of £5 million to aid the surviving victims and affected families and help them get their lives back together. Out here, you’re on your own, dude. Ask your families and friends for help. The government is not there for you. Even if a fund were set up you would have to worry about it being looted.

Finally, a public inquiry into the fire has been commissioned in Britain, as has a criminal investigation. It may take time, but you can be reasonably certain action will be taken to prevent such a fire from happening again. You can also be sure of the law of the land. Here, we simply wait for the furore to die down. The system just looks away from the people who might be the cause of our disasters.

London’s recent fire was unconscionable, and reveals serious flaws in that society. But you know consequences will follow. Here we know that more buildings will fall and we will be unprepared when they do. No one will resign and no one will be held accountable. Because we refuse to investigate and act and learn when bad things happen.

We don’t have to be like this, anywhere in the world. We have to have standards; and we have to rescue them when we breach them. We have to have the guts to address root causes. Do you? Do the leaders you choose?

(Sunday Nation, 2 July 2017)

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