Senior Trezher-Njoh Malafa remembers being told to boil his water while in high school. City officials assured his family that if they boiled the water, everything would be okay. A few months later, studies revealed that water in Flint had tested high for lead and boiling the water only made things worse.
“Right off the bat, I couldn’t tell in my home exactly what was going on. You have to have some kind of scientific instruments to measure lead in concentrates of water… It’s not something that I could notice with my eyes. There are parts of Flint, in the beginning, that [had] different colored water. Which I think was from just switching to the Flint River water,” Malafa said.
According to CNN, in 2011, Michigan officials including then-Governor Rick Snyder decided to switch Flint’s drinking water from Detroit’s water source to the Flint River water. The city had been paying for Detroit water and decided the switch would help Flint’s dire financial situation.
MSNBC reports that between 2009 and 2013, around 41 percent of the Flint population lived below the poverty line. Many residents were left without a job after General Motors shut down a factory during the 80’s. Malafa doesn’t want to say that the water crisis was inevitable for a city with such low amounts of resources, but the water crisis is just one of many systemic failures that people in Flint need to deal with.
“To me, Flint is not exclusively different from a lot of other bad areas. It’s different because I think every situation is different, and because of the water crisis itself … A lot of people feel like there was no real justice for this, and the people in charge of our city lied to us about how dangerous the problem was. They still try to play it down like it’s not a problem,” Malafa said.
While Malafa was growing up, Flint wasn’t a bad place to him. He recalls spending time with his friends and family just ‘hanging out’ in his neighborhood of University Park. However, beyond the surface of the near-idyllic childhood were warning signs.
“I would hear stuff on the news too, I would hear stuff like someone got shot or someone got murdered. Somewhere in a street sort of nearby where we lived. It was kind of a normal thing, not that it was good. It was just a thing that no one had a real solution to,” Malafa said.
“It hurts people, it’s just toxic. I know my mom broke out in a rash when she was taking a shower, she’d always complain how she thought she felt the water was different, but something that was more evident was a rash on her arm. It wasn’t just a rash, it was like spots on her arm,” Malafa said.
While he was showering, he often felt like the water was sticky. He isn’t sure if knowing the water was toxic led to this, but he often felt like he hadn’t really cleaned off. Malafa has also experienced some stomach problems since the switch, but can’t pin the water crisis as the cause. His main concerns were the elderly and the children of Flint.
“My grandparents already have a lot of [health] issues, [the crisis] exacerbated the issues and it’s like ‘what do we do? Where do we turn to get water that isn’t filled with lead?’ [Officials] don’t wanna distribute water anymore,” Malafa said. “I know children have died, It’s not just that people got sick, people have died because of this.”
Malafa finds it frustrating when people point to Flint as the picture example of a dystopia, or somewhere where people have it worse. For Malafa, the systemic issues of Flint mass poverty, high crime and poor public health were never dealt with. The water crisis seems to be yet another systemic failure that isn’t properly addressed, despite the press coverage.
“I’m not saying that Flint is just this hell-hole, but I feel like it’s a neglected city. I don’t think that the people are so bad, and if they are, [it’s because] they don’t have many resources. There isn’t really anywhere to turn if you’re poor in Flint. People who lived there for years now have poison in their water. I just feel like it’s not really dealt with, it’s talked about, but little is being done,” Malafa said.
Malafa admits there are many organizations that have come forth to help Flint. He names universities, celebrities and the people of Flint who helped expose the problem to a national audience. In fact, it was due to Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s testing of Flint’s water that many citizens were alerted to the lead concentration before city officials confirmed anything.
According to CNN, after the 2011 water decision and the 2014 switch, officials were warned about Flint’s water condition in a study, yet still recommended citizens drink the water. Virginia Tech concluded that the water was 19 times more corrosive than Detroit’s water.
According to Malafa, there have been some improvements to Flint since 2014, however, he feels like not enough has been done. Public school funding has been cut, the police department has made substantial cuts and thousands of people still don’t have access to clean water as of 2018.
Malafa feels like the situation’s racial context is hard to ignore. Malafa, African-American himself, feels like the water crisis would have been resolved a lot sooner if Flint was primarily white. He explains that a lot of the issues that Flint faces are common in black communities because of oppression, yet citizens are the ones who are blamed.
“Most of the stores there are dollar stores and liquor stores, and that’s not the people’s fault. You’re telling me the people built those? [Flint] is all that: it’s the murder capital, high poverty, and poisoned water. It’s like a spectacle,” Malafa said.
For Malafa, justice for Flint is complicated. No legal action against the city officials can undo the harm his family and community members have faced.
“Now there are people being prosecuted, like some people in HR. I believe that Rick Snyder was one of the guys who decided to change the water. He hasn’t faced any charges, even if he did, even if all these people got charged, which would be good in a sense, it wouldn’t solve the issue which is there is a whole city with toxic water with little resources,” Malafa said.
He believes the new mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, is taking steps in a positive direction but feels skeptical. The cynicism he sees in himself and fellow residents is another residue of their poisoned water.
“Flint was already a bad city before the water crisis … It was already bad enough to be considered a problem. We have to wait for people to be so deprived of things or so abused, then finally people can care all of a sudden,” Malafa said. “They’re starting [to fix things], but it’s been four years. It makes you wonder: are they saying things to keep people calm? That’s what it really seems like.”
For Malafa, it’s hard to talk about the crisis on a personal level as it’s such a mass scale issue. However, it does take a personal toll on him. Malafa is set to graduate Knox College this academic year, but doesn’t feel the steps for him to get out of Flint are evident.
“[The crisis] wasn’t something that was caused by the people, but yet the people are the ones who are paying the price. They are the ones who are stuck in Flint,” he said. “Hopefully I can find a job to work my way out, currently there isn’t really a set path for me to get out of Flint.”
Though he feels like it’s been a privilege to come to Knox, he can’t ignore that fact that he’s had to go into debt in order to be here.
“I’m grateful, but it doesn’t change anything about Flint. And me having this education doesn’t change anything about Flint. I can only use my education to hopefully help myself. I don’t know how much I could help others if I’m not firmly established in terms of income and a stable place to stay,” Malafa said.
Coming to Galesburg made Malafa realize how bad things were in Flint. Malafa recognizes that there are good parts of Galesburg, as well as bad parts, but the city seems to be a lot more supported by its officials. He cites the lack of sirens, helicopters and general peaceful attitude as key differences.
“I feel a little more peaceful here, not to diss on Flint, but it’s just obvious [Flint] is an environment that people have not taken care of and the people who live there don’t have the means. Not that they are lesser or should be neglected; people have been mistreated. I feel like in Galesburg you don’t see that depravity as much,” Malafa said.
For Malafa, returning home to Flint is a difficult part of being a student at Knox. He states that his neighborhood is one of the nicer ones in Flint, however just knowing the water is poisoned has taken away the positives.
“The house that we live in, it doesn’t feel like home. I don’t feel like I have a home in that sense because I don’t want to be there. Not because I’m having a problem [at home], it’s more because the conditions are so bad and I don’t know how to expect to live through that. And people are doing that right now, people are living through that right now,” Malafa said.
Last summer, Malafa returned home to Flint in order to complete an internship at a public health facility. He stated that it helped ease some of the hopelessness he felt returning to Flint. During the internship, he helped children get access to information about the water crisis and health in general. Though it made him realize there are good opportunities in Flint, he still fears the worst.
“Honestly, it’s a part of my life to always be worried ‘what if things don’t work out for me’ and ‘What’s gonna happen to me if they don’t?’ That’s a reality for many people,” Malafa said.
Malafa says that it’s been hard for him to trust people because of the water crisis. He feels cynical and often times believes he’s the only one he can rely on.
“I feel like Flint is just a city standing on its own legs. Its own people are holding up the city in the sense that they haven’t given up on themselves yet,” Malafa said.
Though he tries to remain optimistic about his education and accomplishments, he can’t shake the fact that the ‘American Dream’ of living a comfortable life is over for his city.
“The American Dream is just way too far away, it’s so out of our control. What could [people] even do to deserve this? To me it doesn’t make sense. Do we really have to speak up to say we don’t want poison water?” Malafa said. “Do we really have to speak up and say we want better food in our community that’s not all dollar stores. Or should that be apparent because we’re human?”
For Malafa, justice for Flint will be a time where the residents of Flint are given the proper resources they need, a time where leaders make it explicit that they won’t prioritize money over citizens.
“I feel like it takes some people to look at issues. There are plans in place and things happening in Flint with programs. They’re starting to come together, starting to crop up because people actually see the issues and care,” Malafa said. “That gives me a little hope, because there is a way. Maybe, somehow, I could [help] do that. That doesn’t really change the fact that it’s a long road ahead for Flint.”