Appalachian Coal Country: A Diary of the Peripatetic

By Osmund Agbo

The day started off slow which was not quite unusual for the work flow after a major American holiday. Since Thanksgiving was celebrated on a Thursday, the team had a restful three-day weekend and so it took a while getting everyone’s ‘mojo’ back that ‪Monday morning‬.

Towards the later part of that day however, patients started filing in, one after another and somewhere ‪around 11a.m‬, the office finally picked up full steam. Being my first day, the manager gave a working tour as well as made a good faith effort to explain the nuances of the patient population we served. “This is Eastern Kentucky”, she said, in a tone that came across as a subtle warning to be prepared for a surprise that she knew was sure to come. But having dusted multiple gigs across many states and with more than ten years of medical practice under my belt, I didn’t feel the need for the later. Or so I thought! Soon after, Beverly, the medical assistant ushered me into this well-lit exam room and quickly followed with a brief introduction.

Perched precariously on the side of the couch was Mr. McCoy. His frail and scraggly presence stood in sharp contrast to the barely twenty-nine years of his earthly habitation. Unkempt, disheveled and edentulous. A single molar protruding from the middle of his tobacco-stained gum bore testimony to the set of teeth that once populated that part of his anatomy. The air reeked of a body separated from soap and water for weeks-on-end.

Hello Mr. McCoy!
How are you doing today? I greeted, reaching out to him in a COVID-19-inspired elbow bump.

“Great. Thank you, doc,”, he answered (though he sounded more like ‘phankiya dac’).

His eyes darted around the room suspiciously but hardly made any contact with mine. Tyler I was told had been with the practice for five years. He started smoking before he turned ten and even though was only in his late twenties, had already developed serious breathing issues. He also drank heavily and did cocktails of illicit drugs that he shopped across state lines. He had been in and out of incarceration, caught attempting to re-sell in the black market in order to finance his many other addictions.

Tyler was the only child of two young parents who met in high school. Following graduation, his dad got hired in the local coal mine and the two love birds decided soon after to tie the knots. Baby Tyler came a little over a year later, during which time both parents were already possessed by the demons of alcohol and drugs. By age six, he was orphaned and so was raised by his maternal grandparents.

At first, he told his story pretty detached as though it was about someone else but towards the end, I looked up to see tears dripping down both sides of his cheek. Tyler’s story apparently was not atypical in that part of the country. Drug abuse in Eastern Kentucky is so rampant to the extent that an entire generation of young people had been lost. These addicts leave their children to be catered for by old grandparents and sometimes even great-grandparents.

In the heydays of the coal boom, Eastern Kentucky ate and breathed coal. The local economy was wholly dependent on that one commodity and one would see generations of one family working in same coal mine. Dozens of companies also operated in the area years after years but today, only a handful of them could be seen.

Between 2005 and 2015, US coal production fell precipitously and Eastern Kentucky alone had since lost about 13,000 mining jobs. Consequently, unemployment rate in the area rose to between 9-12 percent. Majority of energy analyst believe this to be due to the triple effect of; competition from the cheaper and cleaner natural gas made more available by fracking technology, Growth in wind and solar energy and tougher environmental regulations that obtains today in the United States.

Poverty in Eastern Kentucky has become so crippling and pervasive that a good chunk of the population is totally dependent on government assistance for survival. According to US Census Bureau 2008 through 2012 Survey, the town’s poverty rate was 44% above the national average with a household income of $12,361 per year compared to the national average of $53,915 at the time. More than one-third of teenagers drop out of high school and just 5% of the residents possess a university degree. Per certain report, five of the ten poorest counties in America run in a line through the area that include Lee county whose capital city is Beattyville.

The Eastern Kentucky story is emblematic of the boom and burst history of monolithic economies. It is also a microcosm of the present-day economic realities of Nigeria, a country millions of miles away from the Appalachian Mountains but whose faith is no different.

Following the discovery of crude oil in 1956, Africa ‘s most populous nation got intoxicated with the new found wealth. The leaders were so blinded that they failed to see the need for diversification and became wholly dependent on oil. A once promising agrarian economy became obsessed with the Petro-dollar to the detriment of non-oil sectors. Investment were barely made in the areas of critical infrastructure or human capital development. The country went on a spending spree and invited the world to celebrate with her in a cultural jamboree called FESTAC “77. In fact, the then military leader boasted that Nigeria’s problem was not money but how to spend it.

Today, with the precipitous fall in oil price, a once vibrant Africa’s largest economy is on a free fall. In the third quarter of 2020, the nation slid into its second recession in four years and Nigeria has become such a basket case that has to borrow, just to meet some basic financial responsibilities.

Between January and June 2020, a total of N1.21 trillion was spent in servicing the national debt which as at June 2020 stood at a whopping N31. 01 trillion ($85.9 billion), according to the debt management office (DMO). This number will likely get worse. If only Nigeria had in the very least taken agriculture seriously, maybe today we wouldn’t have a need to import ship loads of basic essentials into the country.

In the case of Eastern Kentucky, if only she had diversified her local economy and was less depended on coal. If the local leadership had emphasized on higher education that produced a more skilled work force. I doubt any of those measure could have stopped the hemorrhaging from loss of coal jobs but at least may have provided the skill set needed to make a transition to a different kind of opportunity.

As I made the two-hour drive from Hazard to Lexington, my mind was cast on the breathtaking beauty of Eastern Kentucky. The scenic rolling hills covered in thick shrubs. I was mesmerized by the picturesque landscape peppered with tiny houses and trailer packs. Every few miles you would spot a hillbilly with overgrown beard driving up hill in a rundown pickup truck. This is a place rich in music heritage and in the years gone by boasted of a large number of nationally acclaimed country music superstars, from Bill Ray Cyrus to the Judds and Loretta Lyn. But that’s all that is left of the glory of the Coal country. Sadly, here in the homeland is also where America lost the war on Poverty and Drugs.

Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: ‪[email protected]