DJ Bwakali

DJ Bwakali

The scream could be heard on the other side of the pitch. It was louder than the screams of the other boys who had joined Divine in celebrating the goal he had just scored. The boisterous boys were all students of the Government Bilingual Primary School Biyem-Assi in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s Capital. This is one of the primary schools that Divine Ntiokam attended before proceeding to secondary school and thereafter higher education at the University of Buea. This is the only English-speaking university in the Central Africa region.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018 03:41

The Tenacious Women of Mlilo Women Group

The day that Kenya will decide to have its own version of Mt. Rushmore, Sagalla Hill in Taita Taveta County will provide the prime location for such an undertaking. For those of you who may not have heard of Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, it is a sculpture carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore, a mountain that sits calmly in South Dakota, United States. The sculpture features the faces of four pre-eminent US Presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Although I have never been to Mt. Rushmore, I am told that it’s quite a spectacle. It would be really cool to behold such a spectacle at Sagalla Hill, a place I have visited many times since 1998 when I first set foot there. In mid-April 2018, I drove up Sagalla Hill and as I beheld its massive rocky terrain, I imagined faces of African heroes sculpted into these rocks. Circling these rocks like green sentries was an army of trees whose gentle sway in the afternoon breeze seemed to be giving me a warm green welcome.

As I soaked in the trees’ welcome, I told myself that if a huge sculpture of African heroes was to be carved out in Sagalla’s rocks, then Wangari Maathai’s face should definitely be among the first ones to be sculpted into Sagalla’s massive rocks. As should Thomas Sankara, the young President of Burkina Fasso who would have catapulted this west African country into greatness had an assassin’s bullet not taken away his revolutionary life. But apart from these well-known names, I would also love to see the faces of two other women up there with Wangari Maathai – Mama Dora and Mama Juliet. They are the Chairlady and Secretary of Mlilo Women Group respectively.

After spending a refreshing night at Nebo Cottages which sits calmly on top of Sagalla Hill and next to Sagalla Forest, I spent three hours with several members of Mlilo Women Group. They embraced me warmly and kept referring to me as ‘kijana wetu,’ our young man. Since I stormed out of my twenties years ago, I am not a regular recipient of this ‘young man’ tag, so it felt very refreshing to be referred to as such by these amazing women. I in turn referred to them as ‘Ma’ a testament to my Kiamu Swahili dialect which often resorts to ‘ma’ instead of mama.

Mlilo Women Group has been around since 2009 when it was founded by Mama Dora, a former secretary of Mwakichuchu High School. After her retirement, she brought together a group of about fifteen women and they began to perform traditional sagalla dances as a way of earning much needed extra revenue. Their dances were so good that they were invited to large events organized by the Taita Taveta County Government. One of those events was the War Memorial Event, which attracted hundreds of people and gave them widespread publicity. As a result, they started being invited to events in the neighboring County of Mombasa.  

“Well paying events are however rare, so we had to come up with other ways of earning money,” Mama Dora says with a warm smile.

She started shopping around for other opportunities and soon landed a leather tanning training for her group members. The training was organized by Taita Taveta Wildlife Forum. Another training a few weeks later focused on making bar soaps. After these trainings, they did some informal survey and realized that the quicker way of making money was to combine their leather tanning skills with weaving so that they could weave traditional baskets for sale to tourists and the local populace. This realization launched them headfirst into the traditional basket industry.

These baskets were handcrafted using fibre sourced from locally available African wild date palm. They were then dyed using natural dye from the wattle tree, which was also locally available. In utilizing such non-timber forest products, they were playing a role in conserving Sagalla Forest. This should definitely qualify them for some funding from all those billions that are pledged and raised for climate change mitigation and adaptation. But just like thousands of other similar women organizations across Kenya and Africa, the rift between them and such funding is so wide that it can’t even be bridged by the 165 kilometer long Danyang–Kunshan Grand Bridge in China, which is the world’s longest bridge.

Mlilo Women Group has since made dozens of baskets and sold some of them mostly to tourists.

“We however haven’t made much money from our baskets,” Mama Juliet the Secretary of the group says.

“We need a much wider market,” she adds with an almost resigned look on her face.

“I have the answer to your market woes,” I say to Mama Juliet and her colleagues. They are about ten of them, and they are crowded around me in their small office at Mwalangi shopping centre, Sagalla’s public transport terminus.  

As the middle-aged and elderly women look at me expectantly, I hand over my phone so that they can see the home page of Sasafrica.shop an e-commerce website that I had founded about one year earlier.

“What you are seeing on my phone is like a supermarket selling exclusively African products like your baskets,” I explained, “people from all over the world will be able to buy your products here. You will have your own online shop with information about you so that they can also get to know you more even as they buy your products.”

I took time to explain in depth about e-commerce and how anyone in the world can buy products on such a site.

I could see their faces lighting up and I returned their smile, determined to introduce the world to their amazing natural products. And to ensure that they also access the billions that are raised every year for forest conservation activities. Apart from being skilled basket weavers, they are also guardians of the utterly cool Sagalla Forest.

Friday, 03 August 2018 06:46

Behind the Wonder of Victoria Falls

Although you will be expecting it, the spray will catch you by surprise. It will drench your happy face and leave a lasting mark in your heart. You will have seen the spray from miles away as it often rises to heights of up to four hundred metres.

The spray is created when torrents of Zambezi waters plummet for more than one hundred metres into the Zambezi gorge.

When you finally make it to one of Victoria Falls nineteen viewing points, you will come face to face with the spray and the majestic waterfalls themselves. 

That moment when your eyes first behold something that you have waited for your whole life to see can drench you in mixed feelings. This is how I felt when I finally stood at one of the fifteen viewing points on the Zimbabwean side. On the one hand I was utterly speechless. In total awe and instantly comprehending why the gushing waterfalls were a sacred site for riverine communities like the Leya.

I understood why David Livingstone, the nineteenth century explorer described the waterfalls in glowing terms, ‘scenes so lovely they must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight… the snow-white sheet like myriads of small comets rushing on in one direction, each of which left behind its nucleus rays of foam.’

The grandeur of Victoria Falls inspires awe and I was duly awestruck. But on the other hand, this awesome moment was punctured by a lingering feeling of, ‘now what?’

Now that the Victoria Falls were right there before my eyes, the sheer joy of anticipation had dissipated with the spray. What next?

An answer slowly came into my mind when I walked through the moist pathways of the rainforest that borders the waterfalls. By the time I was gazing at the mighty falls from below, I was drenched. It felt like standing in rain and just feeling the water fill every pore in my body.

What next? It occurred to me that through the spray, I was interacting directly with Zambezi’s water. This reminded me that Victoria Falls was in actual fact the waters of Zambezi both tumbling down and shooting upwards in a spectacular dance of Mother Nature.  It was time to know the heartbeat of these waterfalls and comprehend what made them tick.

Behind the wonder of this seemingly divine spectacle are wandering waters that underpin ecosystems without which the waterfalls would not be there.

Before the day that is Victoria Falls breaks out and stuns the world, there is a night without which this dazzling morning would not be possible.

When Zambezi River arrives at Victoria Falls, it is just over two kilometres wide meaning that a leisurely walk across it would take you half an hour. When it is flowing in full force during the rainy season, the falls become a two-kilometre wide, 100-metre plunge into Zambezi gorge.

Before the mist-forming waters take the deep plunge, they are engrossed in occasional rapids and a gentle flow that has its origins in Zambia’s Kalene Hills close to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. As such, the hills precede the falls. The Zambezi waters meander through hills, valleys and plains that contribute uniquely towards the overall wellbeing of the river. 

Along the way, the river provides shelter for fish, crocodiles, hippos plus a host of diverse flora and fauna. Diverse fish species like tiger fish, catfish and cichlids reside in the river as do the bigger boys and girls – crocodiles and hippos.

Crocodiles flap their bulky tails in the raging waters as their powerful jaws delve into the rotting flesh of wildebeests that lost the battle against the Zambezi as they tried to cross it.

Along the way, the raging waters create two smaller, lesser known waterfalls – Chavuma Falls and Ngonye Falls. These falls are more of warthogs compared to the elephant that is Victoria Falls but they are waterfalls nonetheless, harbingers of Victoria Falls, in essence preparing the way like John theBaptist.

Ngonye falls are like gates that mark the river’s departure from Kalahari sand floodplain and entry into the basalt dyke geological formation that makes the Victoria Falls possible. Indeed, the riverbed that ferries Zambezi’s waters was carved out over ages in a unique fashion that facilitates Victoria Falls.

Ngonye falls is only one fifth of Victoria Falls but it is part of a natural architecture that carves out Victoria Falls superhighway.  

Etched firmly on this superhighway in the wider upper Zambezi, are dambos, as the small headwater wetlands are known. Of particular significance is the marshy wetland in north-West Zambia that births the river. As noted in a comprehensive report on Zambezi River’s Ecosystems, ‘although the impact of individual small wetlands on flow may be negligible, because there are so many of them, their cumulative impact may be significant.’

Cumulative impact is the name of the game in the bigger picture of upper Zambezi. The wetlands and floodplains like Barotse together with other ecosystems all join forces to ensure that River Zambezi keeps flowing on, delivering the water that ends up cascading as Victoria Waterfalls.

The upper Zambezi section of the river is uninterrupted by large dams that can be found in subsequent sections of the river. In this regard, the waters of the upper section are blessed with a natural, unhindered flow.

This flow also surges in underground streams that replenish the river during dry season between April and October. Some of Victoria Falls tumbling waters stem directly from those unseen underground streams of upper Zambezi. Many of these streams break into the surface through dambos that subsequently channel more water into the waiting arms of River Zambezi. Indeed, it is a replenishing cycle of nature that feeds into Victoria Falls on a constant basis with a tireless dazzle.

In the same vein, by the time Zambezi creates Victoria Falls, it has already benefited from smaller rivers that power into it with cheerful roars. In Angola, Luena and Chifumage rivers join Zambezi and become part of the great river. In Zambia, Kabompo River also joins the Zambezi with a cheerful flow. This river has its origins on the border of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lungwebungu River, which is the largest tributary of Upper Zambezi, similarly pours into Zambezi in Zambia although it commences its journey in Angola.

Against this backdrop, the gushing waters of Victoria Falls are a mosaic of four large tributaries and several smaller streams. Consequently, when that spray from the waterfalls moistens ones face, it contains water drops from all these great rivers and streams that deposit their waters into upper Zambezi.  

Behind the wonder that is Victoria Falls are dazzling flora and fauna without which the tapestry of Upper Zambezi would be incomplete. Amongst them are stunning birds like the lilian’s lovebirds aka nyasa lovebirds, small African parrots whose green yellow plumage matches perfectly with their red-lipstick lips; marabou storks whose massive beaks remind one of flying rakes; the mostly pink southern carmine bee eaters that can be seen building their nests along the banks Zambezi River and the red billed quelea whose wise visage add an air of beautiful maturity to the Zambezi tapestry.

Every once in a while, these birds can be seen flying through or above the Victoria Falls spray. Although their cheery chirps are lost in the hiss and thunder of the waterfalls, their bright colors and flapping wings add beautiful music to the sight of the falls.

Gazing down from their birds’ eye view, the birds can appreciate that Victoria Falls is a wondrous culmination of equally wondrous ecosystems in the upper Zambezi.

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Friday, 03 August 2018 06:40

Rowing away from Poverty

Tete Mozambique – Pedro’s tiny boat dugout looks like a brown ant against the expansive blue backdrop of the lower Zambezi River. He is twenty years old and although his hair is black, fluffy and plenty, the weary lines around his brown eyes make him look like he was born in 1976 and not 1996.

Mulungu!’ God! Pedro shouts in Sena. This one-word prayer is his way of starting the day. The orange sun looks so happy as it rises that some of this joy makes its way into Sena’s heart and he flashes a brief smile before launching into furious rowing of his boat dugout.

The waters are calm at this early hour of the day. Every time his singular wooden rowing paddle hits the waters, they protest with a rustle that disturbs the silence. The rustle feels like a lonely voice, so he decides to sing his favourite part of nita mukuma kwini, the popular song by Lizha James.

Esta doer o meu coração, this hurts my heart so much... his deep voice erupted into an off-tune rendition of the song but the dynamic tune energizes his hands to row faster and faster.

The fleshy, slippery body of a large vundu catfish descends into Pedro’s mind. He knows that these large vundus can be caught in this part of the lower Zambezi River because his father caught them severally. But he has never been lucky to catch one and it is his ultimate dream. Such a large fish would fetch him anywhere from 2 – 5 thousand Mozambique meticals.

Capturing such a giant fish is a dream, but what he does hope to capture are other relatively profitable fish like the tiger fish, kurper, nchenga, and cornish-jack. He doesn’t like the Zambezi barbell fish because the whisker like organs that dangle from its mouth give it a scary look. As a child, his father would threaten to show him a barbell every time he cried.

Other artisanal fishermen in the area like kapenta, the little fishes of the river but Pedro doesn’t fancy them much. Kapenta from lower Zambezi are exported to as far as Zimbabwe often eliciting protests from Zimbabwean fishermen who find it difficult to compete against the cheap imports.

Pedro has two friends who make thousands of Metical from kapenta exports. They keep urging him to join the kapenta bandwagon but he usually retorts that, ‘why catch small fish when you can catch big fish?’ Because the small fish fetch big money. Their answer leaves him speechless but still, he goes for the big fish.  

A gentle staccato hum interrupted Pedro’s melodic hum and even before he glanced to his right where the staccato hum was coming from, he already knew what it was – a fishing boat.

Recreational fishing is common in the lower Zambezi. It is definitely more lucrative than Pedro’s artisanal fishery but not as timeless. Centuries before the first recreational fishing enthusiasts came along, Pedro’s ancestors were already fishing in the great river. He is following in their footsteps but unlike them, he fishes to earn a livelihood, and not just to have a good meal or because he can.

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Friday, 03 August 2018 06:16

The Electrical Fish of Zambezi River

Kalene hills, Zambia - Thunder and beauty. These are the two words that come to mind when the Zambezi River begins its epic journey in the bosoms of Zambia’s Kalene hills. Although the thunder of Victoria Falls is still silent at the source of the river, the beauty is just as loud.

The river’s marathon expedition takes it into Angola, but the waters miss their country of origin so much that they flow back into Zambia. After that, the iconic river thunders on along the borders of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe then gushes into Mozambique before surging into the Indian Ocean.

All through its journey, the gushing, hissing waters of Zambezi are accompanied by at least 239 species of fish.

Amongst these fish is the electric catfish. It prowls the silent deeps like Zambia’s friendly lions, hunting at night and hiding during the day. If it were not a fish, it might have been a lion or a cheetah, for it possesses a lethal secret weapon like these two cats. It may not have the speed of a cheetah or the regal ferocity of a lion, but its secret weapon is in a class of its own.

Its 3 - 5 kilos of body mass are no match to Vundu, Zambezi River’s largest fish. But don’t mess with the electric catfish on account of its smaller size because that secret weapon will deal with you painfully if you do. As it swims in the lower Zambezi, the electric catfish sometimes comes face to face with the Cornish jack, another fish that possesses a similar secret weapon.

When the catfish is hungry, it races through the dark waters in search of a meal. Any meal. It’s not a choosy diner and will eat whichever hapless fish that happens to cross into its path during its nocturnal prowl.

The secret weapon of this particular catfish is literally electric – it can emit up to 600 volts of electricity though other estimates place this lower. That’s why it is known as the electric catfish aka malapterurus electricus.

This jolt of electricity is its hunting and defense rifle. In this regard, in discharges naturally what Kariba hydroelectric dam, Cahora Bassa dam and several other dams in the river discharge artificially. These dams have a total capacity of nearly 5000 MW, almost five times as much as Kenya’s total installed hydroelectricity capacity. This makes Zambezi a truly electric river with truly electric fish!

The electricity of the catfish has already found its way into African universities. Hangnilo Robert and a team of researchers from a university in Benin were able to light up an LED bulb using electricity discharged by a very small electric catfish weighing only 19 grammes. This success made them to conclude that, ‘the feasibility of an energy farming centered on that catfish is quite conceivable.’

If the researchers’ conclusion proves accurate, then electric catfishes might just give Kariba and Cahora Bassa dams a run for their money! That may be a long way in the future but the seed of possibility is there.

Like a leopard, numerous dark spots dot the body of an electric catfish. Fishermen who have reached out to touch these spots have ended up with electric shocks that left them numb and perplexed. These fishermen span the length and breadth of Africa wherever the electric catfish occurs in the continent’s major river basins like Senegal, Niger and Zambezi. The unique catfish also electrifies Lakes Turkana, Chad, Albert, Kainji and Tanganyika. It is therefore fair to say that this catfish is a truly pan-African fish that would make Kwame Nkrumah proud!

It may not be critically endangered like the banded neolebias of the upper Zambezi, but it’s not exactly over-abundant either. We however shouldn’t wait until it is endangered to start racing to its rescue. Instead of reacting with such crisis management when it is already too late, now is the time to ensure that the electric catfish doesn’t slither onto the endangered list.

Incidentally, the banded neolebias which is just below one inch long, may be a dwarf in the fish world, but it is a giant in the overall world of biodiversity. It is only found in the Kataba stream and its tributary, the Sianda stream, in upper Zambezi. This tiny fish isn’t a massive beast like the mammoth whales that are found downstream in the Indian Ocean but it is dangerously close to extinction. If this sounds alarmist, it is because the alarm went off a long time ago.

The electric catfish seems oblivious or indifferent to its smaller cousin’s woes. A quick glance at its wide mouth leaves one with the impression that it is either grinning or sneering, as if wondering why the banded neolebias can’t just heed the divine call to multiply and fill the river.

Indeed, the electric catfish has a lot to grin and sneer about. For starters, this mammoth river in which it swims is Africa’s fourth longest river and meets the needs of at least thirty million people in the Zambezi River basin. Apart from feeding and enhancing the livelihoods of millions, this river has also given the world one of the seven natural wonders – Victoria Falls, known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya meaning, ‘smoke that thunders.’ These falls are without doubt a divine smoke of dazzling beauty that has shocked even the electric catfish, the master of shocks.

The catfish also grins about the major wetlands and Ramsar sites in the river basin. They include Barotse floodplains in Zambia, Chobe swamps in Namibia, Linyanti swamp in Botswana and Busanga swamp in Zambia. The wetlands are golden chicken that lay golden eggs, contributing immensely to ecotourism, wildlife, fishing, grazing plus a host of other ecosystem products and services. Indeed, the basin’s natural capital is simply staggering, greatly supporting economic activities in agriculture, mining, forestry, tourism and manufacturing.  

The sneer of the catfish mostly has to do with human attitudes and activities that are harming the vast Zambezi river basin. It wonders silently, ‘how can you starve and harm the very chicken that is laying golden eggs for you?’

The wetlands are as fragile as they are priceless. Is this fragility being managed properly?

The hydroelectric dams are the biggest consumers of the rivers water. Is this ultimately sustainable?

Riverine communities have lived next to the river for centuries. Is their indigenous knowledge being fully tapped into?

The catfish has no answers to these questions. Together with all the other fish in the river, it is a fundamental part of the entire Zambezi River ecosystem. It is also unique amongst the fish. How many other fish can boast of the ability to electrically shock both prey and assailant?

Fishers are its primary assailants and from time to time, the catfish ends up entangled in a fishing net or biting a fishing hook. Because it can live up to ten years, many are the times that it evades fishers’ traps. But when its luck runs out, the catfish becomes a delicacy. It is a popular meal amongst many fishing communities.

In 1951, British zoologist Hans Lissmann described the electric catfish quite colorfully. He wrote that they have the ‘appearance of a rather rigid sausage propelled by somewhat ostraciform movements.’

Alas, the electric catfish is akin to a swimming sausage that discharges electricity. Not bad for a fish that is not particularly pretty. But like romantic love at its apex, its touch sends instant shockwaves.

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Friday, 03 August 2018 05:47

Zambezi's Wonder Fish

When you finally see it, you will wonder what all the fuss was about. It will be small, barely bigger than one of your nails.

In fact, you will not even see it if you search for it in Zambezi River. Not because it’s too small for the hissing waters of the big river but because it prefers the cool, silent and dark waters of Sianda stream. Sometimes, it flows with the stream into Kataba River but never beyond. In this regard, it prefers the quiet serene suburbs of a city as opposed to the city itself.

Dennis Tweddle, a South African resident from Britain, together with his team, have searched for the elusive small fish in the rest of the upper Zambezi system to no avail. As someone with a keen passion and intellectual curiosity for the fauna that live in rivers and oceans, he has been on the trail of the little beauty but has only found it in Sianda stream and Kataba River.

Armed with a D-shaped net, Dennis and his team scoured the waters, searching for the elusive teeny tiny fish. They mostly focused on floating vegetations as it likes living under them.  

Just a few inches away from the curious net, neobelias nestles by the dangling roots of the vegetation. She is well refreshed after a restful night and is looking forward to another fishy day. The cool waters that are brushing by her scales have travelled all the way from their source at a large headwater swamp that feeds Kataba River.

The Upper Zambezi river system that hosts Kataba River and Sianda stream is a labyrinth of moody water that comes and goes according to the rainy season. When it rains a lot, the floodplain overflows with water, plants spring to life and fish come calling, much to the delight of Chinga, a local Lozi fisherman.

Like many Lozi people in Upper Zambezi, Chinga looks forward to the flooded plains because it means more fish. And more fish means more food plus a bit more money.

The rain means so much to him that his favourite two words in the whole world are, ‘pula ikalile.’ The rains have started.

As he paddles along Sianda stream, Chinga doesn’t care much about the banded neolebias, as the little fish is known. He is understandably more preoccupied with bigger, fleshier fish that can fill the stomach and fetch some Zambian kwacha.

IUCN has listed the banded neolebias as critically endangered. It’s living on the edge of extinction cliff and could plunge into extinction any moment.

Unfortunately, simple, innocent maize can potentially push the fish into extinction. Maize and other food crops.  Pollution from fertilizers and herbicides can threaten their fragile habitats, inching them further towards that dreaded extinction edge.

Does it mean that the local Lozi people shouldn’t farm just so that some tiny fish can live? It is possible for the people and the fish to co-exist as they have for ages. This can be done by fostering a symbiotic and not a parasitic relationship. How that can be done is a matter that can be decided in consultation with the Lozi people themselves.  

Further to the pollution, every time the cool cover of the dense vegetation is removed, the tiny giants are left coverless and exposed to the elements. This could be a reason why they were not found in the canalized parts of upstream Kataba River.

A river canal is essentially an artificial river bed that channels the waters of a river to other areas where it doesn’t flow naturally. This may have short term agricultural benefits for the local Lozi people but it interferes with the natural river ecosystem that secures habitation for the tiny giants.

Kenyans and Zimbabweans that have experienced the flattening of their homes by bulldozers in the name of development can identify with the plight of the neobelias. But luckily for some of these evicted residents, they had the option of purchasing houses elsewhere with the compensation money paid by the government.

Since the neobelias don’t have the option of purchasing new floating vegetation, they have to make do with whatever they can get before eventually losing the struggle to survive. 

For now, many neobelias are thankfully winning the survival struggle. While it isn’t clear approximately how many are still swimming in Sianda stream and Kataba River, it is evident that they are not swimming anywhere else in the world.

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Mahe Island, Seychelles. 4AM. Five bare chested men with baggy shorts and sweaty brows push wooden canoes into the waiting salty arms of the Indian Ocean. Their footsteps form a pattern in the soft sand as their canoe slips smoothly into the hissing ocean. They jump into the canoe and begin paddling. They are eager to tap into Seychelles’ flourishing blue economy.

Once out in the vast open ocean, they unfurl the large bunch of net that sits patiently on the canoe’s wet wooden floor. An ocean wind wipes away the sweat on their brows. Their hearts beat excitedly as the net lands in the swooshing waves and spreads out, ready to catch the fish that will be unfortunate enough to swim in that direction.

Fish don’t just provide food for the one hundred thousand Seychellois – they also keep the national economy in place and in shape.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa revealed in a report that fish exports contribute to 52 percent of Seychelles’ exports. As such, they are responsible for more than half of the country’s export revenue. This is no surprise since as an archipelago of 115 islands, the marine ecosystem runs through the country’s veins. In addition, Seychelles’ marine exclusive economic zone is 1.4-million square kilometres, which is almost 3,000 times the size of its land area.

Seychelles FishA Wide Assortment of Fish from Seychelles WatersAfter several hours of braving the cold ocean winds, the five bare chested fishermen know that they have hit a marine home run. Their net is teeming with fish. There are large rabbit fish whose bulky appearance means that they are over ten kilos. One of them is really itching to break free. It’s mouth twitches, it’s eyes flash angrily. Evidently, it is extremely unhappy to be in the net. Next to it are about a dozen oil fishes, mackerels that bear an unfortunate resemblance to snakes. Mingling with the oil fishes are whipfin mojarras, also known as whipfin silver-biddy. These are fish that you are unlikely to find at a dinner table but are plenteous in Seychelles’ ocean waters.

Several hours later when the fisherman dock back on the shore with their boat heaving under the weight of their fish, they even find three medium-sized stingrays in their catch. These are flat-bodied fish with wing-like fins. A quick count reveals thirteen different fish species twitching in their net, ready to be hauled to local fish markets and subsequently to kitchens and dinner tables all over Seychelles.

The World Bank reveals that, ‘Our oceans provide everything from food for billions around the world, to protecting communities and economies from storms—bringing it at least $1.5 trillion to the global economy every year.’

Indeed, Seychelles has the potential of increasingly tapping into this $1.5 trillion through the fishes that swim and swarm its salty ocean waters.

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Thursday, 26 July 2018 02:12

The Dying Breath of Madagascar's Lisa

Lisa glanced at him and winked. A blast of wind ruffled her raised eyebrows.

He glanced beyond her shoulder at the Borneo Teak tree and smiled. Although it could grow to heights of fifty metres, the one he was gazing at was about half that size. He had no idea that this tree produced valuable hardwood that was coveted across the globe. Consequently, it was listed as vulnerable on IUCN’s red list. People around the world especially in China, Europe and USA wanted this hardwood so much for their floors and furniture that they had shoved the tree that bore it right into vulnerability status.

But to him, it was just another tree in the forest. All he knew was that one of the top-most branches of that particular tree was his favorite resting place in the mornings. From that branch’s vantage point, he could clearly see some of the 125 bird species that flew and nestled in this vast forest. One of these bird species that his eyes often feasted on was the Madagascar magpie-robin, a small black and white bird that seemed to be everywhere.

Lisa saw him looking past her to the Borneo Teak tree. She followed his eyes as they rested on the Madagascar magpie-robin that was perched on one of the elegant tree’s higher branches. She shook her head and ran towards him in a face that was rapidly rolling into an epic sulk. Men! If only their legs and hands were more active than their eyes, her life would be much better!

A sly smile spread across his hairy face when he saw her strutting towards him.

This couple was right in the middle of Madagascar’s Makira Forests that are part of Makira Natural Park which covers an area of 372,470 hectares of low and mid-altitude rainforest. The Park’s mammoth size makes it almost seven times bigger than Seychelles.

Just like the Madagascar magpie-robin, this couple was also dressed in black and white. The couple was part of the endangered black-and-white ruffed lemur, a primate whose specie may be on its final breath.

IUCN’s red list has listed it as critically endangered and gravely explained that, ‘the species is suspected to have undergone a population decline of ≥80% over a period of 21 years (three generations), primarily due to observed and inferred continuing decline in area, extent and quality of habitat from slash-and-burn agriculture, logging and mining, in addition to exploitation through unsustainable hunting pressure. These causes have not ceased and will to a large extent not be easily reversible.’

Wa! That would be my sister Gish’s response to this grave explanation. But even as we wonder in sad amazement at the critically endangered status of the black-and-white ruffed lemur, we can help in its revival or at the very least protecting those that still chatter and wander in Madagascar’s Makira Forest and elsewhere. We can do that by first of all seeing the nature around us through the black-and-white ruffed lemur’s lens. That way, we shall see not just the trees but also the birds that nestle in them; not just the raging ocean waves but also the fish that ride these waves; not just the skies but the pollution that threatens their fresh blue hug.

And perhaps most important, we shall also see beyond this wild, rugged nature and see the communities that live in, or next to that nature. Environmental conservation bereft of community empowerment will ultimately not see the light of the day.

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Monday, 23 July 2018 00:05

Southern Niger’s Tree of Food

In 1998 when France won the World Cup, I also scored a major victory. Twenty years later, I am now all over the place in Southern Niger. To be precise I can now be found in Sothern Niger’s five million hectares, an area that is three times the size Swaziland the Southern Africa country.

In Latin, I am known as Combretum glutinosum and in the western Africa Maninka language, I am jambakatan kè while the Hausa people refer to me as Kantakara. Many people in the Southern Niger village of Dan Saga don’t even know any of these names. But they definitely know me, which is what matters. They see me in their farms and see what my presence does to their crops. Those who are older than thirty can clearly remember a time when the farms that I now stand guard over were bare and barren. They remember how the barrenness of that land was like a cancerous tumor that was eating away at their livelihoods and health.

And then I came along and everything changed. I came through a pathway known as Farmer-managed natural regeneration aka FMNR.    

FMNR entails regeneration and management of trees and shrubs that sprout from stumps, roots, and seeds found in degraded soils. These new woody plants have an amazing effect on farms. They inject more fertility in the soil and provide moisture for crops planted in combination with them. Consequently, a previously bare land becomes dotted with trees even as crops flourish. For the last two decades, the World Agroforesty Centre has been working closely with the people of Southern Niger to ensure that this flourish of crops becomes an enduring reality. Their efforts have borne fruit as proven by anecdotal evidence from farmers in this region.

According to the World Agroforesty Centre, satellite imagery shows that approximately 5 million hectares of once degraded farmland now supports medium to high densities of tree cover in the Maradi and Zinder regions of southern Niger. These trees are literally putting food on the table. The International Food Policy Research Institute reveals that 1 hectare of FMNR can increase cereal yields by an average of 100kg.

While more studies are needed, it is clear that food can sometimes grow on trees.

Have you ever heard of Malibya?

It is a Libyan investment initiative that has leased up to 100,000 hectares in Mali to plant hybrid rice and process tomatoes, amongst other agricultural ventures. The company pays nothing for the land. The only payment forthcoming from them is a water tax.

I am definitely opposed to countries leasing land in other countries because local people almost always end up suffering in the process. But I will not delve deeper into that in this article. Rather, I want us to delve into the land in Libya and how it can also serve the country’s food security pursuits.

Indeed, Libya is a very, very big country that is roughly the size of Norway, Sweden and Britain combined. One then wonders why they have to venture into Mali when they have massive land right under their nose. The answer lies in fertility. Libya salivated for Mali’s one hundred hectares because their proximity to Niger River imbued them with land fertility.

As the Agroecologist E.F. De Pauw wrote in his paper, ‘Management of Dryland and Desert Areas,’ “The main principles for successful dryland crop management are well known. Essentially they boil down to retaining precipitation on the land, to reducing evaporation, and to use crops with drought tolerance.”

Has Libya really gone that extra mile to manage its dryland in sustainable fashion that will increasingly result in agricultural yield that can feed its people and even be exported? Sustainable dryland management is like that sumptuous meal that takes hours or even days to prepare. Such a meal is a marathon that shuns the sprint of fast food. It is often a lot easier to just go the fast food way.

Similarly, sustainable dryland management takes time, patience and meticulous planning. But eventually, it provides long term solutions as opposed to the quick fix solutions of food importation or foreign land leasing.

Libya should start looking at its more than one million hectares as one million opportunities to plant the crops that it is importing.  

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