Africa's Countries (5)

Tuesday, 18 August 2015 00:00

United by Art in Cairo

Written by

My brown eyes are brimming with joy. It is partly because of Shaimaa the young Egyptian lady who has become my sister for the three days that I have been in Cairo. She is one of those people who are born with joy on their forehead. You can almost touch that joy every time you look at her. And since I gaze at her often, I touch and hug this joy a million times.

At this particular moment in the photo, Shaimaa is the only one standing. It’s not clear whether she is looking at me, her brand new Kenyan brother or at the painting whose hidden meaning I am busy explaining. You would think that I am a distinguished professor of paintings. It’s an abstract painting by a young Libyan man, one of the dozens of environmental themed paintings that have been submitted to the United Nations Environment Programme by hundreds of North African youth.

All these amazing young people are participating in UNEP’s Africa Environment Outlook for Youth Project that I am coordinating. The idea is for the green youth voice from all across Africa to be captured through such paintings together with different forms of other artistic and creative contributions.

I glance up from the painting at the exact moment that Shaimaa is looking at the joy that is in my brown eyes. We both smile as does Medhat, the young Egyptian lawyer to my right. Also smiling warmly are three university students from Caoiro – Mahmoud, Asmaa and Fatma.


At that moment, we are just children of Africa, united by art from Libya.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015 00:00

The Other Side of Northern Nigeria

Written by

I will start with a confession – I have never been to northern Nigeria. My Nigerian experience has only covered Lagos (of course), Benin City, Delta State, Port Harcourt and Bonny Island.  

Most of the things that I therefore know about northern Nigeria have mostly come from my sly best-worst friend. He is a know-it-all, sensationalist drama-prone person. His name is mainstream media. Since he is addicted to ‘breaking news,’ most of his news about northern Nigeria tends to break spirits.

But even as I soak in his news, I do know that all coins have two sides. Actually three. Heads, tails and sideways. As such, there are other sides of northern Nigeria that you and I don’t know much about.

In 2014 on 3rd November, my best-worst friend informed me about the tragic news of the suicide bombing in Potiskum, Yobe State. At least 29 people were killed. They could have been fewer or more, but what is indisputable is that people died.

On the same day of the suicide bombing, the Deputy Governor of Borno state, Zanna Mustapha issued a stark warning, ‘If the Federal Government does not add extra effort, in the next two to three months, the three North-Eastern states will no longer be in existence.’ The three states that the deputy Governor was talking about are Adamawa, Borno and Yobe.

My best-worst friend insisted that he is not being sensationalist or negative, but was only telling me exactly what the deputy Governor said. For once, I agreed with his accurate portrayal of the picture on the ground. However, 24 hours are partly day and partly night, so we shouldn’t just talk about the night only as if there is no day.

What lies on the other side of the northern Nigeria coin? What is the day time narrative that has been lost in the avalanche of night-focused news? The two words that dominate these night news are these – boko haram.  

As Borno State’s deputy Governor warned, Boko Haram’s territorial gain is dangerously gaining steam. It is the constitutional duty of Nigerian President Muhamadu Buhari’s government to stop this expansion in its tracks and protect all Nigerians at all times. As it does this, the daytime narrative must come forth.

All the nineteen States in northern Nigeria cover a vast area of 726,852 square kilometres. This huge size makes them bigger than the combined size of England, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Denmark, Belgium and Austria.

Northern Nigeria’s sheer size is one of the daylight narratives that is often lost. The distance between Boko Haram’s northeastern stronghold and most northwestern or north central states is at least five times the distance between England and Northern Ireland. Yet England was never guilty by proximity even during Northern Ireland’s darkest years of terrorism.

Similarly, Los Angeles in California doesn’t suffer the consequences of its proximity to Mexico’s unending drug killings. If anything American States like Texas and New Mexico continue to forge ahead economically and socially, despite sharing borders with Mexico.

Here is the factual, daylight reality – Although Boko Haram may have footholds in several states, its stronghold is only in parts of three northeastern States. Since many of the nineteen northern States are as big as some European countries, they are therefore not even guilty by proximity!

These nineteen states are as diverse as they are huge. A State like Bauchi has 55 tribes, which is 13 more than Kenya’s 42. This gives it a rich cultural and linguistic diversity that cannot be lumped into one box.

Despite its Boko Haram headache (it’s more like a heart attack), Yobe has a population of nearly three million people who are going on with their lives because life has to go on. The State also has one of the largest cattle markets in West Africa. Indeed, it has so much cattle that it has what it takes to be a leading global exporter of beef. Yobeef. Wouldn’t it be cool of this label was to be seen on beef products from Florida to Copenhagen?

Yobe State is named after a river as are three other northern States – Taraba, Niger and Benué. This has to be the highest honor that any country can pay nature. If other States and Countries in the world followed suit, then New York would be Hudson; England would be Thames; Kenya would be Tana and Italy would be Tiber.

Incidentally, three other northern States are also named after rivers – Niger, Yobe and Benué. In the same vein, one of the southern States has so many rivers bordering its territory that it is named, Rivers State. Did I mention that Cross River State, also in the South is named after Cross River? Osun State is named after River Osun; Ogun State is named after River Ogun; Anambra State is named after River Anambra and Imo State is named after Imo River.

Nine States are named after rivers, making Nigeria the unofficial global capital of rivers. It should seriously consider hosting an annual global festival for rivers! These rivers are sparkling, beautiful natural resources that are part of Nigeria’s daylight narrative.

Because of these rivers, Northern Nigeria is the proud home of some of Africa’s most breathtaking waterfalls.

Niger State’s Gurara waterfalls are quite a sight to behold. They are situated along Gurara River and watching them cascading down in a beautiful thunder reminds you of dancing stars even if you have never seen such a sight. Just to be clear, Niger State is in the north. It’s also almost twice the size of Denmark.

Farin Ruwa Waterfalls, said to be the highest in Africa, are in the north central State of Nasarawa. During their downward gush from Jos Plateau, they covers nearly 500 feet! This is even higher than the famed Victoria Falls’ 355 feet!

On Monday 14th July in 2014, the then Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan commissioned a 105,000-tonne rice mill in Nasarawa. In his speech, he touched on his country’s daylight narrative, ‘Nigeria’s position today, as the largest economy in Africa, in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is important, but not enough on its own. We must continue working towards becoming the largest producer, and exporter of food. It is my firm belief that with our vast land, water and labour resources, Nigeria has no business being a net food importing country. We shall continue to work very hard to meet our goal of unlocking all our agricultural potential.’


This agricultural potential is so pronounced in the northwestern State of Zamfara that its official slogan is ‘farming is our pride.’ Farming and other large scale industries were so established in the northwestern State of Kano that its Kurmi market was founded way back in the fifteenth century and is still going strong. Long before the New York Stock Exchange, Kurmi market was very much bustling with trading activity.


Tuesday, 18 August 2015 00:00

The Green Pyramids of Egypt

Written by

‘Wow,’ these word silently escaped from my lips as I wiped my forehead and continued gazing at the great pyramid of giza, also known as the pyramid of Khufu. The sun was out in full blast and tourists were milling all around me. Some of them were my Egyptian friends, who had taken me to the West Nile location of the world’s oldest wonder.

Said to have been built over a twenty year period that concluded around 2,560 BC, the pyramids before me have a lot of history buried within them. Part of that history is as green as the lush Congo forest. It is even more sustainable than the much acclaimed UNEP complex in Nairobi.

According to the Egypt Green Building Council, pyramids are just as green as they are historic. For starters, any structure that can remain standing for nearly five thousand years is sustainable. If it were a housing block, a lot of money, resources and energy would have been saved since generation after generation would have lived there. This has been the case in Kenya’s Lamu Old Town, which has been in existence since the medieval period. Many houses in the old town were built with sturdy coral stone and have stood for centuries, hosting families for generations.

The Egyptian pyramids are without doubt the epitome of structural durability. In a contemporary world where structural longevity is dearly missed in many buildings, the pyramids whisper from the ages that it is possible to erect a building that will stand the test of time, with minimal maintenance.

The pyramids also adhere to a sustainable structural system with natural lighting and ventilations systems. The great pyramid of Khufu had air shafts connecting the King’s chamber to the outside. Considering the mammoth size of the pyramid, carving out the air shafts was no easy task.

The natural material used ensured that the pyramids blended with their natural surroundings and did not stand out. The approximately 2.3 million blocks used to build the great pyramid were not imported from Miami or Paris. Rather, they were locally sourced with the farthest said to have been transported from Aswan, about 800 kilometres away.

Today’s average dwelling house, not to mention the office blocks and skyscrapers, contains large percentages of imported construction material. Buildings contribute three percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions. This may not be as high as the thirty percent that industries emit or the eleven percent the transport sector emits but it is still insanely high for innocent buildings.

Lurking within the sturdy, cute buildings is another more worrying statistic than the three percent - approximately one third of global energy end use takes place within buildings. This explains why when it comes to indirect emissions, the contribution of buildings quadruples to twelve percent.


It is time for the contemporary building sector to take a long, hard look at Egypt’s pyramids and decipher the green building messages therein.


Tuesday, 18 August 2015 00:00

The Country Known as Ecosystem

Written by

When Roger Federer the tennis icon set foot in Mauritius for holiday several years ago, he was just following the tradition of millions who had dreamt of holiday in this idyllic Indian Ocean Island. They dream of those silky beaches and the waving palm trees. But very few ever realize their dreams because holiday in exotic destinations is a preserve for the few who can afford it.

However, there is much more to Mauritius than the rolling waves, whispering palm trees and charming beaches.

The people of Mauritius represent a modern day miracle. They are a melting pot in every sense of the word. Their ancestors came from different parts of the world and only arrived in Mauritius after 1507. They came from as close as Madagascar and from as far as India, Indonesia and other parts of the Far East. These early Mauritians even came from France, Netherlands and England. Mauritians are the beautiful result of this ancestral mix.

Where else in the world do you have such multi-ethnic ancestral mix? Not many places.

The first French settlers arrived in Mauritius in 1715. 

Icroyable!’ Amazing! They must have said when their small ship arrived in Isle de France, as Mauritius was known back then.  The Island was still part of the French Empire and was being managed by the French East India Company. Today, there are Mauritians with a French ancestry but a Mauritian heartbeat. This Island is their beloved home.

Long before the French came calling and baptized Mauritius as ‘Isle de France’ it was known as Dina Arobi, named thus by the Arab sailors. These Arabs are the first known tourists to Mauritius. A couple of years after their arrival, Domingo Fernandez Pereira, the Portuguese sailor, set  foot on the island.

Maravilhoso!’ Marvellous! Domingo must have shouted when his ship approached the lone island at around 1511. What was so marvelous about an inhabited lonely island? The pristine marine ecosystem was undoubtedly even more marvelous than it is today. Mauritius today has at least 1,700 marine species whose splendor is breathtaking.

The early Portuguese voyagers are said to have named Mauritius Cirne, after dodo, the legendary flightless birds that swarmed Mauritius back then. In these maiden days, terrestrial biodiversity seems to have had a bigger impression on the Portuguese tourists! Yet more evidence that Mauritius has always been more than the beaches and palm trees. In fact, Mauritius is an IUCN Center of Plant Diversity. Together with its fellow neighboring islands Reunion and Rodrigues, it is a biodiversity hotspot.

When Don Pedro Mascarenhas, another Portuguese tourist arrived a few years down the road, he decided to name Mauritius, Rodrigues and Reunion after himself. So the three islands became Mascarenhas. What interesting days those were! You just arrive in a pristine land and name it after yourself!

A decade or two after Mascarenhas left Mascarenhas, essentially abandoning himself, the Dutch arrived. They too named the island after someone – their prince back home. He was known as Prince Maurice Van Nassau. Dutch settlements followed but didn’t stay put. Although the Dutch left in 1710, they left behind a lasting legacy – sugarcane. Their sweet remnants have outlived them and become a central part of Mauritius.

The French arrived in 1715 after the Dutch departure and made Mauritius a French colony, even name it, Isle de France, Island of France.  This French honeymoon however ended in 1815 when the British attacked and overpowered them, leading to the restoration of the Island’s earlier name – Mauritius. Unlike in other British colonies, especially in mainland Africa, the British promised to respect local language and customs.

Although a colonizer by any other name still smells as bad, the British undertook commendable action in 1835 when they abolished slavery. Most of the slaves, drawn from mainland Africa and Madagasar, had been working on sugarcane plantations. Ironically, the closure of this sad chapter in the young Island’s life opened a beautiful chapter when Indian labourers were brought in to work on the labour plantations. The beauty is not in the labour but in their arrival, because their offspring are now a big part of Mauritius.


The result of this mix of ancestors are Mauritians who share the same country but diverse cultures. Their harmonious co-existence is a study of harmony in diversity. As for its marine and terrestrial ecosystems, they are so dazzling that if Mauritians were to follow in the footsteps of Don Pedro Mascarenhas, the French explorer who named the island after himself in the medieval era, then the island would simply be known as ‘Ecosystem.’ 

Tuesday, 18 August 2015 00:00

South Sudan's Papyrus Guardians

Written by

Tears flowed freely when then South Sudan leader John Garang’s plane crashed on July 30th 2005 and killed him together with several others on board. Many knew him as the father of South Sudan, as a rebel leader turned statesman who waged both war and peace. What few knew was that his doctoral thesis was on the Jonglei Canal Project. Construction of this canal commenced in the late 1970s, with a goal of providing a channel for the Al-Jabal River to flow uninterrupted until the White Nile.

John Garang wrote his Jonglei Canal dissertation at Iowa State University in 1981 when he was 36 years old. He argued that the canal should equally benefit all Sudanese people, whether they were Arab Northerners or Dinkas; Nubians or Darfurians. All the people of Sudan. In later years when his Sudan People’s Liberation Army halted construction of the canal because they felt that its benefits would be lopsided to the disadvantage of his people.

The story of this canal is closely linked to the story of the papyrus that grows in the adjacent Sudd wetland, the largest tropical wetland in the world.

The papyrus is wet and alert. Its shaggy crown reminds one of those young men whose entire identity seems to reside in their shaggy hair. But unlike such youngsters, this papyrus plant isn’t restless. Its calm demeanour can be seen and felt. Despite the rather strong evening breeze, it is swaying ever so gently.

A hippo wades towards the papyrus, its big mouth sullen, its small eyes animated. If the papyrus had legs it would have fled. But it remains as calm as the evening sunset that smiles down on the vast Sudd wetland. The hippo stops in its tracks, as if scared by the papyrus. It turns around in slow motion fashion and wades towards a different direction.

If you look closely, about two metres to the right of the papyrus, you will see two pairs of bright eyes, shining as if powered by a silent generator. The pair of eyes belong to two crocodiles that are doing nothing but basking in the cool waters of the White Nile. They will wait patiently for nature to send food to them. Sooner or later, animals like the sitatunga will wander too near the two pairs of eyes and end up in the bellies of the two crocodiles.

A great white pelicans glides barely a few metres away from the crocodiles, unafraid of the ferocious creatures. Every once in a while, the pelican dips its massive beak into the tranquil waters as it digs for fish. Some of the fish that end up in its belly are tiny catfish.

Away from site in the deeps of the wetland’s waters, a diverse army of fish shimmies and swims in all directions. Among them is the Nile bichir, also known as the dinosaur eel or the dragon fish. It is quite an interesting fish that can survive out of water for a long time, as long as its skin remains moist.

Also racing in the water close to the calm papyrus are the African lungfishes. Their elongated bodies provide them with agile mobility in the water. This fish is historic in a literal sense. It has lobe fins that enable them to walk – kind of. They swim as if they are walking or crawling in roughly the same way that four-legged animals swim in the water. Unlike most fish, it also has lungs, hence the name lungfish.

Indeed, the staggering size of Sudd wetland is a vast refuge for biodiversity. During the rainy season when water pumps incessantly into the wetland, it can expand beyond 130,000 square km, an area the size of England. Many environmentalists have consistently been of the opinion that the Jonglei canal would drain water from the wetland and compromise its ability to continue providing ecosystem services not just for the wildlife that calls the wetland home, but also for the thousands of South Sudanese people who depend on it.

The papyrus stands as a silent guardian in many places across this vast wetland. It observes as hundreds of internally displaced people pour into different sections of the wetland, fleeing from the civil war that keeps flaring in the young country.

The papyrus also listens keenly to the elephants as they trumpet their joy at the bountiful feast of lush vegetation that is a trademark of the wetland.


Both the papyrus and elephants must wonder why so much blood is shed in a land that is full of utter beauty and serenity.