Words can inspire action and change the world
Have you ever swum in a river? I have. And you should do so too if you haven’t.
Unlike a swimming pool, a river is vibrant and alive. Unlike an ocean, it is intimate. If the river is relatively small like the one I used to swim in as a child, you will be able to swim leisurely across in less than thirty seconds. You will not want to swim too far along the river because the next bend always seems to flow into a rather dark section with roots and rocks jutting out towards the whistling waters as if eager for a dip.
Sadly, you may have to walk for days across vast valleys and rolling hills to find such a river that is still intimate and fully alive. This is because there are people in Kenya and across the world who keep strangling both small and big rivers.
The people who are strangling our rivers are those whose decisions are making climate change worse. This is because there is a direct relation between climate change and the current drought that is causing our rivers to dry up. You see, when greenhouse gas emissions are released into the air, they cause air temperatures to increase which causes more moisture to evaporate from land, rivers, lakes and other water bodies. Although other factors like deforestation and unsustainable irrigation can also cause rivers to dry up, climate change is the biggest culprit.
Nairobi’s four million residents are currently receiving a particularly painful blow from climate change – water rationing. Although most Nairobi residents especially those in Eastlands have been undergoing water rationing for years (I fall in this category), almost every member of the Capital City is now feeling the pinch. Earlier this month, an official from Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company attributed this dry-taps pinch to the fact that water levels at Ndakaini Dam have dropped to an all-time low of less than 25 per cent.
This unprecedented drop has been occasioned by diminished water volumes in the three rivers that drain into the swamp – Thika River, Githika River and Kayuyu River. Nairobians should be kissing the ground that these rivers walk on because they supply the water that ultimately ends up in their taps. Since Ndakaini Dam supplies 84 percent of Nairobi’s water, these three rivers are infinitely more important than the recently opened Two Rivers Shopping Mall, Africa’s newest and biggest Mall.
Anybody (including Mr. Trump) who harms these three rivers is basically harming four million Nairobians. If USA veers away from the green path that it had started walking on by speeding on with its harmful greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will continue causing drought and Nairobi’s Three Rivers will continue limping. Consequently, the water levels in Ndakaini Dam will nose dive further and Nairobi’s taps will remain dry. Expanding water sources for Nairobi will end up being a short-term measure because even those new sources depend on rivers that are alive, not dying.
The kind of rivers that I used to swim in.
Julius Mwongela was still about half a kilometer from his house in Mumbuni in Machakos. His joints were aching. Not because of malaria but due to another long day in the hotel where he worked. He was so tired that it took a while for his eyes to register that the smiling woman in front of him was Margaret Kasiva his beloved wife. Dangling in her right hand was a twenty-litre jerrycan.
“Mbona umezubaa Sweetie?” Why are you absent-minded sweetie? She asked him, a playful look dancing in her eyes.
“Nilikuwa nakufikiria,” I was thinking about you, he lied in that honest way that men have perfected over centuries.
Almost daily, Margaret has to go and fetch water from a borehole that is just under a kilometer from their house. She often has to do it herself because they don’t always have the twenty shillings that it costs to ferry a twenty-litre jerrycan of water to their doorstep.If they have to buy all the water that they need, they can easily end up spending as much money on this precious liquid as they do on their rent.
When Julius moved to his house in Mumbuni estate, there was a shallow borehole from which they could draw water. But it dried up within months so they were sentenced to the daily water-fetching journeys.
Like all urban centres in Kenya, Machakos doesn’t have regular and reliable water supply. Many houses like Julius’s don’t even have piped water. For many that do, taps are often dry so some depend on water delivered by trucks. This is despite the fact that Machakos town sits next to Maruba dam. Located across river Maruba, the dam gifts visitors to Machakos people’s Park with a beautiful scenery. But its ten billion liters of water doesn’t seem to be gifting residents of Machakos town with sufficient water.
Although Maruba dam can provide four times as much water as it is currently providing, sand is standing in the way of this extra water being unleashed.
Interestingly, this water scarcity in Kenya and Machakos in particular is nothing new. Back in 1974, seven years before Julius was born, Hon George Nthenge the then Machakos Member of Parliament posed these questions to the Minister of Agriculture, “What urgent action is being taken to ensure that Machakos town has water day and night? Is the Ministry aware of the great hardships suffered by the residents of the Township including the provincial hospital whose essential activities have had to stop at times?”
In his response, Hon. Wanjigi the then Assistant Minister for Agriculture said that his Ministry was aware of the water scarcity and was taking urgent measures to address it. He added that, “During the recent rains, the production of water in Machakos has had to be reduced due to the heavy silt in Maruba dam…”
Some things never change. Forty-three years ago in 1974, siltation was strangling Maruba dam and is still doing so today. The National and County Government departments responsible of kicking out silt from Maruba dam should rise to the occasion and do so once and for all. The people of Machakos deserve nothing less than that.
Julius and his beloved Margaret deserve taps that have running water. This is their right because Article 43 of Kenya’s constitution clearly states that every person has the right to clean and safe water in adequate quantities.
The kitchen sink tap was wide open. Beneath it was a sufuria (cooking pan). A few seconds later, there was enough water in the sufuria for ugali that would satisfy the appetites of two hungry adults. My friend Mulhat wasn’t a big ugali fan so I knew that I would end up consuming most of it. But she was crazy about the sukuma wiki (kales) that I had just prepared so we both had an equal stake in the upcoming dinner. Besides, both of us absolutely adored the fried beef she had cooked earlier that day.
As I watched Mulhat pour maize flour into the boiling water, I started thinking about the millions of other homes in Nairobi that were at that moment preparing meals whose primary ingredient was water. This set me thinking – how much water does Nairobi, Kenya’s huge capital, consume in a day? Is this water being depleted or replenished wherever it comes from? Is my own water consumption sustainable or extravagant?
‘I hope you are thinking about me,’ Mulhat said as she served chunks of fried meat on two brand new white plates that I had bought the previous week thanks to her prodding. She felt that my plates belonged to the National Museum of Kenya and that it was time for a new generation of plates. And cups.
‘I am thinking about water,’ I answered as I reached for a glass of water.
Even as I drank the clean, potable water in the glass, my mind crawled back to a report that I had read earlier that morning entitled, ‘Securing Water, Sustainable Growth.’ Published by the University of Oxford in 2015 and written by an International Task Force, the report disclosed that the total cost of water insecurity to the global economy was US$500 billion annually. In light of this, the water that Mulhat had just used to cook ugali; the water that I had just drank from my ageing glass; the water that made food, farming and industry across Kenya and elsewhere in the world possible, was costing our world US$500 per year by its insufficiency. In other words, lack of water was severely denting the global economy.
Further compounding water scarcity is the fact that for millions of people, even the available water is unfit for their consumption. The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation revealed in a report that ‘at least 1.8 billion people world-wide are estimated to drink water that is faecally contaminated.’ For these millions of fellow human beings, water is not life because the water they consume can and does lead to death.
Even as millions of people continue to be weighed down by the burden of water scarcity or contaminated water, millions others consume it in unsustainable and extravagant fashion.
As I enjoyed every bite of my dinner, I found myself wondering if I was in this category of people whose water footprints are all over the place.
‘You are an absolute master in cooking sukuma wiki,’ Mulhat told me as she re-filled her white plate with Kenya’s favourite vegetable.
Apart from feeding forty million Kenyans, sukuma wiki and agriculture as a whole plays a fundamental role in Africa’s economy by providing six out of every ten jobs on the continent. Because it is heavily dependent on water, Agriculture gulps down 70 percent of all water consumption in the world every year. That’s huge. Without that water being available, Mulhat wouldn’t be able to enjoy my world-famous sukuma wiki.
The beef chunks on my white plate also had their own water footprint. The half a kilo that Mulhat had so deliciously fried in black pepper and garlic had taken 6,800 litres of water to reach my white plate. This number may seem exaggerated but it takes into account the water needed to grow the grass and food that nurture the cow in its short life before it ends up in a slaughterhouse, a butcher, a newspaper wrapping and eventually my white plate.
Since she doesn’t appreciate the ageless splendour of ugali, Mulhat arose from the sofa and sashayed to the kitchen to fetch a few slices of bread. She made a beef sandwich and insisted that I take a bite. The loaf of bread from which she had fished a few slices had required about 908 litres of water to produce.
The astounding water footprints don’t end there. That small bag of French fries that does a lot to satisfy your hunger needs 45 litres of water before you can hold it in grateful hands. The soda that you will most likely drink alongside the chips needs 6,800 litres of water before it can end up in your warm hands.
Water is indeed life. We mostly seem to notice this when it quenches our thirst from a glass. But for every bite of food that we take there are litres of water that were used for that food to reach our hands. Given the fact that most of the food consumed in the United States is processed, the average American family consumes about 2,100 litres of water per day. This is more than one hundred times the 19 litres that an average African family uses per day!
One of the unfortunate reasons why water consumption in Africa is considerably low is that about three quarters of households in sub-Saharan Africa fetch water from a source away from their home. Every effort must be taken to take the water to these households. In the same vein, Americans should drastically reduce their water wastage especially in their diets. It is not enough for them to conserve the water coming from their taps. They need to eat food that doesn't deplete water due to the sheer volume of water needed to produce and process it.
My white plate was finally empty. My stomach was full. I reached for the glass of water beside the plate but it was empty.
Water is a finite resource.
Wasini Island, Kenya’s South Coast – He looked at his empty hands, as if they were responsible for the lack of fish that afternoon. He was waist deep in the warm, salty waters of the Indian Ocean. His wet hands had just finished running through a large ten-metre net that four fellow fishermen, together with him, had left in the ocean to trap fish.
‘Lililoandikwa halifutiki,’ he muttered under his dry breath as his calloused left palm wiped sweat from his wide brow. Literally translated, these words mean that ‘what God has written cannot be erased.’ In other words, if God had pre-determined that they would not get fish on that particular day, not even the best nets in the words could deliver fish to them.
Later that night after the Isha’a prayers, Mzee Hemed (Mzee is Swahili for old man) was expressionless as he sipped kahawa tungu (Swahili espresso). It was his favourite beverage and ordinarily, its very intake would have put him into a cheery mood. But tonight, just like the previous night and the night before that, fish was on his mind. Or rather, lack of fish.
‘I have been fishing for more than thirty years now,’ Mzee Hemed tells me in a voice so low that I find myself leaning forward on the small wooden table in order to catch his words better.
Musa the restaurant’s owner and waiter shouts from the counter a few metres away if we need refills of kahawa tungu.
I shake my head, eager to listen to the ageing fisherman.
He started fishing in the early eighties when I was less than ten years old. He is still fishing. But the similarities end there since back then, the Indian Ocean was bustling with fish.
‘I always used to find fish in the net.’ He has a faraway look in his glazed eyes, ‘always.’
‘But these days, it is as if the fish are playing hide and seek with us.’
Mzee Hemed is saying in simple words what science is now concluding through hard facts unearthed from years of research. Last year, scientists from the US, France and France wrote research paper that shed further light to the hide and seek game that Mzee Hemed is referring to.
The Paper was titled, ‘A reduction in marine primary productivity driven by rapid warming over the tropical Indian Ocean.’ The paper’s abstract noted that, ‘future climate projections suggest that the Indian Ocean will continue to warm driving this productive region into an ecological desert.’
To be continued…
Imagine if President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Ali Bongo of Gabon, Ian Khama of Botswana and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda formed a club known as the ‘People Club.’ Imagine if this club sought to ensure that millions of poor people in these four countries were empowered economically through new jobs, new markets for their products or new capital for their enterprises. After all, 2.5 billion people in the world remain mired in poverty with millions of these in Africa.
Imagine if the foremost goal of this ‘People Club’ was as follows:
“The People Club is an exclusive forum that brings together African Heads of State, global business leaders and livelihood enhancement experts to secure and enhance livelihoods for Africa’s increasing number of poor people especially those who live near elephant populations.”
In order to make a bold statement about the need to slay poverty once and for all, imagine if the four presidents then burnt things that are vivid and symbolic depictions of abject poverty in Africa. Things like farming subsidy policies that keep fresh vegetables from the US market; symbolic bank statements containing the billions that have been stolen from Africa and stacked abroad; court rulings from across Africa that confirm prosecutions of corrupt officials who embezzle millions from public coffers; statistics papers that show how tribalism trumps competency in public appointments, and many such contributors of poverty on the continent.
The US 2014 farm bill paved way for subsidies that have been harmful even to America itself. Between now and 2018, when the Football World Cup will be played in Russia, US peanut farmers will have reaped as much as $1.9 billion in subsidies. This is more than the approximately 1.74 billion that Kenya spends to pay its teachers. While no one should begrudge the US for spending its money as it wishes, this isn’t a level playing field for African farmers to compete with their American counterparts holistically.
Indeed, American farmers were incentivized to grow crops like peanuts so much that last year in 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture ended up with a surplus of 16,000 metric tons of peanuts. How on earth is a peanut farmer in Kenya or Malawi supposed to compete with that?! You may say that the Nairobi Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation in 2015 addressed this issue. Sure enough, the Nairobi Package called on an end of all farm export subsidies. The challenge now will lie in educating the masses about both the new global trade opportunities and lingering challenges.
Imagine if the public burning by the four presidents dramatized unfair global trade practices so much that ensuing public pressure ends up impacting local national elections. Wouldn’t that deal a decisive blow to poverty (to an extent) by enabling farmers in Togo and Namibia to sell their agricultural produce to a much wider market? It might also open the floodgates of capital to flow into Africa’s agriculture and make it more technologically savvy.
Imagine if this public burning was preceded by a ‘People Club’ Summit that resulted in commitments that these four countries would have to adhere to. Commitments like: Ensure that at least 25 percent of tourism revenue goes back to communities living next to national parks and game reserves in the form of employment opportunities, investments or loans. This way, local communities would have a seat at the table and not just benefit from the tourism revenue crumbs that fall their way. Kenya’s Tourism Act of 2011 is sadly silent on such innovative ways of investing in communities.
Interestingly, Kenya has in the past enacted innovative legislation that impacted the tourism sector significantly. The 1972 Hotels and Restaurants Act, Cap 494 established Catering Levy Trustees that collected a 2% training levy from hotels and restaurants towards Utalii College’s financing, training and operation. Without the said legislation, we may never have been the proud owners of East and Central Africa’s premier hospitality training institution. Because of the more than six billion it has received from the Levy Fund, Utalii College has been able to produce at least 50,000 highly trained students whose human resource has catapulted Kenya’s hospitality sector to the next level.
Imagine therefore that there was legislation entrenching community-centred investment into the law of the land. Legislation that would greatly minimize human-wildlife conflict by aligning wildlife and communities on the same side as allies, not adversaries competing for finite resources.
Imagine if yet another commitment from this ‘People’s Club’ Summit called on billionaires like Richard Branson to provide venture capital funds not just for enterprising individuals from national park adjacent communities but also for ventures that specifically ensure the sustainable wellbeing of both communities and wildlife.
Everything you have just imagined happened in Nairobi in the last week of April 2016. The only difference between what actually happened and what you have just imagined lies in the fact that instead of people, elephants were the focus of the Summit. I support this focus 100 percent.
I only add the there should be similarly renewed focus on the poor people of these countries, especially those who live near the amazing gentle giants. They deserve not just a regular meal on their tables, but also a reliable, wildlife-enabled means of producing this meal. Wildlife-enabled in the sense that the millions earned from wildlife end up not just in wildlife conservation efforts but also in human wellbeing efforts.
As we keep our hands off our elephants, let us join them to kick poverty out of Africa.
When Mr and Mrs Anthony Ighodaro touched down in Munich Germany in 1997, they were excited about this new chapter of their lives. The move from London to Munich was necessitated by Mrs Ighodaro’s new assignment to help in setting up a joint telecoms venture. Munich would now be their new home for two years until 1999.
Coming from London’s fast-paced melting pot, Munich was a breath of fresh air for Anthony. He felt instantly at home as he took in the Southern German City.
Rachel Johnson the British journalist famously said of Munich that, ‘of one thing there is no doubt: if Paris makes demands of the heart, then Munich makes demands of the stomach.’ But for Anthony, the demands of Munich were directed to his mind.
He was drawn to the baroque architecture of the Nymphenburg palace. Built by two generations of Bavarian rulers, this palace sits majestically in a corner of Munich. It still looks as fresh and regal as it did in 1675 when its central pavilion was completed. He also spent days studying the old masters art collection at the Alte Pinakothek. This art museum is one of the oldest galleries in the world. Being in it almost felt like stepping into a time capsule from the nineteenth century.
Every time he took a walk in Munich, Anthony marvelled at the seamless blending of old and new buildings standing side by side as if rooted in similar yet varying architectural harmony. Over 600 years old, the oldest brewery was nestled next to the latest biotech research institute.
This harmony extended to public transportation where cycling paths sometimes ran alongside roads before taking detours into their very own meanderings that traversed all through the city. It made him want to jump onto a bike and cycle, which struck him as an impulse that was in tandem with sustainability since cycling was healthy both for the environment and the cyclist. Within weeks, Anthony was already acting on this impulse during weekends when he would cycle for at least fifty kilometres, exploring differrent biking routes and discovering those joyful Bavarian bierkellers where drink and mirth flowed merrily. He especially loved the bierkellers communal feel.
Indeed, Muncheners (Munich residents) didn’t seem to have any of that supposed German snobbishness that is also ascribed to Britons. Rather they seemed to have a zest for life that the rest of the world usually gets a glimpse of during the legendary Oktoberfest Beer Festival. A conversation with many Muncheners also often revealed a deep appreciation of philosophy and engineering, two things that were close to Anthony's heart.
Away from the big city, the Bavarian countryside was even more serene with the Austrian alps just an hour’s drive south of Munich. Anthony learned to ski there. Thanks to the proximity of lakes Ammersee and Starnberg to his residence, he also learned to sail. After acquiring sailing and skiing skills, he liked to joke that he could now walk on land, snow and water!
Back in his house, he was constantly struck by the fact that there were five dustbins and waste had to be sorted accordingly. Recycling was indeed taken quite seriously here!
One chilly morning, wrapped in a woollen coat and a matching woollen cap, Anthony’s errands took him to the vicinity of Siemens, the electronics and industrial conglomerate that was founded in 1847. A streetlight in the Siemens car park instantly gripped his attention when he realized that it was powered by solar. This may be commonplace now but in 1998, it wasn’t.
Anthony later met the engineer who had designed the streetlight and had a long conversation with him. He eventually convinced him to design a solar system that could power his fax machine back in Nigeria. Anthony’s forward thinking mentality was informed by the belief that unless solar energy became relevant to daily utilities, it would remain on the fringes of everyday life.
Anthony subsequently became deeply interested in linking Germany’s solar technology and financial resources with Nigeria’s solar resources and electricity needs. In other words, Germany had the money and technology whereas Nigeria had the sun and massive electricity deficiency. In order to play a role in writing a different chapter for his country, Anthony decided to dip his pen in the solar ink. He enrolled for a Siemens Solar PV course that left him with a firmer technical knowhow on solar technology.
Scott Adams, the American cartoonist has wryly written that, ‘Engineers like to solve problems. If there are no problems handily available, they will create their own problems.’ For Anthony, the former part of Scott’s quote came into full play when he became increasingly acquainted with Germany’s renewable energy exploits.
When he saw that solar-powered streetlight, Anthony’s engineer’s-problem-solving mentality had kicked into full gear. After completing the Siemens course, he decided to heed Mahatma Gandhi’s words and become the change he wanted to see in Nigeria. In 1999, he did that by establishing KXN Nigeria Ltd, a private company for distributing, assembling, installing and maintaining Solar PV equipment in Nigeria. Though private, this company was a social enterprise because its driving force was providing renewable energy solutions for the people of Nigeria, especially in the rural areas where the National Grid was yet to penetrate.
Less than three years later in 2002, KXN found itself in the thick of social business. It teamed up with the University of Maiduguri and BP Solar to train technicians in installation and maintenance of both PV refrigerators and other PV systems. These technicians were subsequently able to install 189 solar-powered vaccine refrigerator systems in 90 villages across the north east of Nigeria. These innovative efforts earned KXN a 2005 Ashden award.
Armed with such renewable energy experience, Anthony found himself at a World Future Council conference in Ethiopia back in 2009. The World Future Council is a Foundation that researches, identifies and spreads the best and most sustainable policy solutions worldwide. During its 2009 Ethiopia meeting, the Council founded the Africa Renewable Energy Alliance (AREA), a member-driven network that has gradually grown to comprise of more than 2000 members from over 100 countries.
In the inaugural Ethiopia meeting, Anthony was appointed Chairman of AREA’s twelve-member steering committee. As Chairman, he was now charged with the responsibility of helping steer AREA in its quest of playing a catalytic role in promoting knowledge transfer and international cooperation in renewables. In Anthony’s own words, AREA ‘accelerates the uptake of renewable energy across Africa.’
Such acceleration is primarily achieved through the knowledge platform that AREA has created where its hundreds of members can exchange information and consult about policies, technologies and financial mechanisms for the deployment of renewable energies in Africa.
The AREA platform has subsequently helped renewable energy players across Africa to take informed action and to find common ground for renewable action. Anthony believes that one of the renewables initiatives that can be scaled up across the continent is South Africa's Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP).
REIPPPP is a ground-breaking public-private partnership that has already attracted an investment of $13 billion over six years. These billions were unlocked through an exemplary and accessible bidding process which attracted widespread bidding from quality investors.
Another renewable energy initiative that appeals to Anthony is the Regional Solar Program (RSP) which spanned across 9 Sahelian countries from 1990 to 1998. This EU-funded program was launched by the Interstate Committee for Drought Control (CILSS). The solar energy that it provided in rural areas was particularly vital as it was used to power water pumps during a period of widespread drought.
Such successful renewable energy projects provide efficient case studies that can be duly upscaled across Africa. Through the AREA platform, it is possible for such knowledge to be shared and tapped into. Since knowledge is only as powerful as its application, AREA enables Africans and friends of Africa to know more concerning renewable energy and hopefully execute more.
Mama Njeri looked at the price tag on the supermarket shelf unbelievingly.
Ksh 146. This was the new price of a 2kg packet of maize.
‘Excuse me,’Mama Njeri called a bored looking supermarket attendant with a faded blue overcoat.
‘How much is a 2kg packet of maize flour?’
He pointed at the price tag and said in a matter-of-fact way, ‘one hundred and forty six shillings.’
She looked at him wide-eyed, scared, like he was merciless gunman aiming an AK-47 at her.
‘One hundred and forty six shillings,’ she repeated quietly in an unbelieving mumble that only her could hear. Just two months earlier, she had come to the same supermarket and stood at this same spot. But back then, the price tag on the dusty shelf read differently.
Only two months ago. Seventy three shillings. And now, Ksh 146. Double. In two months. Yet her salary as a receptionist in a downtown pharmacist hadn’t doubled. It was still nine thousand shillings.
She looked at the price tag again and she saw her three daughters, Njeri, Ciiru and Soni, who were aged eleven, nine and six respectively.
Njeri was bright for her age. She was index 3 in her class 8 at Buruburu 1 Primary School. In two months time, she would be sitting for her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education. Her mother was sure that Njeri would pass her exams with flying colors and earn admission to Alliance Girls High School. The admission letter would come with a list of things to be bought and fees to be paid. And it was up to her to find the money.
Mama Njeri was standing in front of the maize flour shelf like a robot. Her brown eyes were still transfixed on the price tag.
As she gazed at the hiked figure, she saw the smiling face of Ciru her second daughter. What a happy nine year old! Ciiru was the sunshine of the family, always smiling. Every time Mama Njeri looked at her second born daughter, she always felt a flicker of joy in her heart.
Ciiru’s father had been a happy man too. She should have married him but he had a wife. He was such a happy man, ever laughing. Even when he told her that their affair had to end, he did so with a smile. The same smile that she always saw in her daughter Ciiu. The affair might have been a mistake but Ciiru wasn’t. Her daughter deserved the best in life. The very best.
Mama Njeri saw the figure again and released a deep, troubled sigh. Two months was all it had taken for the price to double. The cost of living was becoming too high, slipping beyond her nine-thousand shillings salary.
She looked again at the new price and saw the face of Soni her last born. That girl could sing. She sang when she woke up in the morning, sang when she ate and sang before she slept. These days, her favourite song was Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry.’ Before then, it had been Willy Paul and Gloria Muliro’s ‘Sitolia.’ It was clear to all who knew her that Soni had a musical gift and would one day be a great singer. But only if that gift was nurtured. It was up to her mother to ensure that her daughter’s gift was nurtured. And that would cost money.
She was the guardian, protector and provider of her three amazing daughters. They were her dreams come true and it was up to her to make their dreams come true. But translating dreams into reality cost money. Money that was now becoming increasingly scarce due to skyrocketing prices.
She looked one final time at the price tag and with a heavy heart picked one packet, instead of two.
I first knew about Lake Faguibine back in 2009 when I wrote a short creative story showcasing the work that UNEP had done to restore the lake.
‘Lake Fa.. what?!’ I had asked Levis my boss when he told me about this Lake.
Lake Victoria, I knew. Lake Tanganyika, I knew. But Lake Faguibine?!
For several weeks, I dug in and unearthed as many facts as I could about the Lake whose claim to fame is the fact that it dried up. I learnt to my shock that that the lake had dried up in the mid-seventies, before I was born.
What! I wrote in a tiny brown notebook that was always in my breast pocket.
So what causes a lake to just dry up? I wondered. Well, it doesn’t ‘just’ dry up. The people who live near the lake plus those who live near the rivers that pour into the lake are mostly to blame for stifling and strangling the lake.
Recently, seven years after my first encounter with Fagubine, I decided that that it was time to pay this lake a visit again. But when I dusted away the cobwebs that had gathered in my Faguibine notes and contacted Mr Google for several updated answers, I realized that Fagubine was more than facts and statistics narrated by people like me, most of whom are far far away.
Many of the journalists and environmental experts who write about Fagubine may be familiar with the letters (cold data) of the dry lake through the internet and literature reviews, but they definitely don’t know the spirit and soul of Fagubine.
The spirit and soul of Fagubine. Does such a thing even exist? I wrote this question in my brown notebook.
The spirit and soul of Fagubine refers to the Malian people who have lived adjacent to the lake for centuries. They have sapped and fished from its waters. Felt its fresh scent.
As children, they raced along the lake’s shores; as youth, they jumped into sturdy canoes that took them into the deeps of the lake for joyous fishing expeditions; as adults, they continued with the fishing but when their years advanced further, they took great joy in simply gazing at the orange rays of the setting sun.
Moussa Coulibaly is one such person. I met him in one warm morning in Tunis during an event for the World Social Forum in 2015. I had known him for a decade via email but this is the first time that we were meeting in person. We were both members of the Global Independent Media Network (Indymedia), a movement whose revolutionary inclined members definitely know the first name of Che Guevara and the birthday of Thomas Sankara, two icons of revolution.
Moussa was able to unlock for me a little bit of Lake Fagubine’s spirit. As a Malian, he could blow a bit of the Lake’s scent my way so that I could catch its whiff instead of just unearthing its data.
Although his eyes had the calm blaze of the revolutionary in him, his voice was calm as he explained, ‘Le système constitue pour le Mali une immense ressource pour la lutte contre l’insécurité alimentaire. Il regorge d'immenses potentialités agricoles, pastorales, halieutiques et sylvicoles.’
Because he said these words in his calm, slow manner, I was able to understand half of what he was saying. I have an on and off relationship with French despite my regular vows that I will stabilize this relationship.
Basically, Moussa was telling the utter importance of the Lake Faguibine System in such critical matters like food security.
Nodding keenly as I was understanding very word he was saying, I continued listening to him, ‘autrefois le lac était appelé le grenier du septentrion d’autant plus qu’il a servi à nourrir une bonne partie des populations du nord des céréales et du sud des produits de la pêche et de l’élevage. Ces produits étaient même exportés vers certains pays voisins en Mauritanie pour la plupart et en Côte d’ivoire, Burkina et le Ghana.’
For all of you non-French speakers out there, Moussa was saying that at one time, Mali used to export cereals to countries like Ghana, thanks to Lake Faguibine. Then it dried up. The waters fled and took with them the priceless benefits that cling on their wings.
Why did this Lake dry up?
Since I hadn’t been able to ask Moussa this question while in Tunis, I posed it in an email that I sent him a few weeks later.
Although he was from Timbouctou, 80 kilometres east of Lake Fagubine Moussa’s mother was a Touareg from the Lake Fagubine region, so he had visited this area several times.
‘David John!’ Moussa’s response to my email came within an hour, ‘is good to read your email. You can call me on +22376...’ At the end of his brief email were the words, La où s’abat le découragement, s’élève la victoire des persévérants.
After wondering what those words meant, I bought airtime using MPESA, Kenya’s famous mobile money transfer service and dialled the numbers.
‘Is dead’ Coulibally said after the initial awkward pleasantries because my French was as bad as his English.
‘Is dead,’ Coulibaly repeated in response to my question about Lake Fagubine.’
‘I go there last week, and the lake is still dead.’
After a pause, he added louder, in French, ‘le lac est mort,’ the lake is dead.
Coulibaly’s statement summed up the Lake’s soul, spirit and reality much better than Mr Google or the dusty notes in my notebook.
Lake Fagubine was dead. Period. One is either dead, or alive.
Lake Fagubine was not flowing with water, swarming with fish, teeming with biodiversity, rustling with water.. It was dead.
Can the people of Mali in particular and humanity as a whole breathe life back into it?
Warda Habuya jumped on her older cousin’s back, startling her. She was ten but could pass for five. Her small frame was inherited from her mother’s petite body. Plus her grandmother too, who had died two years earlier of old age. She just went to sleep one night and never woke up. What a fine way for mama to go to heaven, Warda’s father had said.
‘Will you allow me to plait your hair tonight?’ Warda asked, smiling.
She had one dimple on her right cheek and a gap-toothed smile. Her voice was a husky alto, again like her mother’s. The only quality she had inherited from her father was a steady, confident stride that made those they were walking with happy to be doing so.
Maria Habuya Guevarra, the cousin on whose back little Warda had jumped to, sat silent on the damp grassy riverbank of River Tana. Kenya’s longest river passes right through her Dumi village. It then snakes its way for about fifty kilometres to Kipini village, where it finally tumbles into the Indian Ocean.
Maria threw a tiny smooth stone into the gentle brown waters of the river and it rustled back at her in diminishing echoes. Sssssssss....
She threw another stone and another and another and another. The riverine echoes were now dancing into and out of each other resulting in a watery music that she found soothing.
‘I can throw further than you!’ a small alto voice said behind her as a stone flew further ashore into the water, resulting in a series of circles as the water embraced the little stone.
Warda herself flew into a patch of grass next to Maria. A chameleone hiding behind a nearby thistle bush took note of Warda’s soft thud but decided it wasn’t spelling danger so there was no need to take flight.
‘Why do you like staring into the river Maria?’
‘Because it makes me happy.’
‘So you are not happy when you are away from the river at school?’
Maria taught at a nearby Primary school. She had joined it as soon as she completed her studies at Shanzu Teacher Training College.
Like majority of Kenya’s high school youth, Maria had never wanted to be a primary school teacher.
‘Teachers are paid worse than policemen,’ she had protested to her father, a small scale rice farmer whose average monthly revenue was just over Ksh 10,000 (USD100).
He was from the Pokomo community and like most of his kinsmen, farming was his lifeline. He was also such a big fan of Che Guevarra the Argentine revolutionary that since his twenties, many people called him Guevarra, a name that later stuck to his children like super glue.
‘I have educated you, your two sisters and four brothers from my meagre farming revenue,’ Maria’s father had told her sternly over the flickering lantern in their tiny mud-walled living room.
‘What matters is not how much you earn,’ he said, adding more kerosene into the lantern, ‘but what you do with it.’
Four years later, she was now earning a gross salary of Ksh 24,000 (USD240), more than her father and more than newly employed policemen. But when her first payslip came, the small sheet of paper almost dropped from her hands. Her eyes widened in utter shock when she read that her net salary would be Ksh 19,483 (USD194).
‘Why?!’ she protested to her head-teacher.
‘Welcome to the world of taxes my daughter,’ the kindly sixty-year old head-teacher told her with a chuckle, ‘as you can see on your payslip, most of your deductions go to the taxman.’
‘Serikali yafanyia nini hizo hela zangu?!’ What does the government do with my money?
It keeps you safe, treats you in public hospitals when you are sick, builds roads and generally uses your tax money to take care of you, she was told.
There was nothing in Dumi village that had been done by her taxes. She pointed out this fact angrily to her father and mother after handing over to them her entire salary for them to bless it and retain Ksh5,000 (USD50) for their own use.
Her father, Diwayu Guevarra was a Muslim while her mother Linah was a Christian. They were both from the Pokomo community even though her father’s mother was from the Cushitic Orma community. Thanks to her paternal grandmother, Maria’s hair was long and wavy, unlike her mother’s and sisters’ kinky hair. She also had a short temper, a reputed stereotype of Cushitic communities.
Maria’s long hair was swaying gently in the evening breeze as she sat silently on the riverbank. She needed soothing from both the river and its breeze almost every evening when the sun was slipping cautiously into Tana Delta’s volatile horizon. She had read that word, ‘volatile’ in almost every newspaper article about the fighting in the Tana Delta.
It was September 2012 and as Kenyans in the rest of the country whispered ‘usiku mwema, good night’ to each other every night, Maria and thousands of others in the Tana Delta would say their last prayers, not sure if they would wake up with the orange sun or if they would have slipped over into eternity, thanks to the ongoing fighting between the Pokomos and Ormas.
This particular evening, she lingered at the river, afraid of the darkness that was gradually enveloping her but unwilling to go back to their two-bedroom house, where her father’s worried frown and her mother’s incessant laments about the government’s inability to protect them, would push her even further into depression.
At this same time when she was milking comfort from River Tana, her friend Lala was in a salon in Nairobi, next to Outering Road and a two-minute walk from her house in Donholm.
‘Why are these people killing each other like animals?’ A slender, (Lala felt the word should be too thin) hairdresser said in her high-pitched voice as the flat screen in the salon switched to a special NTV report about the killings in Tana Delta.
Lala, whose hair was being plaited into ‘Ethiopian style’ grimaced when the sight of an injured mother filled the screen. Her tears were flowing into the dry blood on her cheeks, a toddler in a black jumper sitting listlessly in her laps. Apart from the lost, scared look in his (or was it her?) eyes, the baby didn’t seem injured.
‘Are you okay girl?’ Lala quickly clicked on send wondering if her friend Maria was fine.
They had been classmates in Murray Girls High School in Taita-Taveta County. Although they didn’t have much in common at first, they had become close over the four years they studied there.
The catchy tune of Khona, a popular song by South African group Mafikizolo, interrupted the riverine stillness. This was one of Maria’s favourite songs and she had set it as her incoming messages ringtone.
‘Are you okay girl?’ It was from her friend Lala.
‘Is there anything I can do?’
Come and take my family and I away to a place where there is no fighting, or to a country where the government uses taxpayer money to keep its people safe. Maria thought.
But I would miss this river so much. I prefer for the government to use the 4,000 shillings it takes from me every month to keep me safe right here, by the river.
The following morning when she was just about to write the day’s date on the blackboard and start teaching mathematics to Class 3 students, the Mafikizolo song filled her quiet classroom. She had forgotten to put her phone on silent so she hurriedly walked to her desk and fished it out from the new second-hand handbag she had bought the previous weekend.
‘Warda na babake waliuawa jana usiku.’ Warda and her father were killed last night. The message was from her sister.
Like a zombie, Maria read on, ‘Inna lillaahi wa inna ilayhi Raaji'oon.’
The second part was a common muslim refrain to death that translates to, ‘to God we belong and to Him we shall return.’
Maria didn’t feel the torrent of tears that was flowing down her cheeks but her students saw them, young innocent witnesses to a brutal conflict that was claiming lives as young and innocent as theirs.
Some drops of her tears fell on her latest payslip, which was still in her handbag. Even through the cloud of tears in her eyes; through the pain that no words in her Pokomo language or any language for that matter could describe, through this sorrow that would forever occupy her back in the same spot where Warda liked to jump onto, through sheer misery, her brown eyes saw the three-letter word on her payslip and what it had consumed Tax: 3,540 shillings.
If the three letter word couldn’t guarantee the ultimate four-letter word – life, what was its use? Despite her sorrow, this question flooded into her mind with even more ferocity than the tears that were streaming down her cheeks.
‘What exactly does that boyfriend of yours Nkedi do?’ Chao asked her big sister.
They were both wearing blue jeans, though the attire similarity ended there. Lala’s top was a black T-shirt, with the word NO emblazoned at its front in bright blue colours.
Chao was donning a sleeveless garnet tank top. She liked buying clothes with complicated colours so that she could casually say to her friends statements like, ‘this garnet colour was the only one remaining in the shop...’
Slender braids were tumbling down her generous bosom. She had a love-hate relationship with this bosom of her. Sometimes it was a source of great pride but there were times when she wished she could deflate the boobs just a little so that they could be a ‘normal’ size.
They were seated in the second row of the left side, in an Easy bus coach, on a rare trip to their father’s ancestral home in Mumias. Mumias literally means Mumia’s named after Nabongo Mumia, one of pre-independent Kenya’s last supreme traditional kings. It is now more famous for its sugar. However, this sweetness had turned sour over the years. Just ten years earlier, nearly every farmer in Mumias was planting sugarcane. Now, almost each one of them was uprooting them.
Like India and Brazil, Mumias had been a powerhouse of sugarcane for a long time. But unlike India which still produced an average annual cane production of about 350 million tonnes, Mumias’s had plummeted faster than a rock falling down a cliff.
When Wanguba, Lala’s uncle, her father’s oldest brother visited them in Nairobi the previous year, he had said solemnly during the sumptuous meal of Mama Lala’s soooft chapatis and ndengu, ‘our sugarcane farms have become graveyards of our dreams.’ Said in the Wanga dialect of the Luhya language, these words sounded even more absolute yet pleasantly poetic.
It was Tuesday in July, so the bus was half full; it would have been a quarter full but a group of ten Americans were going to Mumias for a volunteers project so they were occupying most of the seats on the right side of the bus.
‘Look at that one,’ Chao whispered in Lala’s ear, ‘the one in the third row. Dios Mio! He is absolutely yummy.’
The yummy brother had a rather shaggy brown beard and according to Chao, beards gave men a lion’s look. They made men even more of men and she loved a man with a capital A in the man. If he had a ‘sweet beard, rough romance, smooth words and a wide, wide chest’ he stood a fat chance of sitting opposite her on a date.
Lala was seated in the window seat, as she planned to devour every sight that they would hurtle past. She was particularly excited about Kericho’s scenic tea plantations. She didn’t know that Kenya was actually the world’s largest exporter of black tea and that it had earned Kenya Shillings 112 billion from tea back in 2012, her third year of employment.
All she knew was that, ‘oh my God my dream is to do it in one of those totally cute tea plantations...’ Her best friend Nduta and all the other three members of her inner circle had heard her voice this dream on several occasions.
‘He is an entrepreneur,’ Lala ignored her sister’s smitten comment about the bearded American and instead answered Chao’s question about Nkedi’s profession.
‘Just because Obama came for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi,’ Chao paused to type the words, nktest, into her Sony phone. She always wondered how life had been without whatsapp.
The person on the receiving end of the ‘nktest’ was Clive, another member of the bearded club.
‘Just because Obama came and preached about entrepreneurship now everyone wants to sell stuff.’
Lala smiled, her teeth instantly leaving a patch of white on her ebony face: it occurred to her at that moment that she also wanted to jump onto the entrepreneurship bandwagon.
As if reading her mind, Chao probed further, ‘do you also want to start farming because of Barrack’s golden touch?’
The last two words reminded Lala of ‘golden touch’, a song by the British rock group Razorlight. She started humming some of its words:
I don’t give away too much; someone will need your golden touch.
If only Nkedi's touch was more golden... She thought ruefully. He is okay but.. she sighed.
The bus ground to a halt. It was time for a bathroom stop in Nakuru. Lala watched as the young lady in front of her, probably three years younger than her, Chao’s agemate, literally sprinted out of the bus. Must be the chips and sausage and chicken and kebab she had devoured even before the bus left Nairobi’s chaotic traffic jam. Her unspoken prayer was that her guardian angel would come and unclutter this jam in her life so that it could flow smoothly.
Her own life felt like that chaotic jam. An impossible-to-figure-out boyfriend who was crawling slower than a snail in advancing their relationship; a job where three newer colleagues had overtaken her within a year of their arrival, rumour had it that their promotions were horizontally powered; a lukewarm relationship with God or was it with her Anglican Church?
Thankfully, there was no jam between Nakuru and Kisumu. The two sisters slept so soundly that they missed Kericho’s tea plantations. It took a lone, stubborn fly to jolt Chao from her sleep. She in turn elbowed her sister.
‘We are almost in the land of our ancestors,’she said as her ever present phone was swiped open, and the green whattsapp button pressed. There were seventeen new messages and none of them was from a lady.
Before the bus screeched to a halt in Mumias town ten minutes later, all the messages had been replied.
This is how the air was meant to smell. Lala thinks as they alight from a boda boda, public motor-bike, into the waiting arms of uncles and aunts whose teeth are as tiny and dazzling white as theirs. The hips of the aunts are as ample as theirs. The brown eyes of the uncles as probing as theirs, it’s as if they are constantly looking for something more than what are actually seeing at that particular moment.
Their blood flows in this land of Mumias, the land of their ancestors. Not blood spilt in warfare but blood birthed in heaven.
A small vibration; the smartphone is flushed out of the dark jeans pocket and swiped. Chao’s warm smile reveals those teeth that are whiter than white and evenly arranged, as if mounting a guard of honour for Obama. He has replied. He will send the money. The fool thinks his money will finally convince her to ‘pliz just come over for dinner this Saturday. Just sent u the 5k.. enjoy babe!’
That Saturday, which is tomorrow, she will be having dinner with people who have teeth and a gaze like hers.