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Environmental Africa

Environmental Africa

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Although it was raining in the same consistent manner of a heartbeat, Henry Stanley was sweaty. This vast, huge, massive, gigantic forest had become like a wet, damp prison. His legs felt like left-over porridge that was ready to be scrapped from the bottom of the bowl and thrown away.

Tonight the ocean off the coast of Comoros Island’s Ngazidja Island is in a good mood. The usual ill-tempered wind is asleep, leaving behind a gentle breeze that can only stir calm waves.

In 1968, Miriam Makeba arrived in Conakry Guinea and began her life in exile on Africa’s West Coast. Language barriers notwithstanding, she received a heroine’s welcome and found a home away from home. As she was driven from the airport, she witnessed lush fields dotted with waving palm trees prompting her to say that she had never seen such beauty in a long time.

What do you feel when you touch me? When your fingers run through my softness. Do you feel dirty just because you have touched soil? When I cling to your hands, its not because I want to remind you what you are missing.

Pityful a rethoric question ran over her cheek When she reached the first hills of the Italic Mountains, she had a last view back on the skyline of her hometown Bookmarksgrove, the headline of Alphabet Village and the subline of her own road, the Line Lane.

Apart from the gentle whisper of the bamboo trees, silence enveloped the bamboo forest in Dawuro, a region in Southwest Ethiopia. These trees stood alert like a vast green army of soldiers. Their smooth green bark glistened in the soft sunrise hues that were painting the bamboo forest with shimmering colors. At that moment early in the day, this forest could only be described in the words of Bwak the Bantu poet as a ‘river flowing with a thousand dazzling stars.’ Indeed, the bamboo forest looked and felt like the very epicenter of serenity.

In May 2017, I went to Karura Forest for a forest trek. Despite having lived in Nairobi for all my life, this was my first time in the forest that was thrust into prominence when Wangari Maathai fiercely defended it from the Moi Government’s attempt to annex part of it for development.

As Blaise Compaore, the immediate former president of Burkina Fasso fled his country in a convoy of heavy military escort, he left behind streets full of demonstrators and farms full of uncertainty.

According to World Bank estimates, a staggering 80% of Burkina Faso’s 17.3 million people rely heavily on agriculture for their livelihoods. The country itself depends on cotton, which is its main source of income.

In the short term, the current unrest will definitely not boost revenue for Burkina Faso’s agricultural sector. This sector is replete with smallholders whose tiny farms produce barely enough food for them, leaving little or no surplus to sell and earn livelihoods from. Many other farmers can’t even cultivate their farms because they have abandoned them, thanks to soil erosion, decreasing fertility and slanting topography that complicates farming. 

"Literature is a state of culture, poetry is a state of grace, before and after culture." Juan Ramón Jiménez

When Blaise Compaore’s entourage crossed the border into Côte d’Ivoire, the former president was ironically doing what thousands of his countrymen and women do or a regular basis.  Burkinabe often migrate to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana regularly for seasonal agricultural jobs. For these seasonal migrants, migration is the golden bridge that promises greener pastures on the other side. One of these migrants was Traoré, a father of three from the southeastern town of Diabaga.

When Traoré fled from Diapaga town in August this year, he wasn’t running away from blazing guns or ethnic conflict. Diapaga was very much peaceful. He was running away from poverty into what he hoped would be a much better life in Côte d’Ivoire. He could have travelled for 350 kilometres to Ouagadougou to try his luck at the capital, but a former school mate who is a seasonal migrant to Côte d’Ivoire kept telling him about the good money in the farms of Burkina Faso’s larger and richer neighbor.

Ironically, Traoré left behind the gold that western companies had crossed the Atlantic Ocean to come and mine. Although huge amounts of gold hadn’t really been discovered yet, mining was ongoing. But Traoré had three children and a wife to feed, not to mention the extended family of his ageing mother and three younger brothers who were also jobless. Traoré and his family couldn’t eat the dreams of gold. So he took the plunge to Côte d’Ivoire.

Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world despite the fact that it is the fourth-largest gold producer in Africa, behind South Africa, Mali and Ghana.

‘Where is the gold?’ the Burkinabe like to ask whenever their country’s golden status comes up in conversation.

They never ask where the farms are because they interact with these farms almost daily and reap from them millet, maize, rice, sweet potatoes, mangoes, cassava, beans and a host of many other crops that feed them. Among them is fonio, a tiny indigenous cereal that has been planted in West Africa for millennia.

It is within this dynamic agricultural context that the World Bank is funding the Africa Union’s great green walls initiative. In Burkina Faso, this project seeks to ‘support restoration and protection of natural resources, forest and biodiversity in the larger ecosystem landscape related to agricultural expansion.’

One major challenge facing not just agricultural expansion but existing agricultural land is the fact that half of Burkina Fasso is semi-arid savannah land. It’s hardly the kind of land that would attract the average farmer.

Burkina Fasso 2

But Burkinabe farmers are not average. They are innovative and resilient.  They have accumulated decades of indigenous knowledge that has equipped them with innovative coping strategies. One such strategy is known as zaï. It is a small hole that the farmers dig on barren land then fill it with organic matter. The small holes then become scattered islands of fertility within which crops can be planted. How cool is that!

These farmers may not be in the streets Ouagadougou, on the front lines of the Burkinabe revolution, but they are on the front lines of feeding their country against great odds. As for Traoré, he too is on the front lines of feeding his family, even if it means doing so from farms of another country. 

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.

This tree is seriously dwarfed by the Entandrophragma Excelsum, which is known in the Luganda language as Muyovu and in Swahili as Mkukusu. It grows naturally in Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Zambia, Burundi, Rwanda and Malawi. One of these trees in the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro has grown to a whopping 81.5 meters, making it Africa’s known tallest tree.

Africa’s tallest tree is right next to Africa’s tallest mountain.

Trees 2Photo by Toby Parsons

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