DJ Bwakali

DJ Bwakali

Friday, 13 July 2018 10:34

The Silent Roar of Africa's Lions

On Friday March thirteenth 2016, a lion’s roar was heard in Melbourne Australia. The silent roar was heard during the global march for Lions at Melbourne’s Federation Square. The roar didn’t come from an actual lion but from Greg Hunt, Australia’s then Environment Minister.

Speaking at the march, the 49-year old Hunt announced a ban on so called lion hunting trophies from entering or leaving the country.

He explained the motivation behind this ban.

“It is about raising the most majestic of creatures for a singular purpose and that is to kill them, to shoot them for pleasure and for profit.”

He tore into the cruel practice, “It is done in inhumane conditions. It is involving things such as raising and then drugging and in many cases, baiting. It is simply not acceptable in our day, in our time, on our watch.”

Why would anyone shoot and kill the king of the jungle for the sheer thrill of knowing that they have killed a lion? This question contains the answer – for the sheer thrill.

Someone gets down on one knee, closes one eye and points the gun at a fully grown lion about fifty metres away. Or someone stands behind a glinting gun tripod and directs the powerful gun on the tripod towards a lion that is minding its business less than one hundred metres away. 

The lion has a distant gaze in its eyes, instinctively searching for gazelles, buffaloes, antelopes or any other herbivorous game that it can hunt. What it doesn’t know is that it is at that moment, it is being hunted and is about to meet its maker. As bullets rips through its priced golden hide opening the taps of its warm blood, the lion’s alert distant gaze transitions into an empty stare that soon becomes lifeless. The hunter’s eyes are blazing with that sheer thrill that has cost him thousands of dollars. 

Hunters can pay as much as 30,000 dollars to hunt a fully grown male. Considering that a budget safari costs in the region of 300 dollars in countries like Kenya, it would take 100 tourists to generate a revenue of 30,000 dollars for safari operators. It’s no wonder lion-hunting remains as strong as ever in countries where it is allowed.

One thousand lions are shot in South Africa each year for the sheer thrill of hunting. One thousand lions! They are part of hundreds of lions that are raised in about 160 ranches. For several years, these lions are essentially raised in order to be killed.

Factory farming, hunting farms, trophy hunting, canned hunting, lion ranches, lion breeding... Professionals in this sector insist that these phrases mean different things. That may be so but what they mostly share are bullets and arrows that rip through lions for sheer human thrill.

The South African Predator Association explains on its website that ‘a male or female lion is hunted for its trophy, which is the skin that gets either tanned or mounted as a full size lion. The farmer/breeder remains with the carcass that is the flesh and the bones.’

The National Geographic quotes Pieter Potgieter, chairman of this Association, ‘For every captive-bred lion hunted, you’re saving animals in the wild.’ This argument is premised on the notion that hunting captive lions saves wild lions from illegal hunting. But some conservationists counter that South Africa’s captive lions, which number approximately eight thousand, are eight times as many as free, wild lions.

Ban captive breeding. These are the three words that conservationists in South Africa and beyond are echoing. But given the sea of dollars that underpins captive breeding are these three words just wishful thinking?

In this age where the gaming industry has grown by leaps and bounds, shouldn’t lion-hunting thrill seekers shoot digital lions instead of actual, live lions? If they are not digitally inclined, Africa is full of ‘thrill hotspots’ like hiking Mt Kilimanjaro, bungee jumping in Victoria Falls, watching the amazing spectacle of wildebeest migration in Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve, sailing along River Nile, savoring the regal gorilla’s in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and many more.

The king of the jungle once roamed aplenty across Africa.

But not anymore.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) notes that over the last few decades, lion population has been cut down by nearly half. There are now fewer than 40,000 African lions left in the wild. IFAW further notes that at least 5,663 lions were traded internationally for trophy hunting purposes. More than half of these lions were imported to the United States. The world’s sole superpower should follow the footsteps of Australia and ban such imports.

Trophy hunting is just but a fancy way of describing one awful word and act – slaughter. The slaughter of Africa’s lions should stop.

Thursday, 12 July 2018 11:14

The Day I met a Lobster

I stared at the lobster in my hands as if it was an alien creature and not delicious seafood from the Indian Ocean. It was the tropical rock lobster, common on Africa’s East Coast. Its colourful outer exterior made it appear as if it was wearing one of those multi-colored coats that can be found in Nairobi’s vast Kikomba market, the paradise of second-hand clothes.

Before that moment, I had never seen a live lobster. Actually, before that moment, my mind couldn’t quite register how a lobster looked like. This was totally understandable, since for all my life, lobsters had never been on the dining table of any house or restaurant that I had visited. These dining tables instead consisted of beef and chicken all the time; lamb from time to time; ostriches and gazelles, a couple of times at Nairobi’s famous Carnivore restaurant.

But lobster? Nope. Nunca. In fact, if you mention lobster to many of my friends, they will react with a puzzled – lob what?

The journey that brought the lobster into my hands had been long for both of us.

For me, it started in the small coastal town of Kipini. When I arrived there sometimes in 2006, I was mesmerized by its coastal tropical thrills.

kipini palm treesKipini's Palm Trees‘That’s in Kenya?!’ I exclaimed to Caroline my Canadian former UNEP colleague and good friend.

‘You didn’t expect an army of palm trees to line up along a Kenyan road?’ She replied in her usual witty way.

On either side of the gravel road, tall and medium sized palm trees stood silently, as if granting us a guard of honour. Behind them were other delicious trees that I had never seen before.

We were standing in the middle of a packed bus that had picked us from Garsen town about two hours earlier after we had waited for two hours before it finally hurtled into the dusty rustic town.

‘Wow’ this one word escaped my lips when I stared at the waters of River Tana gushing into the Indian Ocean and forming brownish water that reminded me of strong coffee. This brownish water was a mixture of both salty and fresh water and is known as brackish water.

Watching Kenya’s longest river finally emptying itself into the vast Ocean left me with a deep appreciation of nature’s astounding marvels.

Although that particular trip ended without any encounter with lobsters, it left in me a passion for Kipini that drew me back there a few years later when I learnt that Kipini was also a popular breeding ground for lobsters. By then I had founded Lamu Sea Food together with Mulhat my close friend from Lamu. Her tenacious and beautiful spirit became the young business’s greatest asset.

‘I just dive into the water and grab trapped lobsters,’ Faraj answered when I asked him how he fished for lobsters. His white beard and calm demeanour gave him the appearance of a wise aquatics professor as opposed to a seasoned lobster fisherman who had been at the game for two decades and counting.

Faraj was one of Kipini’s dozens of wavuvi wa lobster (lobster fishermen). They had an uncanny, almost magical ability to hold their breaths for extended periods of times as they dove into the salty waters to pluck lobsters from their hiding places.

‘This will cost you only eight hundred shillings ($8) per kilo’ Faraj said as he held out one particularly large tropical rock lobster towards me, ‘and that is a special price because you are a good-hearted person.’

A bad word almost jumped out of my mouth although I had just been praised as goodhearted. 

Instead of the curse, I settled for an exclamation, ‘what!’

I shook my head even as I smiled, ‘that’s too much my brother. That’s too much. Too much.’

Faraj frowned as if wounded that his generous offer was being tossed in the hot sand beneath our feet, ‘walk around this beach and if you are lucky to find lobsters, you will have to pay at least one thousand shillings ($10) per kilo!’

Earlier that morning, Kaimu my contact person in Kipini had given me a crash lesson in bargaining.

‘Always start as low as you can,’ the soft-spoken Kaimu had told me.

‘I will be buying lobsters from you for a long long time Faraj,’ I said, trying to entice him to lower the eight hundred shillings further.

But he artfully leaned on religion to rebuff me, ‘only God knows if we shall be there tomorrow, so let’s talk about today.’

I ended up buying all of Faraj's 33 kilos of lobster at 800 shillings per kilo. He didn’t budge. But I was thankful that I had got a good bargain because just as he had said with a frown, the lobsters were hard to come by and if you did stumble on a lobster catch, you would have to part with 1,000 shillings per kilo.

That evening when I was back at Yellow House, my Lamu Island house, I discovered to my horror that in Maine, dealers buy lobsters for an average of $2! How is it that my fellow dealers in the world’s sole superpower were buying lobsters for prices that were four times cheaper than mine?

Read the answer to this last question in an upcoming article Lobsters – More Expensive in Kenya than the US

Thursday, 12 July 2018 11:12

Tanga's Tantalizing Islands

Close your eyes.

Wait! Before you do so, imagine a place where you can see waves but can’t hear them. They are so silent.

Its 7.07 in the morning and you have just left your hotel room to go for a swim. But when you reach the beach, just a minute away from your hotel, you can’t bring yourself to go into the warm, salty waters.

The ocean is spread out before you in a blue canvas of beauty. You can see ripples mingling with the whitish sand as small waves crawl onto the beach. But you hear nothing. No soft hiss from the ocean, no whistles from beach boys, no roars from motorboats, no laughter from children building castles in the sand. Nothing. Golden silence engulfs you.

Close your eyes now and imagine this silence.

Welcome to Tanga and the tantalizing islands that are in its vicinity.

As we walked along the peaceful Swahili Street, it was hard to imagine that back in 1889, Tanga had been one of Germany’s military posts. I just couldn’t bring myself to associate any kind of military presence or action with this peaceful place.

After arriving at Tanga Port, we jump into Captain Ali’s speed boat. He is wearing a white cap with the words, ‘TZ’ emblazoned on the front.

Dakika moja mtakuwa mmefika kisiwa cha Toten!’ Within one minute you will have arrived at Toten Island. He assures us with a firm handshake and a warm smile.

True to his word, a minute later, we are docking at Toten Island, German for ‘Island of the dead.’ During the period when they colonized Tanzania, the Germans are said to have used the island as a graveyard. This was however not the first European presence there because decades earlier, the Portuguese used the tiny island as a prison.

‘I can see that Tanzania had its very own Robben Island!’ Mulhat quips as she fishes big, round sunglasses from her small leather rucksack and slips them on.

Two hours of carefully exploring Toten island fail to reveal any prison-like structures although we do stumble on what looks like an ancient graveyard.

‘Can you imagine that lying in this graveyard are people who once ran along those beaches and fished in these waters.’ I say, triggering a five-minute long philosophical talk from Captain Ali about the unstoppable claws of life and death.

Soon, we are back in Haraka, as his boat is called, racing northwards to Ulenge Island only 8 kilometres away.

Asalaam aleykum,’ Mulhat greets the elderly captain of the boat that we were docking next to. She rolled up her baggy jeans trousers to knee level and jumps into the shallow water excitedly. I look up and see the source of her excitement.

About one hundred metres from our boat, a sturdy, rugged lighthouse stands tall above us. It is the first time that I have ever seen a lighthouse, so I smile at it in silent awe.

Ilijengwa karne ya kumi na tisa ikikaribia mwisho,’ It was built towards the end of the nineteenth century. Captain Ali tells. He removes his cap and wipes the sweat on his forehead with the back of his large hand.

I jump into the water without rolling up my jeans and walk briskly past a group of young, boisterous American tourists. ‘Jambo!’ ‘Jambo!’ ‘Jambo!’ They shout at me a series of jolly greetings to which I reply with my own ‘jambo’ series. 

Mulhat is matching on even faster than me. It’s as if she has been looking for the lighthouse for all her life and has finally found it.

A few moments later, I am disappointed to learn that the lighthouse was vandalized a few years earlier so we can’t climb it to catch sights of dhows dotting the ocean. But it feels good to scribble on the rough, aged walls of the lighthouse that, ‘Bwak was here in 2014.’

The rest of Ulenge Island is a cocktail of coral rag forests, ruins of what was once a sanatorium for lung patients, jagged coral reefs, giant clams and the occasional beach. We take in all these sites in less than two hours because Yambe Island nearly 20 kilometres to the south is waiting for us.

The mechanical roar of the engine boat combines with the natural roar of waves to form an intriguing mosaic of sound. Captain Ali adds his own roar into the mix as he shouts to us information about his family.

‘My first son Yusuf joined secondary school this year!’ he turns a gentle left to leave the path of an oncoming smaller, slower boat, ‘I have already taught him how to ride a boat and sometimes he joins me!’

As he is still telling us about his two daughters, Yusra and  Saada, we arrive at Yambe Island.

Mangroves and other coastal vegetations spread across the island from head to toe. Tucked away in these mangrove forests are ruins that point to human habitation at during the past. Nobody lives there now, so there are no children playing hide and seek in those trees. As we walk through the silent, thick mangrove forest, I marvel at its intact state. In a world where deforestation has clawed away trees increasingly, it is great to find a place where forests still exist in their pristine states.

‘That’s it?’ Mulhat wonders when we walk back to the boat in less than one hour. The incredulous look in her brown eyes asks even more than the two words.

She goes on to wonder whether the island is worth the trouble, ‘mangroves are all over coastal lands, so if all this island has to offer is acres of mangrove, then unique is not an adjective I would use to describe it.’

I explain to her that it’s not every day you stroll into an island fully covered with virgin forests. But she doesn’t buy it insisting that at least there should be some bandas, traditional houses, on the island for tourists to stay in. Interesting, I think. But would that mean the end of the independent forests of Yambe? I ask myself.

At this point, I move on to another tantalizing fact about Yambe, ‘coelacanth, a fish species that was thought to have become extinct was discovered near Yambe Island in 2003,’ I pause for effect, ‘that shows how undisturbed the marine ecosystem around this island is!’

Although Mulhat was born and bred in Wasini Island 10 kilometres from the Kenya- Tanzania border, she doesn’t seem impressed by my revelation of an ancient fish that still swims in the water of Yambe. For her, fish is fish, and the fact that people discovered a fish they thought was long dead is nothing to write home about.

We continue arguing about the significance of the coelacanth during the 45-minute boat ride to Maziwe Island south of Tanga. Upon arrival, I notice that there is not a single tree in sight. The entire island is a vast beach.

‘Wow!’ that’s all I can say as I take in the beach island. Although I have lived partially in Wasini Island which is just fifty two kilometres from Tanga, I had no idea that Maziwe Island existed.

‘Shame on me!’ I mutter, wondering why I know about places like Cook island that are thousands of kilometres away, yet I don’t know about Maziwe Island, which is just over one hour boat ride away from my base in Wasini Island.

Although Maziwe is currently bereft of vegetation, it was teeming with trees like casuarinas barely fifty years ago.  The last tree on the island breathed its last in 1980 leaving the island barren since then. But what it lacks in vegetation is compensated in other areas that set the beach island apart from the rest.

Maziwe’s trillions of sand grains have not gone to waste as they provide nesting ground for the green turtle. Every now and then, it swims from the salty ocean, crawls into the island and lays egg after egg into the warm bosom of sand.

The turtles love Maziwe because the island is a trusted nesting ground for three endangered marine turtles. Apart from the green turtle, the other two are olive ridley turtle and the hawksbill turtle. 

Over the years, the ocean has steadily encroached into Maziwe claiming more and more breeding ground for turtles. If this trend continues, then the very ocean that they call home will sweep away the next generation of turtles.

As Captain Ali’s boat roared to life and sped away from Maziwe, I took a deep breath of the ocean breeze that had accompanied us as we ventured into each of Tanga’s wow! islands.

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Thursday, 12 July 2018 11:07

Namibia's Whistling Dolphins

Imagine if you had no name that was unique to you. How would your friends and family refer to you? What if all of us had no names? Life would definitely be complicated and chaotic! Nature has spared dolphins from such chaos by giving each dolphin a unique whistle that it can be identified by.

Dolphins are the teddy bears of the ocean – they are all gentle and cuddly. This is why humans swim with dolphins all the time and even exchange ‘handshakes’ with them by clasping their fins which they emerge head-first from the water. Some of these playful dolphins can be found in Namibia’s Walvis Bay. This coastal town is a natural deepwater harbor and its name literally means ‘whale bay.’

Walvis Bay’s dolphins are so fond of humans that they can even be seen in waters that are less than thirty metres deep. This reinforces the age-old myths of dolphins having special relationships with humans. They may not have unique names and birth certificates like humans, but just like homo sapiens, they do have unique identities that are expressed through their whistles.

In 2013, five researchers from Marine Mammal Science conducted a comprehensive research on the unique dolphin whistles and concluded that, ‘common bottlenose dolphins use individually distinctive signature whistles which are highly stereotyped and function as contact calls.’ This capacity for individual recognition further enhances the social instincts and habits of dolphins. They like hanging out together and their distinctive whistles help them to do so. The acoustic signals of the whistles travel quite well through water and provide a social networking whistle platform akin to Facebook.

Tess, Victor, Elizabeth, Michelle, Tadamichi and Vincent are the researchers that took a front row seat in the Atlantic and paid close attention to the distinct whistles of Namibia’s dolphins. They found out that the signature whistles last between 0.10 and 4.11 seconds. This discovery shows that unlike some humans, dolphins don’t waste too much time when introducing themselves. They just dive in and whistle their identity with brevity.

The common bottlenose dolphins that the research quintet focused on are not the only dolphins in Namibia’s waters.

Dolphins come in all shapes, sizes and species. Those that leap happily from Namibia’s water include: Humpback dolphin; Atlantic humpback dolphin; Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin; rough-toothed dolphin and of course the good old bottlenose dolphins. What a weird name! You may exclaim about the latter.

Well, they are so called because their bodies are shaped like fancy wine bottles with their noses appearing like the bottles’ slender necks. After seeing them, one almost feels like uncorking them! Namibia is mostly home to the common bottlenose dolphin although their cousins, known as the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins also visit from time to time.

Unlike these visitors, the heaveside’s dolphins can be found shimmying and swimming all through Luderitz and Walvis Bay in Namibia. Interestingly, these heaveside’s dolphins are endemic to Namibia’s Benguela ecosystem.

You can search all over the world but you won’t see these smaller dolphins as they can only found in the vicinity of Namibia’s coastline. In the early nineteenth century, a captain known as Haviside took a specimen of the dolphin from Namibia to the United Kingdom where the dolphin specie was seen for the first time ever and consequently named after him, albeit in a corrupted form. Maybe they should be renamed Nujoma dolphins, after Sam Nujoma, Namibia’s first president or Frankie dolphins after Frankie Fredricks, the retired Namibian track and field star.

Because they tend to leave in waters that are less than 100 metres deep, heaveside dolphins dolphins can easily be spotted near Namibia’s shorelines in early mornings. What a way to face a new day in Namibia – with a beautiful sunrise and pretty dolphins.

Tourists gazing at Namibia’s dolphins sometimes see the king-sized bottlenose dolphins that at 11 feet, are three 3 longer than Sultan Kosen, the world’s tallest man. Seeing such gentle giants leaping into the air for a breath of fresh air is a sight that is straight from heaven.

Ironically, the heavenly sight of dolphins has the potential of making their lives a living hell. A 2011 research by researchers from South Africa, France and UK identified the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin and the Atlantic humpback dolphin as ‘the populations of highest conservation concern.’

According to IUCN, this concern hasn’t ballooned into a dire warning yet because, ‘despite ongoing threats to local populations, the species is widespread and very abundant (with a total population in excess of four million), and none of these threats is believed to be resulting in a major global population decline.’

The waters of Benguela ecosystem are not just special because of the playful dolphins but because they are a confluence of warm and cool waters and are thus swarming with fish. If you happen to take a dive into these deeps, you will find a vast array of fish including hakes, horse mackerels and pilchards. The sights of these fish are not as strange as their names. Rather, they are dazzling as they either run away from or alongside dolphins. These gentle giants are happily carnivorous and often retreat to the deeps to find a good meal of smaller fish. As they do so, their famous whistles course through the waters.

Thursday, 12 July 2018 10:58

Sailing into Mombasa's Laughter

I took off from Nairobi ensconced in the apparent comfort of a very expensive bus company. After paying 1,700 shillings the previous day, I had been anticipating an ultra-comfortable bus. After all, this amount was almost fifty percent more than the usual bus fare from Nairobi to Mombasa. But there I was, seated in a bus whose leg room was ample but hip room not so ample. The rather narrow chairs were a far cry from the often wide chairs of other cheaper buses that I had previously travelled with.

My seatmate wasn’t slender, which left me pushed into an even narrower space. So I did what I often do when am travelling and leaned against the window before sinking into a near instant deep sleep that was only interrupted when a bus hostess offered me a glass of apple juice one hour later. I must have finished it in two gulps because my seatmate shot me a look of barely disguised bewilderment.

Thankfully, our arrival in Mombasa seven hours later wasn’t met with the usual blanket of humidity. The coldish breeze slapped my face and I grinned in return. This is the grin that my sister Charity saw when she matched into the waiting room within minutes of our arrival. After the cheery ‘what’s up siz, hey bro,’ we walked to the Crown bus stage to pick up our sister Gish who had also arrived in Mombasa for a week-long holiday.

We burst into laughter as soon as she emerged from the bus with a huge rucksack dangling from her back and a puffy sack drooping from her right hand. She never cares that people will wonder what the cute lady is doing with an ugly sack. I admire the fact that Gish simply lives her life, unconcerned with public opinion. Back at St Georges High School during visiting days, she would happily devour the traditional vegetables that we took to her even as her classmates chomped on pizzas and hamburgers.

Breakfast at Charity’s small but cozy house was a delicious affair. Resting on her black wooden coffee table, waiting to be devoured by three hungry siblings, was a large plastic plate of viazi karai (potato fries), coconut-flavored mbaazi (pigeon peas), ginger tea and sizzling chapatis.  Oh happy day. There are few things in life that make me as happy as hot delicious meals and if this breakfast was an indicator, then I was in for a delicious coastal treat.

I was scheduled to be in Mombasa Island for only one day, so I had crammed as much activity and rest as possible into the day. This included swimming at the public Kenyatta beach; snacks of mshakiki (roast beef pieces dangling on darkened wires) in Mombasa’s ever present open air restaurants and thirsty sips of madafu (coconut water) directly from young coconuts as we watched ships crawling by at Mama Ngina street.

‘Can we board those ships?’ Charity wanted to know.

‘By the way!’ Gish added gleefully before I could answer, ‘let’s go and board one of those ships!’

She had infectious enthusiasm and for a fleeting moment, I actually imagined that it was possible to hail one of those ships and get on board. But of course it wasn’t. It set me thinking – why couldn’t commoners like us board a ship from Mombasa to Malindi, Lamu or anywhere on the Kenyan coast? How come God had gifted us with such a beautiful ocean that we never used for public transportation along Kenya’s coast? I remembered how I had immensely enjoyed a dinner cruise along River Nile right at the heart of Cairo just two years earlier.

I had also enjoyed a similar cruise along the Elbe River in Germany’s northern City of Hamburg. But here in Mombasa, I couldn’t really go for such cruises. It should be possible for Kenyans and visitors to the coast to take affordable cruises to different destinations along our coast.

Just one year later, I would stand with my new girlfriend in the same street and watch different ships crawl by in similar fashion. But for now, I was content to watch harbor and marine delights together with my two younger sisters. Like all my siblings, they are hilarious and we kept laughing making a passerby stare at one of the ships, wondering what was so funny about it. What the stocky passer-by didn’t understand was that we were not really laughing at the ship but at life. If you stare long enough at life, you will never miss a reason to laugh. Ever.

In the morning, it was time to depart from Mombasa for Lamu Island, my new second home. If only there was a ship from Mombasa to this beautiful Island… I thought as I pushed my eighty-five kilos into another narrow window seat.

Thursday, 12 July 2018 10:54

Hemed's Fishing Journey in Wasini Island

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…

On December 21 1949, Marguerite Sankara, a young lady from the then Upper Volta gave birth to a calm baby boy. She named him Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara. For several years every day, he arose early in the morning and attended primary school in Gaoua. Upon completing, he proceeded to and high school in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country's second city.

At the tender age of 34 in 1983, Thomas Sankara became the president of Upper Volta. One of the first things that he did was to change the country’s name to Burkina Fasso.

Later in the mid-eighties, Thomas Sankara refused to accept the ‘norm’ of African presidency being synonymous with riches. He continued living the same simple life he had lived before he became president and demanded the same from his cabinet ministers. He was not just being sentimental when he said severally that ‘I want people to remember me as someone whose life has been helpful to humanity.’

Throughout his presidency, he promoted women’s rights with passion. Sankara's government included a large number of women. Improving women's status was one of Sankara's explicit goals, an unprecedented policy priority in West Africa. His government banned female circumcision, condemned polygamy, and promoted contraception. The Burkinabé government was also the first African government to publicly recognize AIDS as a major threat to Africa.

Monsieur Sankara could strum the guitar with the same poignant melody with which he spoke. When he wasn’t plucking the warm guitar strings or chatting with the masses, he could be found on his motor bike rambling along the streets of Ouagadougou. It was in the midst of this rumble of the motor, roar of the people and awakening lull of the music that he said sadly that, ‘I can hear the roar of women’s silence.’

Thomas refused to keep quiet in the midst of the injustice that was swarming his country and continent. He loathed corruption with a passion, promoted reforestation and embraced policies that would enhance both education and health. Under his tenure, even when Kenya’s Wangari Maathai was not yet immersed in tree planting, when there was no billion tree campaign, Sankara oversaw the planting of ten million trees.

In 1984, one year into his vibrant presidency, Sankara changed the country’s name into Burkina Faso, meaning "the land of the upright people" in Mossi and Djula, the country’s two major languages. He didn’t stop there but went on to give the country a new flag and new national anthem - Une Seule Nuit

Contre la férule humiliante il y a déjà mille ans,
La rapacité venue de loin les asservir il y a cent ans.
Contre la cynique malice métamorphosée
En néocolonialisme et ses petits servants locaux
Beaucoup flanchèrent et certains résistèrent.
Mais les échecs, les succès, la sueur, le sang
Ont fortifié notre peuple courageux et fertilisé sa lutte héroïque.

Et une seule nuit a rassemblée en elle
L'histoire de tout un peuple.
Et une seule nuit a déclenché sa marche triomphale
Vers l'horizon du bonheur.
Une seule nuit a réconcilié notre peuple
Avec tous les peuples du monde,
A la conquête de la liberté et du progrès
La Patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons !

Nourris à la source vive de la Révolution.
Les engagés volontaires de la liberté et de la paix
Dans l'énergie nocturne et salutaire du 4 août
N'avaient pas que les armes à la main, mais aussi et surtout
La flamme au coeur pour légitimement libérer
Le Faso à jamais des fers de tous ceux qui
Çà et, là en poluaient l'âme sacrée de l'indépendance, de la souveraineté.


Et séant désormais en sa dignité recouvrée
L'amour et l'honneur en partage avec l'humanité,
Le peuple du Burkina chante un hymne à la victoire,
A la gloire du travail libérateur, émancipateur.
A bas l'exploitation de l'homme par l'homme!
Hé en avant pour le bonheur de tout homme,
Par tous les hommes aujourd'hui et demain, par tous les hommes ici et pour toujours!


Révolution populaire notre sève nourricière.
Maternité immortelle du progrès à visage d'homme.
Foyer éternel de démocratie consensuelle,
Où enfin l'identité nationale a droit de cité,
Où pour toujours l'injustice perd ses quartiers,
Et où, des mains des bâtisseurs d'un monde radieux
Mûrissent partout les moissons de væux patriotiques, brillent les soleils infinis de joie.


English translation

Against the humiliating bondage of a thousand years
Rapacity came from afar to subjugate them for a hundred years.
Against the cynical malice in the shape
Of neo-colonialism and its petty local servants.
Many gave in and certain others resisted.
But the frustrations, the successes, the sweat, the blood
Have fortified our courageous people and fertilized its heroic struggle.

And one single night has drawn together
The history of an entire people,
And one single night has launched its triumphal march.
Towards the horizon of good fortune.
One single night has brought together our people
With all the peoples of the World,
In the acquisition of liberty and progress.
Motherland or death, we shall conquer.

Nourished in the lively source of the Revolution,
The volunteers for liberty and peace
With their nocturnal and beneficial energies of the 4th of August
Had not only hand arms, but also and above all
The flame in their hearts lawfully to free
Faso forever from the fetters of those who
Here and there were polluting the sacred soul of independence and sovereignty.


And seated henceforth in rediscovered dignity,
Love and honour partnered with humanity,
The people of Burkina sing a victory hymn
To the glory of the work of liberation and emancipation.
Down with exploitation of man by man!
Forward for the good of every man
By all men of today and tomorrow, by every man here and always!


Popular revolution our nourishing sap.
Undying motherhood of progress in the face of man.
Eternal hearth of agreed democracy,
Where at last national identity has the right of freedom.
Where injustice has lost its place forever,
And where from the hands of builders of a glorious world
Everywhere the harvests of patriotic vows ripen and suns of boundless joy shine.


Thursday, 25 May 2017 16:40

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere's African Dream

‘The history of the world is but a biography of great men.’ These words were uttered by Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth century Scottish historian. Going by these words, the history of East Africa in particular and Africa as a whole is, to a huge extent, a biography of great leaders like Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president.

But let me hasten to add that the folly of greatness is that it often clouds the real values that the great ones treasured. It is for this reason that I have always sought to know the values that Mwalimu Nyerere treasured. The answer came in the most unlikely of places – in the waiting room of Arusha’s Kilimanjaro Airport.

We were waiting for our flight to Nairobi and I was sipping a cup of lukewarm coffee as I conversed with Hon Dudu, a former Member of Parliament of the East Africa Legislative Assembly and a current District Commissioner in Uganda’s Karamoja District. He was a clean shaven stocky man who had once flown fighter jets for the Ugandan Airforce.

‘Did you ever meet Mwalimu Nyerere?’ I asked him from the blues. I have this bad habit of changing topics in the middle of a conversation.

Hon Dudu paused as an intense look spread all over his face. He smiled and although he was gazing at me, it was as if he was gazing back into the distant past, when he had met the iconic Tanzanian leader not once but many, many times.

‘Mwalimu Nyerere was my teacher,’ the retired pilot told me calmly.

I fleetingly wondered whether this was back in the fifties before Mwalimu Nyerere became president. Surely, no president could find time to teach.

‘It was in 1981. Each week without fail, the president would come to our class to teach us about leadership in the African context, amongst other topics.’

‘What!’ I exclaimed. ‘You mean to tell me that every week President Nyerere stood in front of you and taught you all these things.’

‘Yes,’ Hon Dudu said as he sighed in recollection, ‘on the few occasions that he missed class, he would make sure that he compensated by teaching double lessons.’

Finally! I thought to myself. Finally I was going to hear a first person account of Mwalimu Nyerere. Maybe, just maybe, I was going to catch a glimpse of the values that had guided this humble, charismatic African leader.

For the entire time that it took to wait for our Precision Air flight, I sat transfixed to the witness account of a leader who united his country and inspired his continent as he challenged the world to relate with Africa as an equal partner.

Mwalimu Nyerere had a very private and personal practice that he engaged in every day – prayer. Every day at 5AM, or thereabout, he would retreat to his private prayer room and for a whole hour, he would seek the strength and guidance of his beloved Heavenly Father.

To him, this prayer was more than a ritual. It was an intimate conversation between a son and his father. Neither was it a religious practice. It was a pragmatic way of tapping into strength that would take him throughout the day. In doing this, he seemed to be subscribing to the words of Bwak the Bantu poet that, ‘humility is an embrace of both utter helplessness and total strength.’

However, strength, if not expended wisely and strategically, accumulates into destructive power. From the time he strode onto the national stage, he always sought to remind Africa that it had a past that could enrich its future. It was this belief that informed his much touted embrace of socialism. Unfortunately, the general misconception was that his socialism was a protest against capitalism.

Mwalimu Nyerere espoused the socialism that was rooted in traditional Africa where collective responsibility was a cornerstone of the society. Because it took a village to raise a child, the adult who resulted from this child was accountable to and responsible for the community. This was more than the communal sharing of resources that was a key feature of eastern socialism.

With nearly thrice as many tribes as Kenya, Tanzania has nonetheless been able to escape from the shackles of tribalism. This was not an accidental twist of fate. Whenever he met and interacted with Tanzanians from all corners of the vast country, he saw fellow Africans, not fellow tribesmen. Using the leadership pulpit, he steered national policy and dialogue towards a place where the nation reigned supreme because the value of traditional Africa had not been relegated to the dusty annals of history.

Complacency was a word unknown to him. With his characteristic fervor, he urged Africa to follow Tanzania’s example. ‘African nationalism is meaningless, dangerous, anachronistic, if it is not, at the same time, pan-Africanism,’ he reminded Africans. For him, Africa needed to unite, not just in boardrooms and treaties but in action, farms, cities and highways.

It took two to dance, hence Africa needed to partner together in a dance not just of survival but of prosperity.

Mortality denied Mwalimu Nyerere a chance of further orchestrating the dance of prosperity. His prayer was that a new generation of Africans would take the baton and lead Africa into a prosperity that would not sacrifice human relations on the altar of profits.

When I sat down at 4.14 AM today to start writing this article, the only two things that I knew about São Tomé and Príncipe were this: It is a Small Island State off the Coast of West Africa and it is one of the five African countries that speak Portuguese.

At least now I know that São Tomé and Príncipe has a population of about 200,000 people. This is double the population of Seychelles but fifty times less than Rwanda’s 12 million people. This tiny nation comprises of two islands – Sao Tome Island and Principe Island. They are 150 kilometres apart. The Sao T

I don’t know even know one of those 200,000 fellow Africans in São Tomé and Príncipe. They are a mix of different ethnic groups: Mestico (mixed Portuguesse-African ethnicity), Angolares (descendants of Angolan slaves), Foros (descendants of freed slaves), Serviçais (contract laborers from Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde) and Europeans (primarily Portuguese).

These resilient people are currently being led by President Evaristo Carvalho. On 6th June 2018, he hosted the African Development Bank President (ADB), Akinwumi Adesina for a meeting, that explored areas of collaboration.

During the meeting, ADB’s president said that, “We have long been a supporter of your country and have great hopes and expectations for it. You have a clear vision for the country. A new Country Strategy Paper was approved, defining our new collaboration. Together we will focus on agriculture, the blue economy, employment for women and youth, and the financial sector.”

I like the focus on the blue economy and youth. Although São Tomé and Príncipe’s size (1,001 km²) is almost six hundred times smaller than Kenya’s size, it’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 131,397 square kilomtres is bigger than Kenya’s 116,942 square kilometers. This means that tiny São Tomé and Príncipe is the ‘owner’ of a massive ocean zone. This colossal marine ecosystem should provide sustainable blue jobs for the country’s entire youth population.

Considering its sheer size and beauty, São Tomé and Príncipe’s colossal marine ecosystem should also drive you to either visit it or at least know the zebra tilefish, one of the fish that is found there. But best of all, would be to know the fishermen and people who call this country home.

Thursday, 25 May 2017 15:46

Lake Bogoria's Invisible Million Dollars

My car was enjoying the drive as much as I was. The road was clear and although it was just after ten, it felt as if noon had already arrived with searing heat.

“This AC is not helping much,” I thought with a tinge of irritation as I made a mental note to ask Alex my mechanic to refill the car’s AC gas. After about twenty minutes, I saw on the horizon the beginnings of a town – a cluster of block-shaped shops, small groups of people milling around and several hawkers gazing towards me expectantly.

Mogotio. The name was written in bold black letters on one of the shops.

Ngapi?” How much? I asked a roast maize vendor who was sticking three steaming maize cobs through my half-open window.

Shilingi kumi ndugu!” Ten shillings brother! He answered in a happy voice. He was wearing a grey Ford Motors T-Shirt and a black cap whose faded yellow letters were unintelligible.  

Unaenda kuona flamingo?” Are you going to see the flamingoes? He asked me when I inquired if Lake Bogoria was nearby.

Naenda kuona microbes!” I am going to see microbes! I said cheekily, eliciting a puzzled look on his sweaty forehead.

People associate Lake Bogoria with its pink flamingoes and hot springs, not its microbes. However, those ultra-tiny microorganisms known as microbes have the ultra-gigantic potential of eventually overshadowing their pink neighbours. Since they can’t even be seen by the naked eye, their beauty cannot compare with flamingoes. Nevertheless, microbes have massive economic potential that arguably dwarfs flamingoes.

The reason I was on my way to Lake Bogoria was because of a story that I was doing for Radio France International about the Great Rift Valley’s Soda Lakes. In a bid to solidify and deepen the story, I had already had a meeting with Levis Kavagi the United Nations Environment’s Africa Coordinator of Ecosystem and Biodiversity. Over a cup of Cappuccino at the Java Restaurant in Gigiri, he told me about a UN Environment Project on microbes and later linked me up with several institutions that were part of that project. 

In a bid to ascertain exactly how valuable microbes are to Kenya, I then paid a visit to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) a few days before my trip to Lake Bogoria. I arrived at the KWS headquarters a few minutes after 10. Because it was Sunday, the usually full car park was almost empty, which suited me just fine because the serenity was comforting.

I had first stepped into the KWS Headquarters as an awestruck class 1 student of Buru Buru 1 Primary School back in the mid-eighties. Although this was probably my twentieth visit to the headquarters since then, I was still struck by its character and beauty. The Administration block where the reception was located had red tiles and smooth classical sturdy walls that gave it the impression of a Victorian building. A few metres away from the Administration block was the Nairobi National Park gate. It gave one an idea of what lay beyond it by spotting a two-dimensional sculpture of a lion.  

I was at the Kenya Wildlife Service offices that Sunday morning to meet with Kavaka Mukonyi, the KWS Head of Bioprospecting.

“Let me come to the main reception to pick you.” He told me on phone in a cheerful voice.

When I saw him a few minutes later, he looked just as cheerful as his voice. He is one of those people that have the word ‘sociable’ ingrained in their DNA. He led me along the long corridors as we conversed like old friends. When I read the ‘Bioprospecting’ that was emblazoned on his office door, I half expected that there would be a large microscope jutting out from his desk. But it was just a normal office with a flat computer screen and a bunch of papers on the desk.

A few minutes into our conversation, Kavaka uttered words that got my full attention, “The world is focusing on larger sized biological resources. But the developed countries are focusing on these things we don't see. The microbial that forms the basis of all of the biotech industry.”

I had always associated the word ‘biotech’ with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) food. Don’t expect to find me on the cheerleading squad of GMOs since I am a staunch believer in organic food that hasn’t been modified genetically. When I read ‘The New Harvest,’ a book by Calestous Juma the late Harvard Professor and agricultural innovator, I was struck by this phrase, ‘despite potential setbacks, biotechnology has the potential to provide both great profits and the means to provide more food to those who need it in Africa.’ Although I agreed with the book’s principles on the need for agricultural innovation that would shun unproductive ‘business as usual’ agricultural practices, I remained unconvinced about an unbridled embrace of genetic engineering of food crops. But I digress. Biotech is of course not just about food.

I soon learnt from Kavaka that the tiny microorganisms contained in Lake Bogoria would in fact have huge financial benefits if successfully prospected and developed into industrially viable enzymes.

“When you check the global market, it is actually over 900 billion dollars, annually made from bioprospecting activities.” Kavaka said.

Then he proceeded to reveal something that left me with a deep sigh, “these profits are made by multi-nationals in developed countries but those who manage, the owners of the resource don't get anything.”   

Armed with a steaming fresh roast maize in my left hand and fresh directions to Lake Bogoria, I zoomed off from Mogotio town. As I approached Lake Bogoria, I started seeing some of those resource owners who don’t get anything. There were groups of young men herding goats and cattle in the distance. A few women were walking with expressionless looks on their pretty faces and water containers on their heads. Do they even know about those priceless microorganisms in their lake? I asked myself in a whisper before my attention shifted to the visible part of the Lake.

One week earlier, I had received some answers to these questions during my meeting with UN Environment’s Levis Kavagi. This time, I met him with the scenic UN campus in Gigiri. We sat at a coffee shop outside his office block and as we both sipped white coffees, he told me about ecosystem services, “For a community to be committed to conserving an ecosystem especially a lake such as Lake Bogoria, Lake Magadi, the soda lakes, they have to see how these lakes or ecosystems benefit them. The benefits are what we are calling ecosystem services.”

Levis is a passionate environmentalist who has a way of explaining things in a simple manner that can add converts to the environmental movement. I nodded as he continued, “the system that equitably shares the benefits especially the financial benefits that accrue from the utilization of genetic resources is what this project is looking at from a natural capital point of view.” He sneezed and excused himself before continuing, “This particular project is helping the communities to realize they have a capital and this capital is worth conserving. And if they conserve, they can see the benefits that will accrue from this capital.”

Levis Kavagi’s brown eyes had a flicker of animation that grew brighter the more he spoke. By the time he was done, I was convinced that the micro-organisms of Kenya’s soda lakes had massive potential of earning my beloved country so much money that it would finally sky-rocket into industrialized status. I had always believed that natural capital could build a firewall against poverty, disease and stress. This belief had become entrenched into my psyche when I fell in love with nature during those glorious childhood days of swimming in a shy, whistling river that flowed endlessly a few metres from our farm. Apart from granting my brothers and cousins great relaxation, this river also gave us fish and ensured my parents lush harvests. Indeed, it exemplified the power of natural capital.     

With his coffee cup drained but intensity still dripping from his eyes, Levis went on to tell me about a UN Environment Project that had brought together strategic stakeholders to “develop the microbial biotechnology industry from Kenya’s soda lakes in line with the Nagoya protocol.”

“Speak in English please,” I told Lewis as I waved at a former colleague who had just passed by our transparent meeting room.

The Nagoya Protocol was adopted on 29 October 2010 in Nagoya, Japan and entered into force on 12 October 2014. Its objective is the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources, thereby contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.[1]   

UN Environment had brought together a genetic resources dream team comprising of the Kenya Wildlife Service which was the official steward of Lake Bogoria; members of the Endorois Community who were the ancestral stewards of the Lake; Nairobi University and Jomo Kenyatta University, whose scientists were microbes experts; Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute, whose knowledge and infrastructure would provide great incubation for the microbial technology and the Baringo County Government under whose administrative jurisdiction Lake Bogoria was under. This was the dream team that would hopefully deliver visible benefits of those invisible genetic resources in Lake Bogoria.

Would I find a vast army of flamingoes roaming the lake’s parched shores? I wondered hopefully as my Subaru Forrester, aka The Growler inched closer to Lake Bogoria. The last time I saw those majestic birds was in 2009 when I visited Lake Nakuru, another soda lake like Lake Bogoria. The dazzling beauty of their pink plumage and slender long legs had taken my breath away. I was therefore hoping to feast on the sight of these spectacular birds yet again. But they were nowhere to be seen when I finally parked near the lake shore and practically ran into the lake’s embrace.

The waters encircling my feet were a light shade of brown, like weak coffee. As a matter of fact, they reminded me of the Nescafe I used to take before I graduated to brewed Kenyan coffee and later on Rwandan Coffee (You have to try it, its stunning). Lake Bogoria’s waters were so calm that I could clearly see the ten fingers of my legs resting happily in the brownish sand. Then I heard a cackle to my right. It was barely perceptible, as if someone was pushing a chair gently on concrete floor. An African spoonbill was wading gently in the water, its long legs making it appear like the birds’ answer to giraffes. I smiled at it but it didn’t return my smile, seemingly engrossed in something deep in the waters. 

Just three days earlier, I had learnt about the vital economic importance of this lake to Baringo County.

“When we came in as the first ever County Government of Baringo County, we quickly learnt that Lake Bogoria was the resource that giving us the highest source of revenue. About 70, 80 million shillings.”  This information came from Hon. Kipchumba Keitany, Baringo County’s then County Executive for Industry, Commerce, Tourism and Enterprise Development.

We were meeting at Java House, Westside Mall in Nakuru. I was sipping cappuccino. He was drinking masala tea. The sun was smiling at our beverage choice, shining down brilliantly.

“There are people who have been taking care of these resources; there are people who were born here, and this is their resource. This is where they get their medicine, their therapeutic healing. They have been custodians of this beautiful lake for a long, long time.” Hon. Kipchumba told me.

For two hours, we had a concerted conversation about Lake Bogoria and the wider Rift Valley that it is a part of. He was so passionate about the Rift Valley – its people and natural resources – that during those two hours, we conceived an idea that led to the birth of the birth of an organization known as Great Rift Valley Centre for Research and Development (GRICERD). He became the founding Chairman of this organization and mobilized a highly talented and experienced team of Board Members to lead it in protecting natural resources like the beautiful Lake Bogoria.

You don’t have to go deep into this beautiful Lake to encounter microbes. You can even find them merely by walking on its shores. Unless you are there to specifically mine them, you will not even know that they are part of that mud or sand that has grazed onto your shoes. I was fed this morsel of microbe information by Professor Mulaa, a preeminent microbe expert and a lecturer at Nairobi University.

I visited Prof one Tuesday morning and began devouring the wealth of information that he was doling out in his quiet, authoritative manner. We were seated in his tiny office at Nairobi University’s Chiromo Campus, surrounded by books, files and knowledge. Weary shelves were lined with a mountain of books whose ruffled appearance meant that they had been read and re-read. There was barely any space on the lone medium-sized desk in the room. It was literally overflowing with documents that were like grains of knowledge just waiting to be devoured. He even had to clear the chair he offered me of some documents that had been reclining there before we rudely interrupted them.

Even before Prof began speaking, it almost felt as if I was in the visible headquarters of the invisible microbes.  

After very tiny small talk that lasted for a whopping thirty seconds, Prof launched into an exciting monologue on microbes, “these microorganisms can be turned into a resource or an industrial product that people can buy, people can use, basically to change their lives or basically develop industry.”

The humdrum of students conversing in low tones as they passed by the office filtered in. But I barely heard it as I continued feasting on Prof’s knowledge, “the same microorganisms, can also be developed to help agriculture in terms of crop protection. The next frontier of crop protection is using microorganisms to protect plants.”

Professor Mulaa knows what he is talking about not just because of his rich academic expertise in the sector, but also because he has personally developed enzymes from imperceptible tiny things into powerful industrial components. A few years earlier, he had meticulously developed enzymes that turn fish skin into leather in a process that is speedier and more environmentally friendly than the usual chemical-dependent industrial process.

“Here is the leather we produced,” he said as he fished out expensive looking elegant leather from a polythene paper under his desk. I placed it on my laps and caressed it with my index finger. It felt soft. It had the color of a starless midnight sky. When I turned it over, it was as if that night had just been lit by a full moon.

“What you are holding in your hands was once waste fish skin,” Professor Mulaa said.

Like all notable achievements, this wasn’t a one man show. He was assisted in this unprecedented venture by several other players including the Kenya Industrial Research Development Institute (KIRDI). That is why I decided to make KIRDI my next stop.  

Do you know that Google lady who usually issues directions in her part-robotic, part human voice? She helped me to find the KIRDI offices on a Friday afternoon.

Dr. Martha Induli, a senior KIRDI researcher and official ushered me warmly into her office. She instantly showered me with her bright smile and engaging conversation. Her afro hair sat on her head like a black and bright crown. As she spoke about KIRDI, microbes, research and science as a whole, her rasping voice left me nodding along.

“KIRDI has done a lot on industrial enzymes and biopesticides which are actually key for this project.  Our role there has been mainly pilot upscaling. That's our niche area which many institutions do not have.”

Industrial enzymes. Biopesticides. These are words that had never occupied any space in the real estate of my mind. But that was about to change as I listened to Martha.

“When you are testing enzymes, you must find where they are viable. What they can do. You could find some enzymes that are dehairing, removing hair, some that are removing grease. Enzymes can multi-task. When you select them from microbes, you must find which area they can do an industrial activity then you optimize on that. The facilities are there for testing enzymes.”

I nodded vigorously, as if afraid that not doing so would block the enzyme revelations from sinking into my mind.

Enzymes are powerful. So powerful that they run the world. You see that detergent that washes your clothes clean? Enzymes make that possible. When you drag yourself to the kitchen sink to wash dishes before you hit the pillows, chances are that you are able to wash those greasy dishes real clean, real fast, because the dishwashing soap is laced with enzymes. That faded jeans that you love wearing every Saturday also owes its fades to enzymes. When you have a crazy cold and dash to the pharmacist for some drugs, you should whisper a quick ‘asante sana!’ to enzymes because they are playing an increasingly important role in the manufacture of drugs. As if that’s not enough, the pesticide that you sprayed on your crops to annihilate some stubborn pests couldn’t have made it into your knapsack sprayer if enzymes hadn’t enabled its manufacture. Do you now see how the fingerprints of enzymes are all over the place on all manner of products? They definitely run the world these enzymes. But its not just about running the world; its about how you run it. Enzymes mostly run it in a green and sustainable way. Unlike crazy chemicals, they are biodegradable, which means that they don’t mess the environment.

Whoever owns the enzymes smiles all the way to the bank. So, the big question is, who is making money from the all-over-the-place power of enzymes? Well, Procter & Gamble and the biotechnology firm Genecor International made a fortune from enzymes that were mined from Lake Bogoria’s microbes. The biotech firm sold enzymes it had developed from Lake Bogoria’s microbes to Procter & Gamble. With these enzymes safely tucked away in its labs, Procter & Gamble burnt the midnight oil and developed a highly successful line of Tide bleach that it used to stonewash denim. Consequently, Procter & Gamble made millions of dollars, none of which benefited the Endorois Community. They may have done so legally but not necessarily ethically.

When William Procter and James Gamble established Procter & Gamble in 1837, the Endorois had already been living around Lake Bogoria as an organized community for more than one hundred years. The enzymes that would later make millions of dollars for Procter and Gamble were already inhabiting the microbes in the lake. But at the time, there was no Genencor International or other biotech firms to pore and poke the lake’s enzymes in search of commercially viable enzymes.

Almost 200 years later, as of 2017, Procter & Gamble was worth $228.1 Billion. For fiscal year 2017, Procter & Gamble’s net sales were $65.1 billion (Kenya Shillings 6.6 Trillion). To put that staggering revenue into perspective, Kenya Government’s 2017-2018 budget was Ksh 2.29 trillion, almost three times less than Procter & Gamble’s revenue that year. For even more perspective, Kenya Government sought to raise Ksh 1.7 trillion in that fiscal year. Even if the country managed to raise this entire amount, which is rarely the case, Procter & Gamble’s revenue would still be almost four times the revenue of Kenya’s Government.

Please pause for a while and read the above paragraph again so that this astounding fact can sink in – In 2017, Procter & Gamble’s revenue was four time more than Kenya’s expected revenue for the fiscal year 2017 – 2018.   

Isn’t it therefore only fair that a company that is richer than the Kenya Government should pay some royalties for Lake Bogoria’s enzymes? After all, these enzymes contributed some percentage to its staggering revenue. It could be (it probably is) that Procter and Gamble has not broken any law whatsoever and has legally not ripped of the good people of Baringo County where Lake Bogoria is situated. But doesn’t the spirit of the law of humanity (ethics) dictate that Lake Bogoria’s communities should get a share of the royalties? Am not talking about PR fueled money to build a new hospital wing here and paint a classroom there. Rather, am talking about actual dinero, cash that is channeled to the communities not as a favour, a mere act of compassion but as a right because that money is due to them.

The money is due to them not just because of the spirit of the law of humanity but mainly because of the international law as is clearly stipulated in the Convention of Biological Biodiversity (CBD) and the Nagoya Protocol that stemmed from this convention.

The CBD clearly states that, “To be ‘fair and equitable’, benefit-sharing should reflect the efforts of national authorities and of stakeholders such as communities, institutions and companies in making the genetic resource available (through conserving, allowing access to, providing information on, and collecting it) and using it (conducting research and development, etc.).”

The Nagoya Protocol further reinforces this when it states in Article 5 that, ‘benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources that are held by indigenous and local communities, in accordance with domestic legislation regarding the established rights of these indigenous and local communities over these genetic resources, are shared in a fair and equitable way with the communities concerned, based on mutually agreed terms.’

Exactly! Let me translate the above paragraphs to you into simple English, “communities, institutions and companies should share the money that is made from the commercial utilization of genetic resources.”

The formula that such sharing will operate from may be debatable but what is indisputable is the fact that benefit sharing must be ‘fair and equitable’ amongst all parties. That’s the law. But am afraid am going to have to spoil the party here. Although the CBD was adopted 26 years ago in in 1992 when google was not even born, USA has not yet ratified the agreement! All the UN States have ratified this vital agreement – Iran, Libya, Cape Verde, Somalia – all of them except the United States of America. This means that international law may not necessarily shield the Endorois Community from the powerful corporate arrows of companies like Procter & Gamble.

What then can shield the Endorois from exploitation? I decided to search for an answer to this question from the Endorois leaders themselves.

One morning just after 6AM, I jumped into the shower then into The Growler, my trusted Subaru Forrester. I turned on the ignition key and it growled into life prompting a smile onto my face. That engine growl was so divine that I wished Beethoven was still alive to compose a symphony known as ‘The Growler Symphonica.’

Less than two hours later, The Growler deposited me at the deserted Parking Lot of a three-star hotel that sits quietly a few hundred metres from the Naivasha junction along Nairobi – Nakuru Highway. I matched past the hotel’s lobby into an adjacent restaurant then chose a corner table. I was there to meet Wilson Kipkazi, the Endorois Welfare Council Chairman and Kenneth Ole Nasho, a Kenya Wildlife Service Game Warden.

The Endorois community made history in 2003 when they took a case before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to demand that the Kenyan government recognises the rights of the Endorois to Lake Bogoria. Although they had lived in land adjacent to the lake for over 300 years, the Kenyan Government evicted them from there in the 1970s. Seven years after they had lodged their case through the Centre for Minority Rights Development and Minority Rights Group International, the Endorois won their landmark case. But in subsequent years, the initial ululation was followed by groans of despair since the Kenya Government didn’t take any steps to restore Lake Bogoria’s land to the Endorois. Since I was aware of all this unfortunate drama surrounding Endorois land, I was eager to meet Wilson Kipkazi and learn more about their land even as I asked him how the Endorois could be shielded from exploitation.

A few minutes after I took my seat and ordered for black coffee (I was trying to reduce my intake of calories after the weighing scale informed me solemnly that I was back to 89 kilos from the 79kilos I had memorably attained one year earlier), two gentlemen walked in and squinted as they scanned the restaurant. I raised my hand and eye brows, guessing that they were looking for me. Sure enough, it was Wilson Kipkazi the Endorois leader and Kenneth ole Nasho, former Game Warden of Baringo County where Lake Bogoria is situated.

After they joined me at my table, the Endorois Welfare Council Chairman didn’t waste any time on small talk but instantly launched into his grievances with those who exploit his beloved Lake Bogoria.

“The companies that came first to do the research never informed the community. Later on, we learnt through the media that multinational companies had made millions of dollars through genetic resources extracted from Lake Bogoria. This really made the community furious. Fortunately, some companies, a good example is Novozymes from Denmark, decided to talk to the community and pay back some royalties. When these royalties were paid back to the community, it was not much money, but the amount changed lives of the people because this money was used to educate about 246 children in a year.”

My black coffee remained untouched as Mr. Kipkazi spoke. Since he was as old as my father, I couldn’t refer to him as Wilson, even in the privacy of my mind.

Mange tak Novozyme, I silently thanked the Danish company. Fifteen years earlier, Gitte Nielsen, a 20-year-old Danish girl who resembled sunrise had taught me how to say, ‘thank you very much’ in Danish.

“I love you,” I had told her.

As a pink blush spread across her rosy cheeks, I had added with a cheeky smile, “how do you say I love you in Danish.”

Jeg elsker dig.” (Pronounced ya elska dai).

These memories stormed my mind even as Mr. Kipkazi continued to explain, “Lake Bogoria is like an umbilical cord for the Endorois community. Lake Bogoria is a sacred site for us from time immemorial. We have a lot of attachment to it in terms of sacred sites, for traditional functions including some of the functions that bonds to together the community.”

When he mentioned the words, ‘sacred site’ my mind instantly took a leap to All Saints Cathedral, my Church. I occasionally visit it during weekdays for some quiet time of reflection and prayer. Whenever am there during these times, the old grand architecture of the Church, together with the massive high ceilings and serene atmosphere normally combine forces to paint the mood with a sacred stroke that nudges the divine a bit closer to the heartbeat.

For ages, Lake Bogoria has nudged the Endorois closer to God in similar fashion. As they feasted on the Lake’s unseen spiritual benefits, they couldn’t have known that the lake was also teeming with other invisible benefits of a different kind. The invisible benefits that bring visible wealth to biotech companies plus the corporates that hold their hands and sign their cheques.

But enough about those western corporates and biotech firms. As my great, great grandfather Walid Musula used to say, ‘when there is dust on your mwiko (wooden cooking stick), don’t blame the wind – wipe away the dust then cover the mwiko with a wide banana leaf that will keep away the dust.’

We, as Kenyans and Africans by extension must keep our visible and invisible treasures covered – protected not just by legislation but also steadfast execution of that legislation. Additionally, we must know the extent of the treasure that we have. This knowledge must extend beyond the university corridors of knowledge into dusty pathways of local communities like the Endorois.  

But in case the wind deposits dust on the mwiko, as has happened with Lake Bogoria’s microbes, then we must ultimately stop blaming the wind and wipe away the dust. In Lake Bogoria’s case, we can wipe away the dust by doing what Wilson Kipkazi the Endorois Community Chairman told me in that restaurant’s corner table.

Just before we completed our conversation, he looked at me intently and said with conviction, “Our community still practices traditional way of life. We still use the traditional medicine, as opposed to conventional medicine. It has been passed from generation to generation, the knowledge that we have within the community on plants, animals, even the soil and many other things. This is knowledge that we still use it. We embrace traditional knowledge.”

I nodded slowly. There was still coffee in my cup but it had since turned lukewarm after I abandoned it. What Wilson Kipkazi was saying was too powerful to be interrupted by coffee. For the centuries that they had been living at Lake Bogoria, they had amassed a mountain of knowledge that was often treated as irrelevant by our contemporary society. We need to respect their indigenous knowledge and treat them as the age-old custodians of Lake Bogoria and everything within it. In addition, we should go a step further and do what Kenneth Nasho, the Kenya Wildlife Service warden told me just after Mr. Kipkazi had finished speaking.

In one of the open forums that he held with the Endorois Community during his time as warden in charge of Lake Bogoria, they had told shared with him a powerful insight, “they told me that they really needed to have their own local scientists.”

I took a deep breath and rubbed my hands together as I was wont to do when I was excited. 

As the rest of us were busy crying foul (as we definitely should), the Endorois community had already dusted themselves and cast an eye into the future. They were eager for a future where it wouldn’t take a scientist from Leicester University to mine microorganisms from their lake; a future where it wouldn’t take a mzungu (white people) biotech firm to dissect those microbes and discover highly profitable enzymes; a future where it wouldn’t take yet another mzungu company to use those enzymes to develop a highly profitable product worth billions.

Indeed, the Endorois community want a future where they will have their very own home-grown scientists whose contemporary scientific knowledge will fuse with the Endorois indigenous knowledge to create a priceless knowledge base that will lead to sustainable revenues that will change their lives for generations.  

That future can begin as soon as tomorrow. Even as those homegrown Endorois scientists come to fruition, there are already established Kenyan scientists like Professor Mulaa from Nairobi University and Dr. Martha Induli from the Kenya Industrial Research Development Institute (KIRDI). In the same vein, there are experts like Kavaka Mukonyi from the Kenya Wildlife Service. These people with immense experience and knowledge to turn microbes into million-dollar products.

The only missing link is those papers that have Jomo Kenyatta or Abraham Lincoln on them – money. It will take millions of dollars to transform microbes into billion-dollar products.

As I waded slowly from the weak-coffee colored waters of Lake Bogoria, I finally understood why the African Spoonbill bird had been gazing deep into the waters of Lake Bogoria. Its eyes must have been feasting on the priceless treasures that lived in the Lake.

Its up to us here in Kenya and Africa to mine those treasures in a sustainable way.

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