DJ Bwakali

DJ Bwakali

Thursday, 25 May 2017 15:45

A Child's Search for Food

In his eyes, there was sadness, but his face was excited as he pulled ahead of two other children and ran towards the kitchen area. In his tiny right hand, was a small plastic tin that still bore the brown remnants of the previous day’s food.

Moments later, Ejoka left the kitchen area with nothing in his tin but the brown remnants. The left over porridge that he had hoped to get was already over. On this bright Thursday afternoon, Ejoka’s plight was anything but bright. Equally glum was the mood of the Red Cross volunteers when they saw Ejoka and many children like him going without food.

Linda and the others had come face to face with hunger and they were finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the situation. Staring desperately at them during meal times, were the weary faces of dozens of children. After dinner, the hungry children would descend on the leftovers, their small hands grabbing whatever morsel of food they could.

Though seasoned in disaster relieve, the Red Cross volunteers never got used these heart-wrenching scenes. They put on brave faces as they were distributing food but inside, they were agonizing greatly. Though many children benefited from this food distribution, many more went back to their dilapidated homes with hunger pangs still wrangling and rumbling within.

Ejoka was a favorite of many of the volunteers. Said Linda of this likeable kid, “Ejoka always has a ready smile. Unfortunately, his eyes always have a sad look.” This sad look owed its existence to nurture and nature. The personable child had been brought up to believe that essential as it was, food was a rare commodity that had to be desperately searched for, fought for and even stolen.

His parents’ brutal death had left him the troubled ten years of his life as his only weapon of survival. They also left him two younger twin sisters aged five years and a nine month old baby. Inevitably, the infant died only a month after its parents’ demise. The cause of death had been severe malnutrition. Fending for his twin sisters and himself was no mean task for Ejoka. Searching for food in this foodless land was a near impossible task for a mere child.

Whenever lady luck brought him some food, it would be responsibly and hungrily shared with his siblings.

Hungry and weary, volunteers trudged back to their truck. They too had run out of food to distribute. It was lunchtime, and the scorching heat was baking them into walking zombies. Although their own food was inside the truck, none of them felt like eating.

So they sat in the truck’s shadow and listened as their leader addressed them, “the harsh realities of this place call on us all to…” his short speech was cut short by loud shouts.

“Thief! Thief! Catch him!”

A blanket of silence enveloped everyone as they all turned to see the thief. Running towards the truck as fast as his tiny legs could carry him was Ejoka. The running was awkward as his tiny hands were tightly clutching a mug of orange juice and a big piece of ugali. Unfortunately, he stumbled and fell, spilling the tiny commodity into the parched ground.

The silence of the watching volunteers was broken by Linda, “Oh my God!” she exclaimed as she ran towards Ejoka. “I was taking the food to my sisters,” he cried hysterically.

The unbearable heat was forgotten as the volunteers beheld the sad sight in front of them.

Their feelings were summed up in the barely audible words of Linda, “I think we, the people of the world, are the thieves. We have robbed Ejoka of his childhood and basic right to food.”    

Thursday, 25 May 2017 15:42

Africa's Slippery Delight

Those who are not used to it find its very sight distasteful. They wonder how you can eat a vegetable that is so slippery that it keeps sliding from your fingers. How is it supposed to make it into your mouth?

But those who are used to it become lifelong benign addicts. In Kenya, this slippery vegetable is mostly associated with the Luhya community whose ancestral base in western Kenya. They call it omurere while the rest of the country refers to it as mrenda.

The Luhya have been devouring omurere for centuries. Its recipe remained largely unchanged for most of this period. It was cooked with zero fat, essentially just boiled in water sprinkled with a liquid concoction known as omusherekha. This concoction is a traditional alkali liquid akin to bicarbonate of soda. It is prepared from beans’ leaves powder.

Omusherekha softens and preserves the food nicely,’ says Nashibe, an eighty-year old from Ekero in Mumias, ‘it is just as important as salt.’

This indigenous alkali preserves and softens food.

My name is Corchorus. I know it’s a technical sounding name, but you have to understand that those who gave it to me were technical people. In Arabic, I am known as Mulukhiya. But among the Kenya’s Luhya people, I am known as Omurere. In the Luhya language, this literally means, ‘that which slides.’ So it is safe to say that my full names are Corchorus Omurere Mulukhiya. And my nickname in Kenya is Mrenda.

I am one of the hundreds of edible plant species in Africa. For centuries, we have nourished generations of Africans.

Thursday, 25 May 2017 05:36

A Memorable Trip to the Gallant Sagalla

‘Sagalla is Kenya’s garden of Eden,’ says Godrick Mwachofi, Sagalla Health Centre’s public health officer of. As he talks on cheerfully, I throw covert glances towards my left.

The source of my distraction is a silver stream that is trickling down one of Sagalla’s succulent hills near Mwachofi’s house.

As my gaze continues to caress the stream, I hear Mwachofi’s booming voice, ‘after lunch, we will go hiking at Goe hills’.

This invitation brings instant smiles on the faces of Margo Rowe, a Michigan nurse and Clay Birke, an electrical engineer from lowa. The three of us have just arrived for a five day visit and though it’s my tenth time in Sagalla, I’m just as excited.

Three years earlier, during my maiden visit to this hilly region in Kenya’s Coastal Province, I had fallen in love with the zigzag hills, thick forests, crystal clear streams, cool climate and warm culture of the Sagalla people (wasagalla).

Hiking Sagalla’s chubby hills is never tedious as it involves piercing through a tropical forest, sunbathing on gigantic rocks, sapping pure stream water and beholding the ever scenic views before you.

Sagalla is twenty kilometress from Voi, the largest town in Taita Taveta County. Despite this proximity, it is as cold as Voi is hot.

At 2,000 feet above sea level, it is 1,500 feet higher than Voi, which is home to the world famous Tsavo East National Park. About 150 kilometres away in the South is the Indian Ocean. Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city sweats out its days, right next door to this salty Ocean.

‘When wasagalla go to Mombasa to look for work, they often find nothing but heat and ocean tides’ Mwachofi quips as we near Goe hills.

Occupying an area of approximately seventy thousand square kilometers, Sagalla’s thirty thousand people have plenty of fertile land to farm. However many opt for the ‘hotter pastures’ of Mombasa, forgetting that they have left behind greener pastures.

Indeed, Sagalla’s pastures are teeming with rich biodiversity and an even richer culture.

Plenteous chattering monkeys, cawing rooks, whistling indigenous trees and distant elephant trumpets from Tsavo are some of the sights and sounds of Sagalla.

We are finally there. Goe hills are twin hills that ooze with myth and mystery. Standing on one summit of Goe, we felt like we were on top of the world. I followed the gaze of a lone sparrow that was descending into the narrow fifty-foot valley that is between the hills. I didn’t see the dozens of human skulls and skeletons that are said to be down there. Legend has it that in the nineteenth century, people suffering from contagious diseases like small pox would be thrown into this valley of death to avoid spreading the diseases.

2,200 feet above sea level, the Goe summit gives one a picturesque, albeit hazy view of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. The regal mountain sits silently in the expansive plains that surround it.

Both Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks are also clearly visible. Bigger than Swaziland, these two parks are amongst the largest Parks in the world and have an overflow of elephants. The parks also have a tragic history – years earlier, lions devoured hapless Indian railway workers in the area around Voi town, earning Tsavo lions the infamous tag of, ‘the man eaters of Tsavo’.

Speaking about the famous Tsavo wildlife, Bibi Mwacharo, an octogenarian who lives near the ancient church says nostalgically, ‘in days gone by, we co-existed harmoniously with wild animals, especially elephants and gazelles’. Her dim eyes light up as she scoops some soil from the wet ground and says with wistfully, ‘elephants were just like this soil - many, many, many.’

Sagalla’s yester years can still be seen in the Wray Memorial Museum. This is a historic church building that was built one century earlier by Rev. Wray of the Church Missionary Society. The church is wrinkled but still standing strong. Locals like to tell visitors with very serious faces that, ‘angels still live in this church.’

Sagalla’s appeal extends into its language (kisagalla). Like Spanish, it flows melodically, like Hebrew, it has an occasional throaty thrust and like English, it is plain yet deep.

Kisagalla has a lot of similarities with Swahili, Kenya’s national language. This is because Swahili, a fusion of Arabic and Bantu dialects, was born in the coastal region of Kenya which Sagalla is a part of.

Cheery good mornings (waukamana), always usher in the bright, cool days. As for the cold, warm nights, lala mana is the goodnight that welcomes them.

Since sagalla is not a typical tourist destination, it has no big or even medium-sized hotels. ‘But our doors and arms are always open for visitors’ Mzee Kodi, a fifty year old man who lives at the foot of Goe hills says warmly.

Important Sagalla Numbers

  • 327 – The distance in kilometres from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city to Voi.
  • 158 – The distance in kilometres from Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city to Voi.
  • 20 – The distance in kilometres from Voi to Sagalla
  • 22,812 – The combined size of Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks
  • $2 – Transport from Voi to Sagalla in a matatu (public minibus)
  • $3.5 – Transport from Voi to Sagalla in a motorbike
  • $15 -25 – Bed and breakfast at Mwamunga’s cottages near Sagalla forest. This is the only places in Sagalla that offers lodging.


Sagalla Queries:

How do I get to Sagalla from Nairobi or Mombasa?

Take a public bus then alight at Voi. From Voi to Sagalla, you can grab a matatu or a motor bike. The matatu is a safer bet although it can only leave Voi once it has filled all the 14 passenger seats. If you are really in a hurry, you can just pay for all the remaining empty seats.

Where do I sleep in Sagalla?

In a bed… Okay, on a more serious note, the only place that offers paid accommodation is at Nebo cottages, which is near Sagalla forest. It is cool and quiet. Did I mention that these cottages will give you pure blissful serenity? They will.   

Can I stay with host families?

You definitely can. Sagalla has a history and experience of hosting both short term (3 – 5 weeks) and long term (3 – 12 months) volunteers from all over the world. Peace Corps volunteers from the US have also stayed in Sagalla on different occasions over the years.

What else do I need to know about Sagalla

There have been no reported Ebola cases in Sagalla and there has never, ever been a terrorist attack there. It can get quite cold in Sagalla, so carry warm clothes.  

One more thing, how are the people there?

In one word, awesome. In two words, very cordial. In three words, like other people. Just come with an open heart and open mind. People tend to reflect back the vibes that they feel from others.

Thursday, 25 May 2017 05:28

The Crying Lions of Benin

When a King sheds tears, an entire country weeps. These words underscore the plight of Benin’s environmental kingdom. The West African lion has roamed Benin’s rugged terrain since the days of the Dahomey Kingdom centuries ago. But its iconic roar has been stifled so much that West African lions are now classified as regionally endangered.  Although this is symptomatic of the lion’s perilous situation in Africa as a whole, the situation in West Africa is particularly dire.

Tucked away in Benin’s north-western region is Pendjari Biosphere Reserve, whose size of 4,510 square kilometres makes it bigger than Cape Verde. The reserve comprises of one National Park, two Hunting Zones and a buffer zone.

The reserve’s mammoth size has given the lion a large area to race and hunt. However, the hunter sometimes becomes the hunted both legally and illegally. Every two years, six lions can be legally hunted in Pendjari. While Burkina Fasso’s quota is more at twenty lions, Niger doesn’t allow any hunting at all.

Although there is no clear evidence that legal hunting contributes to the lions’ woes, it doesn’t help things either. It is a fact that hunting subtracts instead of adding and can arguably be used to control burgeoning populations of a given species. The question therefore is – does the West African lion need addition or subtraction?

Etotépé A. Sogbohossou from Benin has conducted extensive research on Benin’s lions. In one of her findings, she concludes, ‘our results suggest that the Pendjari lion population is affected by perturbations, such as trophy hunting.’ Indeed, the kings of the jungle in this region have already become lonely creatures with densities of only five lions for every 100 kilometres.

When it comes to poaching, information about its extent and impact remains hazy. Unlike poaching, climate change is leaving clear impacts in its destructive trail. The Pendjari River, after which the biosphere is named, has seen better days. Although it can flood during rainy seasons, its waters dwindle drastically during the dry period of February to May.

When climate change pushes natural seasons to extremes, both humans and wildlife are adversely affected. Lions and their cat cousins stroll to the banks of River Pendjari and find speedily receding waters.

Another lion pride may respond to its thirst by jogging to other water points in the reserve like Bori, only to find that they have dried up. When this happens, their disappointed roars are stinging indictments of nations like USA and China two of the biggest green house gas emitters in the world. When their emissions accelerate a changing climate that denies Pendjari’s lions sufficient water, then there is a big problem.   

A local source of tears for Benin’s lions comes from their nomadic human neighbours who graze their livestock in the biosphere. Apart from increasing competition for dwindling natural resources like water, encroaching livestock also heighten the possibility of deadly human-wildlife conflicts.

Benin has nonetheless made commendable strides. Elephant population increased from 900 in 2003 to 1,600 in 2006. Antelopes had an even bigger party, exploding from 2,000 in the year 2,000 to 9,000 in the year 2005.

This antelope multiplication means more food and less tears for the lions. This is a trend that must be maintained and extended beyond the food arena so that lions can quench their thirst from plenteous water and roam freely without the danger of meeting a poacher’s bullet or even a legal hunter’s bullet that nonetheless takes away its life.   

11AM, River Road Nairobi. It’s your birthday. Racing towards you is a rusty handcart, popularly known as mkokoteni.  You barely manage to sidestep it as it whizzes a mere inch from your scared legs. You catch a glimpse of Bob Marley’s face emblazoned on its left side. A piercing scream storms into your ears at that very moment and you brace yourself, ready to dash into the crowded alleys. But you realize that the scream is coming from a matatu tout who is screaming to attract passengers into his colorful mini-bus. Its not just an empty scream since he is actually screaming the words, ‘kumi westlands!’ Ten Shillings to westlands! As if on cue, two hawkers to your left begin informing the world as loudly as they can that, ‘socks hamsini! Ng’ara na hamsini pekee!’ Socks for fifty shillings! Look smart for only fifty shillings!

This is no way to spend your birthday. As you take a few more tentative steps, you feel as if noise and chaos were invented right here at River Road in downtown Nairobi. But worry not. I am about to tell you, why you should hop onto one of those matatus and escape into a beautiful world of Serenity.

Karura Forest is less than fifteen minutes drive from Nairobi’s Central Business District. Even with the Capital City’s notorious jam, the 2,570 acre forest is still less than an hour from the CBD. The forest has seven gates with Gate A being the one closest to the CBD. It is off Limuru Road across from the Belgian Embassy. If you are using public means, you can get there using the matatus  to Gachie (108) or Banana Hill (106). These matatus can be boarded at the downtown fire station and koja bus stop respectively.

Once you arrive at Gate A, you will pay 100 shillings (300 if you are non-resident), after which the forest will welcome you with green, open arms.

Since its your birthday, you should definitely not walk into these green arms alone but should do so in the company of your loved ones. Because great food makes a birthday memorable, you should match straight to one of the five designated picnic sites in the forest. These scenic sites are the first reason why you should spend your next birthday at Karura Forest. The five sites can be found in these locations: Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust (KFEET) Centre; adjacent to Amani Garden; at the Ruaka Swamp; in Sigiria near the Obstacle Course; and in Karura Gardens on Kiambu Road. Picnic at any of these sites costs 150 for adults and 100 for children 12 years and below. The amount is well worth it since you will be able to savor and devour your birthday food as you behold the swaying trees and feast on the merry chirp of birds. In addition, the atmosphere will be super fresh thanks to the forest ambience.

karura cycling trekkingCycle and Trek in Serenity and Solitude

Once you are done with your meal, it will be time to move on to the second reason why Karura Forest should host your next birthday – the Karura Forest trek. If you are like my sister Charity, then you may not be a big fan of walking. But this trek through the serene forest paths will not feel like a walk. Rather, it will feel like you are skating through the very seat of nature. The beauty of a walk in Karura forest is that it is so effortless and energizing. It’s like eating ice cream on a hot day or driving on a lonely, scenic highway. When you trek in Karura Forest, every step ushers you deeper into nature’s bounty. It feels like walking along nature’s buffet and devouring sights and sounds that the city often denies you: crackling leaves; waving tree branches; a symphony of chirping birds as opposed to a cacophony of matatu honks; whistling rivers; a humming forest breeze; rugged tree barks and many more. All these will be yours for the taking as you trek through the forest. There can be no better birthday trek than this one.

In his epic poem about Karura Forest, the poet Bwak wrote about a ‘rugged tree with jagged thrills.’ These trees are the third reason why you should spend your birthday at Karura because without them, the forest and all the things it represents would not be there. Four out of ten trees in the forest are indigenous which is great for the forest’s long-term sustainability. The indigenous trees are also good for you because a tree like the silver oak glade which is found in the forest is quite pleasant to behold. If you are a tree enthusiast, you will enjoy discovering these trees. Even if you are not a lover of trees, you will simply enjoy being amongst them and feeling their silent melody. What better way to spend your birthday than roaming among these hush trees and just absorbing their aura.

forest bathingForest bathing at Karura will sprinkle freshness into your spiritWhile we are still on this subject of trees, let me introduce to you the fourth reason to spend your birthday at Karura – Forest Bathing.

Forest bathing has its roots in a Japanese concept known as ‘shinrin-yoku,’ which literally means ‘taking in the forest atmosphere.’ This concept was developed in Japan in the 1980s. It entails an immersion into the serene forest atmosphere. Scientific studies show that such deliberate immersion has a positive therapeutic effect on people. Such forest therapy might be just what you need for your birthday. Even if you feel that ‘this forest bathing thing is not my thing,’ I bet you love a good feeling. The kind of feeling that makes your chest feel nicely warm even as your head goes dreamy. That’s exactly what forest bathing will do to you. But more importantly, it will replenish and rejuvenate you.

The concrete actions that forest bathing entails include: Feeling the presence of the trees around you; following their trunks high into the sky; observing their spreading branches; listening to the voices of the birds and swaying branches; feeling the wind blowing through the forest; smelling and breathing in the healing forest fragrances. If this sounds like some oriental stuff that you are not interested in, just try taking a leisurely stroll through Karura and you will find yourself wanting to do more of it. Forest bathing is simply about immersing yourself in this forest atmosphere. Wouldn’t it be awesome to do this on your birthday?!   

Even if you will remain adamant that forest bathing is really not your thing, then grab your bike and go cycling in Karura Forest. This is the fifth reason why you should spend your birthday at Karura Forest. There will be no crazy matatu’s breathing down your neck or no reckless boda boda riders hurtling towards you like missiles on two wheels. Instead, you will be able to cycle in serenity as the trees silently cheer you on. As a bonus, you will be working out without realizing that you are doing so. What better way to spend your birthday than getting into shape as you enjoy the awesome scenery and atmosphere of Karura Forest! Even if you don’t own a bike, you can always hire one at Karura Forest at only 500 bob for two hours.

A key feature of this awesome scenery are the forest’s five rivers, the sixth reason why you should spend your birthday at Karura. These forest rivers all flow into Nairobi River. Karura RiverKarura River Soars and Roars Just for You!!!They are Ruaka River, Karura River, Gitathuru River, Thigiri River and Mathare River. At some point, Karura River descends into a beautiful waterfall before proceeding to the Mau Mau caves. The trickling sounds of these rivers will be like a balm to your spirit. Even more riveting will be the wondrous sight of the waterfall. There is something divine about watching water trickling and tumbling down constantly. Watching this waterfall in the heart and silence of Karura will make you thrilled that you were born on this day, for a day like this. It will bring out the essence of your birthday in ways that the nyama choma, pizzas and chocolate cannot.

The seventh and final reason why you should spend your next birthday in Karura Forest is romance, a creature that loves the company of solitude and serenity. Love grows in Karura Forest’s green, silent embrace. Nothing beats the caress of a forest breeze on our cheeks as you hold hands and gaze into each other’s adoring eyes. Doing this on your birthday makes it extra special.

With these seven reasons, you have every reason to visit Karura next weekend. Even if it’s not your birthday.

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Wednesday, 24 May 2017 17:07

Planting a Forest

A quarter a century ago, I gazed indifferently at an African Teak tree seedling that my father had just planted about twenty metres on the right hand side of our rural house. Papa likes planting trees and often honours distinguished visitors through elaborate tree planting ceremonies that are complete with an opening prayer at the beginning and a hearty clap at the conclusion.

When Uncle Julius, my mum’s older brother would visit, Papa would call everyone to attention after one of mama’s hot, delicious meals, and announce with flair that Uncle Julius would plant be planting a tree at that very moment. I forget the name of the tree; it is the most planted tree in our farm. It mostly grows outward instead of upward.  The tree’s three or four layers of branches given an impression of umbrellas on top of each other.

We would troop out and watch as the jolly Uncle Julius received a tree seedling with both hands and placed it into a pre-dug hole after a brief prayer from any of us. These days, whenever I walk into Nairobi’s supermarkets and come across ready-made raw chapatis that are just waiting to be fried, I always remember Papa’s ready-made tree holes.

If a visitor was as notable as Uncle Julius, you can be sure that he or she planted a tree in our two-acre compound.

How many trees are in Kenya? I doubt anyone knows the answer to that. But the earth is said to be home to as many as ten trillion trees. Although other estimates place this number much lower, at half of a trillion. Whatever the number, Papa has definitely played a small but vital role in realizing it.

Kenya has a forest cover of seven percent far behind Cameroon’s near 50 percent or Micronesia’s 92 percent. Wait a minute.. Yes? Did you say 92 percent?! Yes I did. I suspect most of you had no idea that a country known as Micronesia existed. Not only does it exist, but it is the global champion of forest cover. 92 percent. Almost all of this country is covered in forests. It is in the western Pacific and it consists of about 600 islands that are grouped into four States, hence its full name is, ‘Federated States of Micronesia.’

But if truth be told, I have never been much of a tree planter. Which is odd, because I have done my fair share for Africa’s environment, especially in founding youth environmental movements in Kenya and Africa. There is the UNEP-facilitated Africa Environment Outlook for Youth, which I led for several years from 2003 – 2005; the Africa Youth Environment Network, which I conceived as an offshoot of the previous network; the Africa Youth Initiative on Climate Change, which I co-founded with the tireless Sena Alouka from Togo and other phenomenal youth (at least youth at the time) like Grace Mwaura; the Solid Waste Action for Youth (SWAY), which I handed over to the enthusiastic leadership of Kivindyo another outstanding ‘former youth.’

You would think that someone who did all these green things would be an active tree-planter like his father. After all, tree planting is arguably the most basic yet most powerful act of conservation.

Some people don’t just plant trees – they plant forests. The most prominent example is Padma Shri Jadav Payeng aka Molai from Jorhat, India. The 52-year old man literally planted a forest, one tree at a time, next to River Brahmaputra. The forest is now named after him – Molai Forest. One of his secrets besides his passion for trees was the fact that he didn’t just plant trees – he nurtured them. He nurtured them so well that a 1,360 acre forest now exists because of his simple, powerful action of planting and nurturing a tree since 1979.

Like all forests, Molai is now home to a rich biodiversity. Endangered Bengal tigers reside there as do rhinos and dozens of other animals, not to mention the hundreds of plants species that are part of the forest. All this would not have been possible if he hadn’t taken that initial step in 1979 of planting twenty bamboo seedlings.

Closer home, in north-eastern Kenya, there is a similar story. Although it hasn’t reached Molai forest’s staggering proportions, it might just reach there one day because it is spearheaded by Abdikadir Aden Hassan, a young man who is only twenty-six years old. He has already planted thirty thousand trees and targets to eventually reach the one-million mark. His green efforts have already won him numerous awards including the highly prestigious ‘Queen Young Leaders Award.’

At our very own village home, my younger brother James has also planted approximately one hundred trees. He has nurtured them to maturity over the last five years and he now has a mini-forest that he has aptly named, Ayanna forest, after his one-year old daughter.

But as for me, I have in my lifetime planted less than twenty trees and never ever cut even a single tree. But like most other human beings, I am a huge beneficiary of wood products whose presence in my houses wouldn’t have been possible if someone somewhere hadn’t felled a tree. In fact, the vintage chair that I am sitting on as I write this was made from the legendary hard wood of an African Teak tree aka milicia excels or mvule in Kiswahili.

Mvule wood is known as iroko and it doesn’t come cheap. Indeed, mvule wood is amongst the designer woods of the timber industry. Apart from my vintage chair, this wood is used to make exquisite wooden floors, stunning boats, regal gates, equally royal furniture and many more astounding wood products.

I feel that if I sit on mvule wood every day, the least I can do is to plant at least ten African teaks before the end of this year. Watch this space and as you do so, go plant an African teak too. It is one of the few trees that is named after our beloved continent. Or you could go step further and follow the footsteps of Molai from India or Abdikadir from Kenya and actually plant a forest...

Wednesday, 24 May 2017 17:06

The Forest that Rules the World

Mabelé was tired. His 6,2 frame was soaked in so much sweat that the sleeveless black top he was wearing was completely wet. The huge log that he was sitting on was rugged and hard but it felt like a soft sofa beneath him. He kept yawning every few minutes both hungry and tired.

Even for someone who has lived next to Congo forest for all his life, the last few days had been crazy. Bush meat may make for delicious meals but it only came after lots of sweat and patience. Research shows that 4.5 million tonnes of the wild game are consumed annually by those living in and around Congo forest. Mabelé hunts this wild game, both for his wife’s kitchen and the local market in Kisangani.

Like 35 other million people in DRC, Mabelé depends on the forest for his livelihood. The forest gives him non-timber products that feed him and put money into his pockets.

Despite the daily struggles to feed his five children and their loving mother, he is among the lucky 77 million Congolese who have survived years of a brutal war that has killed about six million people.

Although this civil war is often referred to as Africa’s civil war because of the involvement of other African countries, it is arguably an unending third world war. This vast naturally rich country is a cacophony of competing global interests. Big companies from the west and China seem to fall over themselves as they run to dip their hands into Congo’s pot of seemingly inexhaustible natural resources, many of them tucked away in Congo forest.

Mabelé’s father and grandfather and great grandfather all earned their living from the forest. Like him, they hunted wild game, scaled those giant trees in search of herbs and fruits, chopped down smaller trees to build their houses and generally took a lifetime of refuge in the never-ending, ever-green forest. Some of his forefathers may even have been part of the team that the Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh explorer was talking about when he said that, ‘our officers are heartily sick of the forest but the loyal blacks, a band of 130 followed me once again into the wild, trackless forest, with its hundreds of inconveniences to assist their comrades of the rear column.’

What Stanley found as ‘hundreds of inconveniences’ were ‘hundreds of every day realities’ for the 130 Congolese explorers who were with him. These realities were wrapped in a forest so dense that sunlight rarely reached the ground. The forest’s towering canopy was like a dark, green umbrella that kept away the sun and ushered in the rain.

Almost half of DRC is covered with the forest that bears the country’s name. The forest stretches for 1,070,000 square kilometres. This massive size is bigger than the combined surface area of England, Germany, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Netherlands and Belgium. Imagine these seven European countries covered with nothing but a dense tropical forest and you will have pictured Congo forest in DRC. 

This forest is home to more than 11,000 species of plants, 450 mammals, 1,150 birds, 300 reptiles, 200 amphibians, 1,117 species of birds and 400 species of fish. This makes DRC the 5th most biodiverse country on earth.

Forest elephants, forest giraffes also known as okapi, mountain gorillas, lowland gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas (grauer’s gorilla), bonobos, black colobus monkeys, black mangabey, golden-bellied Mangabey, liana trees that can grow as high as 900 metres, teak trees that can grow as high as 50 metres.

This is just a tiny section of the Congo forest’s vast mosaic of biodiversity that is worth infinitely more in its vibrant pristine state than when it is disrupted through money-minting activities like logging. According to research by Bioversity International, the market value of caterpillars harvested from Tali and Sapelii trees over their life spans is 34 and 13 times higher, respectively, than is the revenue that would be accrued from cutting the trees for their timber.

Although Mabelé didn’t participate in this research, his life’s experiences agree with its findings. He has never benefited from the wood that is dead wood that is harvested from Congo forest, but the living trees gift him with rain, herbs, food and a livelihood every single day of his life.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017 17:04

Cameroon's Forest Dance

The thirty eight year old man had his arms outstretched as he danced after scoring his second goal in a 1990 world match against Colombia. Roger Milla’s two goals pushed Cameroon into the next round. Four years later at the age of 42, Roger Milla again did his famous dance at the corner flag after scoring against Russia.

Sadly, Cameroon’s football glory has never been as bright as it was during Roger Milla’s time. However, this West African country continues to dance to another green tune that reverberates in its vast forests that cover nearly half of the country. This makes it one of Africa’s most forested countries.

Leading this green forest dance are the legendary Baka people, Cameroon’s forest guardians. For the Baka, the forest is not just a place to be conserved and debated about during international conferences – it is home. Because they have been immersed in the thick canopies of the Congo basin forests for centuries, they live harmoniously with them.

Ombi is one of the approximately sixty thousand Baka people that live in the densely forested region of southeastern Cameroon. He is a wiry young man born and bred within and adjacent to the forest. His chocolate complexion blends perfectly with the forest’s dark green hues.

When Ombi sings, his voice is deep and booming, but when he talks, he is almost soft spoken. As he utters the unique consonants and vowels of his tribal language, he has a confident smile on his face. He may be illiterate but his intimate knowledge of the forest could easily earn him a PHD in forestry.

At that early hour before dawn when the sun is still asleep, Ombi walks stealthily from the enclosure of his village to the narrow footpath in the forest. He is on his way to a river that is just over four kilometres away.

Ombi’s steps are stealthy because he doesn’t want to awaken the chimpanzees. Some researchers claim that these chimps were the first carriers of the simian immunodeficiency virus, which metamorphosed into HIV after it was passed on to humans. But this is not the reason why Ombi fears the chimps. Rather it is their sheer size of one hundred kilos and occasional foul moods that he is afraid of. Although the gorillas are bigger, they are not as common as the chimps.

Although the river is still three kilometres away, Ombi can already hear its calming rustle. He hastens his steps, eager to splash those cool waters on his face. He regularly fishes in that river by immersing in the waters a non-toxic chemical that is produced from crushed plant material. After dissolving in water, it deprives fish of oxygen causing them to sprint to the surface into his waiting arms.

In front of him to the right, even before he sees it, he can smell the ayous tree, known in neighboring Nigeria as obeche. As a boy, he would stand a few feet from the tree and gaze up at it. It was so tall that he sometimes imagined it touching God’s beard.  Once, he had hid behind it when a chimpanzee jumped in front of him as if it wanted to attack him. But as it turned out, it was a female chimp fleeing from a randy male chimp.

As soon as he turned the corner, he came face to face with not one, but several ayous trees, all towering over forty metres and standing still as if posing for photos. Ombi had no idea that wood from this tree was perfect for making guitars. Neither did he know that the tree, whose scientific name is Triplochiton scleroxylon was in the IUCN red list of threatened species. But he did know that traders from outside the forest loved to cut the tree a lot. This tree, together with the sapele and azobé trees produce most of the timber that Cameroon exports.

In the final stretch leading to the river, Ombi came across several clusters of the moibi tree. This particular tree had healed his injuries more times than he could remember! Its medicinal properties were well known to the Baka people whose herbal prowess was second to now. Ombi’s wife frequented this particular spot to harvest gimba and njansang spices for culinary uses at home and also for barter trade with women traders from nearby Bantu villages. Apart from providing food, medicine and shelter for the Baka people, the forest also gives them currency for trading. In this regard, it is their trusted bank.

More than half of the trees that Ombi has passed on his way to the river are about twenty times bigger than his five feet height. He knows most of them intimately because he had been seeing them for the roughly two decades that he had been in this world. He had scaled them many times in search of birds and honey. Once, he fell down and injured his right knee, but luckily the bark of the very tree that he was scaling was medicine for such bloody injuries.

When they are on the move in the forest, the Baka construct houses that are not posh like Nairobi’s Runda estate or grandiose like those found in Nigeria’s Banana Island. Rather, they are simple, functional and surrounded by Congo Rainforest, the world’s second largest forest.

The forest spreads out across Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo. Apart from the Baka, at least sixty million people depend on it for their livelihoods. Just like the Baka, 400 mammalian species, 280 reptile species, 900 butterfly species and 10,000 plant species call the forest home.

The forest houses of the Baka comprise sturdy sticks and broad leaves plucked from the hallowed forest and weaved expertly into temporary, yet dependable habitations that can keep away the crazy storms that like to embrace the forest from time to time. Baka women are the sole architects and contractors of the leafy houses.  

The natural houses have no state of the art music systems blaring Angelique Kidjo’s timeless music or Eminem’s tantalizing raps, but they do have musical chirps from the white-crested tiger heron bird together with a litany of other melodious birds.

The Baka don’t buy food from Le Bon Point supermarket in Cameroon or La Gastronomie supermarket in Chad. Rather, they take it from the forest – from herbs that give them fresh, organic vegetables; from the termite mounds that gift them with fresh proteins through winged termites; from the rivers that bless them with fresh fish; from the herbs that spice up their food and from the animals that roam the forest.

The lifestyle of the Baka is active as they are either walking to the next destination racing after food, digging for more food, building those fresh houses, shimmying up those massive trees, dancing around ever present bonfires.. the list is endless. This lifestyle gives them natural cardiovascular exercises that state-of-the-art gyms charge fortunes to train fitness enthusiasts.

After briskly walking through the cool, wet forest for just over twenty minutes, Ombi finally makes it to the river and comes face to face with cold whistling waters. This river flows into Sanga River, which forms the part of the border between Cameroon and Central Africa Republic plus a portion of the border between Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sanga River then goes on to flow into the great Congo River, the world’s deepest river.

As Ombi splashes the small river’s water on his face, he is touching waters that will make it into Congo River in a few weeks time. Indeed, he is part of the vast Congo Forest Ecosystem that births and replenishes the Congo River and all other Congo forest basin ecosystems.

The Baka stand tall as the guardians of these ecosystems. It is time to empower them economically and amplify their voices.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017 17:03

The Birds and People of Kakamega Forest

A few meters from a dusty path that leads towards Kakamega Forest in western Kenya lies a medium sized house whose rusty iron sheet roof glints softly in the late afternoon rain. A stone throw away from the craggy house stands an Elgon Teak tree, regal and replete in its natural splendor. Resting his head on the rugged bark of the tree is mzee Mumia, a seventy-seven year old man who has lived next to the forest for all his life. He is gazing expressionlessly at the African Grey Parrot that can be seen flying gently towards some nearby shrubs.

This famous African Parrot is close to becoming locally extinct. Only about ten of them are thought to be still in the forest. Incidentally, this forest is its last refuge in Kenya, meaning that Kenya is dangerously close to becoming a ‘parrot-less’ country. This would be a big shame because African Grey Parrots are a rare combination of both brains and beauty. The beauty aspect of the parrots is always evident whenever one is spotted, perched in the cool branches of the forest or flying in the equally cool atmosphere above those branches.

The 240 km sq Kakamega Forest is the eastern most relic of the great Guineo-Congolian forest, which stretches across central Africa. It is the only equatorial rainforest in Kenya and hosts the witty African Grey Parrot plus over three hundred bird species that nest in the over 380 tree species of the forest. The birds that nest in these trees are a diverse mix of central African lowland species and highland species.

Villagers in Kakamega are immensely proud of the African Grey Parrot. Mzee Mumia says that this parrot is like a member of his Luhya community, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya. Numbering about 5.3 million people or 14 per cent of Kenya's total population of 38 million, many Luhyas today are remnants of several federations of the Wanga Kingdom, the most powerful centralised kingdom that ever existed in Kenya's entire history before the advent of British colonialism in the early 1900s. 

Mzee Mumia is named after Mumia, the most famous king of this kingdom. He says that the African Grey Parrot is the megaphone of nature as it imitates the streams that meander through the trees and monkeys that jump from tree to tree. 'But nowadays, people have become so selfish that they want the parrot to imitate them in their homes instead of imitating nature!'

The other bird species in the forest include the Great Blue Turaco, Grey-throated Barbets, Double-toothed Barbet, Yellow-crested woodpecker, White-tailed Ant Thrush, Turner's Eremomela and Chapins' Flycatcher. Also flying and nesting in this wet forest are canaries, sunbirds, weavers, waxbills, sparrows, Bulbuls, Swallows and many more.

Some of the birds in the forest, like the Great Blue Turaco, are quite easy to spot. This bird is in John Keats words, ‘a thing of beauty that is a joy forever.’ Its red bill leaves one convinced that it is the main inspiration behind lipstick. Also conspicuous are its blue and yellow feathers that appear beautifully misty whenever the regular raindrops gently interrupt its flight. With a length of 70 – 75 centimeters long, it is the largest Turaco.

Other bird species in the forest like the Turner’s Eremomela are quite difficult to spot. This is very small warbler that is only 8 – 9 centimeters. The general scarcity of this tiny bird has already earned it a place on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It was pushed onto this list by increasing habitat loss that is fuelled by increased encroachment into the forest through farming and grazing.

Mzee Mumia’s five sons are all farmers who often graze their cows in the forest. Okoti, the oldest of the five, explains this grazing recourse to the forest, ‘the birds and monkeys cannot finish all this grass and shrubs in the forest!’ He however condemns the tree felling and charcoal burning that is also contributing greatly to the habitat loss of the birds. However, Kunyobo, his younger brother differs with his brother on this one, ‘we use wood from this forest to build our houses and use the charcoal to cook our food. Aren’t food and shelter basic needs without which we can’t live?’

The Turner’s Eremomela bird would agree with the young man’s observation. It would agree that it too needs the shelter and food that the trees provide. Due to habitat loss, it is becoming more and more difficult to hear the bird’s high-pitched voice chirping away in the forest.

Kakamega forest has 194 forest-dependent bird species. Such birds depend on the forest for their very survival. Luckily, this bird-rich forest still has many birds that are not endangered. The African Barbets can still be found in plenty in the forest, pecking away at the many fruits in the forest.

One of the larger members of the African Barbets is the Double-toothed barbet. It is a cheeky, cheery and serene bird. With its gleaming red underside, it seems to be forever celebrating Valentine’s day. Harder to spot but equally beautiful is the Yellow-billed Barbet. It seems to prefer the denser parts of the forest. When it does make an appearance, it doesn’t disappoint. Its yellow bill and partially yellow underside are a sight to behold – they match perfectly. Another yellow-named Barbet is the Yellow-spotted Barbet, a bird whose natural coat of yellow spots is duly complemented by its red forehead.

For generations, Kakamega Forest has provided refuge for birds like the African Barbets and for members of the local Luhya community who depend on the forest for both timber and non-timber products. Conscious of this vital role that the forest is playing, local conservation activists are now on the forefront of sustainably unveiling the treasures of the forest to both tourists and local people alike. Many of these local conservationists belong to the Kakamega Environmental Education Programme (KEEP), the official Site Support Group of the forest. 

According to a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Kakamega Forest has two major encroached areas with settlements covering a total of approximately 573 hectares. Groups like KEEP are now sensitizing the community on the need to regard the forest as a sanctuary of nature that should be protected at all costs. To their credit, the local conservationists are helping the local people to realize that their own better livelihoods are entwined with better protection of the forest birds and animals.

Apart from adults, more than 10,000 children have also received environmental education from KEEP. Ongachi, a twelve year old recipient of this environmental education had some witty thoughts about the birds and people of the forest, ‘every morning I wake up to the sound of birds, which means that without the birds, there would be no morning.’

One morning, Shailesh Patel, a professional bird watching guide from Nairobi woke up to the twin chirps of the White-tailed ant thrush and the Yellow-crested wood pecker. It was already light enough to spot the White-tailed ant thrush balancing on a nearby ant column. But the wood pecker was nowhere to be seen despite its crystal clear sounds.

But in his mind, Shailesh could already see the sharp bill and calm eyes of the woodpecker, not to mention the yellow crest that gave it its name. He had seen this crest heaving back and forth countless times, as the bird pecked away at the rough barks of trees. It was always as if the bird was swaying to some unseen natural orchestra.

The birds of Kakamega forest are at the epicenter of the music of the forest. The Barbets twirl to the tap tap tap of the woodpeckers. The alert eyes of the Harrier Hawk and Lanner Falcon dance excitedly as they scan the lush canopies for some unguarded nests. The Pink-backed Pelican, White Stork and Black-headed Heron seem to gyrate to the silent melody of the forest streams. The Common Quail otherwise known as isindu in the Luhya language is a local delicacy. Tiny and pretty, it ‘fly-dances’ as it flees gracefully from local hunters. The gleeful cum woeful soprano of the Turner’s Eremomela fits in perfectly, like a dovetail joint, with the cheeky chirp of the lemon dove.

Litungu, a traditional seven-stringed instrument of the Luhya people has a distinct rich sound that seems to draw from the lush musical pitches of the ancients. The harmony inherent in the seven strings of this traditional lyre seems to be a vindication of the traditional harmony between the people and birds of Kakamega Forest.

Mzee Mumia, the old neighbor of the forest is still leaning on the Elgon Teak tree as he observes in his deep voice, ‘we have eaten the common quail for generations but its beautiful presence remains undiminished. We don’t even eat the Turner’s Eremomela yet its very existence in our forest is now threatened.’ The old man pauses fleetingly before concluding, ‘it’s all about harmony. Nature’s harmony must not be stilled.’

To paraphrase the words of Ongachi, the twelve year old boy, ‘the songs of the birds must keep preceding the light of dawn, or mornings will start illuminating a troubled forest, a troubled people and diminishing birds.’  

Wednesday, 24 May 2017 16:59

The World's Loneliest Tree

Standing short and expansive with its thorny branches is the gum acacia tree, also known as gum arabic. The tree is a short distance away from the banks of Senegal River in the southern part of Mauritania. This tree is part of Mauritania’s 0.2 percent forest cover, the lowest in Africa.

Indeed, Mauritania is a lonely place for forests. There are ten times as many red Indians in the US than trees in Mauritania. To put it differently, the percentage of black US presidents is more than the percentage of Mauritania’s forest cover. Now, that’s a pretty lonely place to be, because President Barack Obama is the only black US president ever.

Mauritania’s forests don’t earn it much even though deforestation costs the country $84 million every year in lost earnings.

Back in 1998, the desert country’s forest imports were valued at $733,000, which was one third of what the country spent to import forest products worth $2,442,000. The situation is even worse now because the forest cover is less than it was back then. In 1930, Mauritania came tried to come to the rescue of lonely trees by introducing prosopis juliflora also known as mequite. These efforts were stepped up more than half a century later when 22,951 hectares of the tree were established between 1990 and 1997. Unfortunately, these efforts were not built expanded. Instead, fires, overgrazing, drought and agricultural expansion continued clearing trees.

As the lonely trees continue to fall by the wayside, bringing in bringing in less and less revenue, fish and iron are earning the country handsome amounts.

Fisheries and iron ore extraction are the country’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi – they are the top earners. Forests are definitely not playing in the big league or even in the second tier like oil, which was discovered in the advent of the new millennium. While fish and iron are playing in Mauritania’s champions league in terms of revenue generation, forests are more like beach football – refreshing and fun but with minimal revenue.

Iron ore accounts for approximately 40 percent of Mauritania’s export earnings. Unfortunately again for trees, mining iron ore contributes to deforestation. The debate between keeping trees alive and kicking or felling some of them to extract iron, is one that trees can’t win.

Luckily, trees don’t have to make way for fishery to thrive. Mauritania’s proximity to powerful coastal upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich waters has greatly boosted its fishery sector. Such waters are fertile fishing ground. With the exception of Morocco, Mauritania leads Arab countries in export of small fish to Europe.

However, government-provided fishery subsidies to overseas vessels have often threatened to fish stock sustainability. In 2006, Mauritania entered a fisheries partnership agreement with the European Union. It was worth approximately €108 million annually for 6 years and has since expired. A recent fourth round of talks in Brussels failed to yield fruit concerning renewal of the agreement, leading to suspension of talks. Critics are opposed to the previous agreement which allowed 200 EU vessels to fish in Mauritania’s water.

Jamila is a young lady who lives with her parents and five siblings in the beach town of Jreida. Her father is one of Mauritania’s approximately ten thousand artisanal fishermen. The government wants people like him to get more jobs from any new partnership with EU.

In this regard, fishery provides well paying jobs as well as direct revenue for the government. The same cannot be said of forests. EU has a forest cover of 31 percent, a far cry from Mauritania’s 0.2 percent. In this equation, it is easy for trees to be relegated to near irrelevance, as they are seemingly unimportant to the country’s strategic interests.

That should however not be the case because an exponentially expanding forest cover would turn the tide of desertification, consequently opening up more land for agro-forestry which would in turn improve food security and open up diverse green economy opportunities. In addition, other invaluable ecosystem services would be revived, proving the adage that trees are a lot more valuable alive than dead.

The gum acacia tree together with other trees in Mauritania shouldn’t be lonely. After all, they are in the company of 1,100 plant species and 61 mammal species. However, the death knell of extinction has already sounded for big mammals like elephants. Before 1940, at least 400 elephants used to roam the wild. But today, the gentle giants are nowhere to be seen. Similarly, the long-horned, brown-white Sahara Oryx has become extinct in the world.

Gànnaar, as Mauritania is known in wolof, doesn’t have to remain a predominantly desert country forever. Even more important, human slaves who still toil in Mauritania should not have to put up with such inhuman existence.

In February this year, Gulnara Shahinian, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery stressed that, ‘the Government still has to turn its pledges into deeds, and to take more vigorous measures with a view to eliminating slavery and to fully implement the laws and policies.’

Mauritania must heed these words because the scourge of slavery runs much deeper than the entire Sahara desert.

In the meantime, the lonely trees need some company. It’s time for Mauritania to plant a billion trees.

President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, both history and your country are waiting for you to become the billion tree president.

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