Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Last weekend I was finally able to connect with one of Nairobi’s many Rotary clubs for a service project. The club of Nairobi east has been partnering with Wangari Maathai’s organization, “The Greenbelt Movement,” to help plant trees and lessen the extremely destructive deforestation that is plaguing much of Kenya. While it may sound like a touchy-feely event, land issues and deforestation in Kenya affects water access, sanitation, farming productivity, and all sorts of related territorial conflicts.

In Nairobi proper, there are two reserves in the middle of the city. One, Nairobi National Park, is a game park complete with much of the wildlife you would expect to see on Safari. The other, the Ngong Forest, borders Kenya’s largest slum, Kibera, and faces serious deforestation issues. Since it hits the back of one of the poorest areas in central Kenya, the edge of the forest is continually hacked down for valuable timber or simply wood for cooking. The area can be so unsafe that one is prohibited from entering without an armed forest guard. It should be noted that these guards are often part of the problem, as they make so little they are easy to pay off to ‘turn the other way.’ Regardless, they are your company as you dig.

The morning of the event about 10 Rotarians and I met at a local shopping center where we carpooled to the Kibera site the club had planted last year. The Kibera site is really quite something. To approach it we drove down a main road and just past the car bazar, before a row of furniture makers at Dagoreti corner, we turned down a bumpy dirt road into the forest. Ten minutes later we reached the entrance to the Africa office for the World Organization of the Scout Movement, yes that’s the same organization as the boy/girl scouts. (Who knew, but the Scottish founder of the world-wide Scout organization is buried in Kenya and as such there is a major Scout Center in the Ngong forest). We drove into the center where were met by our armed guards and led on a short hike through the forest. One of the Rotarians got an earful of mocking for wearing brown leather dress shoes. With it having just rained the rest of the group donned rubber wellies or hiking boots and were thankful for it while traipsing through thick red mud.

A few minutes into the walk, the tree line broke and all I could see in the distance was row upon row of corrugated roofing combining into a smoking, living slum. The juxtaposition is jarring and only becomes more so as you walk out onto a close-to bare hill. The forest just stops and the empty land descends into the massive slum. The image surely makes the point about the conflict between human resource needs and environmental stability.

After we had learned a bit about the Kibera site we headed off to a different area of the forest to plant some trees. There may have been more speeches and ceremonial planting than working, but in the course of 20 minutes we had planted 300 trees. Afterward everyone headed for Nyama Choma (Kenyan BBQ) before heading home for the day. I’m looking forward to some more remote site visits in the new year!

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