Missing The Forest For The Trees: Mathare’s Environmental Apartheid

On 12th May 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the National Tree Planting Day under the slogan “Panda Miti, Penda Kenya”. It was another of those Jubilee-ese slogans that ring hollow. The event took place in Kamkunji sub-county at the Moi Forces Academy in the Eastlands part of Nairobi. This was the government’s knee-jerk response to the heavy long rains season that sparked an environmental crisis around the country. There were 32 counties affected and over 300,000 Kenyans were displaced. In his official speech, the President repeated the familiar pledge to achieve at least ten per cent forest cover, as required by the constitution, and to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Of Heatwaves Blowing Through Nairobi’s Concrete Jungle


In the early 90s, I had my first encounter with the unique private taxis of Kisumu known as Kondelez. The name is derived from Kondele which is Kisumu’s version of Soweto township in Johannesburg during the struggle for liberation, the epi-centre of the country’s socio political unrest, second only to Kibera in Nairobi. The taxis would ply from the town centre to Kondele-Carwash and back.

The Kakamega road was potholed and narrow. The taxis, were beat up Peugeot 404 saloons, commonly referred to as “opija”. Passengers would be squashed into them like potatoes in a sack. Five passengers in the back seat plus a tout who practically had his upper torso sticking out of the window. Oddly, looking out for more passengers. Four people would occupy the front seats and the driver usually had only enough leg room to work the pedal. The passenger seated next to him would sometimes be charged with making the gear shift. “Omera!, Rwak ane namba ariyo kanyo” ( My man, engage the second gear).

Tribute To My Flamboyant Friends

Out in Kisumu, there was an avenue of flamboyant trees that lined the road that runs passes alongside the Hindu crematorium, the Muslim cemetery and a golf course on your way to the Kisumu airport. The mature umbrella shaped, bright flowering trees were a distinct feature of Kisumu as coconuts are to Mombasa.  I learnt they have been there since the 50s. I could not find the actual record of when they were planted but anyone who has traveled on that road to Busia will remember them as a distinct feature of the landscape. Those trees held memories.

Now they are all gone, chopped down to make way for a sparkling brand new dual carriageway. Those trees have served with such distinction. At the very least, the road contractors should have invited us to a funeral and put out a notice in the obituary section reading, “We regret to inform all concerned Kenyans who may remember the flamboyants, that they had to go”.

It is the heavy price of development. We need bigger better roads to move a growing population and environment will be destroyed for a good cause. I mourn those trees but I mourn Wangari Maathai more. In her time, the trees would not have gone down without a fight. She wouldn’t have bought the development script that easily. As she once said “There’s a general culture in this country to cut all the trees. It makes me so angry because everyone is cutting and no one is planting”. It is obvious that more of our green friends are lined up for summary execution.  The country is on the move and we can always plant ornamental trees back. It is all factored in the landscaping budget. As the rest of the world strives to green their urban spaces, Kenyans seem to have fallen in love with concrete and glass.

We need to promote development that does not destroy our environment –Wangari Maathai. Rest In Peace


Image source: planet25.com