Two remaining trees from the original seven planted by GBM
On our penultimate day in Kenya, Mia and I visited Kama Kunji, an area on the eastern side of Nairobi where, on June 5, 1977, Wangari Maathai had planted seven trees in honor of seven Kenyan freedom fighters whom she felt had not been sufficiently honored—a planting that effectively marked the beginning of the Green Belt Movement. Kenya has always had a problem recognizing its past, especially since many of the practices of the colonial British were continued by Jomo Kenyatta and the Kenyan elite after independence in 1963, and the efforts of the Mau Mau rebels were enveloped in controversy. We now know, however, that Mau Mau rebels killed relatively few (under fifty) white settlers in the 1950s, while tens of thousands of black Africans, mainly from the Kikuyu people—who were the main instigators of the independence movement and from whom Wangari Maathai and Jomo Kenyatta (as well as the current president, Mwai Kibaki) came—were rounded up and put in concentration camps, where many of them died of sickness or starvation. Many hundreds of so-called rebels were shot or hanged. This was in the 1950s, and it was all the fault of the British. That made me feel really proud.
In 1977, Kama Kunji was an expansive park, with a road lined with trees cutting through it and functional houses spaced along one of the slopes. The park served as a political gathering point, since it was from a hill near the park that Kenyatta held his first rally after independence and activists gathered during the “second revolution”—the period known as Saba Saba (or “seven seven”), when multiparty democracy was restored to Kenya on July 7, 1992.
However, in the last twenty years or so, illegal squatters from the countryside—including Maasai—have moved in so that the fringes of the green area that is still the park are now filled with shacks where all manner of things are sold, and nearby there is a large area of ironmongeries, where every conceivable metal utility item—packing cases, watering cans, trays, drains, cutlery, etc.—that they have hammered and welded into shape using scrap metal and their own muscle is sold.
Unfortunately, three of the original seven trees have gone. One fell into the Nairobi River that cuts a dirty brown, heavily polluted and erosive swathe along the perimeters of the park, separating one group of shacks selling things from another. Children play and scavenge along the riverbanks, where trash has been so compacted into the soil that it is difficult to tell what is riverbank and what is trash. Two of the trees had been cut down and burned in the last five years—not for use as housing or charcoal or fodder for the animals (who roam around relatively freely), and for which purpose the trees would originally have been planted, but because of rituals whereby when a person dies—and this area sees A LOT of deaths—his or her relatives conduct vigils and discussions about burial over two weeks and have to build a fire to talk through the night, and so cut down a tree. (One of the trees, we were told by a Green Belt Movement member who accompanied us, along with an old-timer who ran a GBM tree nursery in Kama Kunji, was sixty-five feet tall and had a huge crown some seventy-feet across.) All that were left of these trees were the stumps, on one of which a huge, dead, decomposing rat lay strewn, an apt symbol for the devastation.
Four of the trees, however, had survived, although two had been radically pruned earlier this year by the Kenyan power authority because their branches had begun to touch the electricity wires overhead. The nursery, which was a fairly sorry affair, and in which the old-timer had allowed his mates to lay out maize to dry in the sun to be made into a kind of porridge-alcohol later on, was a little oasis of green trees in an area where very few of the original trees that lined the road were standing. Indeed, there was a Maasai woman trying to sell trinkets sitting under an umbrella next to the stump of a tree that used to line the road and which would have provided her with more than adequate shelter.
Our guides also told us of a relatively new phenomenon in Kenya of illegal brewing, of which the form the old-timer’s friends were doing was a mild form. The illegal brewing consists of leaving out some of the more sophisticated and time-consuming parts of distilling alcohol from maize and, to cut a long story short, producing concentrated methanol that would normally be used for industrial purposes. This drink can sell for up to $1 a shot (a substantial amount of money for the urban and rural poor who are, as ever, its main consumers). What happens when you consume this brew is that your vision blurs and your eyes’ lenses are damaged to such an extent that you go blind. You can also die, of acute alcohol poisoning. Across the country, therefore, there is this phenomenon of men—it is overwhelmingly men—drinking until they go blind. Apparently, this takes only a few hours and happens so quickly that, in areas without electricity and because Kenya is on the equator and there isn’t much of a dusk or dawn to speak of, some men think their blindness is simply night falling. Unfortunately for them (and their families, who then have to look after them) there is to be no visible sunrise. We learned this story because GBM is employing families of some of these newly sightless men. This very sobering news gave new meaning to the phrase “blind drunk.”
And that was our visit to the origins of the Green Belt Movement. Obviously, it will come as no surprise to anyone to learn there is desperate and grinding poverty in Kenya, or that the efforts of one woman twenty-eight years ago have not been honored as one would hope, or that people are not acting in their own long-term interests but are addicted to one or more behaviors that only make it harder for them to escape the awful conditions they live in. Yet it should also come as no surprise that there is incredible industry and ingenuity expressed even in the most unpromising of situations, that there is humor and dignity even when there is little obvious to laugh about or be proud of, or that there are still some trees standing, still some flowers blooming, and that life is still tenaciously asserting itself everywhere it can.