The Mida Creek boardwalk was rickety, swaying from side to side as Alex and I walked over it. Although Alex was striding along, my walk was more like a shuffle of a drunk hippo. The boardwalk was lined with two sturdy ropes on either side. Although I was grabbing them tightly for my balance, it didn’t help that the planks of the boardwalk that I was walking on were not evenly spaced. Adding to the drama, the planks were enjoined on two thick wires that that kept swaying with every step. Every time my feet stepped gingerly onto a plank, it felt as if I would tumble into the shimmering ocean water beneath. Growing majestically from the water were hundreds of mangrove trees.
Alex was a good friend and a staff of A Rocha Kenya, the organisation that managed the boardwalk. He was guiding me along the boardwalk, dropping the names of birds and mangrove trees as if they were his children.
I could see my long shadow in the ocean waters, shyly following me as if it would rather remain behind and swim towards the mangroves. The combination of the mangrove leaves’ green color and the ocean water’s blue color was such a joy to behold that I stood in awe.
After fifteen nerve-wracking minutes of hippo-walking on the narrow boardwalk, we arrived at the T-shaped end. Here, the planks were hammered into wood, not wire. The resultant stability was quite refreshing.
The entire creek was laid out bare before me. I leaned on the wooden railing and feasted on the incredible sights. What joy! On my left, the mangrove forest lined the entire shoreline. Bundles of fluffy clouds seemed to dangle quite low. If the mangroves could stretch, they would touch those clouds. On the right, was a wider swathe of the ocean. It unfolded like a blue Persian carpet. A dugout canoe stood immobile in the distance. There was nobody in it, making me wonder how it had gotten to the middle of the ocean in the first place.
This final part of the boardwalk was an absolute haven of bliss. Jutting through the lower left railing were mangrove leaves that seemed to be basking on the dry boardwalk. Across the leaves, barely a meter away, was the shadow of the right railing. It left artistic patterns on the planks. I sat down here, leaned on the railings and gazed at the sprawling ocean. I imagined how centuries earlier, Portuguesse and Arabian ships had probably sailed in these very waters. Unfortunately, some of these ships ferried away slaves whose descendants now lived somewhere in South America or North America. They would never know the joy of sitting right in the middle of Mida Creek and whispering sweet nothings to the salty sea breeze.
I closed my eyes and opened my mouth wide so that I could literally taste that delicious breeze. Oh God. I whispered silently as I opened my eyes to see three little white birds - probably little egrets - landing gently on the wooden railing of the boardwalk. I smiled at them and they chirped merrily.
The white goat next to me was looking at me with sympathy. Am serious. Its hollow eyes were staring down at me with a clear 'poor guy' look.
I was sitting cross legged, leaning on the rough metallic walls of the truck. In the center of the truck were nearly thirty goats that were being transported from one remote Turkana village to another even more remote village. I was on my way to Kaikor to lay the groundwork of a work camp for international volunteers. Together with me was Samuel, the then Director of Kenya Voluntary Development Association, where I was volunteering at the time.
My pale eyes were struggling to stay open. I raised my dusty right hand and placed it on my equally dusty forehead. It was almost as if it was in an open air oven. My fever was sky high. All my joints felt as if someone was hammering them into pain with every passing minute. It didn't help matters that the truck had to make its own road as it roared on. There was no road or even footpath, so we were just romping along the wide, cracked and angry desert terrain. It was by far the bumpiest ride that I had ever experienced in the twenty-two years of my life.
Strangely, even though I was under the attack of malaria and sitting on the truck’s hot, dusty floor next to anxious, bleating goats, I felt free. Where else can you sit cross-legged next to an army of goats? Here, there was no etiquette to adhere to. I could just be myself. It is no wonder that Samuel my colleague was actually sleeping in the midst of the bumpy ride and bleating goats. His balding head was resting on his arms that were in turn resting on his knees. Every bump would throw his head an inch higher, so it was as if he kept nodding in his sleep. At one point, a large black goat with sharp horns approached him and surveyed him, wondering who could afford to sleep in such circumstances!
After a ten-hour ride from Lodwar, we finally arrived in Kaikor village, the venue of the forthcoming work camp. It had taken us ten hours to cover a distance of 160 kilometers! This was by far the slowest, yet most exciting road trip that I had ever taken.
Every bone in my body creaked as I stood up and descended from the truck. When I set foot into Turkana for the first time ever, I felt free. It was dusk and in the far distance, as far as my pale brown eyes could see, there was nothing but rocks, sand and the occasional thorn tree. I felt like taking a walk into this inviting desert and spending the night under a thorn tree. But all I could do at that time was to slither into a traditional mud-walled Turkana house and attempt to sleep in the midst of my malaria.
My head disappeared into a thin, bare mattress that was soon absorbing liters of my sweat. The only sound I could hear was the whistling nighttime breeze that was surprisingly cold.
The following morning, I did what I had wanted to do the previous evening. Despite my aching joints, I trudged towards a thorn tree that I could see in the distance. I was wearing akala, the open sandals that are made from car tyre. My sleeveless green top was still spotless but I knew that it would be quite dusty within minutes. Although it was only 9AM, the sun was blazing, the heat stifling. It didn't help that my fever was still high and I hadn't taken any medicine because the nearby Kaikor clinic had run out of malaria drugs.
Sweating profusely, partly because of the fever and partly because of the heat, I leaned on a lanky thorn tree and looked around me. Rocks. Small, rocks and big rocks. They dotted the sea of sand that was everywhere. It felt as if I could walk for months and see nothing but the rocks and sand. There would be no television to steal my attention and no internet to devour my time. I would be free from all mechanical things and just lie in the bosom of nature.
I would even be free from time itself.
I bent low and picked a small smooth stone. I knew that scattered for hundreds of kilometers all around me were such small stones. Some of them were smooth like a baby’s skin while others were rough with pimples all around them. I scooped two such rough stones and squeezed them into the palm of my right hand. It felt as if they were squeezing me back. At that moment, it was just me, two small rough stones, a thorn tree and the embrace of a desert.
All eyes were on the two young people as they filed to the front of Olive Convention Centre’s main auditorium. Their eyes were bright despite the dull Durban weather. Something great was about to happen and they were at its very centre.
Delegates from the length and breadth of Africa shuffled in their seats, curious about this book that was about to be launched. Seated in the front rows were the environment Ministers who had made it for this seventeenth regular session of the Africa Ministerial Conference in the Environment (AMCEN).
Aminetou, one of the two youth, was resplendent in the melahfa, Mauritania’s national dress. Her colleague Victor from Kenya was attired in a dark suit and a bright bow tie. They took their seats at a high table that was waiting for them on the stage. Within a minute, they were joined by Tribute, Yusuf and Marc from South Africa, Egypt and Cameroon respectively.
The Global Environment Outlook for Youth, Africa Publication was about to be launched. This historic Book had been co-authored by the five youth on stage together with nine other Lead Authors and nearly one hundred contributing authors from across Africa. To ensure that its quality was world-class, it had been reviewed by 12 young environmental experts, also drawn from each of Africa’s six sub-regions.
Seated with the five Lead Authors on stage was Cecilia, the Head of UNEP’s Office in South Africa and Damaris, the Focal Point for Youth and Gender in UNEP’s Africa Office. She is the one who had ably steered the process. Next to her was her colleague David Ombisi, then His Excellency Lee White, Gabon’s Environment Minister and outgoing AMCEN president.
After everyone had settled into their seats, Dr Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo, the Director of UNEP’s Africa Office began giving her speech. She was bedecked in a dark suit, with a colorful scarf wrapped around her neck.
“One of the biggest challenges that Africa is facing today is unemployment.” She paused as she glanced up at the numerous Environment Ministers from across Africa who were listening to her.
“One third of our 420 million youth aged 15 to 35 are unemployed. The UN Environment has responded to this challenge by producing the Sixth Global Environment Outlook for Youth. This Publication unveils a wealth of opportunities that young Africans can tap into to create green jobs for themselves.”
I smiled, as my mind traveled back to nearly two years earlier when I had been enlisted as a consultant Coordinating Lead Author of the process that birthed this Publication being launched. Apart from coordinating the content production, I was also given matching orders to find the authors who would pen the content. Two Lead Authors for each of the seven chapters and dozens of contributing authors.
The first Authors meeting had taken place in Cairo from 13 - 14 March 2018. In attendance was Brian from Kenya and Tribute from South Africa, together with Nuran, Yusuf, Mayar and Islam from Egypt.It was a small team with a big vision. For two days, this team huddled in a Cairo hotel for hours as we meticulously laid down the framework for the Publication that we were envisioning. We resolved that we would come up with a visually appealing, scientifically accurate Publication that would be authored by young people from across Africa. The twin objectives of this Book would be: to equip African youth with practical knowledge for unleashing green jobs and to showcase innovative sustainable youth initiatives.
For weeks after this Cairo meeting, the clarion call for authors went out by word of mouth, on whatsapp groups, on Facebook, via Twitter and other social media platforms. Well-established youth initiatives like the Young Africans Leadership Initiative (YALI) also played a key role in widely disseminating the call-for-authors.
In subsequent months, there was a groundswell of articles from all over the continent. Somewhere in Nigeria, as the Okada (public motorbikes) sped by, 28-year old Ayobami from Oyo State sat down typed a ‘youth action’ article whose first draft was 1,050 words. The second draft was 1,206 words. This article was part of Chapter 1: Youth-led Green Solutions. Joining Ayobami in adding their voice to this chapter were writers from Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya, Somalia, Mauritius and Zimbabwe. The co-Lead Authors for the Chapter were Olumide Idowu, a hyper-active environmental activist and social media supremo from Nigeria and Sidique Gawusu an engineer from Ghana who was pursuing his PhD in PhD in Power Engineering and Engineering Thermophysics. Rounding up the trio of Chapter 1 Lead Authors was Victor Mugo who identifies himself as a ‘young farmer in a suit.’ He is an actuarial scientist and the Country Coordinator of the Climate Smart Agriculture Youth Network (CSAYN).
Somewhere in South Africa, as pap the staple maize meal consumed widely in the country was cooked and served, Buntu a 22-year old graduate of Walter Sisulu University penned an article entitled, ‘How youth can tap into the economic rewards of off-grid electricity.’ The article’s first draft was 921 words. Based on my editorial input, the second draft was 1,317 words. This article was one of those submitted for Chapter 2: A Breath of Fresh Air. Other articles were submitted from Nigeria, Kenya, Burkina Faso and Egypt. Steering this chapter were two Lead Authors: Miyoba Buumba, a young environmental educator who had graduated from the University of Zambia and Aminetou Bilal, one of Mauritania’s most active environmental activists. She founded Selfie Mbalite, an organisation that actively tackles the menace of solid waste. She was also an African Union Youth Envoy serving on the Youth Advisory Council.
The youth voice had also erupted from Niger where Houira, a young woman with a Masters in Environmental Management. She had invested hours into an epic 1,900 word article on climate smart agriculture for youth in Niger. This article was submitted to Chapter 3: Restoring Our Land. When I first read Houira’s article on 21st July 2018, I was in awe at her powerful insights that were grounded in deep research. I told myself that if the future of Africa was in the hands of people like Houira, then better days were indeed ahead. She had been introduced into the process by Awovi Komassi, the co-Lead Author for the land Chapter. She was a young environmental lawyer from Togo. Her Masters was in Environmental Management and Policy. Her co-Lead Author was Dr. Marc Anselme Kamga, a land specialist from Cameroon. This chapter also had article submissions from Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya, Mauritania, Malawi, Benin, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. African youth had a clear message - Africa’s land must be a strong foundation for sustainable livelihoods.
Hot on the heels of Houira’s climate smart agriculture article was the longest article of them all - an 11,286 word masterpiece by Sarah Nyawira from Kenya. It was about blue economy opportunities for youth and was submitted to Chapter 4: Our Water, Our Life Force. Sarah poured her soul and mind into that article and wrote it for weeks. Alongside the article were several others from Ethiopia, Sudan, Tunisia, Mauritius, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt. This water chapter was flowing with diversity. It was ably led by Dr. Islam Al Zayed from Egypt and Muhammad Khalifa from Sudan.
My mind switched back from this walk down memory lane to the stage where the five Lead Authors were seated. Tribute Mboweni from South Africa was listening intently to the speech. Her white blouse was buttoned all the way to the collar. Together with Brian Waswala from Kenya, she had been the co-Lead Author of Chapter 5: Our Invaluable Biodiversity.
On July 3rd 2018 at 10.55AM, I had been right in the middle of researching for a book on ‘Adventure, Love and Travel’ when an email from the Republic of Congo landed in my inbox. It was from William Iwandza, a thirty-year old Congolese and was entitled, ‘how Congolese youth can conserve forests and benefit from them economically.’ Also streaming in for this chapter were other articles from Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and South Africa. Scattered in these articles were powerful insights on biodiversity and the green economy.
The auditorium was dead silent as delegates hanged on to every word that Dr. Koudenoukpo was saying. I felt little rivers of inspiration crawling up my spine. Through the book being launched, Africa was going to listen to the powerful voice of its young people. One of these voices had come from Elizabeth Lukas from Namibia. On 28th June 2018, she had emailed me an article on ‘bridging the divide between young scholars and the environment.’ This article was submitted to Chapter 6: Youth Potential and Green Policies. The very first sentence of her article took my breath away, ‘To cherish what remains of the earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope for survival.’ What a powerful way to begin an article on a rather abstract topic of environmental policy! This quote was from the 2003 Book of Wendell Berry, ‘The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.’ Other contributing authors for the Chapter were drawn from Nigeria, Kenya, Namibia, Malawi and Sierra Leone. They all added their voice to the vital issue of youth potential and green policies. The Chapter’s Lead Author was Uvicka Bristol from Seychelles. She was working with the James Michel Blue Economy Research Institute (BERI).
My mind raced back from Seychelles to Durban. I dipped my right hand into my beloved black rucksack and fished out the hard copy of the GEO for Youth Book that was being feted at that very moment. I smiled at the Cover which bore the map of a greenish Africa surrounded by silhouettes of young people. This stunning cover together with the rest of the book’s layout and design had been done by Mohab from Egypt. This guy is literally dripping with artistic talent!
For Chapter 7: A Positive Outlook, African youth had unveiled the future that they envisioned. They did this through a series of letters from the future (2063) to their 21-year old selves. In her letter, Edith Uwineza, a 27-year old artist from Rwanda had memorably written that, ‘I have a lot more to tell you, but am just about to leave my house in Kigali for the 7PM train to Bamako, Mali. Find below a painting that will give you an idea about the Africa of 2063.’ The painting was of four women walking across Africa as the sun rose. She had envisioned a future where sustainable transport across Africa was the norm. Other contributing authors for this chapter were from Ghana, Zambia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. They were superbly led by Yusuf Younis from Egypt. Apart from being Chapter 7’s Lead Author, he was also part of an excellent editorial team that was led by Mayar Sabet, one of Africa’s finest editors. She has an uncanny habit of digging deep into a mountain of words and creating textual gems. Incidentally, she was also the editor of the Africa Environmental Outlook for Youth Publication back in 2005! Consistency and professionalism are ingrained in her DNA.
My mind returned to Olive Convention Center’s auditorium, to Dr. Koudenoukpo’s speech. “I would like to extend my gratitude to these young Africans who have spent almost two years working on this Publication. They have clearly articulated the strong correlation between a thriving green economy and decent jobs.”
Alas, the youth of Africa had indeed provided this articulation. It was now up to them, together with their communities and leaders, to create the green jobs whose footprints could be found in every page of the book.
The ocean’s serene whispers were ringing in my head as the automatic gate slid open. I walked for a minute along Minerva Avenue then turned right into Marion Avenue. On my right were more palatial homes like the one I had just come from. Much as I admired the sheer size of their grandeur, I mostly admired their ocean views. The fact that someone could wake up to the sight of the ocean every single day was simply staggering. And not just a tiny view like the one that I used to have in my house at Lamu Island, but a vast view that stretched for dozens of kilometers. It was far enough to be sweeping yet close enough for the ships and yachts to be distinctly visible.
I looked down at the ocean and hastened my steps, eager to feel those salty waters encircling my ankles as I sniffed at its salty breeze. As I passed yet another residential house, a dog dashed to the gate and begun barking, which triggered more barking from other dogs in nearby houses. I smiled at one of these dogs - a black bull dog with narrow ears that were standing upright - and it grimaced back at me. Wow! It’s bark sounded like it was marveling at my 88 kilos. Wow! How could you gain almost two kilos in a week? It seemed to be asking me.
A silver Volkswagen SUV sped by at the junction of Marion Avenue and Adrienne Avenue. A minute later, a security patrol vehicle also sped by. It was the third security patrol vehicle that I had seen. Looks like this area is really secured! I thought. My heart was now running faster as anticipation built up. Soon, my feet would be treading at a beach that they had never been to. Fizzy ocean water was soon going to be encircling my ankles.
A section of the road turned right into Lynn Avenue but I continued on along Marion Avenue. I began jogging, eager for the whispers of the ocean to filter into my ears. Just a few more minutes and I would be on the beach. As I crossed William Campbell Drive, I wondered who William Campbell was. It’s not every day one gets a road named after him!
Two minutes later, I got a pleasant shock. I turned left into David Avenue. You heard that right, David Road. So there was a road named after me right there in Durban North! I know that the haters will say that there are a million people named David but all I know is that my name is David and this road is named David Avenue. I have made it mama. They are now naming roads after me in the land of Mandela.
Five minutes later, the cold ocean water was encircling my ankles. I was watching with sheer glee as mighty waves raced to the shorelines, into my embrace. Even as their speed and power collapsed into the soft sand, my own joy and peace were rekindled. I marveled at the incessant spirit of the ocean. It just keeps flowing. And flowing. And glowing.
“Just like this ocean,” I whispered a prayer to God, “may I also keep flowing, glowing and growing.”
It's funny how memories tend to fade away when years pile up. Sometimes this makes me wonder if it is worth it living great memories only for them to fade away forever. Remember that utterly delicious meal that you had last year when you went for dinner with a friend? At the time, it was a sizzling meal, a wonderful time with your dear friend. But now if you try to remember that meal and what you laughed about during the meal, you can barely remember anything.
I have been to Rome, the former capital of the world only once. I stayed there for about two weeks and had memorable experiences. Sadly, I have to think long and hard to remember what exactly I did while there. At first, I stayed in an apartment block that I shared with Rouna, the shy, beautiful girl from Mauritius and a guy from Austria whose name or face I can’t even remember. There was also a fourth person, a lady whose name, face and nationality have totally escaped from my memory. It was in this house that we reached a deal with Rouna that although she was dating, we would allow nature to take its course. That night, I recreated our wedding so vividly in my mind that I dreamt about it. It was at All Sanits Cathedral in Nairobi. I was wearing a blue track suit. In my own wedding, because as I indignantly explained to Msonobari my brother, “where is it written that people have to wear suits and stuff in weddings?”
Rouna was one of those Mauritians who have some Indian, some Arabic and some African in them. Her chocolate complexion and wavy hair lived long in my heart long after we had parted ways. Oh, the memories we made with Rouna in Rome, Sicily and Imola. These memories may be faint but you know what, the beautiful thing about memories is that they never really go away. They only retreat to the sub-conscious where they lie in a coma until something or someone awakens them. Now that I am writing about this, trickles of Rome's memories are beginning to drop into my mind.
Gelato. Italian ice cream is utterly breathtaking. Almost daily, it took away the breath of Rounda and I. There were only seventy euros in my worn out brown wallet and I didn't always have the luxury of buying gelato, so I had to keep faking reasons why I couldn't buy it whenever we walked by an ice cream place. My most common excuse was that I had a stomach ache, which I blamed on Italian food.
“My stomach just doesn't like some Italian food,” I would say even though the truth was that I adored most Italian food.
I also remember how Rouna and I once sat cross-legged in front of a bearded guitarist who was playing the guitar so divinely, I held my breath for a few moments eager to gulp the entire melody that was pouring out of his guitar. His right hand would pluck it in a super-fast manner as his left hand massaged the chords even faster. The result was a stunning melody that angels must have been dancing to. Rouna, the only angel that I could see, would always gyrate to the tunes of that guitarist.
Never had I seen such remnants of war
Bullet halls decorated gorgeous buildings
Brazaville the capital city of Congo
Discovered by Brazza from Belgium
And named after him
Were there no people in this city?
Before the Belgian came?
I decided to call the city, Yetu
Yetu, Swahili for ours
I wrote the above poem on the morning of October 4th 2006, I woke up with a smile lodged firmly in my heart and on my face. I threw aside the blue bed cover that I often preferred to use instead of the woolen blanket beneath it. Every night when I climbed the stairs of my bungalow in Funguo Estate off Mbagathi Road, I would dive onto the well-spread bed and lie there until I started dozing, then I would toss aside the blanket and fall deep asleep beneath the bed cover.
On October 4th after emerging from the warmth of this bed cover, Laila was on my mind, hence the smile. I had met this dazzling Egyptian lady a few months earlier in a workshop that brought together members of the Africa Network of Environmental Journalists. Drawn from across Africa, this group of environmental journalists had come together to validate and provide input into a UNEP Handbook whose content production I was coordinating – Environmental Reporting for African Journalists. (Click here to download and read this Book).
After this workshop, Laila and I took off for Maasai Mara to explore the nature that we both adored. That morning when I woke up with Laila on my mind, I decided to write some poems for her since like me, she loved poetry. I called these poems, ‘A poetic journey through Africa’ and started with a poem about Congo Brazzaville, a country that I had visited earlier that year to attend the launch of the Africa Environment Outlook for Youth, a Publication that I had been working on for close to three years.
Upon arrival at Congo Brazaville, we were ushered to the VIP section because we were part of the UNEP delegation. VIP sections of airports in Africa are usually places that you can only glance at and envy the big-tummied government dignitaries as they saunter in and out of them proudly. On the many times that I had passed by VIP lounges on my way to the common people's waiting lounges, I had often wondered why VIP sections are needed to start with. I am not a big fan of that term - VIP. In my book, everyone is a VIP. Yet even as I lashed out internally, I would often wonder what it would be like to enter those VIP doors and enter lounges where I food, drinks and extreme comfort were free.
On that particular afternoon, I didn't have to wonder anymore. As soon as I alighted from the Kenya Airways flight in Brazaville, the capital city of Congo, I was ushered into the VIP section of the airport. Cool! I thought. I am a VIP after all! I looked around curiously as soon as I had strolled through those doors of Very Important People. Soft couches for your weary body, water dispensers for your thirst, coffee machines for your beverage cravings, soda machines for your sugar weakness, buffet bowls full of steaming food for your hunger and other VIPs for your snobbery.
I nonchalantly attacked the soda machine first. Luckily, I had discovered how to operate them on a trip to Dakar, Senegal when I became bored at the airport and decided discover how the coffee and soda machines operated. There wasn't much to discover because it was really just about slotting in coins and waiting for the paper or aluminum cans to be spitted out. Can you imagine if there were happiness machines, where you can just slip in coins and find yourself supremely happy? That would be… crazy. I actually think that real friends and family should be like happiness machines, only that you both need to invest time into building memories, and as you build those great memories, happiness will hug you, flow into you.
Back to Brazzaville, after I was done with two cans of Coke, I made my way to the bowls of food. We were only two of us there, all of us young. I reckoned that the other VIPs were snubbing the food as they didn't want anyone to think that it had excited them. Just as I was settling down in my soft couch to eat my hot food and drink my third can of cold Coke, a bevy of beautiful girls sashayed into the lounge and proceeded to announce in both French and English that, 'all the UN officials who have arrived for the Africa Ministerial Conference on the Environment, please follow us.'
It turned out that at that moment, I was the only such UN official so it was my great pleasure to forsake my food and follow the lovely ladies.