DJ Bwakali

DJ Bwakali

Tuesday, 29 September 2020 00:00

Kenya's Search for Water

If you live in Nairobi or any other urban center in the country and are able to access water through the taps of your house, you are among the lucky fifty percent urban residents with piped water in their houses. According to the World Bank,  barely half of Kenya's urban population has such access to water.

The situation is even worse in rural Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of people struggle to find water every single day. They are among the 2.2 million people in the world who safely managed drinking water.

Indeed, Kenya is thirsty and there is barely sufficient clean water to quench this thirst.

In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) produced a report that revealed Kenya’s grave water situation. According to the Report, 9.4 million Kenyans drink water directly from contaminated surface water sources, which is the third highest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Think about it. One out of five Kenyans cannot access clean, piped water either in their houses or the vicinity of their houses. They depend on contaminated seasonal rivers or stagnant pools of water. Is that not a national emergency? If Kenya were to be attacked by a foreign adversary, we wouldn’t just go on with business as usual. Rather, we would urgently and decisively marshal all resources at our disposal to fight the enemy.

We should do even more to fight the enemy of water scarcity in the country. It is not acceptable that half of urban dwellers cannot access piped water in their houses and that one out of five Kenyans cannot access piped water anywhere in their localities and have to drink contaminated water.

It is therefore unsurprising that about 19,500 Kenyans die yearly from diarrhea. Among them are 17,100 children below the age of five. Almost 90% of these untimely deaths are directly attributable to poor water, sanitation and hygiene. This was revealed in a study by the Water and Sanitation Programme, a multi-donor partnership that is part of the World Bank Group's Water Global Practice.

So far, 670 Kenyans have tragically lost their lives from Covid-19. Every year, more than 17,000 Kenyans die because they consumed contaminated water. Every single life is important and one life lost is one too many. As such, we must address water scarcity in this nation with even more fervor, urgency and resolution than we have addressed the Corona virus.

Our very own Vision 2030 seeks to ensure that improved water and sanitation are available and accessible to all by 2030.  We only have ten years to achieve this. If we continue at the current pace, then we shall actually be worse off in 2030 than we are now. It is therefore time for urgent, decisive action. Such action is not a favor for politicians to brag about but a right for all Kenyans. Our constitution states that access to safe and sufficient water is a basic human right.

Kenyans must therefore enforce their right to safe and sufficient water. Article 5 of the Kenya Water Act 2016 further states that, ‘Every water resource is vested in and held by the national government in trust for the people of Kenya.’

The people of Kenya should therefore not watch idly as more than 17,000 of their fellow Kenyans die annually because of contaminated water. They should also not accept as normal a situation where most of them do not have access to piped water.

Our wildlife, which is our national heritage, is also suffering greatly from water scarcity.  The International Fund for Animal Welfare revealed in 2009 that 40 percent wild animals in Tsavo West National Park died due to drought. While hard data for more recent years is unavailable, anecdotal evidence suggests that our wildlife are still dying from drought and its accompanying water scarcity.

The solution lies on protecting and replenishing water at the source – in the water towers – then ensuring that it is distributed through technically sound, durable infrastructure to every corner of the country, including national parks like Tsavo West.  While we are at it, we should also revamp all our boreholes. Although we have nearly 6,000 registered boreholes in the country, sixty percent are not working. The Ministry of Water should inform Kenyans about their current status and urgently repair those that are still in a state of disrepair.  

Water is life. Let us not deprive millions of Kenyans life by depriving them of water.

Monday, 28 September 2020 00:00

Recapturing and Sustaining Life’s Momentum

Decision. Incremental. Consistency. Go back to the beginning and read those three words again.

Now pause, close your eyes and imagine that you are writing those three words on the blackboard of your mind. Let them sink in because they can catapult you into a powerful present that births an equally powerful tomorrow. In short, those three words can change your life for the better.

Decision. A decision ignites decisive action. Will I turn left or will I turn right? Will I go faster or slower? Will I take this one or that one? Will I go here or there?

Every morning or the night before, you have to make a decision about what clothes you will wear. The black top or the green one? The striped shirt or checked one? However long you remain undecided about what to wear, you eventually have to make that decision. Unfortunately, critical life decisions are often left unmade because of fear, procrastination and complacency.   For instance, we often delay making a decision on healthy eating until a disease forces us to finally do so. Such forced decisions are in some respects like a car that is being pulled by a tow truck as opposed to one that you are driving yourself.  

Incremental. I have struggled with this word a lot, especially when am pursuing my passions.

In mid-August 2020, I made a decision to go for 12k runs four times a week and for 40 kilometer cycling once a week. That would leave only two days for rest and recovery. It was quite a tall order since I usually ran twice a week and cycled once.

On the second Monday of August, I dashed out of the house and ran for 12k. My legs were in good shape and I notched a good average speed. I rested on Tuesday, then ran another 12k on Wednesday. On Thursday, I cycled for 43 kilometers in Karura Forest. The following day on Friday, I arose early as usual and matched out of the house ready to run.

As always, I had switched on my running app at Kamuti’s butchery and started running.  It took exactly one minute for my body to remind me of that vital word - incremental. Essentially, incremental means ‘one step at a time.’ Come to think of it, that’s how we all walk. Nobody can walk two steps at a time. The stride length may vary, but it’s always one step at a time. Even if you skip and hop, you still have to take one step at a time. Not even Usain Bolt, the fastest man ever, is exempted from this principle. He also had to run one step at a time.

That Friday morning after running for barely a minute, my legs seemed to turn into both sponge and steel. They became rigid, yet mushy. I stopped running, took a U-turn and walked back home. It had been my shortest run ever. I should have increased the frequencies of my runs incrementally, not just made a radical shift from two runs to four runs.  

Arrogance and impatience are sworn enemies of incremental. Arrogance whispers in our ears that ‘rules of gradual progress don’t apply to you.’ Impatience whispers in the other ear that, ‘why take one step at a time when you can simply cut corners?’  I had listened to these whispers and assumed that my muscles didn’t need to recover at all. After all, five years ago, I used to run every weekday. I told myself. Well, that was five years ago. That’s where the third word - consistency - comes in.

Commitment (decision) gets you started, incremental keeps you going one step at a time and consistency gets you there. Inconsistency robs us of our progress and takes us back to square one. Inconsistency always engages the reverse gear. It pulls you back, then you have to start again, then it pulls you back, then you have to get started again. Tragically, most people become entangled in this back and forth dance for their entire lives. Don’t be one of those people.   

Consistency is the wind that keeps blowing momentum into your sails. That momentum generates even more momentum. Whatever you do, don’t lose this momentum.

Have you ever held a honeycomb in your hands? If not, try and do so one day and you will catch a glimpse of Nairobi’s concrete tenements that are known in Nairobi simply as ‘flats.’ They dot the eastern part of Nairobi and host hundreds of thousands of people.

Monday, 14 September 2020 00:00

My Running Guardian Angels

There is a twitch in my left ankle but am hopeful that it’s nothing serious. At Kamuti’s Butchery, the usual starting line of my morning run, I fish out my black Samsung phone and click on mapmywalk, my running app. In my mind, I hear the starting gun and start running at a mid-pace. I feel good. I almost wave at three ladies who are standing at the roadside, conversing in low tones. One of them has a kikoi tied around her waist. It reminds me of the seven kikoi fabrics that I bought a few days ago from It’s Kadzo’s Line in Malindi. They are for Charlotte, our Sasafrica.Shop agent in Namibia.

These thoughts meander through my mind as I keep running at mid-pace. I am controlling my breathing and not just breathing haphazardly. Apart from the sound of my breath and the patter of my footsteps, there isn’t a single sound to be heard.

The time is 4.57AM, August 29th, Saturday. At the first junction on this Rhino stretch, I increase my pace slightly, aware that I can’t just sprint in the final two hundred meters of the first kilometer and expect to notch a good speed. After a minute, I increase the pace even more. I can see the finish line of the first kilometer. I resist a temptation to run faster and save my fastest pace in this kilometer, for the final one hundred meters. My running app informs me that I ran this kilometer in 5.19 minutes. Great! My target today is to run the first three kilometers in an average speed of below 5.20 minutes per kilometer.

My breathing is great. Even and steady. My stride is also longer. Thank God for the Yoga that I have been doing every day. It has greatly helped my hip flexor muscles that had been misbehaving a couple of weeks ago.

I feel like peeing. But there is no way I will stop to do so. That will mess up my momentum. I can now see the finish line of the second kilometer. So just like Eliud Kipchoge did when he saw the finish line at Vienna, I increase my pace drastically. There is a guy in front of me who is running fast but I catch up with him and overtake him at the second kilometer’s invisible finish line. Interestingly, I have run this second kilometer in exactly the same time as the first kilometer. 5.19 kilometers. So far so good.

This third kilometer is my favorite part of the race. Partly because it takes me right through Umoja 2, where we lived for many years. I run past the matatu terminus. Today, I can’t hear the booming voice of Owish, the former newspaper-vendor-turned-matatu-tout. I run on and increase my pace as soon as Kayole Spine Road comes into full view. I can hardly wait to reach the footpath that runs adjacent to this road. I christened it Usain Stretch because it has the feel of a stadium track - straight and bereft of any bumps or potholes. 

This is it. I tell myself once my worn out running shoes hit the Usain Stretch. This is the time to run a consistently faster pace. Time to step up the gear. And so, unlike previous occasions when I usually hit high gears in the mid-section of the stretch, I increase my pace from the get go. Keep going man! I silently cheer myself on. Faster! Faster! I smile at this particular cheer, as it reminds me of stuff. Sweet stuff. When I cross the third kilometer’s finish line, I am informed that I ran this third kilometer in 5.13 minutes. Great! Looks like that sweet memory came in handy.

I can now see Kangundo Road. After a ten-second walking rest, I begin running at a medium pace. Once I hit Kangundo Road shortly, I will increase my pace. I tell myself, and proceed to do exactly that. Due to the success I had with the silent cheering words - faster! Faster! - I repeat them to myself and smile again. Interestingly, my legs respond and move faster. My heart rate also follows suit as does my breathing.

When I realize that my breathing is becoming uneven, I slow down slightly as my arms swing gently, next to my chest. I can now see the finish line of the fourth kilometer, so I run faster. I complete this third kilometer in 5.19 minutes. What! I smile into the darkness. That’s awesome! I had expected something like 5.28 minutes but obviously, the consistently faster pace plus those sweet memories are paying dividends. I punch my fist into the increasingly cold air and fist-bump an imaginary running guardian angel.

Time for the fifth kilometer now. This one is usually rather tricky. The road linking Kangundo Road and Kangaru Road in Komarock has too many potholes. The road’s footpath is even worse, with many rocks and mounds of sand. So I usually run slower here and with much more caution. That’s exactly what I do today.

But as soon as my feet land on Kangaru Road, I discard my Nissan car for an Alfa Romeo sports car. There was now a need for speed. Enter Malewa Road 2, which slopes downward. This is one of three sections where I run my fastest speeds. This particular section is the sweetest of the three because of its gently downward incline that stretches out for about three hundred meters. Today, the leopard in me emerges fully in this section. My strides are long, fast and confident. Just like Eliud Kipchoge’s. Of course the main difference between us is that he maintains those strides for 42 kilometers! I take my cap off for you bro. You are the G.O.A.T marathon runner.

I complete the fifth kilometer in 5.18 minutes. Unbelievable! I smile happily as I shake my head. Never have I run this section in such fast time. However, I don’t have much time to congratulate myself since I am now in the sixth kilometer, the hardest. It is the longest uphill incline in the route, so most of my worst times are usually in this kilometer. But I want today to be different. I will not allow the sixth kilometer to drag down my overall time. I will not. I narrow my eyes in determination and start running up at a moderate pace. My plan is to drastically increase the pace once the land levels out. This happens after three hundred meters and I instantly recall the leopard from the depths that it had recoiled into. It pounces back and hits the cold tarmac with a get-out-of-my-way growl.

I glance into the glass walls of a restaurant that sits in the final one hundred meters of Malewa Road 2. Those glass walls usually provide me with a clear reflection of my running frame. Good, I think with a faint smile. Watching myself run always gives me a clear indication  whether I am running like a leopard or a warthog. If I notice that my shoulders are drooping and that my upper body is leaning forward too much, I know that the warthog is in the house. Thankfully, today the warthog is nowhere to be seen. I take full advantage of the downward incline and run faster.

The air is thick with intense hope that I will finally conquer this sixth kilometer. I turn left into the Kenol Petrol Station then right, then take another right that brings me back to Malewa Road 2. It is time to run back to Highbury apartment, home sweet home, following the same route.

I cannot allow this sixth kilometer to steal from my overall speed. I think and hasten my pace. The beauty of this return trip along Malewa Road 2 is that the same uphill incline that makes life difficult when you are running upward is now an extended downward incline, which now makes life easy. I throw everything into the run and hurtle down. Picture a lean rhino hurtling down a hill and you will see how I was running that cold morning. 5.31 minutes. Yes! I clench my fist and punch the air, fist bumping my running guardian angel. Yes! I have conquered this sixth kilometer. Never before have I run it this fast. My sixth-kilometer time is always upward of 5.4 minutes.

In life, conquering one challenge often paves the way for yet another challenge. You complete secondary school with unbridled joy, especially if you were in a boarding high school like me, only for college to sneer at you. You walk down the aisle and celebrate the conquering of singlehood, only for marital life to chuckle at you with a low growl, ‘if only you knew what you have gotten yourself into?!’

I only had about five seconds to celebrate the conquest of the sixth kilometer. Staring at me, was a gentle uphill climb of about 300 meters, the toughest part of this seventh kilometer. The gentle upward incline of these 300 meters makes the section, in some ways, to be trickier than the steeper incline whose descent I had just concluded. When you can see a clearly steep ascent, you prepare psychologically and tackle it accordingly. In similar fashion, if the source of a conflict with your loved one is clearly evident, you will address it in a very definite and hopefully decisive fashion. But when little things have piled up over time to create a conflict, you don’t even know exactly what you are addressing.

Those initial 300 meters of the seventh kilometer are like little things that had piled up. For the first fifty meters, I run it like it as if its flat land. This slows me down substantially, so I inject more energy into my strides just to restore my pace. About twenty meters before Kangaru Road, I try to run even faster but decide against it, afraid that I will run out of energy and mess up an otherwise good run. At Kangaru road, I turn right, slow to a brief five-second walk then resume the run. This is usually a bittersweet stage of the run. On one hand, it’s thrilling that the distance I have covered by this point is now marginally more than the distance remaining. On the other hand, am usually acutely aware that despite my decreasing energy, I must maintain or even improve on the pace so that I can finish in decent time. Interestingly, this realization can be rather unnerving as it places onto your shoulders a huge load of responsibility. I push on and turn right into the potholed-road connecting Kangaru Road and Kangundo road. I decide not to rest at all and run on, eager to finish this seventh kilometer in a time below 5.4 minutes. I must hit that target. I must. Twenty seconds later, my weary shoes land on Kangundo road and I turn left.

This is it. I think with a faint smile. This final 300 meters will determine if I finish this seventh kilometer in a decent time. Because I am now running on a flat footpath that goes in a straight line for the entire Kangundo Road stretch, I hasten my pace drastically and sustain it with gritted teeth. I engage a higher gear and increase my stride length. A minute later, I finished the seventh kilometer in one of my best times for that kilometer - 5.31 minutes.

This time, I don’t shout, ‘yes!’ or punch the air. I am panting like a bulldog, so I just smile into the darkness. There are moments in life when you work so hard for something that when you finally get it, you don’t even have the energy to celebrate. But make sure you revel in the moment and later on, be sure to acknowledge and celebrate that triumph.

Now there is trouble ahead. The eighth kilometer. This is one of my three slowest kilometers. It has a stretch of about fifty meters with footpath bumps that usually slow me down, and a matatu stage that also forces me to slow down because there are usually two or three matatus right in front of me, waiting for passengers. With that in mind, I make a determination to run the fast half of this eighth kilometer before that matatu stage, in a consistently fast pace. But after about half a minute, I feel a slight twitch in my front, right thigh. Quadriceps muscles live in that section. I don’t want to antagonize, them, so I slow down a bit. The quadriceps return the favor and the twitch disappears. I complete the kilometer in 5.32 minutes. Great! I fist-bump my guardian angel and walk for ten seconds to catch my breath.

I sniff the cold air, smelling victory. I have run eight kilometers in superb, historic speed. Am determined to ensure that the remaining three and a half kilometers will not let me down. Because the upcoming tenth kilometer is usually my slowest kilometer, I purpose to run this current ninth kilometer as fast as possible.

It is time to switch on the Eliud gear. And so engage my mind and imagine Eliud running the final kilometer of the historic INEOS 1:59 marathon. I imagine him beckoning to his pacemakers to make way for him. He bursts forth. The finish line is in sight. The arms of history are outstretched, ready to embrace him.

As I imagine Eliud Kipchoge racing down the final four hundred meters of his historic marathon, I realize to my surprise that I am also racing past Naivas supermarket on Kayole Spine Road. Ordinarily, I would have slowed down here for another ten-second rest. But not this time. Momentum is on my side. So I race on in long strides. I see from the corner of my left eyes that I have just overtaken a cyclist across the road. I smile, wishing that one of my friends would see me at this moment overtaking a cyclist!

I am now in the final 100 meters of the ninth kilometer, so I switch on the Usain gear and pull out of my legs their best possible sprint. 5.22min/km. Yes! Another fist bump to my guardian angel. I can’t recall having run this ninth kilometer this fast. Now for the tenth kilometer.

I do not like this tenth kilometer at all. Just as I don’t like the Downward-Facing Dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) in Yoga. The thing with this tenth kilometer is that: Firstly, I am at this stage tired as I have already been running for nine kilometers; then secondly, it is the stage of the run with the most human traffic. Most of the tenth kilometer is run on a footpath that is sandwiched between the busy Manyanja road and the populous Umoja 2 estate. So even though the time is 5.25AM, there are already people striding down the footpath and I have to maneuver between them as I run.

Since I already summoned Eliud Kipchoge to get me through the ninth kilometer, this time I summon David Rudisha. I instruct my mind to recall his historic 800 meter run in the 2012 London Olympics. In that epic run, he had led the pack for 600 of the 800 meters. In the final 300 meters, he simply rocketed ahead of everyone and smashed the World Record. He finished the race in 1:40.91 minutes. I finished the tenth kilometer in my fastest ever time for the tenth kilometer. 5.36 minutes. Another fist bump to my guardian angel. Now for the eleventh kilometer.

This eleventh kilometer should be one of my fastest. After all, it is the final full kilometer, a sure sign that am about to complete the morning run. So I should be able to run quite fast at this stage knowing that I will soon be in my beloved Highbury apartment. Highbury is the name of Arsenal Football Club’s old stadium. When they moved out of it in 2006, I decided to name my house Highbury, in honor of all those great Arsenal moments at Highbury.

Despite the thoughts of my warm house and its cordial delicious aura, the eleventh kilometer has remained a pain in my side. I suspect that because of bad pacing, am usually completely worn out by the time I hit this eleventh kilometer. As a result, since July, my time for this kilometer has consistently ranked amongst the third worst.

This Saturday morning, am so tired as I set off on the eleventh kilometer that I can’t even summon another great athlete to spur me on. So I lean back on my on dogged determination. I urge my legs forward. You are on the verge of setting your own personal history. Don’t screw it up at this stage. I tell myself and inject a little more pace into my legs. My heart rate has drastically increased. Come on Bwak! Am now panting too much. Am aware that since my breathing is all over the place, my pace is being affected. But I can’t help it. Sometimes in life, you just have to keep pushing yourself even when every ounce of strength in you is pulling you down. That’s what am doing at this stage. 5:39min/km. Yes! But am too tired to fist bump my guardian angel.

This is it. I just have to run the remaining half a kilometer at a faster pace. I tell myself. You are almost there Bwak. You are almost breaking your personal record. Give it your best shot. That’s exactly what am doing now. Firing from all cylinders. I break into a sprint that delivers me to the Whitehouse finish line in an average speed of 5.33min/km. When I skid to a stop, I feel a joyous anticipation as I fish out my phone, confident that I am about to glance at history. 05:25 min/km. Yes!! This is my new fastest ever speed on this morning run.

One of the best things about setting goals and pursuing them diligently is that when you do achieve them, the joy that floods your soul lifts you to heights of deep satisfaction and unbridled inspiration.

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Monday, 14 September 2020 00:00

Nairobi's Leaking Roofs

It started with a drop of water that landed on top of the white headscarf of her head when she was cooking sukuma wiki (kales) on her rusty, green stove. She didn’t feel that drop. But when several drops landed in her plate ten minutes later as she was eating, she realized that her roof was leaking.

No worries. I will just move to another corner of my room. She told herself. She didn’t have many options in her ten square feet room that doubled up as a living room, kitchen and bedroom. Whenever it rained, she simply shifted location to an area of the room that the raindrops had spared. Until Monday 8th 2020.

On Monday May 8 2020, Naomi Wangari Kamau, an elderly lady in her seventies, watched helplessly as the massive cold teeth of bulldozers razed her house to the ground. She couldn’t believe it.

Her lamentation rose into the putrid atmosphere, ‘this is our home. We have been forced out and our houses demolished.’

As the TV crews gathered to cover the demolition recorded, she proceeded to call out to Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta to come to their rescue.

Naomi was among at least 5,000 residents of a locality in Kariobangi North, a low-income neighborhood in the eastern part of Nairobi. The simple structures housing these residents were supposedly located on land that belonged to the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company. But the residents begged to differ, insisting that the land had been allocated to them in 2008 by the defunct Nairobi City Council. We even have allotment letters. They said. Unfortunately, their voices didn’t matter to the authorities and the bulldozers that rendered them homeless within hours.

This wasn’t the first such demolition in Nairobi. Click here to view Amnesty International's photo essay of demolitions in Nairobi.

Sixty percent of Nairobi’s five million people live in informal settlements. These two words – informal settlements – provide a linguistic sanitization of their slum dwellings. Here is the brutal truth of a house found in an informal settlement in Kenya: its walls are either made of mud, timber, tin, or iron sheets. It’s roof is mostly made from iron sheets. It’s floors are mostly cemented but sometimes earthen. That’s it. One room comprising of four walls, a door that can collapse after one strong kick and a window. Plus the roof. A mostly leaking roof. Because it’s just one room, its often partitioned by a curtain that separates the living room area and the bedroom. Any of the room’s four corners serves as the kitchen area.

Many of these informal settlements are built on land that doesn’t belong to the residents legally. Such illegal abodes are often the only homes that they can afford to live in, until those cold-teethed bulldozers come calling.

In 2013, these bulldozers descended on City Carton, an informal settlement where about 400 families were living. They were left homeless. Three years later on Friday 08th July 2016, those bulldozers descended on Deep Sea, an informal settlement that had been part of Nairobi’s residential fabric since 1963 when Kenya attained independence.

When the bulldozers finished crawling through Deep Sea, many of the slum’s 12,000 residents were homeless. Their leaking roofs lay smashed and tattered at their feet. What next? Where do you go after this? Where do you find another roof? The one lying at your feet may have been old, rusty and leaking, but at least it was firmly in place, above your head, keeping away 99 percent of the water when it rained. The 1 percent that made it into their single rooms of houses, only came in drops that brought with them the aroma of the skies from whence they had come. They had learnt to live with those leaking roofs and the raindrops that made it through the roofs. The bulldozers, when they came, didn’t care about these living arrangements.

Clad in metallic caps and stony faces, the drivers of these bulldozers, are just doing their jobs. They are paid to drive these bulldozers. But what drives those who sent them? Are they familiar with Article 43 (1b) of Kenya’s constitution, which states that every person has the right ‘to accessible and adequate housing, and to reasonable standards of sanitation.’

These words are as clear as daylight. What isn’t clear is the motivation of those who give the orders for the bulldozers to raze down shelters of people whose leaking roofs are the only roofs they can afford.

Naomi Wangari Kamau and the more than two million Nairobi residents who live in informal settlements are either unemployed or working in the informal sector, which accounts for 70% of employment in the country. Covid-19 has battered this sector so much that it has bled hundreds of thousands of jobs.

What Naomi needs even more urgently than a job is a roof over her head. Unfortunately for her, the 500,000 housing units for low-income households like hers are yet to materialize even though the Government already allocated Sh.6.5 billion for that particular project.

This project is extremely urgent not just because of a growing population but also due to rapid urbanization. In 2005, only 1 out of 5 Kenyans lived in urban areas. By 2030, 6 out of 10 Kenyans will be leaving in urban areas, which will further strain urban housing.

KibraAs was clearly articulated in Vision 2030, Kenya’s national development strategy, although a total 150,000 housing units are required annually in urban areas, only an estimated 35,000 are produced. Out of this, only 6,000 units cater for low-income households, far below the number of housing units that they need. That is why thirty-year old Moses Ojwang has lived in Kibra for fourteen years. In 2006, he migrated from his rural home in Kisumu to Kibra and has lived there ever since then.

“The living conditions are not easy,” he says, “firstly, it is a hotspot of violence during conflict. Then there are the living conditions. They are not easy at all.”

Moses lives in a one-room temporary structure with his wife Hellen and one-year old son Ari. He has the unfortunate distinction of being a trained entrepreneurship coach who can’t afford to be an entrepreneur himself. For almost two years, he was an entrepreneurship trainer in the World Bank-funded Kenya Youth Employment Opportunities Project.

He has a business management diploma from the Kenya Institute of Management. These days to make ends meet, he works as a loans salesman for a Firm that provides loans. He is only paid on commission. This job doesn’t make much use of his leadership and entrepreneurship coaching skills. But it provides him with some revenue of about Ksh10,000 ($100) to keep him going. Although his wife is a trained primary school teacher, the Covid-19 pandemic has stripped away her previous monthly salary.  

One night in April, those raindrops that had visited Naomi knocked on Moses’s roof. They didn’t wait to be ushered into the house but instead squeezed through numerous gaps on the roof. They kept coming until they became not one, not two but several constant water drips. Within minutes, they formed water puddles on his low coffee table and the tiny space that it stands on. Soon, a little pond materialized in the room and flowed beneath the bed, assaulting the shoes and other paraphernalia that lived down there.

Here is the shocker – 60 percent of Nairobi residents live in such one-room dwellings. Dwellings where living rooms mesh into bedrooms and into kitchens to form singular multi-purpose rooms that they call home. Rooms that are sometimes razed down by cold-teethed bulldozers because the land in question belongs to this or that entity, often the government itself.

The country at large and the Kenya government in particular has let Moses down. Low-income households like his need half of total new houses required in Kenya, yet eighty percent of all new houses in Kenya are for the middle and upper classes. Because affordable decent houses for low-income households are simply not there, Moses continues to live in Kibra, in that one-room that is better than no room. That’s what he can afford.

There is need for urgent but systematic action. I have an idea that will place a decent one-bedroom house into the hands of Moses and at least one-hundred thousand low-income households, within six months.

There exists construction technology that can enable construction of an entire secure prefabricated two-bedroom house within two days. If the labor of the people who will occupy those houses is enlisted, 100,000 units can be completed within a maximum of three months. This has already happened in Hyderabad, India, where Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation constructed 6,240 houses over a period of a few months.

The houses will cost between Ksh 500,000 ($5,000) and 1 million ($10,000). Lets go for the halfway mark – Ksh750,000 ($7,500). Using this cost, Ksh1 billion ($10 million) will construct 1,333 houses. Ksh100 billion ($1 billion) will construct 133,300 houses. Considering that Ksh600 billion ($600 million) is lost to corruption every year, 100 billion is totally manageable.

And you know what, we don’t even have to go the prefabricated route. Millions of subsidized bricks can be sourced directly from Kenyan youth, which would lower the cost of constructing brick houses and provide livelihoods for thousands of Kenyan youth. I suspect that such brick houses can even be arguably cheaper than the prefabricated houses, as long as we construct them innovatively.

This idea can be – indeed, it should be – refined accordingly so that we can enable enterprising, hardworking Kenyans to live in an affordable house whose rent or even eventual ownership they can afford. We owe it to Naomi Wangari Kamau. We owe it to Moses. We owe it to his precious wife Hellen. We owe it to baby Ari. Over to you now Mr. President. And fellow Kenyans.

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Thursday, 10 September 2020 00:00

East Pokot's Flood of Tears

Old Pokot LadyShe needs heaven today, not just in some distant futureWrinkles. They were folded all over her face and breasts. Her chest was bare and she didn't care. No one cared. Dangling around her neck was a set of nearly two dozen necklaces that were enjoined together. The bead necklaces, which were black, green, red and blue covered her entire shoulder and part of her upper chest. But the wrinkled breasts were fully exposed yet it didn't feel like she was exposed.

I smiled at her but she didn't smile back even though she was looking straight at me. My green safari shirt had photos of zebras and giraffes emblazoned on it. It was dripping with sweat. I reached out my right hand in greeting but hers remained by her side. Her face remained expressionless as her bead necklaces dazzled in the hot sun. Again, I flashed my famous warm smile but the only thing that she was flashing were the beads and breasts. Her old, wrinkled face remained completely expressionless. Her eyes... I looked at them closely and realized for the first time that she was blind.  

I was deep in the desert land of East Pokot meeting with almost a hundred residents. Many of them were elderly. Even the young looked elderly, thanks to the hostile environment. Although we were meeting below three huge thorn trees, the sun was raining down mercilessly on us.

The meeting had been organized by my friends Carol, Steve and Ann from the Kenya I Care initiative. We had zero funds to offer the Pokot people but were working on a documentary that we hoped would assist us in fundraising for food security projects in the area.

What an area! Hot, dry and rocky. I was sitting on one of the small three-legged stools that also doubles up as a pillow. Next to me was Omari and Lomada, our two young hosts who were also interpreting for us. Carol and Ann were sitting with a group of women on the rocky ground. They were both smiling and looking completely at home. Ann was a vivacious and upbeat girl while Carol was a silent, dark, smiling beauty. She was a professional potter and saw beauty even in the hostile desert.

'Don't you just like the random formation of those rocks,' she had told me earlier as we walked to the meeting venue. It takes a creative like her to see beauty seated right in the middle of a searing hot desert.

I was about to give my speech and was going through it in my mind. We are your friends and will stand by you all the way. God has blessed you with land. It may be dry but it is still a blessing from God. We shall help you to find ways of turning this dry land into a blessing. The sun chose that moment to unleash particularly hot rays. My green safari shirt was soaked in sweat.

I could hear clapping and for a few moments, I joined in the clapping before I realized that I had just been invited to address the gathering.

'God has blessed you with land,' I began and cleared my throat, 'it may be dry land but it is still a blessing from God.' I would pause after every few seconds to allow Omari to interpret. We were both pacing as we talked, locking eye contacts and pausing for effect.

I looked again at the blind lady and paused mid-sentence. Omari looked at me expectantly, waiting for more words to tumble out of a dry mouth. I saw beneath her wrinkles and felt that she was sad and hungry. Her drooping shoulders gave the impression of someone so weak that she could faint any moment. As I gazed at her, a feeling of helplessness and despair began to wash over me. I felt bad that I was giving her hope for tomorrow when she needed urgent help today. She couldn’t boil my hope over fire and eat it for lunch.

Tomorrow will be better. I had said several times in my speech. But would she live to see that tomorrow? The truth is that my life was comfortable while hers was desperate. I ate three meals in a day while she was lucky if she ate one. Yet there I was, telling her to hang in there because tomorrow would bring relief. Omari looked at me, his eyes brown and expectant for more words of wisdom and hope. I wasn't looking at him as my eyes were brown and sorrowful as I continued looking at the old blind lady.

Is it right to promise you a heaven tomorrow while doing little to address the hell that you are in today? I felt like slapping myself because it occurred to me that this is exactly what I was doing at that time in that dry land. Oh God, please help me. I said a silent prayer. I have always felt that the practice of religion sometimes hides and undermines the essence of God. We practice religion in the same way we practice hygiene, with mere habit and sheer indifference. In this regard, our religious practices sink to the same level with our hygienic practices like brushing teeth and taking showers. We forget that it is about the essence of God. God, our loving creator is concerned about our yesterday, today and tomorrow, not just a far-off eternity in heaven.

Oh God, I prayed on as my long pause started making Omari nervous, please help me to give this precious blind lady some heaven today, and not just talk to her about the heaven that awaits her tomorrow.  

It has been thirteen years since this 2007 visit to East Pokot, my first ever to the region. Nothing much has changed there. If anything, things have gotten worse because rampant insecurity that has bedeviled the region since then and left scores dead. Even more lethal than the bandits and cattle rustlers who terrorize resident in the area is the ever-present drought and famine. Whereas the bandits lurk in the shadows, hunger is always in full display.  

East Pokot’s dryland is part of approximately 66 per cent of land across Africa that is classified as desert or drylands. As a result, 45 per cent of Africa’s population lives in drylands. These fellow Africans are constantly hungry. Food, a basic human right, is a distant luxury for them.

Hunger is a far-worse challenge for Africa than coronavirus. A study by the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) revealed that almost 60 million children in Africa do not have enough food. Consequently, nearly half of all child deaths in Africa stem result from hunger. This is not a convenient truth because it perpetuates the image of Africa as a ‘poor continent.’ It’s a reality that we have to deal with. That old, blind lady that I met in East Pokot, together with millions across Africa, need the dignity of livelihoods and food today, not in some distant future.

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Thursday, 10 September 2020 00:00

When I Fled from Terror

My thigh was shaking as I pressed the accelerator. Truth be told, I was very, very scared.

Next to me in the co-driver seat of The Growler, as my friends refer to my Subaru Forester,  was Mutua a young Red Cross volunteer who was also fleeing from Lamu.

Flee. I love the power of this word although I don’t like its implications. Flee. Even if you don’t understand English, you will suspect that it has something to do with running away from somewhere as fast as you can.

Flee. That’s what Mutua and I together with hundreds of others were doing that morning and for subsequent days after that. We were fleeing Lamu because we had been warned that we would be met with dire consequences if we didn’t do so. This warning came through leaflets that were dropped randomly on the island the previous night.

About a week earlier, heavily armed militia, alleged to be al shabaab, had raided the nearby Mpeketoni town and shot dead at least sixty people, most of them Christians.

Within less than a minute, The Growler roared into Mokowe town. Mpeketoni was now less than thirty minutes away and I dreaded the fact that we would soon drive by a junction that led to the town.

‘Oh my God!’

I was about to ask Mutua why he was crying to God but the sight in front of us answered my unspoken question. Just a few meters in front of us was a restless crowd. Some were holding machetes while others were cuddling big stones. They were blocking the road, burning huge logs that they had placed in the center of the road.

‘This is it,’ I told myself, ‘this is the day that I will become a TV news statistic.’

I was wearing my black T-shirt with the word Kenya emblazoned at the front. I wasn't really making a patriotic statement since it was the only clean T-shirt that I could find when I fled from Yellow House (the name of my bungalow in Lamu) that morning. This Kenya T-shirt was sticking to my skin as if pulled by some invisible magnet in my chest. But it was sweat, dripping from a spirit full of fear and a morning full of heat.

‘Rowdy Mokowe crowd burns a helpless Subaru,’ I could already see the beautiful Lulu Hassan, the Citizen TV news anchor, uttering these fateful words just before images of my burning vehicle come onto the screen.

I was determined  not to be in the vehicle when it caught flames and as I creaked to a halt, I had already released my seat belt and was in exit mode. Am no Usain Bolt but I was sure that at that moment, my 90 kilos (I was quite heavy back then!) would have given the Jamaican a run for his money.

Dozens of stony-faced young men were inches away from the car. One of them approached my window. He was wearing black jeans and brown open shoes. On his head was a faded cap with the words, ‘Kenya’ emblazoned at the front.

At least he loves Kenya, I thought to myself. Hopefully that means he loves all Kenyans equally. Tough luck. After all, my own Kenya attire had nothing to do with undying love for the country.

As I rolled down my window, my mind was racing. What words should I say to show him that I was in fact on their side? He must be one of those people who had been displaced from their homes in Mokowe and Hindi, the towns that neighbor Mpeketoni.

Unlike my racing heart, my face was calm, genes inherited from my papa. Nothing seems to scare papa. He is always the picture of calmness, especially when storms of life rage all around him.

Mambo vipi bro,’ How are things bro, I smiled at the young man as I greeted him.

It occurred to me that my greeting was rather stupid because there was no way things were fine. But in my defense, I couldn’t think of any Swahili greeting that has the neutrality of ‘hi.’ Every Swahili greeting demands to know the state of your life at that particular moment.

Mzuri tu,’ just okay. He answered in a surprisingly cordial voice.

My heart instantly stopped racing. I knew then that Lulu Hassan wouldn’t be reading news about my car going up in flames.

The crowd meant no harm. They had blocked the road as a protest at what they perceived as slow action from the government in protecting them and providing them with relief supplies. After the cold blooded killings in Mpeketoni, scores more had been killed in Hindi, Mokowe, Witu and neighboring smaller villages in the wider Lamu County.

The marauding terrorists would show up and shoot unharmed villagers dead at point blank range, or slit their throats.

I had felt safe in Lamu Island until earlier that morning. The beauty of an island is also its tragedy. The fact that islands are isolated from mainlands means that they can be isolated in both safety and danger. They can be islands of calm or turmoil.

The previous night, papa had called and virtually ordered me to leave the island as soon as possible. I was taken aback, because ordering is not his style. He often lays out options and leaves the decision to someone. But not this time.

‘Take the next flight out of Lamu!’ Papa had ordered me in a brief phone conversation.

I had listened politely but in my heart, I wasn't planning to leave anytime soon. I loved the serenity of the island, not to mention its delicious Swahili cuisine. I couldn't find original Lamu pilau in Nairobi. Or biryani and mahamari. Or vitu vya ngano and matobosho. I don’t think some of these Swahili delicacies have English names. Or the Oh my God delicious seafood like fresh prawns and equally fresh parrot fish.

Of course such food could be bought in select Nairobi restaurants but they just didn't taste the same as they did on the island especially when cooked by Aunt Lei, my immensely talented housekeeper and chef.

Earlier that morning, Aunt Lei was in the kitchen cooking a king size parrot fish when I hurriedly entered the house. She was humming a catchy taarab tune.

‘David asalaam aleykum?’

She interrupted her humming and greeted me in her usual jovial manner.

‘Waleykum Salaam,’ I replied but could barely hear myself.

I was terrified. Terror had visited my being through leaflets.

When Aunt Lei learnt about the leaflets, she dropped the dhania (coriander) leaves that were in her hands.

Aaaaaaaah! She exclaimed as her face fell. It was as if someone had pricked it and let out all joy from her. She had become like a sister to me and I adored her two kids Walid and Warda.

As she escorted me to the jetty to catch my boat, barely a word was exchanged between us.

I was fleeing, unable to stay in my second home as it was no longer safe to do so.

I had never fled before. In fact, in 2007, when Nairobi descended into a pit of turmoil following the 2007 post election violence, I often went where the danger was to prepare radio reports for the American-based Free Speech Radio News.

But this particular Saturday morning, I was fleeing from terrorism. Terror. Although the terrorists were not on the island, they were in my mind. The memory of what they had done in Mpeketoni was knocking violently at the door of my mind and shaking my heart vigorously. The bullets that they had fired, snuffing out the lives of at least sixty Kenyans kept bombarding my mind even as I boarded the speed boat and waved bye to a sorrowful Aunt Lei.

Earlier that morning, I had walked from Yellow House to the sea shore. A few minutes before 8AM, I met up with Mzee Ali, an old fisherman. We met at a rugged sea wall that sits a few feet from his palm-leaf thatched house. I wanted him to start supplying me wholesale fish and seafood on a regular basis. I was so in love with seafood that I wanted to start selling it to the rest of the country and world.

After Mzee Ali and I had agreed on the way forward, I started walking along the seashore marveling at the rustling sound of the ocean and its galloping waves. This beautiful sight never grows old.

My phone rung and I almost ignored it as I sometimes did when I was fellowshipping with God through His wondrous nature. But on second thought, I dipped my hand into the pocket of my big shorts and answered.


I said to Mama Esther. She is one of the people who had welcomed me to the island a few years earlier in 2011 and together with her two children Esther and Edwin, they had become like my Lamu family.

‘The leaflets were dropped in the town square at night,’ Mama Esther continued.

The leaflets she was talking about had been scattered overnight and they were allegedly from al shabaab warning all non-Muslims to vacate the island or face consequences.

It suddenly occurred to me that people around me seemed to be rather tense, talking in small groups, in low tones. I had just reached the jetty and I noticed that the boats were full of people with heavy luggage like chairs, mattresses and the like. It was obvious that they were fleeing.

I felt suddenly sick, like a fever had enveloped me instantly. It was the terror fever and there was no medical prescription for it.

This fever was still weighing me down but it was the least of my worries as 140 kilometers per hour rocketed The Growler past a deserted Mkunumbi town. I might have been fleeing from terror but at that moment, I knew that there was a very real possibility of jumping from the frying pan right into the fire. I was now driving past Boni Forest, a vast forest that the terrorists are said to have retreated into after carrying out the inhuman attacks.

Within moments, we approached the two vehicles that the terrorists had abandoned after their cowardly, yet deathly acts on the innocent people of Mpeketoni. I slowed down, the writer in me keen on observing the scene closely and taking some photos. Mutua, the Red Cross volunteer gave me a stern, shocked and scared look that caused me to drive off after taking only two photos.

Who does this?!

I said angrily, loudly.

Who kills harmless, innocent people in cold blood?!

150 kilometers per hour. 151..152, 159…

A racing car, two racing hearts, hundreds of fleeing people.

Fleeing from evil men who hide behind guns and ideologies.

To these men and women who hide behind terror, I have one message, “you cannot take what is not yours. We all belong to God so stop stealing from Him or you will face His wrath.”

To the government of Kenya and other African leaders my message is simple, “I know that terrorism is a global problem but I also know that people are dying locally. This must stop. Raise your game, change your tactics, fight the ideological warfare too, protect your citizens.”

To my fellow Kenyans, Africans and human beings, I have words for you, ‘don’t turn a blind eye to terror because then you will not see it coming and it will catch you by surprise. Lets us take care of one another.’

When The Growler finally made it to Malindi in record time, I cried as soon as I entered my hotel room.

Tears of joy that we had fled successfully. Tears of sorrow for those who had lost their lives.

Tears of anger at the cowardly terrorists.

Tears of hope that tomorrow will be safer for all.

P/S: Lamu Island remains a place that is dear to my heart. I will be returning there in 2021 to continue with my unfinished business there.

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Tuesday, 08 September 2020 00:00

Lake Bogoria's Invisible Million Dollars

My car was enjoying the drive as much as I was. The road was clear and although it was just after ten, it felt as if noon had already arrived with searing heat.

“This AC is not helping much,” I thought with a tinge of irritation as I made a mental note to ask Alex my mechanic to refill the car’s AC gas. After about twenty minutes, I saw on the horizon the beginnings of a town – a cluster of block-shaped shops, small groups of people milling around and several hawkers gazing towards me expectantly.

Mogotio. The name was written in bold black letters on one of the shops.

Ngapi?” How much? I asked a roast maize vendor who was sticking three steaming maize cobs through my half-open window.

Shilingi kumi ndugu!” Ten shillings brother! He answered in a happy voice. He was wearing a grey Ford Motors T-Shirt and a black cap whose faded yellow letters were unintelligible.  

Unaenda kuona flamingo?” Are you going to see the flamingoes? He asked me when I inquired if Lake Bogoria was nearby.

Naenda kuona microbes!” I am going to see microbes! I said cheekily, eliciting a puzzled look on his sweaty forehead.

People associate Lake Bogoria with its pink flamingoes and hot springs, not its microbes. However, those ultra-tiny microorganisms known as microbes have the ultra-gigantic potential of eventually overshadowing their pink neighbours. Since they can’t even be seen by the naked eye, their beauty cannot compare with flamingoes. Nevertheless, microbes have massive economic potential that arguably dwarfs flamingoes.

The reason I was on my way to Lake Bogoria was because of a story that I was doing for Radio France International about the Great Rift Valley’s Soda Lakes. In a bid to solidify and deepen the story, I had already had a meeting with Levis Kavagi the United Nations Environment’s Africa Coordinator of Ecosystem and Biodiversity. Over a cup of Cappuccino at the Java Restaurant in Gigiri, he told me about a UN Environment Project on microbes and later linked me up with several institutions that were part of that project. 

In a bid to ascertain exactly how valuable microbes are to Kenya, I then paid a visit to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) a few days before my trip to Lake Bogoria. I arrived at the KWS headquarters a few minutes after 10. Because it was Sunday, the usually full car park was almost empty, which suited me just fine because the serenity was comforting.

I had first stepped into the KWS Headquarters as an awestruck class 1 student of Buru Buru 1 Primary School back in the mid-eighties. Although this was probably my twentieth visit to the headquarters since then, I was still struck by its character and beauty. The Administration block where the reception was located had red tiles and smooth classical sturdy walls that gave it the impression of a Victorian building. A few metres away from the Administration block was the Nairobi National Park gate. It gave one an idea of what lay beyond it by spotting a two-dimensional sculpture of a lion.  

I was at the Kenya Wildlife Service offices that Sunday morning to meet with Kavaka Mukonyi, the KWS Head of Bioprospecting.

“Let me come to the main reception to pick you.” He told me on phone in a cheerful voice.

When I saw him a few minutes later, he looked just as cheerful as his voice. He is one of those people that have the word ‘sociable’ ingrained in their DNA. He led me along the long corridors as we conversed like old friends. When I read the ‘Bioprospecting’ that was emblazoned on his office door, I half expected that there would be a large microscope jutting out from his desk. But it was just a normal office with a flat computer screen and a bunch of papers on the desk.

A few minutes into our conversation, Kavaka uttered words that got my full attention, “The world is focusing on larger sized biological resources. But the developed countries are focusing on these things we don't see. The microbial that forms the basis of all of the biotech industry.”

I had always associated the word ‘biotech’ with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) food. Don’t expect to find me on the cheerleading squad of GMOs since I am a staunch believer in organic food that hasn’t been modified genetically. When I read ‘The New Harvest,’ a book by Calestous Juma the late Harvard Professor and agricultural innovator, I was struck by this phrase, ‘despite potential setbacks, biotechnology has the potential to provide both great profits and the means to provide more food to those who need it in Africa.’ Although I agreed with the book’s principles on the need for agricultural innovation that would shun unproductive ‘business as usual’ agricultural practices, I remained unconvinced about an unbridled embrace of genetic engineering of food crops. But I digress. Biotech is of course not just about food.

I soon learnt from Kavaka that the tiny microorganisms contained in Lake Bogoria would in fact have huge financial benefits if successfully prospected and developed into industrially viable enzymes.

“When you check the global market, it is actually over 900 billion dollars, annually made from bioprospecting activities.” Kavaka said.

Then he proceeded to reveal something that left me with a deep sigh, “these profits are made by multi-nationals in developed countries but those who manage, the owners of the resource don't get anything.”   

Armed with a steaming fresh roast maize in my left hand and fresh directions to Lake Bogoria, I zoomed off from Mogotio town. As I approached Lake Bogoria, I started seeing some of those resource owners who don’t get anything. There were groups of young men herding goats and cattle in the distance. A few women were walking with expressionless looks on their pretty faces and water containers on their heads. Do they even know about those priceless microorganisms in their lake? I asked myself in a whisper before my attention shifted to the visible part of the Lake.

One week earlier, I had received some answers to these questions during my meeting with UN Environment’s Levis Kavagi. This time, I met him with the scenic UN campus in Gigiri. We sat at a coffee shop outside his office block and as we both sipped white coffees, he told me about ecosystem services, “For a community to be committed to conserving an ecosystem especially a lake such as Lake Bogoria, Lake Magadi, the soda lakes, they have to see how these lakes or ecosystems benefit them. The benefits are what we are calling ecosystem services.”

Levis is a passionate environmentalist who has a way of explaining things in a simple manner that can add converts to the environmental movement. I nodded as he continued, “the system that equitably shares the benefits especially the financial benefits that accrue from the utilization of genetic resources is what this project is looking at from a natural capital point of view.” He sneezed and excused himself before continuing, “This particular project is helping the communities to realize they have a capital and this capital is worth conserving. And if they conserve, they can see the benefits that will accrue from this capital.”

Levis Kavagi’s brown eyes had a flicker of animation that grew brighter the more he spoke. By the time he was done, I was convinced that the micro-organisms of Kenya’s soda lakes had massive potential of earning my beloved country so much money that it would finally sky-rocket into industrialized status. I had always believed that natural capital could build a firewall against poverty, disease and stress. This belief had become entrenched into my psyche when I fell in love with nature during those glorious childhood days of swimming in a shy, whistling river that flowed endlessly a few metres from our farm. Apart from granting my brothers and cousins great relaxation, this river also gave us fish and ensured my parents lush harvests. Indeed, it exemplified the power of natural capital.     

With his coffee cup drained but intensity still dripping from his eyes, Levis went on to tell me about a UN Environment Project that had brought together strategic stakeholders to “develop the microbial biotechnology industry from Kenya’s soda lakes in line with the Nagoya protocol.”

“Speak in English please,” I told Lewis as I waved at a former colleague who had just passed by our transparent meeting room.

The Nagoya Protocol was adopted on 29 October 2010 in Nagoya, Japan and entered into force on 12 October 2014. Its objective is the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources, thereby contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.[1]   

UN Environment had brought together a genetic resources dream team comprising of the Kenya Wildlife Service which was the official steward of Lake Bogoria; members of the Endorois Community who were the ancestral stewards of the Lake; Nairobi University and Jomo Kenyatta University, whose scientists were microbes experts; Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute, whose knowledge and infrastructure would provide great incubation for the microbial technology and the Baringo County Government under whose administrative jurisdiction Lake Bogoria was under. This was the dream team that would hopefully deliver visible benefits of those invisible genetic resources in Lake Bogoria.

Would I find a vast army of flamingoes roaming the lake’s parched shores? I wondered hopefully as my Subaru Forrester, aka The Growler inched closer to Lake Bogoria. The last time I saw those majestic birds was in 2009 when I visited Lake Nakuru, another soda lake like Lake Bogoria. The dazzling beauty of their pink plumage and slender long legs had taken my breath away. I was therefore hoping to feast on the sight of these spectacular birds yet again. But they were nowhere to be seen when I finally parked near the lake shore and practically ran into the lake’s embrace.

The waters encircling my feet were a light shade of brown, like weak coffee. As a matter of fact, they reminded me of the Nescafe I used to take before I graduated to brewed Kenyan coffee and later on Rwandan Coffee (You have to try it, its stunning). Lake Bogoria’s waters were so calm that I could clearly see the ten fingers of my legs resting happily in the brownish sand. Then I heard a cackle to my right. It was barely perceptible, as if someone was pushing a chair gently on concrete floor. An African spoonbill was wading gently in the water, its long legs making it appear like the birds’ answer to giraffes. I smiled at it but it didn’t return my smile, seemingly engrossed in something deep in the waters. 

Just three days earlier, I had learnt about the vital economic importance of this lake to Baringo County.

“When we came in as the first ever County Government of Baringo County, we quickly learnt that Lake Bogoria was the resource that giving us the highest source of revenue. About 70, 80 million shillings.”  This information came from Hon. Kipchumba Keitany, Baringo County’s then County Executive for Industry, Commerce, Tourism and Enterprise Development.

We were meeting at Java House, Westside Mall in Nakuru. I was sipping cappuccino. He was drinking masala tea. The sun was smiling at our beverage choice, shining down brilliantly.

“There are people who have been taking care of these resources; there are people who were born here, and this is their resource. This is where they get their medicine, their therapeutic healing. They have been custodians of this beautiful lake for a long, long time.” Hon. Kipchumba told me.

For two hours, we had a concerted conversation about Lake Bogoria and the wider Rift Valley that it is a part of. He was so passionate about the Rift Valley – its people and natural resources – that during those two hours, we conceived an idea that led to the birth of the birth of an organization known as Great Rift Valley Centre for Research and Development (GRICERD). He became the founding Chairman of this organization and mobilized a highly talented and experienced team of Board Members to lead it in protecting natural resources like the beautiful Lake Bogoria.

You don’t have to go deep into this beautiful Lake to encounter microbes. You can even find them merely by walking on its shores. Unless you are there to specifically mine them, you will not even know that they are part of that mud or sand that has grazed onto your shoes. I was fed this morsel of microbe information by Professor Mulaa, a preeminent microbe expert and a lecturer at Nairobi University.

I visited Prof one Tuesday morning and began devouring the wealth of information that he was doling out in his quiet, authoritative manner. We were seated in his tiny office at Nairobi University’s Chiromo Campus, surrounded by books, files and knowledge. Weary shelves were lined with a mountain of books whose ruffled appearance meant that they had been read and re-read. There was barely any space on the lone medium-sized desk in the room. It was literally overflowing with documents that were like grains of knowledge just waiting to be devoured. He even had to clear the chair he offered me of some documents that had been reclining there before we rudely interrupted them.

Even before Prof began speaking, it almost felt as if I was in the visible headquarters of the invisible microbes.  

After very tiny small talk that lasted for a whopping thirty seconds, Prof launched into an exciting monologue on microbes, “these microorganisms can be turned into a resource or an industrial product that people can buy, people can use, basically to change their lives or basically develop industry.”

The humdrum of students conversing in low tones as they passed by the office filtered in. But I barely heard it as I continued feasting on Prof’s knowledge, “the same microorganisms, can also be developed to help agriculture in terms of crop protection. The next frontier of crop protection is using microorganisms to protect plants.”

Professor Mulaa knows what he is talking about not just because of his rich academic expertise in the sector, but also because he has personally developed enzymes from imperceptible tiny things into powerful industrial components. A few years earlier, he had meticulously developed enzymes that turn fish skin into leather in a process that is speedier and more environmentally friendly than the usual chemical-dependent industrial process.

“Here is the leather we produced,” he said as he fished out expensive looking elegant leather from a polythene paper under his desk. I placed it on my laps and caressed it with my index finger. It felt soft. It had the color of a starless midnight sky. When I turned it over, it was as if that night had just been lit by a full moon.

“What you are holding in your hands was once waste fish skin,” Professor Mulaa said.

Like all notable achievements, this wasn’t a one man show. He was assisted in this unprecedented venture by several other players including the Kenya Industrial Research Development Institute (KIRDI). That is why I decided to make KIRDI my next stop.  

Do you know that Google lady who usually issues directions in her part-robotic, part human voice? She helped me to find the KIRDI offices on a Friday afternoon.

Dr. Martha Induli, a senior KIRDI researcher and official ushered me warmly into her office. She instantly showered me with her bright smile and engaging conversation. Her afro hair sat on her head like a black and bright crown. As she spoke about KIRDI, microbes, research and science as a whole, her rasping voice left me nodding along.

“KIRDI has done a lot on industrial enzymes and biopesticides which are actually key for this project.  Our role there has been mainly pilot upscaling. That's our niche area which many institutions do not have.”

Industrial enzymes. Biopesticides. These are words that had never occupied any space in the real estate of my mind. But that was about to change as I listened to Martha.

“When you are testing enzymes, you must find where they are viable. What they can do. You could find some enzymes that are dehairing, removing hair, some that are removing grease. Enzymes can multi-task. When you select them from microbes, you must find which area they can do an industrial activity then you optimize on that. The facilities are there for testing enzymes.”

I nodded vigorously, as if afraid that not doing so would block the enzyme revelations from sinking into my mind.

Enzymes are powerful. So powerful that they run the world. You see that detergent that washes your clothes clean? Enzymes make that possible. When you drag yourself to the kitchen sink to wash dishes before you hit the pillows, chances are that you are able to wash those greasy dishes real clean, real fast, because the dishwashing soap is laced with enzymes. That faded jeans that you love wearing every Saturday also owes its fades to enzymes. When you have a crazy cold and dash to the pharmacist for some drugs, you should whisper a quick ‘asante sana!’ to enzymes because they are playing an increasingly important role in the manufacture of drugs. As if that’s not enough, the pesticide that you sprayed on your crops to annihilate some stubborn pests couldn’t have made it into your knapsack sprayer if enzymes hadn’t enabled its manufacture. Do you now see how the fingerprints of enzymes are all over the place on all manner of products? They definitely run the world these enzymes. But its not just about running the world; its about how you run it. Enzymes mostly run it in a green and sustainable way. Unlike crazy chemicals, they are biodegradable, which means that they don’t mess the environment.

Whoever owns the enzymes smiles all the way to the bank. So, the big question is, who is making money from the all-over-the-place power of enzymes? Well, Procter & Gamble and the biotechnology firm Genecor International made a fortune from enzymes that were mined from Lake Bogoria’s microbes. The biotech firm sold enzymes it had developed from Lake Bogoria’s microbes to Procter & Gamble. With these enzymes safely tucked away in its labs, Procter & Gamble burnt the midnight oil and developed a highly successful line of Tide bleach that it used to stonewash denim. Consequently, Procter & Gamble made millions of dollars, none of which benefited the Endorois Community. They may have done so legally but not necessarily ethically.

When William Procter and James Gamble established Procter & Gamble in 1837, the Endorois had already been living around Lake Bogoria as an organized community for more than one hundred years. The enzymes that would later make millions of dollars for Procter and Gamble were already inhabiting the microbes in the lake. But at the time, there was no Genencor International or other biotech firms to pore and poke the lake’s enzymes in search of commercially viable enzymes.

Almost 200 years later, as of 2017, Procter & Gamble was worth $228.1 Billion. For fiscal year 2017, Procter & Gamble’s net sales were $65.1 billion (Kenya Shillings 6.6 Trillion). To put that staggering revenue into perspective, Kenya Government’s 2017-2018 budget was Ksh 2.29 trillion, almost three times less than Procter & Gamble’s revenue that year. For even more perspective, Kenya Government sought to raise Ksh 1.7 trillion in that fiscal year. Even if the country managed to raise this entire amount, which is rarely the case, Procter & Gamble’s revenue would still be almost four times the revenue of Kenya’s Government.

Please pause for a while and read the above paragraph again so that this astounding fact can sink in – In 2017, Procter & Gamble’s revenue was four time more than Kenya’s expected revenue for the fiscal year 2017 – 2018.   

Isn’t it therefore only fair that a company that is richer than the Kenya Government should pay some royalties for Lake Bogoria’s enzymes? After all, these enzymes contributed some percentage to its staggering revenue. It could be (it probably is) that Procter and Gamble has not broken any law whatsoever and has legally not ripped of the good people of Baringo County where Lake Bogoria is situated. But doesn’t the spirit of the law of humanity (ethics) dictate that Lake Bogoria’s communities should get a share of the royalties? Am not talking about PR fueled money to build a new hospital wing here and paint a classroom there. Rather, am talking about actual dinero, cash that is channeled to the communities not as a favour, a mere act of compassion but as a right because that money is due to them.

The money is due to them not just because of the spirit of the law of humanity but mainly because of the international law as is clearly stipulated in the Convention of Biological Biodiversity (CBD) and the Nagoya Protocol that stemmed from this convention.

The CBD clearly states that, “To be ‘fair and equitable’, benefit-sharing should reflect the efforts of national authorities and of stakeholders such as communities, institutions and companies in making the genetic resource available (through conserving, allowing access to, providing information on, and collecting it) and using it (conducting research and development, etc.).”

The Nagoya Protocol further reinforces this when it states in Article 5 that, ‘benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources that are held by indigenous and local communities, in accordance with domestic legislation regarding the established rights of these indigenous and local communities over these genetic resources, are shared in a fair and equitable way with the communities concerned, based on mutually agreed terms.’

Exactly! Let me translate the above paragraphs to you into simple English, “communities, institutions and companies should share the money that is made from the commercial utilization of genetic resources.”

The formula that such sharing will operate from may be debatable but what is indisputable is the fact that benefit sharing must be ‘fair and equitable’ amongst all parties. That’s the law. But am afraid am going to have to spoil the party here. Although the CBD was adopted 26 years ago in in 1992 when google was not even born, USA has not yet ratified the agreement! All the UN States have ratified this vital agreement – Iran, Libya, Cape Verde, Somalia – all of them except the United States of America. This means that international law may not necessarily shield the Endorois Community from the powerful corporate arrows of companies like Procter & Gamble.

What then can shield the Endorois from exploitation? I decided to search for an answer to this question from the Endorois leaders themselves.

One morning just after 6AM, I jumped into the shower then into The Growler, my trusted Subaru Forrester. I turned on the ignition key and it growled into life prompting a smile onto my face. That engine growl was so divine that I wished Beethoven was still alive to compose a symphony known as ‘The Growler Symphonica.’

Less than two hours later, The Growler deposited me at the deserted Parking Lot of a three-star hotel that sits quietly a few hundred metres from the Naivasha junction along Nairobi – Nakuru Highway. I matched past the hotel’s lobby into an adjacent restaurant then chose a corner table. I was there to meet Wilson Kipkazi, the Endorois Welfare Council Chairman and Kenneth Ole Nasho, a Kenya Wildlife Service Game Warden.

The Endorois community made history in 2003 when they took a case before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to demand that the Kenyan government recognises the rights of the Endorois to Lake Bogoria. Although they had lived in land adjacent to the lake for over 300 years, the Kenyan Government evicted them from there in the 1970s. Seven years after they had lodged their case through the Centre for Minority Rights Development and Minority Rights Group International, the Endorois won their landmark case. But in subsequent years, the initial ululation was followed by groans of despair since the Kenya Government didn’t take any steps to restore Lake Bogoria’s land to the Endorois. Since I was aware of all this unfortunate drama surrounding Endorois land, I was eager to meet Wilson Kipkazi and learn more about their land even as I asked him how the Endorois could be shielded from exploitation.

A few minutes after I took my seat and ordered for black coffee (I was trying to reduce my intake of calories after the weighing scale informed me solemnly that I was back to 89 kilos from the 79kilos I had memorably attained one year earlier), two gentlemen walked in and squinted as they scanned the restaurant. I raised my hand and eye brows, guessing that they were looking for me. Sure enough, it was Wilson Kipkazi the Endorois leader and Kenneth ole Nasho, former Game Warden of Baringo County where Lake Bogoria is situated.

After they joined me at my table, the Endorois Welfare Council Chairman didn’t waste any time on small talk but instantly launched into his grievances with those who exploit his beloved Lake Bogoria.

“The companies that came first to do the research never informed the community. Later on, we learnt through the media that multinational companies had made millions of dollars through genetic resources extracted from Lake Bogoria. This really made the community furious. Fortunately, some companies, a good example is Novozymes from Denmark, decided to talk to the community and pay back some royalties. When these royalties were paid back to the community, it was not much money, but the amount changed lives of the people because this money was used to educate about 246 children in a year.”

My black coffee remained untouched as Mr. Kipkazi spoke. Since he was as old as my father, I couldn’t refer to him as Wilson, even in the privacy of my mind.

Mange tak Novozyme, I silently thanked the Danish company. Fifteen years earlier, Gitte Nielsen, a 20-year-old Danish girl who resembled sunrise had taught me how to say, ‘thank you very much’ in Danish.

“I love you,” I had told her.

As a pink blush spread across her rosy cheeks, I had added with a cheeky smile, “how do you say I love you in Danish.”

Jeg elsker dig.” (Pronounced ya elska dai).

These memories stormed my mind even as Mr. Kipkazi continued to explain, “Lake Bogoria is like an umbilical cord for the Endorois community. Lake Bogoria is a sacred site for us from time immemorial. We have a lot of attachment to it in terms of sacred sites, for traditional functions including some of the functions that bonds to together the community.”

When he mentioned the words, ‘sacred site’ my mind instantly took a leap to All Saints Cathedral, my Church. I occasionally visit it during weekdays for some quiet time of reflection and prayer. Whenever am there during these times, the old grand architecture of the Church, together with the massive high ceilings and serene atmosphere normally combine forces to paint the mood with a sacred stroke that nudges the divine a bit closer to the heartbeat.

For ages, Lake Bogoria has nudged the Endorois closer to God in similar fashion. As they feasted on the Lake’s unseen spiritual benefits, they couldn’t have known that the lake was also teeming with other invisible benefits of a different kind. The invisible benefits that bring visible wealth to biotech companies plus the corporates that hold their hands and sign their cheques.

But enough about those western corporates and biotech firms. As my great, great grandfather Walid Musula used to say, ‘when there is dust on your mwiko (wooden cooking stick), don’t blame the wind – wipe away the dust then cover the mwiko with a wide banana leaf that will keep away the dust.’

We, as Kenyans and Africans by extension must keep our visible and invisible treasures covered – protected not just by legislation but also steadfast execution of that legislation. Additionally, we must know the extent of the treasure that we have. This knowledge must extend beyond the university corridors of knowledge into dusty pathways of local communities like the Endorois.  

But in case the wind deposits dust on the mwiko, as has happened with Lake Bogoria’s microbes, then we must ultimately stop blaming the wind and wipe away the dust. In Lake Bogoria’s case, we can wipe away the dust by doing what Wilson Kipkazi the Endorois Community Chairman told me in that restaurant’s corner table.

Just before we completed our conversation, he looked at me intently and said with conviction, “Our community still practices traditional way of life. We still use the traditional medicine, as opposed to conventional medicine. It has been passed from generation to generation, the knowledge that we have within the community on plants, animals, even the soil and many other things. This is knowledge that we still use it. We embrace traditional knowledge.”

I nodded slowly. There was still coffee in my cup but it had since turned lukewarm after I abandoned it. What Wilson Kipkazi was saying was too powerful to be interrupted by coffee. For the centuries that they had been living at Lake Bogoria, they had amassed a mountain of knowledge that was often treated as irrelevant by our contemporary society. We need to respect their indigenous knowledge and treat them as the age-old custodians of Lake Bogoria and everything within it. In addition, we should go a step further and do what Kenneth Nasho, the Kenya Wildlife Service warden told me just after Mr. Kipkazi had finished speaking.

In one of the open forums that he held with the Endorois Community during his time as warden in charge of Lake Bogoria, they had told shared with him a powerful insight, “they told me that they really needed to have their own local scientists.”

I took a deep breath and rubbed my hands together as I was wont to do when I was excited. 

As the rest of us were busy crying foul (as we definitely should), the Endorois community had already dusted themselves and cast an eye into the future. They were eager for a future where it wouldn’t take a scientist from Leicester University to mine microorganisms from their lake; a future where it wouldn’t take a mzungu (white people) biotech firm to dissect those microbes and discover highly profitable enzymes; a future where it wouldn’t take yet another mzungu company to use those enzymes to develop a highly profitable product worth billions.

Indeed, the Endorois community want a future where they will have their very own home-grown scientists whose contemporary scientific knowledge will fuse with the Endorois indigenous knowledge to create a priceless knowledge base that will lead to sustainable revenues that will change their lives for generations.  

That future can begin as soon as tomorrow. Even as those homegrown Endorois scientists come to fruition, there are already established Kenyan scientists like Professor Mulaa from Nairobi University and Dr. Martha Induli from the Kenya Industrial Research Development Institute (KIRDI). In the same vein, there are experts like Kavaka Mukonyi from the Kenya Wildlife Service. These people with immense experience and knowledge to turn microbes into million-dollar products.

The only missing link is those papers that have Jomo Kenyatta or Abraham Lincoln on them – money. It will take millions of dollars to transform microbes into billion-dollar products.

As I waded slowly from the weak-coffee colored waters of Lake Bogoria, I finally understood why the African Spoonbill bird had been gazing deep into the waters of Lake Bogoria. Its eyes must have been feasting on the priceless treasures that lived in the Lake.

Its up to us here in Kenya and Africa to mine those treasures in a sustainable way.

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Tuesday, 08 September 2020 00:00

Why I will vote for a Donkey in 2022

I don’t know who I will vote for in August 2022 when millions of my fellow Kenyans and I will line up to cast our ballots. But I know that it will not be any of the two horses on the ballot even though there is a high likelihood that one of those two horses will win. I suspect that I will vote for a donkey, the underdog. It will not be a protest vote, but a principled vote.

In any given race, the two horses are those with a ‘realistic chance’ of winning. The rest are donkeys that are not expected to keep up with the horses and are destined to lose. But as elections elsewhere may have shown and as you may have experienced even in your own life, donkeys don’t always lose.

My friend Allan will tell me that my donkey vote will be a wasted vote. He will probably vote for one of the horses. The one that will bolt from whichever stable the Rt. Hon Raila Odinga will be part of, in the unlikely event that he doesn’t run himself. Many of my friends and relatives will most likely follow suit and vote for this horse too. But many of my other friends and other friends will vote for the other horse. His Excellency Dr. William Ruto.

Whichever horse they cast their vote for, I will be left puzzled. I will wonder why they always have to go for a horse, a famous name, a rich fellow, a political titan. Can’t they ask themselves where the horses we have had in this country have led us to? Since independence, we have had four top horses – Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta. Other distinguished members of this exclusive Kenyan horses stable include Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and his son Raila Odinga plus William Ruto.  Plus maybe Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi.

If Kenyans continue with their love affair with horses, then for the next one hundred years, our presidents will always come from members of this exclusive horse stable. If it is not President Raila Odinga, it will be President William Ruto, President Kalonzo Musyoka, President Musalia Mudavadi, President Jomo Kenyatta (President Uhuru’s son), President Rosemary Odinga (Raila’s daughter), President Gideon Moi (President Moi’s son) and more from the same stable.

There is nothing wrong with these fellow Kenyans exercising their constitutional right and running for the highest office in the land. But there is everything wrong in forty million other Kenyans who don’t belong to this horse stable never standing a chance to win the presidency, however transformative their leadership is.

Let me remind you what Alexander the Great, the ancient Greek leader once said, ‘I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.’ It may be that Kenya has never roared economically because sheep don’t roar. Maybe our horses have been sheep who have cowered in the face of corruption, poverty and tribalism. But if leaders are reflections of their people, doesn’t it mean that Kenyans are in fact sheep and not lions being led by sheep? Exactly. If Kenyans want to be led by lions, they themselves must become lions. And one way to become lions is to have the courage of looking beyond the usual suspects to lead them. They can also become lions by stepping up and seeking leadership.

In reality, donkeys empower horses by electing them in every election cycle. But can’t they see that most of the leaders we have elected are the ones that have ridden our backs instead of us riding their backs into a better Kenya where your last name doesn’t determine your job prospects? A Kenya where a youth from Lamu is just as valued as a youth from Nairobi. A Kenya where dying children in Turkana are rescued with the same urgency as dying children from Nyeri or Buruburu. A Kenya where young people, whether they be called Njeri, Chepkorir or Otieno can find or create a job without having to take five, seven or ten years to do so. If ever. A Kenya where billions are spent to build bigger hospitals not bigger mansions for politicians. Where millions are spent on better roads, not better cars.

This Kenya is not yet a reality despite the fact that we have been led by four horses since independence.

That is why I will look at my friends and family in the eye and ask them why on earth they are following a horse yet again even though other horses have in the past kicked them and left them with bloody noses.

In the 2013 elections, I voted for a donkey named Professor James Ole Kiyiapi. Allan (who would be a great businessman by now if capital wasn’t a preserve for a few) told me that I threw that vote and in so doing helped to elect Uhuru Kenyatta. My then girlfriend (an amazing lady) voted for Abduba Dida as did my sister Grace (a truly graceful person). My sister Liz was also supposed to vote for Dida since the three of us were fed up with horses. But she says that when she entered the voting booth, “I saw the photo of Raila and just felt teary. I couldn’t not vote for him.” 

Such is the emotional connection that makes a good percentage of Kenyans go for a horse even when that horse hasn’t delivered them to the promised land.

As someone born in 1978, Liz was nineteen when Raila Odinga first ran for President in 1997. By the time she cast that 2013 ballot for him, he had been appearing on her TV screen on presidential related politics for at least sixteen years, which is twice as old as her first child Joshua. It’s no wonder Raila felt like family.

Isn’t it unfair to not vote for Raila or President Uhuru Kenyatta simply because they are horses of Kenyan politics? You may ask.

What is unfair is that at least twenty-five million Kenyans of voting age can never win the presidency unless the horses are not running. Yet it is this same Kenyans who actually elect those horses. That is why Allan considered my vote for Professor Kiyiapi as ‘wasted.’

If a critical majority of Kenyans ‘waste’ their votes in 2022 by voting with their conscience, not just mass appeal, a donkey might just win. Not just the presidency but all other elective posts too.

To be continued in my upcoming book, ‘Vote of Confidence.’

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Monday, 31 August 2020 00:00

Tanzania's Climate Warrior

The cold was biting Tajiel Urioh so much that he was shivering like one of the leaves of the hundreds of trees in the forest that sits at the footstool of Tanzania’s Mt. Meru. Although he was just a kid, he knew those trees well because almost daily for several years, he wandered into this forest in search of firewood. Today, the cold had dulled some of the excitement that usually raced through him whenever he raced into the forest. Although that locality was generally cold due to its proximity to the mountain, today it seemed to be twice as cold.

Aaaah! Tajiel exclaimed loudly. He had just seen one of his favorite birds perch on one of his favourite trees. He didn’t know it then, but Mt. Meru actually has more than 400 different bird species. Among them was the African crowned eagle that he had just seen. Some of his fellow children feared it because it was so big and had small, piercing eyes. But he loved that it was so big. When it glided low, its large wings blocked out a part of the sky, which intrigued Tajiel. He sometimes wondered if it could carry him. He also wondered where it lived, because he had never seen a nest big enough to house it.

As he was watching the eagle that was also watching him, the eagle flapped its massive wings vigorously, causing several twigs to fall down from the tree.

Asante! Thanks! Tajiel said as he ran and scooped the twigs into his arms. The eagle had just gifted him with half of the firewood that he needed. This endeared him even more to the big bird.

Tajiel hails from a small village in Arusha region, not too far from the seat of the East Africa Community. His village is in the vicinity of Mt. Meru, Africa’s fifth highest mountain and Tanzania’s second highest mountain. It is only seventy kilometers west of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain.

He is from Tanzania’s Meru community, whose population is approximately 2 million people. Although his community shares the same name with Kenya’s Meru tribe, these two are completely different ethnic communities with different histories and identities.

Because his village was eight kilometers away from school, Tajiel spent two hours every day walking to and from school. In the mornings, he would wipe his feet in the morning dew as he laughed with neighboring kids who were also in the same school with him. Due to such antics, they often arrived to school late.

Since the school was downhill and surrounded by hills, they would get a vantage view that revealed to them if the parade was already underway. If that was the case, then Tajiel and two older friends would slither away to the bush to while away the morning as they waited for an opportune time to sneak into school. Sometimes, that opportune time never came, so they simply returned home in the afternoon.

After returning home, a meal of ugali and mchicha (amaranth) would be followed by another run into the forest for firewood. This was a staple of his daily chores. It only changed when his father arranged for him to move to another village and stay with a relative whose homestead was nearer his primary school.

In that new village, the search for firewood was replaced by another, even more pressing search.

The beautiful Mt. Meru stood guard in the background as the now ten-year old Tajiel half-walked, half-ran along the rugged pathway. In his small hands was a ten-litre plastic container. In his stomach was nothing. He was hungry. Not because he hadn’t eaten but because he had been walking for more than five kilometers already. He was hunting for the most precious liquid in the world – water.

Tajiel was living with his aunt at the time spending nights in a mud-walled house whose rusty iron sheet roof did little to shield him from the cold that poured down from the nearby Mt. Meru at night.

His aunt’s village had neither a shallow well nor piped water. Just a nearby stream that was extremely moody. Sometimes, it flowed with abundant water, but sometimes it completely refused to yield any water.

Fast forward. It’s 2005 and Tanzania has a new President. Jakaya Kikwete. The 55-year old former Minister of Foreign Affairs has taken over from Benjamin Mkapa, who took the presidential baton from Ali Hassan Mwinyi, who succeeded the legendary Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first President.

Tajiel is now sixteen years old and studying at King’ori Secondary school. When he joined that school, he became the first person from his village to go to secondary school. In doing so, he raised the education bar a little bit higher for his younger siblings and other young people in the village.

King'ori Secondary school is even further from his village than his primary school was. To reach it from his village, you will have to walk for fifteen kilometers past dozens of villages, several steep hills and a handful of little shops that mostly sell bread, milk, bar soap, sugar, salt, cooking fat, wheat flour and tea leaves. 

There was no way that Tajiel could cover this distance every day, so once again, his father had asked around for a relative who could host him. A distant aunt was found and she agreed to host him. It was while he staying with this distant aunt that Tajiel encountered again a problem that afflicts millions of other Africans – water shortage. His aunt’s village together with several others, comprising more than one hundred people depended on a stream that kept running out of water. Being one of the youngest in the homestead he was staying in, Tajiel had to take up duties of hunting for water wherever it could be found. He had to learn how to fetch water using a donkey, which was a lot better since the donkey could carry much more water and lessen the trips that had to be taken.

On a number of occasions, he had to join other villagers in fetching water from a tap that was a two-hour walk away. Once you got there, you had to wait in queue for others who had arrived before you to fill their water containers. As such, it would take him at least five hours to fetch water and deliver it back to his aunt’s homestead.

That particular tap from which they fetched water was along Mt. Meru forest and its water shot up from the bowels of the forest. In that regard, Mt. Meru was taking care of the people who had kept her company for centuries.  But if only that pipe could be extended to their homes! The water situation in Tanzania remains dire even today because four out of ten Tanzanians still don’t have access to improved sources of safe water.

Such data, together with his own water woes experiences, compelled Tajiel to resolve that he would be part of the solution to his country’s water scarcity. Years later when he founded an organization known as Green Icon, he partnered with another youth organization known as Tengeneza Generation to provide water for Babayu Village that is located in a semi-arid region of Central Tanzania.

Green Icon and Tengeneza Generation drilled a borehole then installed a solar powered water pump and related infrastructure for water supply in Babayu village.

“I will never forget the look on the face of one of the local ladies as she watched her bucket fill up with water.” Tajiel says.

That lady was one of 80 households who now had guaranteed access to safe and clean water from the borehole. Also assured of this access were 500 pupils from a local primary school.

The road of life is long, full of twists, turns, potholes, bumps, bridges, great views, heartbreaks, triumphs, challenges, setbacks and opportunities.

Before this road of life led him to leadership junction, where he chose to turn right into environmental leadership, Tajiel was just a young student with an uncertain future staring at him.


A few months after joining King'ori Secondary, Tajiel had to rent a single room together with a fellow student. While that gave him more privacy, it brought with it new challenges of finding and cooking food on a daily basis. It soon became evident that the cheapest, most practical meal they could eat daily was ugali and dagaa, whose English name is silver cyprinid or Lake Victoria sardine. Locally, the colloquial name of these little fish, the size of two beans, was misumari. Despite this being the most affordable meal, many were the days when they couldn’t afford it. On most of these days, a friend of theirs known as Joel Gabriel came to their rescue. Bwak the Bantu Poet once wrote that, ‘when the world is running away from you, true friends run to you.’ Joel kept running to them. During extremely lean days when they didn’t even have firewood for cooking, he would, when necessary, steal some firewood for them. He would also occasionally bring them eggs from his homestead and give them a rare cuisine variety.

Due to all these basic struggles of his first year in Secondary school, it felt as if the road of his life arrived at a cliff and stopped there. Tajiel almost dropped out of school. Had that happened, it would have been the norm, not the exception. As recent as 2017, the Human Rights Watch released a report which revealed that more than forty percent of Tanzania’s adolescent have either dropped out of secondary school or not even proceeded with it.

When someone reaches a point when they have to choose between the basic struggle for survival and quest for education, the instinctive thing to do is to choose basic survival.

Although Tajiel avoided the educational cliff and proceeded with his education, financial constraints kept pulling him back. Whenever students who hadn’t paid school were sent home, he was always in the group that would sling their bags on their backs and march out of gate as their counterparts remained in class. Financial woes were like a rope around the neck of his formal education. The only way to loosen this noose was to find a job that would give him a fighting chance to survive and stay in school.

Mia tano tu!” “Mia tano tu!” Only five hundred ! Only five hundred!

Tajiel shouted, as he lifted up a sleeveless white T-shirt whose front was screaming the words, ‘Chicago Bulls.’

One of the hardest things about this job was the shouting. He had to keep attempting to shout louder since the market was full of other second-hand clothes traders who were also shouting. If you didn’t increase your volume, you wouldn’t be heard by the few customers who came to the market during weekday afternoons. Every Thursday and Friday, Tajiel would take leave of absence from King’ori High school so that he could sell second-hand clothes at the market at King’ori market to make some money.

Due to this job and his frequent school fees woes, Tajiel spent less and less time in school. Every Thursday and Friday afternoon as he was shouting his lungs out, fellow students were ingesting chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, history and all those other lessons.

Mbona sikuoni shuleni siku hizi?” Why don’t I see you in school nowadays?

His physics teacher asked him when he bumped into him in the marketplace.

“I transferred to another school.” Tajiel lied with a straight face. The market was teaching him to be a good actor. But it was also starving him of valuable academic time and making him feel lost whenever did attend class. As other students scribbled notes and nodded along as teachers taught, the shouted words, “Mia moja tu!” “Mia moja tu!” would reverberate in his mind.

Because of all the lessons he had missed, he decided to attend tuition in another school during holidays. This decision was to play a critical role in launching him into an environmental career. During the tuition lessons, he became intrigued with taxonomy, the science of naming, defining and classifying groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics. This topic reminded him of the many hours he had spent both in Mt Meru Forest and the bush near his primary school. He immersed himself so much into biology that a few months later back in school, he scored the highest marks in Biology. From that point onwards, he was very active in class.

In order to meet the ever-present money challenges, he used the next holidays to work on a farm. The work entailed harvesting maize for a week. It was very tedious work that started at 6AM and ended at 6PM. They were paid as per the maize cobs harvested, so they pushed themselves as far as they could. Consequently, he earned the most money ever of his young life, which cushioned him later that term. In his fourth year of Secondary school, he was lucky to find accommodation with a local family. This took away the unending daily search for food. In addition, the father of the family taught him how to drive a tractor, which led him to spend hours in the farm, in the midst of nature. He watched the tractor turn large, hard chunks of soil into soft, fine soil particles that later soaked in seeds and nurtured those seeds into crops.

During this period, Tajiel also caught the hip-hop bug.

Sometimes while he was in the farm or walking back home from school, he would start rapping. He had grown to like hip hop so much that he did more than listen to it – he also came up with his own lyrics and rapped them to fellow students, usually on Fridays. He came up with a local hit song entitled, ‘no need for revenge.’ It could be that it was inspired by his semi-physical showdown with the chemistry teacher. That altercation had resulted in his desertion of school for several weeks.

Professor Jay a local Tanzanian hip-hop artist would sometimes show up in his mind without warning, as did the legendary Tupac Shakur. Hip-hop had emerged straight outta Compton and travelled for several decades and several thousand kilometers, straight into his heart and mind. Few things bathed him in joy the way hip-hop did. When he was spitting lyrics whether to a small crowd or to himself, he felt like Mase rapping in Brandy’s song, top of the world:'Brandy on top of the world; Darkchild on top of the world; Mase be on top of the world.'

Darkchild on top of the world. He liked that. Tajiel on top of the world.

Unfortunately, his world came crashing down after the final results of the national secondary school examinations were released.


“You have studied for four years for nothing!”

Tajiel’s uncle told him in a low but angry voice. A strong afternoon breeze slammed shut the living room’s lone wooden window.

“What do you mean?” Tajiel asked, alarm rising in him like a volcano.

His uncle handed him the national secondary school examinations result sheet for King’ori Secondary School. Although it was really crumpled, the printing on it was quite legible.

His eyes ran down to his name and he understood what his uncle was alluding to. Instead of a grade next to his name, there were blanks.

What! Tajiel’s eyes grew bigger. Was he seeing correctly? Indeed he was. Next to the names of all other students were grades for each subjects, followed by their overall grades.  But for him, just blanks.

His uncle was right. It was evident that four years of secondary school had resulted in nothing. Just blanks.

Tajiel was so broken that he decided to focus on other things and forget about furthering his studies into High School. The road of his life had arrived a critical junction. On the left was a signpost with two words – Instant Cash. On the right were the words – High School.

In his mind, he was leaning heavily towards turning left.

I am going to focus on making a lot of money, not in some distant future, but now. He decided. He had an idea on how he could make mountains of money from a mountain. Marijuana was planted on sections of Mt. Meru. If he started trafficking that marijuana, he could fill his pockets with lots of those pink notes of 10,000 Tanzania shillings.

During his four years of schooling in the area, he had seen motorcycles ferry sackfuls of marijuana from Mt. Meru’s forest. A handful of his friends who were in the drug’s value chain and were never broke like him. They always had the best shoes, the fanciest T-shirts and coolest trousers, usually jeans. That’s the kind of life that he now wanted. After all, school has let me down. He thought again and again.

Since he had a small body and looked quite young, no one would ever suspect him of being a drug trafficker. The more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that drug trafficking was now a major part of his future. A future that would be awash with money.

But before he could start acting on this resolution, prayer intervened in a very literal way.

March 8th, which is the international Women’s day, was around the corner. On this day, the Lutheran Global Women’s ministry usually organizes global prayer sessions. That particular year in 2008, the Bolivian Chapter of the Lutheran Ministry was in charge of organizing the prayer session. Tajiel came across a brochure with this information. Included in the information was 2008’s prayer theme – drug addiction. That caught Tajiel’s eye. He read how drugs were killing the dreams of Bolivian youth and why it was important for the Church to fight drugs fully. He re-read the brochure again, this time slowly.

Drugs are killing the dreams of youth. These words jumped out of the brochure and hit him forcefully. He thought about his dreams of pursuing his studies until university and earning good money that would make a difference not just in his life but also the life of his family. He thought about his younger siblings and how they looked up to him. He thought about his parents and how they had placed their own dreams in him. Even though they had later separated, he knew that their love for him had remained unchanged. 

He thought about his beloved grandfather, the one person who had molded him immensely. No. He couldn’t let them down. He couldn’t allow drugs to kill his dreams. He retracted the decision he had made in his mind and retraced his steps back to the junction, where he turned right to the road leading to High School.

Tajiel killed the plan of trafficking drugs and buried it deeply. He would go on with his studies. As if fate was waiting for him to make this decision, he finally got his results almost three months after others had received theirs. While his performance wasn’t sterling, it was sufficient to secure for him a place at Siha High School, a government school that was located on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

A few months later in September, he joined this High School and was pleased that it was less than an hour away from Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain. This gave him a chance to use weekends for hiking lower sections of the famous mountain and swimming in nearby rivers. Yet again, nature remained by his side like a true friend.

Tajiel could see the bridge that stood between him and the university. That bridge was in the form of the final national High School Examinations that were still two years away. If he passed those exams, he would cross the bridge into university education. That would be a historic fete for his village as he would become the first person from that village to step into university, make him the village’s Neil Armstrong of university education. Scattered across Africa are many such psychological barriers of achievement, not because of lesser potential, but because of lesser opportunities.

Knowing that the stakes were quite high, Tajiel invested his entire heart and energies into studies. He even inscribed on his desk the words, ‘Division 1 is my right. Hope for the Best.’ He was determined to achieve Division 1, the best possible result. Also engraved in his mind was Isaiah 41:10, his father’s favourite verse:

Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you; Yes, I will help you; I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.

Such was the attitude with which he studied for two years until he sat for his final High School examinations. He faced those exams with courage and determination, confident that he had planted sufficiently and would reap sterling results.

After completing High School that year in February, Tajiel started helping an uncle of his with production and distribution of dairy products, mostly cheese. He wanted to gain some business experience and earn some extra money.

When the results came out in May, he was among the top-five students in the school who had attained Division 1!

Tajiel couldn’t stop smiling that day. He was so thrilled that finally, his dream of going to University was about to be released. With such sterling results, he was going to gain automatic entry into a public university. He would also qualify for student loans from the government, which would lessen his financial burden.

His only preoccupation became zeroing in on the degree course to pursue. He had an option of choosing between Human Resource Management and Bachelor of Art in Geography and Environmental Studies. Because of his lifelong relationship with nature, he chose the latter and later on received an admission letter to the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s oldest University.

Established in 1961 as an affiliate college of the University of London, it became it became an affiliate of the University of East Africa in 1963 before becoming an independent University in 1970. Among the prominent Africans who studied there are John Magufuli, President of Tanzania; Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda; Jakaya Kikwete, Edward Lowassa, former Prime Minister of Tanzania; former President of Tanzania; John Garang, former Vice President of South Sudan; Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the former President of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Donald Kaberuka, former President of the African Development Bank. Tajiel was now poised to be in this illustrious company. He could hardly wait for the road of life to deposit him into those hallowed lecture halls of the University of Dar es Salaam.

In late October 2010, Tajiel boarded a Dar es Salaam bound bus in Arusha and set off for the long 630 kilometer journey. Ensconced in the bus’s luggage carrier were his two suitcases. Safely tucked away in his mind were his dreams of the better, brighter future that would be unlocked by university education.

More than ten hours later, his bus arrived at Dar es Salaam’s Ubungo bus terminal. He gazed out of the window excitedly. So this is how Dar es Salaam looks like! He thought. It was his first time ever in the country’s economic capital. He was both excited and afraid because the streets of Dar had a reputation of petty crime. He half expected that the moment he would get out of the bus, someone would snatch his two suitcases.

Sultan Majid bin Said of Zanzibar built Dar es Salaam in the 1860s. Back then, it was just a tiny town on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Loosely translated from Arabic, Dar es Salaam means ‘house of peace.’

In 1887, the German East Africa company established its headquarters in Dar es Salaam, which led to its expansion. This expansion was further reinforced after construction of Mittellandbahn (German for Central Line Railway line) in the 1900s. It snakes its way from Dar es Salaam to Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika via Dodoma.

The Dar es Salaam that Tajiel arrived into that sweltering evening was a far cry from that nascent Dar es Salaam of the 1900s. It was now a sprawling modern city that is home to approximately five million people.

The quest for higher education had brought Tajiel to this coastal city and he intended to give it his best shot. Within a few days, he was introduced to Environmental studies. As he sat in his first lecturer, surrounded by other eager young people from across Tanzania, he whispered a prayer of gratitude. Just by being there, in that university lecture hall, he was taking one small step for himself and a giant leap for his village. He had broken the psychological barrier and set an example for other youth in his locality to shoot for university.

It had taken his village for Tajiel to land at University. Babu, his grandfather had superbly captained the village army that fought for him to advance in his studies. Babu was a thoughtful man who liked to spend time herding his cattle. He knew all of them well and delighted in grazing them in the sprawling fields that tugged Mt. Meru’s ankles.

Although Babu didn’t have a large stature, he had a large mind that was endowed with decades of life on the slopes of Mt. Meru. For his entire life, he had interacted closely with the mountain’s lush landscapes and ecosystems. He knew a lot about the medicinal qualities of trees and instilled that knowledge into his young grandson.

That tree is a powerful one, he would say. Mti wa ajabu. A tree of wonder. It can heal several ailments. As he uttered these words, the wrinkles on his face would fold further, as his eyes shut momentarily. Even his voice would go down a notch. His reverence for trees wasn’t lost on young Tajiel.

On another occasion, he would point out the African Redwood tree and tell him how he had climbed it as a child.

Waona ule mdobore,” Do you see that Mdobore, he would say wistfully, using the tree’s Swahili name, “ulikua ukisimama pale kabla ya babu yangu kuzaliwa.” It was standing there long before my own grandfather was born.

The tree had an umbrella-shaped crown and beautiful orange flowers that can be used to treat tapeworms. Its roots can be boiled in meat to conjure a soup that treats malaria while its bark can halt a running stomach. Babu knew all these medicinal qualities of this tree and several others. He had learnt from his father who had in turn learnt from his own father. The indigenous medicinal knowledge kept passing on like a baton, from generation to generation.

Babu also taught Tajiel about a certain plant known locally as mkongoraa and scientifically as mondia whitei. The plant’s roots were said to be an appetizer. They were also reputed to increase male virility, which made them popular with young and old men alike. When Tajiel realized that these roots were quite popular with students, he started harvesting them from the bushes and carrying them to his primary school to sell them. He would sell one root for 20 Tanzania Shillings, which was enough to buy two mandazis. In that sense, he got quite an early introduction to non-timber forest products and the green economy!

Uendapo msituni, usibebe panga” Don’t ever carry a machete whenever you go into the bush, Babu would tell Tajiel.

Ukifanya hivyo hutashikwa na tamaa ya kukata chochote,” that way, you will not be tempted to cut anything in the bush.

As far as Babu was concerned, whatever was of the bush, should be left to the bush, as much as possible. This instilled in Tajiel a reverence for nature that underpinned his environmental activism in later years.

Babu also played an active role in paying Tajiel’s school fees. He even sold one of his prized bulls to pay for Tajiel’s school fees. A big red bull that had been born in his homestead and become like a family member. Tajiel knew this bull well since as a child, he himself had herded it and the other cattle often. For Babu to sell it, it meant that he truly believed in Tajiel and in the power of education.


As the first months of university rolled by, Tajiel’s pursuit of higher education started opening up his mind further. He grew restless about his financial means. Memories of the dire financial struggles of secondary school were still fresh in his mind. If he had found ways of making money back then, when he was just a teenager, then surely he could do so now. So he seized an opportunity to undertake network-marketing business through GNLD, a global conglomerate of food nutrition supplements.

He was so devoted to this business that he was able to recruit dozens of other network marketers within a few months.  The more he recruited, the more he earned. This gave him such decent earnings that he was able to purchase a laptop and a smartphone, which made him one of the few smartphone owners in class. This gave him bragging rights that he was happy to revel in.

By the time he screeched into his second year at University Tajiel could afford to rent his own house. This was a major achievement for a student because in Dar es Salaam, tenants usually pay house rent annually, not monthly.

Although sparsely furnished, the one-bedroom house was replete with the most important item to him – his laptop. He spent many late nights hunched over that laptop, devouring its music, movies and Excel records of his businesses. It often blared songs by  Nako 2 Nako, one of his favourite Tanzanian hip hop groups. He would nod as he rapped along and crunched revenue figures of his network marketing business.

Also supplementing his salary at this time was distribution of his uncle’s cheese and sale of computer anti-virus software. Through these hustles, he was able to employ fellow students occasionally.

At this time, Tanzania was home to approximately 8.1 million youth aged between 14 – 25 years. This number had doubled from 4.4 million in 1990, which further strained employment opportunities. By providing occasional employment to his fellow young people, Tajiel was helping them along the bumpy road of life and making their university life a little less difficult.  

Two years later, Tajiel completed university. Ideally, a good job should have been waiting for him right outside the university gates. After all, he was the first one to join university from his village. Unfortunately, he had just stepped into a job market where the demand is sky high and the supply woefully low. Out of the 420 million young Africans who are aged between 15 and 35, one third are unemployed. 

Tajiel was determined not be part of this sorry statistics. He doubled down on his IT business and founded a non-profit organisation known as Green Icon. Its mission was to champion climate action, climate resilience and the youth agenda in Tanzania. Although excited by this new organization and its limitless potential, he wondered whether it would ever be able to access the climate funds that are pledged every year in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conferences.

Several years later, Tajiel was one of the expert reviewers of a UNEP Publication for youth that prescribed a solution to the climate financing struggle of youth organizations like his:

‘The inability of young people to successfully navigate the rigorous climate funding process leaves their climate action impaired. It would be prudent for global climate funds to have customised funding mechanisms that specifically target young people in Africa, or to peg a youth-funding conditionality on funds given to nationally-accredited agencies, compelling them to fund youth initiatives.’

Since Green Icon didn’t have any funding yet, Tajiel secured a job with a marketing company that offered to pay him a monthly salary of half a million Tanzanian Shillings ($200). This job gave him an additional revenue stream that complemented his IT business earnings. He may have wandered deeper into this business road if he hadn’t stumbled on a Facebook job ad by ForumCC, the Tanzanian Civil Society Forum on Climate Change. It was for a communications officer job.

He applied for the job, was invited for an interview and subsequently emerged as the top candidate. That marked the beginning of his official foray into the climate change space. What a space it was! It entailed working closely with Tanzania’s Ministry of Environment, dozens of civil society organizations, learning institutions, corporate players, religious institutions and international players like UNFCCC.

Tajiel soon realized that the climate space was crazier than the marketplace that he had once sold second hand clothes.

“This shirt costs 4,000 Tanzania shillings.”

“I only have 2,000,”

“My best price is 3,500.”

Tajiel Climate PhotoWhile the bargaining can be a lot more convoluted than this, the end goal is always clear to both parties, which isn’t necessarily the case in the climate space.  The market’s clearly defined transactional interaction didn’t leave any room for ambiguity or confusion. These two – ambiguity and confusion – are constant realities in the climate space. 

Within months of landing this job, Tajiel was thrown into the deepest end of climate negotiations. In late November 2014, he travelled for 12,655 kilometers from Dar es Salaam to another coastal city – Lima, Peru’s capital. The twentieth Conference of Parties (COP 20) was scheduled to take place there during the first week of December.

How should emission cuts be accounted for? This was the big question for the rich nations.

Who will foot the climate bill and by how much? This was the big question for developing countries.

For small island States, their priority focus for the conference was captured in three all-important words – not I Love You, but ‘loss and damage.’ The wanted the conference to officially acknowledge that climate change was causing them loss and damage.

Although it was his first time to attend such a conference, Tajiel found himself at the very centre of the action. The Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) appointed him as their official rapporteur. His country Tanzania was also in the thick of things. It was the Coordinator of the Committee of the African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC).

On 9th December, Tanzania’s Vice President Dr. Mohamed Gharib Bilal read addressed the conference on behalf of Africa. About two minutes into his statement he read words that resonated very loudly with Tajiel, ‘A quarter of the African population suffers from acute water shortage.’

To most of the delegates, these were largely dry words from a high-ranking government official. To Tajiel, they described the life that he had lived for most of his life.

If this conference doesn’t make it a little easier for my people to access water, then it will have failed, he thought and continued with his rapporteur duties.

One year later, he was among the fifty thousand people who attended the historic twenty-first Conference of Parties (COP 21) in Paris. These people included the US President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping. They were part of the largest ever gathering of world leaders.

After two weeks of heated and intense negotiations, the Paris Climate Accord was finally agreed upon and signed on 12th December. It  required developed and developing countries to limit their emissions to safe levels of 2C with an aspiration of 1.5C.

Tajiel was right there, to witness the birth of this accord. His fervent hope was that the Green Climate Fund that was part of the Paris Accord would result in actual funding of grassroots African organizations like Green Icon.

Tajiel worked with the Tanzanian Civil Society Forum on Climate Change for two years until 2016 when funding for the project ran out. Evidently, climate financing wasn’t just a challenge for youth organizations like green icon. Lack of climate funds was a gigantic boulder that was right in the middle of Africa’s climate resilience road. The Green Climate Fund was yet to blow up this boulder.

Now that he was out of a formal job Tajiel invested more time into Green Icon and other environmental initiatives. That same year in 2016, he volunteered as the Coordinator for Tanzania International Model UN – Youth of United Nations Association (YUNA), in Partnership with United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office (UNRCO) Tanzania.

This role enabled to him to play an active role in nurturing the international diplomacy skills of young people. His participation in the Lima and Paris conferences had shown him the immense power of international diplomacy. Africa needed to deploy this power much more strategically and consistently. That was the only way to secure substantial victories in the climate change space.

Tajiel has continued to navigate this climate space with skill and commitment. He has been to numerous climate meetings both locally and internationally. He remains committed to ensuring that international climate dialogue results in local climate resilience.  


Crown UriohCrown UriohThe dala dala (public transport mini-bus) was so close behind him that he could literally hear the driver’s conversation with a passenger. The driver was insisting that Simba was the best ever club not just in Tanzania, but the entire East Africa region. You must be drunk. The passenger laughed loudly. Yanga is by far the best team to grace the land of Tanzania. After all, it was also the oldest, having been founded in 1935.

As that conversation filtered into Tajiel’s ears, he also had to keep his eyes focused on the road ahead of him. There were dozens more dala dalas speeding on because it was rush hour in the morning so the more trips they made, the money they made. There were pedestrians either walking along the side of the road or waiting to cross the road; there were both posh and battered personal cars jostling for space and honking irritably at dala dalas. Then there was him, a thirty-one year old avid cyclist who braves Dar es Salaam’s crazy roads every day instead of sitting comfortably in one of those vehicles that he was now competing for space with. He was doing this to lower his carbon footprint. To what! Yes, to lower his carbon footprint. He started cycling more and using vehicles less in 2019 after giving a talk to secondary school students about climate change and how everyone should do more to lower their carbon footprints.

One evening after he had given such a talk, he went back home and started playing with his daughter Crown.

What am I doing to lower my carbon footprints? This question fell into his mind like a leaf falling softly into the forest ground.

It was as if Mahatma Gandhi spoke to him from the grave and asked him if he was the change that he wanted to see. After all, he was one of Tanzania’s most vocal and passionate young climate warriors.

I will start cycling much more because fossil fuels are resulting in a lot of emission of greenhouse gases. Just like the earlier question, these words came into his mind without prompting. And so just like that, he dusted his bike and cut down drastically on his usage of vehicles.

“I stand on the shoulders of giants,” Tajiel says, “from Mwalimu Julius Nyerere our founding Father to Babu, my beloved grandfather.”

With those words, he jumps on his bike and speeds off after blowing a kiss to his daughter Crown.

Her smile lights up his heart. It is for her and future generations that he will keep up the climate fight.

Written by David John Bwakali. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

He is a Creative Writer who believes in the limitless power of the pen. He has written several non-fiction and fiction books. Most recently, he was the Coordinating Lead Author of United Nations Environment Programme's Publication for Africa Youth entitled - Global Environment Outlook for Youth, Africa: A Wealth of Green Opportunities. Click here to download it.


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