Hashim stood at the front of his dhow and surveyed the vast mass of blue water in front of him. He reached out and patted the thick round, wooden mast, as if it was a human being. Flapping gently above the smooth mast was the triangular white sail itself. Seated behind him, in their own deep contemplation of the vast ocean were Musa and Omar, two other fishermen.
The three often fished together, usually at night when it was cool and fish could be found in greater abundance than daytime.
Hashim guided the mashua (Swahili for dhow) into one of Wasini island’s several lagoons. With the speed of seasoned fishermen, they set up a gillnet and sailed back into the wider sea armed with three hooks and lines and one big basket trap. After whispering a dua (Islamic prayer), they threw the basket trap and hook and lines into the swooshing waters, hoping that the fish would come in plenty.
What followed was a night of shimmering stars and shivering fishermen as they waited patiently for fish to swim into their traps. Hashim had three children with the youngest being two weeks old. He desperately needed a good catch tonight so that he could earn at least five hundred shillings ($5) the following day and take his wife to Msambweni hospital for the first post-natal check-up.
Things were much better the previous year when tourists were flocking the island. He always worked as a part time waiter at Wasini Mpunguti Lodge during the tourism peak season when the tourists flocked the lodge for sunset seafood dinner. But ever since the terrorist attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi and several terrorist attacks in Mombasa, tourists had all but disappeared.
The hotel bed occupancy in Kenya’s beach hotels in 2010 was more than three million. This was the highest occupancy in years, leaving Kenya’s coast as the most popular destination for both domestic and foreign tourists. Ironically, less than one percent of this bed occupancy was in Wasini, despite the hundreds of visitors who frequented the island that year. This left Kassim Mwadui, the hotel manager of Wasini Mpunguti Lodge with meager revenue that could barely sustain the hotel, which is the biggest in Wasini Island.
Later in 2012, the hotels and restaurants sector expanded thrice as slowly as the previous year, dealing Mwadui and Wasini’s few other hoteliers an even bigger blow. Nearly ten years later in 2020 when Covid-19 struck, tourism literally sank into a coma, leaving the cash-strapped island even more penniless than before. Women were particularly hard hit, considering that they barely earn any direct revenue from fishing and tourism since the two sectors are male dominated.
Swabra, is the Chairlady of Wasini Women Group. She talks about the chronic effects of Covid-19 on the women of Wasini, “Ever since Covid-19 struck, our women have been leftstranded, wondering how to put sufficient food on their tables.”
She pauses and gazes to the heavens, “we have left everything to Allah.”
As the world learns to cope better with lingering effects of the corona virus pandemic, the resilience of communities like Wasini’s will be severely tested. They must recalibrate and adapt accordingly. Towards this end, there are three magical words that can unleash Wasini’s enormous potential – domestic marine ecotourism. Pardon me, there are three additional words that can similarly tap into this potential – better fish storage. These six words all embrace the blue economy with a tight grip that can inject more resilience into the livelihoods of Wasini residents.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that frozen storage of fish can grant fish storage life of more than a year. If fishermen in Wasini Island will be able to store their fish for months as opposed to hours, they can be able to sell their fish more profitably to both local and foreign markets. However, they cannot explore highly efficient storage options without reliable energy. Currently, the island is not connected to the national grid, which means that large scale frozen storage of fish is practically impossible. There is therefore an urgent need for Wasini and other coastal communities in Kenya to be granted sustainable and reliable energy solutions.
Such energy solutions will greatly benefit fishermen like Hashim. Stocky and 5.6 feet tall and wearing white shorts plus a Barcelona T-shirt, Hashim has an easy smile and a quiet personality. He is a high school dropout but highly experienced and knowledgeable in fishing.
‘I have been fishing ever since I started walking,’ he says quietly, ‘my favorite fish are the little mackerels. I just love them!’
The day that frozen fish storage will become a reality for Hashim is the day that his artisanal fishery will begin to give him much better revenue. He will no longer have to sell fish within hours of catching them, at throw-away prices.
Even better would be the availability of a deep-sea fishing vessel for Wasini. It would capture incomparably more fish than those captured by artisanal fishers like Hashim.
Hopefully, such a vessel will dock on Wasini’s shores during Hashim’s lifetime. But in case that doesn’t happen, the frozen fish storage should become a reality before his two-week-old daughter turns one. Meanwhile, he prays every day for tourists to start pouring again into Wasini so that his part time job as a waiter at Wasini Mpunguto Lodge can stretch into life.
Dwindling Fish and Dwindling Hope
Wasini Island, Kenya’s South Coast – He looked at his empty hands, as if they were responsible for the lack of fish that afternoon. He was waist deep in the warm, salty waters of the Indian Ocean. His wet hands had just finished running through a large ten-metre net that four fellow fishermen, together with him, had left in the ocean to trap fish.
‘Lililoandikwa halifutiki,’ he muttered under his dry breath as his calloused left palm wiped sweat from his wide brow. Literally translated, these words mean that ‘what God has written cannot be erased.’ In other words, if God had pre-determined that they would not get fish on that particular day, not even the best nets in the words could deliver fish to them.
Later that night after the Isha prayer (night prayer), Mzee Hemed (Mzee is a respectable Swahili word for 'old man') was expressionless as he sipped kahawa tungu (Swahili espresso). It was his favourite beverage and ordinarily, its very intake would have put him into a cheery mood. But tonight, just like the previous night and the night before that, fish was on his mind. Or rather, lack of fish.
‘I have been fishing for more than thirty years now,’ Mzee Hemed tells me in a voice so low that I find myself leaning forward on the small wooden table in order to catch his words better.
Musa the restaurant’s owner and waiter shouts from the counter a few metres away if we need refills of kahawa tungu.
I shake my head, eager to listen to the ageing fisherman.
He started fishing in the early eighties and is still fishing. But the similarities end there since back then, the Indian Ocean was bustling with fish.
‘I always used to find fish in the net.’ He has a faraway look in his glazed eyes, ‘always.’
‘But these days, it is as if the fish are playing hide and seek with us.’
Mzee Hemed is saying in simple words what science is now concluding through hard facts unearthed from years of research. Recently, scientists from the US and France wrote a research paper that shed further light to the hide and seek game that Mzee Hemed is referring to.
The Paper was titled, ‘A reduction in marine primary productivity driven by rapid warming over the tropical Indian Ocean.’ The paper’s abstract noted that, ‘future climate projections suggest that the Indian Ocean will continue to warm driving this productive region into an ecological desert.’
To be continued…
If you visit the three-roomed, brick-walled house of forty-year-old Muhammadi Musa, you will escape the island humidity thanks its cool grass-thatched roof. But you will not beable to escape the rolling waves of giggles from Nasra, his three-year old daughter. She is the last of his six children and has sparkling brown eyes that you will want to paint even if you are not an artist.
“Asalaam aleykum,” Nasra’s mother Halima will greet you warmly as she serves you mdalasini (cinnamon) flavored tea within minutes of your arrival.
Placed next to the steaming cup of mdalasini will be chunky pieces of mahamri (a first cousin of doughnuts), fresh from the oil whose sizzle will reach your ears since the kitchen is right next to the living room. To top it all will be a red enamel plate full of vitumbua (rice pancakes). They will taste organically delicious because the rice flour that made them was ground using kijaa, a traditional grinder that preserves the organic taste of rice grains.
As you enjoy this coastal Kenya snack, your eyes will wander through the open window and feast on the calm blue waters of the Indian Ocean as they stroll into the smooth beach that is barely twenty meters away. Such is the marine feast that lives in the very soul of Wasini Island. Even at night when darkness blankets the blue ocean and white beach, the rustling sound of waves clings on the atmosphere like a night angel.
If you happen to be having dinner at Musa’s house, this night angel will be part of the dinner conversation as you will definitely hear the melodic hum of those waves. But don’t expect to catch the evening news because there is no television in the house. Neither is there an electrical iron box or any electrical appliance. That’s because Wasini Island which is off Kenya’s South Coast, is not yet connected to the national grid. Although it was already inhabited long before USA was a civilization, the national grid hasn’t made it yet to the Island. Should you see any lit-up bulbs or the occasional television set, it will be because of the dozens of solar panels that dot some of the roofs.
The few individuals on whose roofs those solar panels sit are able to switch on their TVs and bulbs at night. Some of them literally earn a living from the sun since they use their solar-powered TVs to screen movies or football matches to fellow islanders who pay a small fee for the service.
Muhamadi Musa and the other ten thousand residents of Wasini Island are among the 635 million Africans with no electricity in their homes. Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa is so underpowered that the 48 countries in it generate roughly the same amount of power as Spain. I found this to be so crazy and unacceptable that when I spent a few days on Wasini Island in November 2017, I wanted to email Howard Bamsey the Executive Director of the Green Climate Fund and ask him why the 10 billion dollars that had been pledged to the Fund hadn’t yet resulted in clean electricity on the island. In that same email, I also wanted to ask him why this island remained completely vulnerable to climate change-induced sea level rise.
In the same vein, I wanted to email a guy known as Amadou Hott. He is the vice-president for power, energy, climate change and green growth at Africa Development Bank (AfDB). I wanted to ask him why the $12 billion that the bank had mobilized between 2011 and 2015 to support climate-resilient projects hadn’t reached Wasini Island and increased its climate resilience.
I never got to send these emails because it rained for most of the time I was on the island which affected the solar energy that was powering my laptop leaving it in comatose condition for most of the time. In addition, the mahamri, mdalasini and vitumbua, not to mention utterly delicious fish biryani and the dazzling sunrises left me in a divine world of pristine nature where emails and their bothersome passwords ceased to exist.
But I will be sending those emails so that I (and you too) can understand how vulnerable African communities like those in Wasini Island can tap into the billions of dollars that are reclined in the climate coffers of the Green Climate Fund, Africa Development Bank and other climate financing institutions. I have a sneaking feeling that the more communities know about these billions and how they can access them, the more they will act on that knowledge and tap into the funds. That way, energy will flow within Wasini Island with similar relentlessness of the Indian Ocean's waves that sorround it.
You must put Wasini Island on your bucket list. Where else can you find organically delicious rice pancakes, mdalasini tea, sizzling mahamri, equally sizzling sunrises, dolphins and an undisturbed Swahili culture?
‘Kishuku!’ Rehema’s little seven-year-old sister cried excitedly as she raced from their reed-thatched houses towards the beach.
Within minutes, the word, ‘kishuku,’ had spread throughout the sandy alleys of Wasini village, depositing dozens of kids on the sea shore to have a look at kishuku, as dolphin is known in Swahili.
Rehema worked with Sasafrica, a communications company whose office was hosted at Wasini Mpunguti Lodge, the biggest hotel and restaurant in Wasini Island. She gazed out of the office window and saw as children stood by the shoreline clapping their tiny hands and screaming happily as two dolphins jumped in and out of the water in their famous arc motions.
Children in Wasini Island grow up knowing that dolphins are human friends that should be celebrated. Local myth says that dolphins will rescue a drowning person only if that person has never tasted dolphin meat. But if that person has previously feasted on dolphin meat, then dolphins will not race to the rescue.
Wasini Island is one of the few places on Africa’s east coast where dolphins can be easily spotted as they dot the ocean surface with their famous arc. So common is this dolphin dance that Wasini can easily be designated as the dolphin island. These fish mammals are just part of Wasini’s immense marine ecosystem treasure.
As kishuku dives back into the warm salty waters, it dances gently, as if experiencing a soft tremor. Its big eyes are alert, scanning the vast blueness that it calls home. A number of dazzling fish species catch its eye.
Over there, next to a coral that resembles an anthill is a parrot fish, known in Swahili as pono. It is rowing its side fins lazily, in no hurry to get to wherever it is going. What a colorful fish! Its yellow stripes and yellow circles are set on a green background that is dotted with blue patches here and there. Around the black pupils of its eyes are shades of orange that give the impression of eye mascara.
Kishuku shook his tail in wonder. That parrot fish kept changing its colors! Indeed, it is a fish that can even change its gender in the course of its lifetime.
It is easy to spot these colorful fishes because they inhabit shallow waters and are not big fans of the deeps. Their mouth resembles a parrot’s beak, hence its name. This mouth sometimes takes on a sneering semblance that irritates kishuku. For the ten years that he has lived in these Wasini waters, kishuku has seen hundreds of parrot fish, with some as big as five feet.
They feed on rocks and once these rocks are done with their digestive system, they are excreted as sand. A large parrot fish can produce as much as one ton of sand a year! Wasini’s parrot fishes should probably get some royalty from the island’s sandy beaches!
Kishuku is one of at least nine dolphin species that roam the waters of Wasini. He swam rapidly past the lazy parrot fish and almost bumped into several cuttlefish. The one in the lead had an unhappy look on his face. He seemed to be in a bad mood. Kishuku watched in amazement and amusement as the cuttlefish leader changed his color from a deep brown to a dark yellow! Indeed, this fish are the chameleon of the sea.
Kishuku swam on past the chameleon fish. Unlike the cuttlefish, he was in a good mood.
Wasini’s dolphins are free to roam wherever and whenever they want. This is why kishuku decided to approach the shallower waters of the beach. He needed a breath of fresh air, so with agile speed, he shot upwards, upwards, upwards and upwards until he burst beyond the ocean surface and lingered in the air, eliciting more shouts from children who always happened to see him whenever he strolled upwards.
A few minutes after tumbling back into the water, Kishuku came face to face with a large squid whose many arms were flailing around. More specifically, he seemed to be waving his eight arms and two tentacles. He was probably late for a date and had found his lady gone. Squid can change their color and patters nearly three dozen times. They therefore have a wide portfolio of designer looks that add beautiful intensity to the ocean deeps.
Wasini Island’s Wavumba people consider squids to be aphrodisiacs and milk enhancers for lactating mothers. In this regard, both men and women love to devour them but for totally different reasons!
Squids are declining, partly because of ever-increasing demand and partly because of rising temperatures, especially in the case of the big fin reef squid.
Before kishuku could count to three, the designer-clad squid had already sped off. It moves by jet propulsion and can move at speeds of up to 40km/hr. It would definitely give Usain Bolt a run for his money!
The racing squid flashed by the king himself. Kingfish. They prefer shallow coastal waters that are near the shore hence Wasini fishermen never have to go too far to capture them. This particular kingfish had the regal airs of a king – it was nearly half a metre long and had a smooth glistening texture. Just a short distance behind it was a group of little mackerels.
Just about the size of a big palm, little mackerels are as portable as they are potent. They are a major diet in Wasini and can often be found resting in sizzling oil all across small kitchens on the island.
Wasini Island is approximately 100 kilometres south of Mombasa, Kenya’s largest coastal city. It is a small island – five kilometers long and one kilometer wide. But what it lacks in size, it makes up in depth of culture and marine ecosystem versatility.
At the heart of this versatility are the gentle dolphins that make it Kenya’s Dolphin Island.
“Hey Nashibe!” I shouted to my sister through the window, “I’m going to Turkana!”
She opened the door for me smiling, “so, you are going back to Turkana after two years. Same place?”
I explained to her that this time round, I was going to Kakuma refugee camp, the biggest refugee camp in Africa. Two years earlier, I had been to Kaikor, a small village deep in the arid Turkana heartland.
“At least eighty thousand refugees live in Kakuma!” I said excitedly as I removed my beige cotton coat and slumped into a three-seater wooden couch that was occupying most of the space in our small living room.
After serving me one of my favorite meals – green grams and rice – my sister grabbed her handbag, wished me a safe journey, made me to promise that I would bring her a gift and left for Utalii College, where she was pursuing a diploma in hotel management.
I was going to the Refugee camp in my capacity as the Chairman of Kenya Voluntary Development Association (KVDA), to officially close an international work camp that had been ongoing for almost three weeks.
During the few days I would spend there, I was hoping to find out exactly how all those thousands of refugees lived and how the refugee system could be improved.
I was eager to talk to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) people and find out from them more about their limitations. I also couldn’t wait to talk to South Sudanese youth and find out about their hopes for their beleaguered country. In the same vein, I wanted to know from Ethiopian refugees why they hadn’t gone back home after the war stopped. As for the Rwandan refugees, my burning question was, “do they think the emotional wounds of the genocide will ever heal?” I really wanted to brainstorm with them ways of healing those scars.
When I reach Turkana, I am going to have deep conversations with each of the thirty-five international volunteers about their experiences with the refugees. I thought as I cleared the last grains of rice from my floral white plate.
A few hours later at exactly half past seven, I arrived at the Gantaal Bus Service station in Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi. The driver was revving the engine as he geared to depart for the long, twenty-four hour journey to northern Kenya.
I took my seat in the left side of the bus, mid-section and we set off within minutes. To my dismay, my seatmate was a rotund Somali man and not a gorgeous Ethiopian lady as I had hoped.
Across the aisle, in the three-seater seat, were three young South Sudanese men. They stood out from the crowd, not just because of their tall height but also because of their amazingly dark complexion. They also had the typical southern Sudanese initiation marks on their fore heads. It was as if innumerable dots had been poked into their foreheads. Just behind the Sudanese trio, was another Sudanese trio; two elderly women and a teenage girl.
The girl was holding two infants in her slender hands. I looked at her curiously and promised himself to have a chat with her later on. I wanted to know her story. Was she a refugee returning to Kakuma? Were those babies hers? Where was the father? Why weren’t the two women seated next to her not helping her to carry one of the baby?
Was there anyone in this whole wide world who would take a bullet for her?
We picked George at a small town along the Kitengela-Namanga road. He was a lanky guy with a spark in his eyes. The kind of spark that says, ‘I am ready to take on the world and will stop at nothing.’ I liked that. I am always on the lookout for such a spark, so that it can hopefully combine with my own and light up a world in dire need for change.
I was seated in front of my brother Mpasua’s double cabin pickup, while my close Rwandan friend Uwineza was seated behind. George joined her in the back seat and immediately began telling us about Njoroi, the locality where he came from. We were headed there so that I could interview a local women group about their beadwork. The Maasai community is famed for their elaborate beadwork that is laden with meaning. They have been weaving this beadwork for centuries, even if the material used to weave the beadwork has changed over time.
It took us almost an hour to cover a distance of less than ten kilometers. This slow speed was occasioned by the slopping, rocky terrain that only allowed a crawl from the car. At some point, about a kilometer from our destination, all we could see were expansive plains and rolling hills. Plus a few zebras and gazelles. A stunning sight.
George regarded these wildlife as if they were merely goats. He was used to seeing them on an almost daily basis. But Uwineza couldn’t hold back her excitement. Neither could I. I may have seen wildlife countless more times than her but zebras, gazelles and their fellow wildlife still take my breath away every time I see them.
We arrived at Njoroi to find a group of about thirty women sitting on the ground in a huddle. A few meters away was a manyatta, the loaf-shaped traditional Maasai House that is made from mud, sticks, grass and cow dung.
“Can we enter that traditional house later on?” Uwineza whispered in my ear.
“Sure,” I answered and added with a mischievous glint, “but only if we shall use it to experience love.”
All the women were bedecked in colorful bead-work jewelry that looked dazzling in the late afternoon sunshine. One of the them was Miriam, George’s mother. She was wearing Nborro, a long necklace with blue beads. Also among them was Elizabeth Kanyuaya, a jovial octogenarian with a beautiful wide smile.
The old lady talked about her lifelong relationship with Maasai jewelry, “since my childhood until now, I have crafted all manner of beaded jewelry. When I was still young, we used to make even more different types of these bracelets. But times are changing and everything is changing. Back then, we used to make belts using raw cow hide and not processed leather as is the case these days. Nowadays our beaded jewelry is a lot more commercialized.”
Her words triggered in me images of centuries gone by when the Maasai weaved these beadwork jewelry purely for their own cultural and ornamental use.
The advantage of commercializing this jewelry is the fact that Maasai culture and fashion have now spread all over the world courtesy of these incredible beaded Maasai jewelry.
I went on to tell the women that through Sasafrica.Shop my African products E-commerce website, we would find for them a wider global market for their products. So help me God. I will ensure that the stunning beaded Maasai jewelry will spread like wildfire across the world.
And one day, I hope to experience love in that Manyatta.
The group discussion was getting intense, like a sprint hurtling to the finish line. On my right was a lanky participant from Eastern Europe. He had a serious face but friendly presence. On my left was a bespectacled young man from Sri Lanka, decked in a tucked-in checked shirt. To his left was my new friend Harshini, also from Sri Lanka. She had a warm smile and a bubbly spirit. She was wearing a loose floral dress that enhanced her easy-going nature.
Then there was me, a young man in his twenties sitting at the pinnacle of youth leadership at the United Nations Environment Programme. I was donning an ankara top that I had bought in Mauritius a few months earlier. My afro hair was sitting proudly on my head, hiding the fact that for half the time, my mind was with Puja. I had met her two days earlier during the official opening of the 2005 Tunza International Youth Conference that was being held from 4 - 10 October in Bangalore. She was in charge of street children dancers who entertained the hundreds of youth delegates at the opening ceremony.
After the event, I pushed my way through the crowd of fellow youth until I came face to face with her just outside the entrance of the large hall.
“Congratulations on the amazing dance!” I was all smile, speaking in a warm, cordial tone as if we were long lost friends reuniting.
It was friendship at first sight. I was loving Bangalore, the capital of India's southern Karnataka State.
Two days earlier when we landed in Bangalore, I was wide eyed with excitement.It was my first time in India and I was itching to see the entire place, as if it was a small town and not an entire sub-continent. The land of Mahatma Gandhi. The man who told us to be the change we wanted to see. The land of spicy food. We were accorded VIP treatment at the airport since we were the UN team. Together with us was Eric Falt, the then Director of UNEP’s Division of Communications and Public Information. Also on our contingent was Theo Oben, the Head of UNEP’s Children and Youth Unit. The jovial Joyce Sang, His colleague in that Unit, was also with us.
As the luxury van ferrying us from the airport sped into the streets of Bangalore, I became a little boy again, as I always do whenever I travel to a new place. My eyes remained glued outside as I devoured all the brand new sights before me. An elderly man jogging. A couple laughing as they pointed at something behind them. Mannequins standing guard outside boutiques.
All these sights flashed through my mind once again as a fellow youth from Kenya gave a presentation in the group discussions. She was wearing a white T-shirt whose front bore the inscription - Women AIDS Run. I loved her shoulder-length dreadlocks and made a mental note to ask her how long it had taken her to grow them.
My mind came back fully to the conference hall when Luis Betanzos raised his hand and began speaking in that Spanish accented English that Anglophones love.
I had met Juan when I traveled to Lima, Peru a few months earlier, for the Global Environment Outlook for Youth, Latin America meeting. He had a quiet presence that cajoled you to listen to what he was saying. Most of the time, he would be speaking about Latin America’s youth and environment, two of his passions. He was working in UNEP’s Latin America office.
A few minutes later, we had to conclude the group discussion and troop to a larger discussion that was being held in the main hall. I made sure that I sat in the last row so that I could sneak out if I got bored. Luckily, that prospect disappeared because there was a young lady at the front giving a powerful presentation.
The earnest look on her face was complemented by her equally earnest pink jacket. She said that she was from South Korea and was studying environmental science at university. She was speaking about the need to work hand in hand with volunteers. I liked that, because when I turned 21 a few years earlier, I had joined Kenya Voluntary Development Association as a volunteer and risen through the ranks to become its Chairman, the youngest ever in its history.
Seated on the wooden floor a few feet away from the South Korean lady, was a young Indian lady. All through the presentation, her eyes remained animated, almost as if she was ‘in spirit.’ There was a massive green tree at the front of her white top. Also seated on the floor, a few feet away from the young Indian lady was a young Mexican lady who looked very familiar although I couldn’t place where I had seen her.
As I walked out of the conference hall one hour later, I was still asking myself where exactly I had seen that young Mexican lady.
On that day that I left for my first ever trip to Egypt, my sister Gish escorted me to the airport. She always did this back then. Whenever I was traveling out of the country, papa would pray, then Gish, myself and any other visitors who happened to be visiting us at that time would pile into Ngash’s taxi - it was one of those black London taxis - and we would drive off from Umoja to the airport.
That day, after they waved bye through the glass walls at the airport, Ngash dropped them back home.
My boss Charles Sebukeera was also flying on the same flight, which made me a bit nervous. Although he was quite easygoing, he was still my boss, so there was a mountain of respect between us.
When the history of Africa’s environmental assessment is written (maybe I should write it one day?), Charles will be one of the top three lead characters in that book. He has been part of Africa’s environmental assessment journey for almost three decades now.
That morning as we waited to board, Charles and I talked a bit about the Africa Environment Outlook for Youth, whose production I was spearheading, then strolled into the Egypt Air plane and disappeared into our respective seats.
When we landed in Cairo, I just couldn’t stop smiling. I was in Egypt! The land of pyramids. I could literally hear my heart beating in my chest. Even before reaching the immigration desk, I instantly texted Papa to tell him that I had landed in Egypt. Then I looked behind me and smiled at the three men and one lady who were behind me in the queue.
“Is it your first time here too?” I asked the guy immediately behind me. He had a shaggy beard and professor spectacles. And a deep frown that he instantly dished out after grunting a singular word, ‘no.’
We matched out of the airport right into the welcoming party’s smiling faces and outstretched hands. Two gentlemen ushered us into a black car and we drove off into the open arms of Cairo. President Hosni Mubarak’s photos were everywhere - on the billboard, sidewalks, building walls - everywhere. During the first decade of his reign, Kenya’s former President Moi’s photos had also been everywhere but not to this extent.
Looking at President Mubarak’s photos caused me to remember about his predecessor, President Anwar Sadat. He had led Egypt from 1970 until his assassination in 1981. He is one of my favourite presidents from Africa, with my all-time favorite being the late President Thomas Sankara of Burkina Fasso.
President Sadat once said that, “He who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality and will never, therefore, make any progress.” Can I hear an Amen to that? If you desire progress in your own individual life, your community or country at large, focus on changing the fabric of your thought.
After checking in into a swanky hotel, I literally jogged into an elevator, as if afraid that it would leave without me and I would miss my room. Thankfully, my room was waiting for me when I matched into it two minutes later. I felt as if the walls had an extra shine to them. The room seemed happy to see me. The large bed cajoled me to lie in it instantly, which is exactly what I did. Within seconds, I leapt up and dashed to the window to see Cairo, half-expecting to see some pyramids in the distance. I was particularly eager to see the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which was the tallest man-made structure on earth for over 3,800 years. Makes me wonder if the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world, will still be holding this record after 3,800 years! It may not even survive for a fraction of that time. Time will tell.
Of course I didn’t see any pyramids from my window. Just nondescript buildings that could have been in Nairobi or Lagos. But I felt the thrilling vibes of being in Cairo, Africa's largest and oldest city. I couldn't help but agree with the Bantu Poet Bwak, who wrote that, 'like the Nile that flows through it, Cairo glows with shimmering life.'
From the corner of my eyes, I noticed a TV remote on a shiny wooden study table. It was one of those big remotes with one million buttons on them. After a long search, I found the power button, pressed it and smiled with satisfaction when the TV came on and poured out an avalanche of Arabic. I increased the volume, eager to soak in as much Arabic as I could.
The following day, I met amazing young North Africans who were attending the Africa Environment Outlook for youth meeting that I was leading. There was Saada from Sudan; Medhat, Shaimaa, Suhayla, Asmaa and Mahmoud from Egypt; Sofian from Tunisia; Khaled from Libya and Muhammad from Morocco.
Shaimaa had a cheeky glint in her eyes that mirrored mine. My heart instantly whispered to my mind that Shaimaa and I belonged to the same emotional tribe. For the five days that I was in Cairo, our eyes locked several times and uttered words that our mouths couldn’t or wouldn’t. She was my protector in the busy, crowded streets of Cairo. Whenever we had to cross the crazy roads, she would practically hold my hand as Mahmoud kept vigil. These two were utterly incredible. I owe my enduring love of Cairo to them.
Sofian from Tunisia was a big, quiet guy. Probably had the spirit of an elephant hiding somewhere in his soul. I would have told him this but he only spoke French and Arabic. Back then, I hadn’t started learning French, so the only French phrase I knew was 'voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?' I definitely wouldn’t use this on Sofian. Google its meaning.
Then there was Sohayla from Egypt. The dimple on her right cheek injected an extra sparkle into her smile. Even now, ten years later, I can still see that smile glistening from a corner of my mind. I can also clearly see Asmaa another Egyptian lady, shy but quite cheeky. Her tender voice has stubbornly refused to depart from my ears. Mohammad Hassan, her country mate, was a bearded young man who could easily have won the title of the most jovial in the group. He was one of those people whose faces are permanently in smile mode. Leading this team as the north African sub-regional coordinator was Medhat Nagi, a recently graduated lawyer. He had a calm soul that helped in shepherding the occasionally boisterous meeting. The final member of the team was Mayar Sabet, who was the editor of the youth publication that this youth process was going to produce. Her deeply analytical mind was a marvel.
This was the dynamic team of young North-Africans who ended up writing a critical chapter of their region’s environmental story. I was privileged to lead and partake in this endeavor. And to exchange those sparkling looks with Shaimaa as our eyes spoke in a beautiful language that our tongues couldn't taste.
Dahlia and Suzanna from CEDARE, were amazing hosts. Their story will come soon. CEDARE was and still is, UNEP’s Collaborating Center in North Africa.
The Mida Creek boardwalk was rickety, swaying from side to side as Alex and I walked over it. Although Alex was striding along, my walk was more like a shuffle of a drunk hippo. The boardwalk was lined with two sturdy ropes on either side. Although I was grabbing them tightly for my balance, it didn’t help that the planks of the boardwalk that I was walking on were not evenly spaced. Adding to the drama, the planks were enjoined on two thick wires that that kept swaying with every step. Every time my feet stepped gingerly onto a plank, it felt as if I would tumble into the shimmering ocean water beneath. Growing majestically from the water were hundreds of mangrove trees.
Alex was a good friend and a staff of A Rocha Kenya, the organisation that managed the boardwalk. He was guiding me along the boardwalk, dropping the names of birds and mangrove trees as if they were his children.
I could see my long shadow in the ocean waters, shyly following me as if it would rather remain behind and swim towards the mangroves. The combination of the mangrove leaves’ green color and the ocean water’s blue color was such a joy to behold that I stood in awe.
After fifteen nerve-wracking minutes of hippo-walking on the narrow boardwalk, we arrived at the T-shaped end. Here, the planks were hammered into wood, not wire. The resultant stability was quite refreshing.
The entire creek was laid out bare before me. I leaned on the wooden railing and feasted on the incredible sights. What joy! On my left, the mangrove forest lined the entire shoreline. Bundles of fluffy clouds seemed to dangle quite low. If the mangroves could stretch, they would touch those clouds. On the right, was a wider swathe of the ocean. It unfolded like a blue Persian carpet. A dugout canoe stood immobile in the distance. There was nobody in it, making me wonder how it had gotten to the middle of the ocean in the first place.
This final part of the boardwalk was an absolute haven of bliss. Jutting through the lower left railing were mangrove leaves that seemed to be basking on the dry boardwalk. Across the leaves, barely a meter away, was the shadow of the right railing. It left artistic patterns on the planks. I sat down here, leaned on the railings and gazed at the sprawling ocean. I imagined how centuries earlier, Portuguesse and Arabian ships had probably sailed in these very waters. Unfortunately, some of these ships ferried away slaves whose descendants now lived somewhere in South America or North America. They would never know the joy of sitting right in the middle of Mida Creek and whispering sweet nothings to the salty sea breeze.
I closed my eyes and opened my mouth wide so that I could literally taste that delicious breeze. Oh God. I whispered silently as I opened my eyes to see three little white birds - probably little egrets - landing gently on the wooden railing of the boardwalk. I smiled at them and they chirped merrily.
The white goat next to me was looking at me with sympathy. Am serious. Its hollow eyes were staring down at me with a clear 'poor guy' look.
I was sitting cross legged, leaning on the rough metallic walls of the truck. In the center of the truck were nearly thirty goats that were being transported from one remote Turkana village to another even more remote village. I was on my way to Kaikor to lay the groundwork of a work camp for international volunteers. Together with me was Samuel, the then Director of Kenya Voluntary Development Association, where I was volunteering at the time.
My pale eyes were struggling to stay open. I raised my dusty right hand and placed it on my equally dusty forehead. It was almost as if it was in an open air oven. My fever was sky high. All my joints felt as if someone was hammering them into pain with every passing minute. It didn't help matters that the truck had to make its own road as it roared on. There was no road or even footpath, so we were just romping along the wide, cracked and angry desert terrain. It was by far the bumpiest ride that I had ever experienced in the twenty-two years of my life.
Strangely, even though I was under the attack of malaria and sitting on the truck’s hot, dusty floor next to anxious, bleating goats, I felt free. Where else can you sit cross-legged next to an army of goats? Here, there was no etiquette to adhere to. I could just be myself. It is no wonder that Samuel my colleague was actually sleeping in the midst of the bumpy ride and bleating goats. His balding head was resting on his arms that were in turn resting on his knees. Every bump would throw his head an inch higher, so it was as if he kept nodding in his sleep. At one point, a large black goat with sharp horns approached him and surveyed him, wondering who could afford to sleep in such circumstances!
After a ten-hour ride from Lodwar, we finally arrived in Kaikor village, the venue of the forthcoming work camp. It had taken us ten hours to cover a distance of 160 kilometers! This was by far the slowest, yet most exciting road trip that I had ever taken.
Every bone in my body creaked as I stood up and descended from the truck. When I set foot into Turkana for the first time ever, I felt free. It was dusk and in the far distance, as far as my pale brown eyes could see, there was nothing but rocks, sand and the occasional thorn tree. I felt like taking a walk into this inviting desert and spending the night under a thorn tree. But all I could do at that time was to slither into a traditional mud-walled Turkana house and attempt to sleep in the midst of my malaria.
My head disappeared into a thin, bare mattress that was soon absorbing liters of my sweat. The only sound I could hear was the whistling nighttime breeze that was surprisingly cold.
The following morning, I did what I had wanted to do the previous evening. Despite my aching joints, I trudged towards a thorn tree that I could see in the distance. I was wearing akala, the open sandals that are made from car tyre. My sleeveless green top was still spotless but I knew that it would be quite dusty within minutes. Although it was only 9AM, the sun was blazing, the heat stifling. It didn't help that my fever was still high and I hadn't taken any medicine because the nearby Kaikor clinic had run out of malaria drugs.
Sweating profusely, partly because of the fever and partly because of the heat, I leaned on a lanky thorn tree and looked around me. Rocks. Small, rocks and big rocks. They dotted the sea of sand that was everywhere. It felt as if I could walk for months and see nothing but the rocks and sand. There would be no television to steal my attention and no internet to devour my time. I would be free from all mechanical things and just lie in the bosom of nature.
I would even be free from time itself.
I bent low and picked a small smooth stone. I knew that scattered for hundreds of kilometers all around me were such small stones. Some of them were smooth like a baby’s skin while others were rough with pimples all around them. I scooped two such rough stones and squeezed them into the palm of my right hand. It felt as if they were squeezing me back. At that moment, it was just me, two small rough stones, a thorn tree and the embrace of a desert.
All eyes were on the two young people as they filed to the front of Olive Convention Centre’s main auditorium. Their eyes were bright despite the dull Durban weather. Something great was about to happen and they were at its very centre.
Delegates from the length and breadth of Africa shuffled in their seats, curious about this book that was about to be launched. Seated in the front rows were the environment Ministers who had made it for this seventeenth regular session of the Africa Ministerial Conference in the Environment (AMCEN).
Aminetou, one of the two youth, was resplendent in the melahfa, Mauritania’s national dress. Her colleague Victor from Kenya was attired in a dark suit and a bright bow tie. They took their seats at a high table that was waiting for them on the stage. Within a minute, they were joined by Tribute, Yusuf and Marc from South Africa, Egypt and Cameroon respectively.
The Global Environment Outlook for Youth, Africa Publication was about to be launched. This historic Book had been co-authored by the five youth on stage together with nine other Lead Authors and nearly one hundred contributing authors from across Africa. To ensure that its quality was world-class, it had been reviewed by 12 young environmental experts, also drawn from each of Africa’s six sub-regions.
Seated with the five Lead Authors on stage was Cecilia, the Head of UNEP’s Office in South Africa and Damaris, the Focal Point for Youth and Gender in UNEP’s Africa Office. She is the one who had ably steered the process. Next to her was her colleague David Ombisi, then His Excellency Lee White, Gabon’s Environment Minister and outgoing AMCEN president.
After everyone had settled into their seats, Dr Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo, the Director of UNEP’s Africa Office began giving her speech. She was bedecked in a dark suit, with a colorful scarf wrapped around her neck.
“One of the biggest challenges that Africa is facing today is unemployment.” She paused as she glanced up at the numerous Environment Ministers from across Africa who were listening to her.
“One third of our 420 million youth aged 15 to 35 are unemployed. The UN Environment has responded to this challenge by producing the Sixth Global Environment Outlook for Youth. This Publication unveils a wealth of opportunities that young Africans can tap into to create green jobs for themselves.”
I smiled, as my mind traveled back to nearly two years earlier when I had been enlisted as a consultant Coordinating Lead Author of the process that birthed this Publication being launched. Apart from coordinating the content production, I was also given matching orders to find the authors who would pen the content. Two Lead Authors for each of the seven chapters and dozens of contributing authors.
The first Authors meeting had taken place in Cairo from 13 - 14 March 2018. In attendance was Brian from Kenya and Tribute from South Africa, together with Nuran, Yusuf, Mayar and Islam from Egypt.It was a small team with a big vision. For two days, this team huddled in a Cairo hotel for hours as we meticulously laid down the framework for the Publication that we were envisioning. We resolved that we would come up with a visually appealing, scientifically accurate Publication that would be authored by young people from across Africa. The twin objectives of this Book would be: to equip African youth with practical knowledge for unleashing green jobs and to showcase innovative sustainable youth initiatives.
For weeks after this Cairo meeting, the clarion call for authors went out by word of mouth, on whatsapp groups, on Facebook, via Twitter and other social media platforms. Well-established youth initiatives like the Young Africans Leadership Initiative (YALI) also played a key role in widely disseminating the call-for-authors.
In subsequent months, there was a groundswell of articles from all over the continent. Somewhere in Nigeria, as the Okada (public motorbikes) sped by, 28-year old Ayobami from Oyo State sat down typed a ‘youth action’ article whose first draft was 1,050 words. The second draft was 1,206 words. This article was part of Chapter 1: Youth-led Green Solutions. Joining Ayobami in adding their voice to this chapter were writers from Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya, Somalia, Mauritius and Zimbabwe. The co-Lead Authors for the Chapter were Olumide Idowu, a hyper-active environmental activist and social media supremo from Nigeria and Sidique Gawusu an engineer from Ghana who was pursuing his PhD in PhD in Power Engineering and Engineering Thermophysics. Rounding up the trio of Chapter 1 Lead Authors was Victor Mugo who identifies himself as a ‘young farmer in a suit.’ He is an actuarial scientist and the Country Coordinator of the Climate Smart Agriculture Youth Network (CSAYN).
Somewhere in South Africa, as pap the staple maize meal consumed widely in the country was cooked and served, Buntu a 22-year old graduate of Walter Sisulu University penned an article entitled, ‘How youth can tap into the economic rewards of off-grid electricity.’ The article’s first draft was 921 words. Based on my editorial input, the second draft was 1,317 words. This article was one of those submitted for Chapter 2: A Breath of Fresh Air. Other articles were submitted from Nigeria, Kenya, Burkina Faso and Egypt. Steering this chapter were two Lead Authors: Miyoba Buumba, a young environmental educator who had graduated from the University of Zambia and Aminetou Bilal, one of Mauritania’s most active environmental activists. She founded Selfie Mbalite, an organisation that actively tackles the menace of solid waste. She was also an African Union Youth Envoy serving on the Youth Advisory Council.
The youth voice had also erupted from Niger where Houira, a young woman with a Masters in Environmental Management. She had invested hours into an epic 1,900 word article on climate smart agriculture for youth in Niger. This article was submitted to Chapter 3: Restoring Our Land. When I first read Houira’s article on 21st July 2018, I was in awe at her powerful insights that were grounded in deep research. I told myself that if the future of Africa was in the hands of people like Houira, then better days were indeed ahead. She had been introduced into the process by Awovi Komassi, the co-Lead Author for the land Chapter. She was a young environmental lawyer from Togo. Her Masters was in Environmental Management and Policy. Her co-Lead Author was Dr. Marc Anselme Kamga, a land specialist from Cameroon. This chapter also had article submissions from Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya, Mauritania, Malawi, Benin, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. African youth had a clear message - Africa’s land must be a strong foundation for sustainable livelihoods.
Hot on the heels of Houira’s climate smart agriculture article was the longest article of them all - an 11,286 word masterpiece by Sarah Nyawira from Kenya. It was about blue economy opportunities for youth and was submitted to Chapter 4: Our Water, Our Life Force. Sarah poured her soul and mind into that article and wrote it for weeks. Alongside the article were several others from Ethiopia, Sudan, Tunisia, Mauritius, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt. This water chapter was flowing with diversity. It was ably led by Dr. Islam Al Zayed from Egypt and Muhammad Khalifa from Sudan.
My mind switched back from this walk down memory lane to the stage where the five Lead Authors were seated. Tribute Mboweni from South Africa was listening intently to the speech. Her white blouse was buttoned all the way to the collar. Together with Brian Waswala from Kenya, she had been the co-Lead Author of Chapter 5: Our Invaluable Biodiversity.
On July 3rd 2018 at 10.55AM, I had been right in the middle of researching for a book on ‘Adventure, Love and Travel’ when an email from the Republic of Congo landed in my inbox. It was from William Iwandza, a thirty-year old Congolese and was entitled, ‘how Congolese youth can conserve forests and benefit from them economically.’ Also streaming in for this chapter were other articles from Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and South Africa. Scattered in these articles were powerful insights on biodiversity and the green economy.
The auditorium was dead silent as delegates hanged on to every word that Dr. Koudenoukpo was saying. I felt little rivers of inspiration crawling up my spine. Through the book being launched, Africa was going to listen to the powerful voice of its young people. One of these voices had come from Elizabeth Lukas from Namibia. On 28th June 2018, she had emailed me an article on ‘bridging the divide between young scholars and the environment.’ This article was submitted to Chapter 6: Youth Potential and Green Policies. The very first sentence of her article took my breath away, ‘To cherish what remains of the earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope for survival.’ What a powerful way to begin an article on a rather abstract topic of environmental policy! This quote was from the 2003 Book of Wendell Berry, ‘The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.’ Other contributing authors for the Chapter were drawn from Nigeria, Kenya, Namibia, Malawi and Sierra Leone. They all added their voice to the vital issue of youth potential and green policies. The Chapter’s Lead Author was Uvicka Bristol from Seychelles. She was working with the James Michel Blue Economy Research Institute (BERI).
My mind raced back from Seychelles to Durban. I dipped my right hand into my beloved black rucksack and fished out the hard copy of the GEO for Youth Book that was being feted at that very moment. I smiled at the Cover which bore the map of a greenish Africa surrounded by silhouettes of young people. This stunning cover together with the rest of the book’s layout and design had been done by Mohab from Egypt. This guy is literally dripping with artistic talent!
For Chapter 7: A Positive Outlook, African youth had unveiled the future that they envisioned. They did this through a series of letters from the future (2063) to their 21-year old selves. In her letter, Edith Uwineza, a 27-year old artist from Rwanda had memorably written that, ‘I have a lot more to tell you, but am just about to leave my house in Kigali for the 7PM train to Bamako, Mali. Find below a painting that will give you an idea about the Africa of 2063.’ The painting was of four women walking across Africa as the sun rose. She had envisioned a future where sustainable transport across Africa was the norm. Other contributing authors for this chapter were from Ghana, Zambia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. They were superbly led by Yusuf Younis from Egypt. Apart from being Chapter 7’s Lead Author, he was also part of an excellent editorial team that was led by Mayar Sabet, one of Africa’s finest editors. She has an uncanny habit of digging deep into a mountain of words and creating textual gems. Incidentally, she was also the editor of the Africa Environmental Outlook for Youth Publication back in 2005! Consistency and professionalism are ingrained in her DNA.
My mind returned to Olive Convention Center’s auditorium, to Dr. Koudenoukpo’s speech. “I would like to extend my gratitude to these young Africans who have spent almost two years working on this Publication. They have clearly articulated the strong correlation between a thriving green economy and decent jobs.”
Alas, the youth of Africa had indeed provided this articulation. It was now up to them, together with their communities and leaders, to create the green jobs whose footprints could be found in every page of the book.