Sunday, March 20, 2011

What does it take…?

The saga of Karura

What does it take for a person to bring about a little change on ground? Sheer dedication, of course, but even the smart ability to leverage one's status or position can do wonders as Alice Macaire, the wife of British High Commissioner showed us in Nairobi recently. As the founder of ‘Friends of Karura Forest’ she gave back the city its natural forest that had been held hostage by fringe elements – thugs and loggers, for nearly two decades. 

I used to cross the picturesque arterial Limuru road that slices through a valley of verdure in central Nairobi often as I would go about my city jaunts but had missed the small turnout between the Belgian and Canadian Embassy until suddenly a year back a board appeared proclaiming ‘Karura Forest’. I had been to the forest on a birdwatching trail with Nature Kenya earlier but that was through a roundabout way when I hadn’t realised that the forest was smack in the heart of Nairobi. I recall that when we went birding the askaris (that is what the sentry is called in local Kiswahili lingo) were bewildered by our presence, though we were a 50-strong group, as they were not used to seeing visitors there.

Later, when I did my Masters’ thesis on Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement I got acquainted with her struggle to save the Karura Forest, one of her earliest save-environment exploits much before she was recognised with the Nobel Prize for her work. In the ’90s when the private developers lobby trained their vice-grip to spring skyscrapers on Karura, thanks to degazetting of forest land by unscrupulous government authorities,  Maathai and her loyal band of tree-lovers camped in the forest to plant seedlings on land cleared for construction. For her bravery she was rewarded by being beaten up by the police and was severely injured. Wangari Maathai’s courage paid off and Karura forest was saved from being decimated. Unfortunately, that gain frittered away as Karura became the stronghold and hideout for anti-social elements from nearby slums that strayed in for illegal logging. Thousand hectares of, largely, indigenous trees that served as lungs and a prime water source for the city of Nairobi thus remained out of bounds and even unknown to the man on the street!

So where does Alice Macaire fit in? It took a non-resident foreigner to realise the potential of the forest as a picnic and recreation space, where families could go on nature trails, biking or jogging precisely with the aim of protecting it. Co-opting the Kenya Forest Service and UNEP and taking the nearby Muthaiga residents on board, she got like-minded individuals and organisations to give “Friends of Karura Forest” solid backing. As a measure to prevent underground activities thriving from the base, she came up with the proposal of fencing the entire forest periphery.  Having taken up the challenge, she relentlessly sounded of people in high places and anybody who would listen to her to chip in – many did, some in kind through moral support and some, like corporate companies, through funding. Getting the Minister of Forests on her side was the biggest ace she would come up with. Over two years, Friends… got the fence up, flushed out anti-social elements and even got local youths who felled trees and foraged in the forest trained to patrol the acres providing them employment. In February, 2011, Friends… opened Karura Forest for public with much fanfare, urging families and schools to venture on nature trails and to explore the bounties of the city-forest.

Though I had promised myself another visit soon after my initial birdwatching trip, it was only now that I was stepping into the forest for the second time. My idol, Wangari Maathai was to inaugurate the forest opening and I was eager to meet her and interact with her, if possible. Imagine my disappointment when she did not turn up; she was sick but her daughter and grand-daughter were there on her behalf. The forest was declared open after a small ceremony graced by the prime players who gamely supported and helped Alice and her ragtag troop of “environmentalists”. To this day, Karura had only seen eerie silence and witnessed the tragedy of hacking of its denizens with impunity, and even, hidden the ugly truth of unclaimed dead bodies. But today, it was gurgling with laughter of kids, of young and old by its brook-side and waterfalls. It was as though, Karura had been born again and was in the safe hands of its rightful owners – the citizens of Nairobi.

I am walking in the woods along a path lined by crotons (Croton megalocarpus) and figs (Warburgia ugandensis) and listening to the birds calling out from the canopy. Butterflies wing around soundlessly leading us into a magical world of hidden treasures. There are the historic Mau Mau caves where freedom fighters lurked and from where they launched their tirade against the colonists, and even a chapel tucked away deep within. Sniffing the surreal air, I feel my chest swell with deep contentment as I walk the symbolic path paved by the living legend, Wangari Maathai. It inspires me, as I am sure it does many others - small children - to nurse the faith of protecting forests, our natural wealth, for a better future. Long before the city took shape, Karura forest stood there, as a microcosm of wilderness, a life-giver, and I hope it will be there, forever long as a beacon of life, itself.

Thank you, Alice, for taking the legacy of Wangari Maathai forward, and setting a sterling example, yourself.


  1. Three cheers to Wangai Mathai for defeating the industrial/capitalist interests! Is this the forest that you can see from your house? What animals live in it?

  2. I have just seen this. Thank you so much Padmaja. Very Best Alice (Macaire)

    1. Thank you. Your initiative was very inspiring and in fact, my blog almost took off with this piece. :-)