Friday, April 22, 2011

From Wasteland to Wonderland

Haller Park, Mombasa

For me, a trip to Mombasa is incomplete without a visit to Haller Park. Sitting nondescriptly on the Mombasa-Malindi road, this park is a must-do pit-stop. Acres of emerald interspersed with wetlands, accompanying avifauna, and even mammals from savannas greet you in this pocket glowing with environmental well-being. I fall in line with the guide who takes us through the paces and acquaints us with the vegetation and wildlife wealth here. It is two-and-a half-hours as we just about sample the place and head for the Giraffe feeding site, which is the last leg of the tour. Giraffe feeding is a big draw here and it attracts a wholesome cross-section of tourists. We are standing on a platform to be level with the giraffe’s mouth eagerly holding food pellets in palms waiting to touch and feel the giraffe, a novel experience to many of us. I have been to safaris in the savannas and scrubland, been on nature trails in urban forests with its bursting foliage, then why does this park have such a hold on me? What’s so special about Haller Park?

Haller Park has grown out of the derelict landscape of a spent quarry: it may well have sprung out of nothing! It is an exceptional ecological experiment in mitigation of land degradation and a classic instance of corporate responsibility in environmental housekeeping on part of Bamburi Cement Company.  Bamburi has been making cement from limestone quarried from fossilized coral reef dating back to Pleistocene era (2 – 1 million years ago). Once mined, these open pit quarries lie in disuse and degrade the quality of land and contaminate groundwater, even leaching into the ocean. For nearly two decades, LaFarge Ecosystem, a subsidiary of Bamburi has been engaged in converting the wasteland of dust and debris into an ecologically and economically self-sustaining ecosystem. But the idea was originally mooted and executed by Swiss naturalist, Dr. Rene Haller, then working as an agronomist with Bamburi, after whom the park is honoured.

You can see the excavation site (derelict quarry) behind... 

Fig tree with vervet monkeys

Dr. Haller experimented with tree planting and found that in the severely
barren conditions only casuarina equisetifolia survived and thus willy nilly the initial mitigation measure began as a monoculture plantation. As the next step, millipedes were introduced to feed on casuarina needles that fell on to the quarry floor and to turn them into humus.

At a conference organized on the occasion of Nature Kenya’s centenary, I had the opportunity to learn of LaFarge’s experiment of eco-restoration of Haller Park in greater detail. I learnt that, by and by, indigenous trees were brought in for revegetation - specific species to attract birds and monkeys - that would help in pollination and seed dispersal thus paving the transformation of monocultures into a diverse ecosystem. Coastal, ornamental, rare and endangered, and medicinal – all varieties of trees were brought in to rehabilitate over 200 hectares of quarry land. In keeping with the best practices of eco-restoration, local community was involved in the greening efforts.

Once introduced vegetation took root, natural processes took over and the ecological community became self-sustaining, LaFarge trained sights on wildlife. Giraffes, buffaloes, elands and hippopotamus, mostly orphaned animals or those that needed to be shifted from other parks were provided shelter here.Today, Haller Park boasts of a small game sanctuary, nature trails, lakes with lilies, a palm garden, a reptile park, an aquaculture pond with tilapia (fish), and a butterfly pavilion, all of which attract tourists widely.

Nile crocodiles in Reptile Park

Lily pond

Eland, the largest antelope... looks rather like cattle

In my ecology studies I had learnt of development of ecological seres, how flora and fauna evolve naturally on barren land, volcanic islands or in ponds, the succession of species – of plants, the elbowing and edging out of certain weaker species by the dominant ones, the competition and struggle, the establishment of the predominant ones, and finally the climax vegetation, the survival of the fittest. It is one thing to observe and extrapolate natural progression, entirely another for man to replicate the same in a manner of reverse engineering. Such instances of ecological rehabilitation of spent spaces, few and far between as they are, are a testimony to man’s ingenuity and give hope that if man decides, he can restore lost ecosystems.

I had been to Haller Park last year, before LaFarge’s talk had thrown light on behind-the-scenes intervention that led to the dramatic results. Back then, the park was just that, a place of natural beauty. Standing here today, by the pond, as I watch the flock of sacred ibis bathed in the warm sunlight streaking through the trees I realize that the park is much more, it is truly a man-made paradise.

Who would believe this was once a dust and debris aridity?

Monday, April 11, 2011



Chequered, multicolored hot air balloons of different dimensions dangle from the ceiling in a corner in an installation. Nearby, psychedelic and diaphanous cigarette lighters are framed in a luminous mosaic on a wall. A chaise lounge suggesting that it could have been a canoe once sits inviting in the centre of the room resplendent with orange upholstery. And wooden guitars in myriad shapes – heart, fish, star, and even angel’s wings – adorn the gallery walls and beckon to be picked and strummed, though they are obviously only ornamental. Amidst the beauty, flip-flops litter the floor in a not-so-gentle reminder of waste carelessly strewn across urban land or washed ashore by polluted waters of seas and oceans. I am at RaMoMA art gallery in Nairobi browsing avant garde furniture and decorative props created by Andrew McNaughton at an exhibition mysteriously titled “Clear Obsidian”.

Beach artist Andrew MacNaughton

Obsidian is a black rock formed of volcanic magma; this I knew having picked up a few as souvenirs on my trek through the gorges of Hell’s Gate National Park. But clear obsidian doesn't make much sense, only that it is a contradiction in terms. It occurs to me that the stark contrast between flip-flops and funky art is a deliberate ploy and the significance of the title starts dawning on me somewhat. Being a wordsmith, I have to unravel this conundrum before I get down to a chat with the artist. I was impressed by some of Andrew’s handiwork seen earlier and had wanted to meet the artist ever since. Finally, here was my opportunity. Andrew concurs that there is nothing like clear obsidian and that the paradox is a ruse, an interesting way of questioning established ideas, of stretching the imagination to think out of the box. This self-styled “beach artist” has been doing just that for years now.

Lighters all!
Andrew practiced as a commercial Interior Design Consultant and furniture developer first in UK, and then in Nairobi for 30 years, before he shifted gears and started sculpting pieces of fine art for interiors. He reveals that all his assemblages are created from marine debris – defunct canoes, dhows, driftwood, flip-flops and other taka taka (Swahili for wastes) that litter the beaches of Watamu, a coastal hamlet in Kenya. Being a naturalist-at-heart, it was here, in his adopted home, that the idea of using non-biodegradable wastes as raw material first struck home. He, thus, started living the “pleasure of creating something out of nothing” while dedicating himself to environmental housekeeping of his neighbourhood. Andrew’s art work uses 95% recycled or sustainable material.

Having settled by the Indian ocean, the Anish-Kapoor afficionado got into the habit of combing the beaches and recalls being astounded by the paraphernalia of beach litter that he could source from. Andrew actually pays to collect marine debris, and people from the neighbourhood bring all kind of trash to his door. There is, of course, the unending supply of Hawai chappals, but apart from that, he finds cigarette lighters, polythene bags, plastic and glass bottles, metal scrap, drift wood and other unimaginable rubbish. He assigns his gardener the duty of cleaning flip-flops thoroughly, sorting them out, and piling them, a task that “never ends”! Andrew's beach-front workshop hires local people and his entire team of craftsmen - joiners and finishers – comes from the local community. Andrew's efforts are channelized through Watamu Marine Association and he is, perhaps, the only individual competing with institutions and the hospitality industry in cleaning the beaches of Watamu. Andrew's workshop also serves the dual purpose of providing employment and boosting local economy.

The artist is a man of many parts and his art is a reflection of his multifaceted personality.  A passionate musician and guitarist, his love for music has translated in guitars being a recurring theme in this collection. The 22 guitars serve as a fantastic showcase for his creative process as it not only uses diverse material – casuarina roots, kapok wood, sand, wooden logs, aluminum wires, flip-flop squares, but also different techniques. Having worked as a commercial furniture developer he has his finger on the pulse of his audience or buyers, as the case may be, and he comes up with saleable propositions. His stools, settees and lamps; and rugs made by simply piecing together flip-flop diamonds are functional, but even his purely decorative pieces are commercially viable.

'Art for peace' is an oft-bludgeoned theme used by artists to garner attention to their work in an ever-competitive world. It may or may not have merit and may or may not bring change of heart, but Andrew’s 'Art for Environment' is action-oriented and sets practical example for waste recycling. And it also stands out for the sheer beauty of his artistry.