A tree seedling beside the stump of a tree burned down for charcoal. The seedlings are planted to mitigate the effect of wide scale deforestation in areas surrounding the forest.
I chose an early morning tea session to sit down with Kakamega Forest Heritage Foundation Chief Executive Officer , Mr. George Murilla to discuss conservation efforts in the Kakamega Forest. Mr. Murila was happy to host me for a conversation on Kakamega Forests, which he advocates for. Mr. Murila and I had this conversation on the advent of a free medical camp in Lugala Village . The medical camp was hosted by the Foundation in conjunction with The Nairobi Hospital.
I asked Mr. Murila what motivated him to be a pioneer member of the Foundation. He said, “It is just awareness. When Al Gore started talking about climate change and scientists started putting emphasis on it, I asked my friends who are environmental experts about climate change and they told me how bad the situation was. I asked them about the forest, and they explained to me how important the forest is, thereafter teamed up with likeminded people from the area and we started the foundation. I didn’t even know how important the forest was until I talked to those experts.”
I notice that unlike most areas I have seen in Kakamega, the Lugala Community has planted a lot of trees on their plots. Mr. Murila explained how this came about, “We carry out massive efforts to raise awareness on the importance of not cutting down trees inside the forests. We also give the Community tree seedlings from our nursery to plant at home for purposes of firewood and charcoal. That way they don’t have to go to the forests. We also hold tree planting sessions twice a year during the long rains and short rains.”
I asked Mr. Murila how the community was responding to the reforestation efforts. He tells me, the community was cynical at first. After many years of cutting down forest trees, it was cynical to change. In fact I remember, when Mzee Moi was informed about the ongoing deforestation and illegal logging in Kakamega Forest, he created a Nyayo tea zone here. It was a barrier to people from entering the forest. If the Police found you beyond the tea zone they arrested you. The people here were outraged. They said it was their trees and resources, so they should be allowed to do as they wish. 30 years later I am glad Moi stood firm, or else there wouldn’t be a forest.” There was a tone of reminisce in his voice. “Those were the days.” He laughed uproariously while shaking his head.
One of the ways the Kakamega Forest Foundation increases forest cover is by giving out tree seedlings.I asked him how the Foundation has been distributing seedlings to schools, churches and well-wishing farmers.” We have entered into a partnership with organisations like the Kenya Forestry Service who supplied us 2000 seedlings last year. We plant them in our nursery and once they have matured enough we give them out to people who are willing to reserve 10% of their plot for trees, on condition they take care of the trees until they grow.” I was curious on why they insisted on the condition.”Until you dig a hole,plant a tree,water it and ensure it grows,then you have done nothing.You are just talking” He quoted revered environmentalist Wangari Maathai.
One of the initiatives of the Kakamega Forest Heritage Foundation is, The Young Echo Club. In layman’s language, this the youth wing of the Foundation. Mr. Murila seemed very excited about this part of the interview. “Mentorship is the key to continuity of a society. We started the echo club with the intention of targeting young people such that one or two generations down the line, everyone will appreciate the role of environmental conservation. We have education bursaries,sanitary pads distribution programmes for girls and underwear for boys. I hope we can get financial support to help take this to the next level. These young people will be the tour guides in the forest and this creates employment, since they will have the knowledge of the forests, its species and its history. In fact, there are still the indigenous scouts who can tell the medicinal value of the tree by just smelling its leaves.”
The Foundation also holds various events during the last week of November in each year. The events include a half marathon, full marathon and a fifteen kilometer corporate race for both men and women. ,a black mamba cycling race which is growing in numbers, tree planting and bull fighting.. Plans to open an athletics training camp and to bring in athletic coaches to train athletes in the area are underway.
Research is one of the pillars of the Kakamega forestry foundation. The goal is to eventually establish a research institute for forestry and medicine purposes in Kakamega. I asked how close we are to making this a reality? “We are far, very far. In fact we haven’t even began, because we can’t do it ourselves. We lack the academic knowledge to do it. This is where local academic institutions come in. The only research going on in here is being carried out by wazungus. There are Germans and French nationals who usually come here and get degrees using research from the forest. We have around 13 German PhD’s courtesy of this Kakamega forest yet not even one local degree. Not one! If we get a university ready to do research here, I’m sure we can organise something. People need to know what kinds of trees are ,best; we need scientists to improve our breed of trees. We need such specialists. We need them and we need them to be African.”
“Mr.Murilla how is the political and stakeholders response?” I asked him, because for someone to execute the vision they have, political goodwill is necessary. “On paper the goodwill is there, on the ground not so much. The legislation is yet to be passed, we are still funding ourselves, we haven’t received any money pursuant to the Paris climate agreement. We have been informed by the UN offices that all money will go through the county government and we haven’t received any, but the Governor is on our Foundation’s Board. We get almost zero input from him, hopefully things will change.” I didn’t press the matter further.
Finally just before our session was concluded, I asked Mr. Murila for his rallying cry to Kenyans on the matter of the forest. “There is nothing new I can add, all that has to be said has been said. It’s time for action. Everyone needs to dig a hole, plant a tree, water the tree and ensure it grows. Otherwise you’ve not done anything.” We concluded the session with a insight sessions in the under workings of the political world where he was once a key player. A good pastime after a great conversation.
Click here to view the short film of the forest.