While Africa's Indigenous trees go extinct, a Kenyan organization grew a tree museum

A YouTube screenshot of the Miti Alliance Founder Michael Waiyaki inspecting the Naro Moru tree museum

A screenshot of the Miti Alliance founder, Michael Waiyaki, inspecting plants at the Naro Moru tree museum, by Voices for Just Climate Action on YouTube.

Growing up in rural Kenya in the 1980s, trees were everywhere. As a young girl, I knew which trees had the best twigs for brushing my teeth as I walked to school, which ones made the best natural brooms (we were required to sweep the toilets with ashes every Friday), and which ones “cried” natural chewing gum (actual chewing gum was beyond my reach then) that always stuck in my teeth.

Back then, we all knew the trees by their native names; Mũiri, Mũkindũri, Mũkũngũgũ. We knew their medicinal and functional uses. Little did we know then that this was valuable Indigenous knowledge which, like the food we ate, was fed to us every day through idioms, proverbs, and wise sayings that underscored the importance of living in harmony with nature, as in this proverb from my native community, the Gikuyu/Kikuyu:

Aya mendaine ta gĩkwa na Mũkũngũgũ.

These ones love each other like the yam plant and the Commiphora eminii tree.

The trees we grew up with were all Indigenous trees.

Fast forward 30 years and trees are becoming a rare sight, particularly in urban and peri-urban areas. Owing to a fast-growing population whose demands on the land for agriculture and development have been growing exponentially, the quest for more fast-growing and commercially viable trees has seen a drastic increase in exotic trees at the expense of the native species.

Like me, Michael Waiyaki also grew up in the late 1980s in the town of Limuru, just 25 km (16 miles) outside Nairobi. Waiyaki is an environmentalist who has been fighting to slow down the devastating effects of climate change due to deforestation. He is also the founder and CEO of Miti Alliance, a Kenyan social impact enterprise that is adopting a unique approach to environmental conservation. It has built a tree museum that will preserve seedlings for some of Africa’s rare Indigenous trees that could soon become extinct.  

 

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In an interview with  Global Voices, Waiyaki describes his childhood as a time when life was free. 

There are things that we did outdoors, like gwetha nding’oing’o (looking for dung beetles), grazing cows, and playing in the forest that was so carefree. There was something about the peace I felt being in nature. 

As he spoke, I could not help but notice the numerous parallels with our childhood. Waiyaki, now 40 years old, remembers with great fondness the three massive avocado trees that towered over their compound. 

Every harvesting season, my siblings collected the avocados and [sold] the surplus fruits in the nearby market. We’d use that pocket money to buy whatever items we needed in school.

As he grew older, the scenery around his home district began changing. Slowly, the once-green carpet of trees became maize fields and concrete cityscapes.

He traces his first-ever tree-planting exercise to his college days. Using his Facebook page, he’d rally his friends and fellow volunteers at the Rotaract Nairobi Central, where he was a member. With the little funds they raised, they’d buy a few seedlings of Indigenous trees. During the rainy seasons (March-May and November-December) they would go back to their rural homes and plant trees.

I found so much happiness in the forest, ever hiking and seeing rivers.

It was through his consistent environmental work every rainy season that corporations began expressing interest in joining his efforts — but many came with their own agendas that did not always align with his. As such, he was constantly struggling to raise funds. This struggle only worsened when, in 2018, he set up Miti Alliance and decided to dedicate all his time and effort toward it. 

I could be living a better life, travelling but here I am where half of the time I'm struggling to raise salaries.

  But every time he has despaired, something always brought him back from the brink.

I have tried to leave this work like everyone else. Perhaps get a good job with my Master's degree and live comfortably. But I’ve done it once before and I’d always find myself coming back. I was restless despite having good money. 

Waiyaki shares a name and lineage with the great Kenyan freedom fighter Waiyaki wa Hinga. 

I recently watched the video of Wangari Maathai. Wangari was talking about how her fight for Karura forest was the same fight that Waiyaki Wa Hinga fought. She said “if you want to kill me, go ahead, even Waiyaki died for this land.”  It made so much sense that I share a name and lineage with him.

Primary school students planting fruit and indigenous trees in their compound. The exercise was organised and facilitated by Miti Alliance

Primary school students at their kitchen garden, planting fruit and indigenous trees. The exercise was organised and facilitated by Miti Alliance. Photo used with permission.

The late Wangari Maathai was a renowned environmentalist, activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner who, like Waiyaki, greatly advocated for the planting of indigenous trees in order to counter climate change.  Her calls for a ban on eucalyptus trees — an imported “thirsty” species — along river banks made her quite unpopular with the political elites and environmental groups.

Africa’s forest cover is dropping at an alarming rate in spite of concerted efforts to sensitize the population about their importance as water sources and their effect on the climate. In 2020, only 22.7 percent (about 674,419,000 ha.) of Africa was forested, according to the FAO. Between 1990 and 2010, Africa lost 10.0 percent (around 74,819,000 ha.) of its forest cover.

Indigenous trees are on the decline, and it's not just in Kenya.  

Miti Alliance has an audacious goal — to plant five million trees by 2025. Although their flagship is the Miti schools programme which so far has visited over 250 schools, it is the tree museum project that is Waiyaki's real passion. With over 120 rare tree species planted so far in their Naro Moru farm located on the foothills of Africa’s second-highest mountain, Mt. Kenya, the Alliance hopes that the museum can become a model for other conservation projects.

If there is no change, we might be the only source of these seeds. A live seed bank shall not only protect Indigenous trees and knowledge, but we are also looking to replicate this. 

Kenya’s current forest cover is 7.2 percent. The government is keen to increase this up to 10 percent by 2022 through reforestation efforts.

In recent years, there has been an increasing aversion to Indigenous trees, which are deemed to be less commercially viable. However, as he notes, people need to learn to look beyond commercial value.

I feel like our kids are caught in between a very rapidly changing world. In 25 years, I want my children to have something they can remember me by. Beyond my children, my pride in being African has left me questioning, “What can I offer?” The quest is now very clear. I want to safeguard its knowledge. The more I think about it, the more I see the value. I might not get noticed but it will be worth it.”

He explained how the Narumoru tree museum is key to intersectional sustainability.  

We see this as a great opportunity for us to create an even bigger facility to teach about not just the trees but also Indigenous vegetables and explore commercially viable explorations around Indigenous trees.

Waiyaki is not a lone prophet with an unpopular gospel. However, although there are Kenyan communities such as the Kipsigis, the Ogiek, and the Aberdare Kiburu Community whose initiatives are also restoring degraded sites, it is Miti Alliance's audacious goal of preserving a seed bank of five million native species that could give them a fighting chance in future.

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