Time for a young environmental leader to emerge from Kenya in 2021

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In this article, Clean Up Kenya Founder and Patron, Betterman Simidi Musasia, makes a war cry to all young Kenyan environmentalists and declares 2021 as the year for the battle of the soul and heart of the Kenyan environment.

This article is a call for action to all young environmentalists across Kenya. Especially those who are in their twenties. The year 2021 is for you. It does not matter whether you have a degree or live in a big town or a slum. In the coming year, you can accept the challenge and begin on a path of leadership to ensure our environment is protected as required by the constitution.

I’m aware many of you are already doing great work in small or big ways. Some of you already work in great difficulty at own expense in communities. Many of you I have met. Like John Kihika, who works in Ngong to help stop children from accessing the dumpsite. I applaud the great works of your hands.

However, your efforts are hardly enough. If you continue on the same trajectory, the government, industry and some non-governmental organizations will continue to make fools out of your honest toil. On one hand, they will use you to endorse their nefarious environmental Public Relations stunts, and on the other, they will pamper your egos with token pronouncements of progress, while failing to provide a comprehensive path to ensure our environment is protected as required by the law.

The conformist trap

To be able to fight the machinations of government, industries and greenwashing NGOs against conservation progress, you will need to resist the temptation to align yourself with the current narrative or engage in environmental PR gimmicks. These will not help your cause.

In the last couple of years, we have seen these stunts emerging from Europe, some sponsored by entities whose agenda is unknown, and being copied by young environmentalists all over the world, including here in Kenya. It has become fashionable for example, to see young girls holding a placard every Friday outside a given parliament to ask authorities to do something for the climate. I have got news for you. These antics, however well-meaning will not move the established order. You might get invited to a public event and take a picture with a Cabinet Secretary as part of the charade, and that is all.

In 2019 for example, the local media reported a case of a young teenager who invited Nairobians to picket outside our parliament for climate action. No one showed up except only herself and the government did not pay much attention.

Another way you can fall into the conformist trap is as evidenced in the case of the fig tree in Westlands, Nairobi. Earmarked for cutting to pave way for an extended highway, many environmentalists both young and old, trooped to Westlands in 2020 to take pictures of the tree with signs asking the government to spare it.

Soon afterwards, the government took notice, and we started hearing some nonsensical plans of uprooting the tree and replanting it somewhere else. Sadly, some environmentalists went online to herald this as a great idea.

But then we have a President who understands the value of PR. In a presidential decree unheard of in any other part of the world, Uhuru Kenyatta ordered the tree be preserved. Even CNN joined other media houses both local and international in celebrating the announcement.

On their website, CNN wrote: “Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has issued a decree to save a much-loved century-old fig tree from being cut down to make way for a Chinese-funded highway in the capital Nairobi. The presidential decree described the tree, the height of a four-storey building, as a ‘beacon of Kenya’s cultural and ecological heritage’.”

Let me tell you why this is bullshit.

In 2019, we walked for about two kilometres from Nyayo Roundabout to Capital Centre in Nairobi. We were accompanied by an irate environmental officer from Nairobi County who had overseen the growth of some trees along the highway a few years back. We counted about 15 stumps. The trees had been felled illegally at different times so that billboards could either be erected or be better seen by motorists. Unfortunately, none of these trees or thousands more felled every year to expand our infrastructure have been saved by a presidential decree.

The truth of the matter is trees will continue to be felled in our cities as we expand our roads to make the towns more motorable. What Nairobi and all our urban centres need is a comprehensive green urban plan. Part of this will be to provide green spaces with captivating flora and fauna that excite and renews. There is no reason why grabbed public lands cannot be reclaimed or newer ones purchased in every constituency so that we can establish public parks where citizens can go enjoy some tranquillity. Or for Kenya National Highway Authority and other developers to be required to provide an audit and recompense over and above by a thousandfold every time a tree is cut to make way for a road or new building. Environmentalists should also know that when vehicles get stuck in traffic jams for hours, this hardly helps the environment in terms of carbon footprint.

It is also sad to note that it took an order of President Kenyatta for single-use plastics to be banned in our protected ecosystems in July 2020, or for major rehabilitation works to start on two key city parks, or for a moratorium to be placed on logging after an expose on the destruction of forests at the complicity of some state officers. Yet we have a Ministry of Environment and Forestry and constitutionally funded state agencies which have huge environmental mandates. To the credit of President Uhuru Kenyatta, he has launched several national cleanup campaigns which have hardly taken off due to the incompetence of some state agencies.

Opportunities for youth-led advocacy

I have not heard any young environmentalists take a radical step of asking the government to reclaim Serena Hotel, Railway Club, All Saints Cathedral, among others, which sit on the Uhuru Park belt as fair recompense for what will be hived off to expand Uhuru Highway. In fact, the same government has gone ahead to build a bus terminus on the park belt while you all were busy making needless noise about the Westlands fig tree. Now imagine what the smoke from these buses will do to those seeking fresh air at the iconic park. Would Wangari Maathai approve of such nonsense?

In 2021, young environmentalists, don’t become Public Relations collaborators with the government and industry to destroy the environment. Celebrate progressive efforts like Michuki Park when they come. But then quickly ask those in authority to do more. Michuki Park is an example of a government hell-bent on pursuing a Public Relations policy with the environment. The park is part of the ecosystem of a totally degraded Nairobi River and a failing waste management infrastructure. It sits only less than one kilometre from the over 30 kilometres of the black river. Every year, we hear of multi-agency government plans to reclaim the river, the blueprints of which are never published. We see ultimatums being made to polluters by those who wield the stick. And then we see the river become dirtier! The river has simply become a national scandal, gobbling billions of shillings in the name of cleaning with no clear path to sustainable cleanness. In some countries having a river pass through a city is something to be proud of, with property along the river being some of the most expensive. Here in Kenya, Nairobi River is the people’s sewage line.

A section of the polluted Nairobi River. Picture by Clean Up Kenya

There is also another issue, that of Dandora – a dumpsite in Nairobi. In 2017, a senior member of Clean Up Kenya asked the then Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Prof. Judi Wakhungu, at a public forum at UN Environment in Nairobi, what the government was doing about the dumpsite. The Minister simply told us to read the constitution, indicating that waste management is a devolved function. Shortly afterwards, I posed the same question to the powers that be at City Hall. One senior officer informed me that the cost of moving the dumpsite was estimated to be about 30 billion Kenya Shillings, which was more than the funds the national government had disbursed to the county that year. This is a classic example of denying responsibility and civil servants taking environmentalists for a textbook run-around.

That’s why we need courageous young women and men to emerge in 2021 to lead the way in demanding the government and industry to conserve the environment through progressive policies and deliberate actions.

Youth can turn clicktivism into a force for good

As we have already seen at Clean Up Kenya, tools like social media can help young people advance the cause of the environment. In August and September 2020, young people in our stable helped ran a disruptive social media campaign titled #PlasticPandemicKenya which led to PETCO Kenya blocking us on all social media and later the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Forestry, Mr Keriako Tobiko, issuing a scathing attack on the lobbying activities of Kenya Association of Manufacturers and Kenya Private Sector Alliance of undermining progressive legislation that would solve Kenya’s plastic crisis.

Every young environmentalist should use social media to question and even scandalize corporations like Coca-Cola which continue to deliberately destroy our environment with their thoughtless corporate actions. Given that we live in a more globalized society, if we persistently speak to the child labour violations of corporations in plastic recycling in the country, for example, there is a good chance that others in different countries will also take note and join our cause. There is no better person to do this than a young person who in most cases is already an influencer on Instagram or Tik Tok and can turn clicktivism into a force for good.

Resist also to conform to grandiloquence

The other day, I saw a young man post on Facebook that he is a ‘sustainability champion.’ I asked him what exactly a sustainability champion does. I’m sure he didn’t know how to answer such a question. I will help. Today’s so-called sustainable champions spend the better part of their working lives attending meetings and organizing endless conferences and webinars on you guessed it – sustainability! Many of them work at the UN Environment Complex in Gigiri. They have never participated in a single clean-up in their entire life but claim to be experts in public sanitation. Theirs is neither a title you want nor what an environmentalist should be doing. They know nothing about sanitation rights for the urban poor, who lacking basic hygiene infrastructure resorts to something as essential as ‘flying toilets.’

You will also hear young environmentalists talking about terms like ‘climate justice’ and ‘climate equity’. But if you probe, hardly would they be able to relate these terms with the actual problems that afflict our people because of environmental degradation. Some may even find it fashionable to go on a hunger strike like a gentleman I saw doing this in Belgium (God bless his heart) oblivious that there are actual people who regularly can’t afford a basic meal because of the actions of governments, industries and individuals on the environment. It is estimated that around 400 million children live in extreme poverty across the world and are always a couple of days away from starvation to death. A whole UN body, World Food Program, actually does business around these people. You probably know someone in this country who has to walk for over five kilometres to get water because of environmental degradation. You get the idea.

Professor Wangari Maathai when she decided to work with communities to advance their environmental rights, even for someone with a PhD, she hardly knew what these terms meant. If you doubt me, read her admission in a biography, ‘Unbowed’. Your work must connect with communities and the environment in an honest and actual manner.

A call to action – let the spirit of Wangari abide with you

Young environmentalists, more than ever, Kenya needs another Wangari Maathai to rise. But remember Wangari was not a conformist. She did not take crap from the government or Kenya Association of Manufacturers.

In 2021 it will be ten years since this iconic daughter of Kenya left us. It is the year you can start on a journey and do something great that is totally fitted to your talents, using very basic tools already available at your disposal.

If you need some inspiration, kindly visit Plastic Pandemic Kenya Instagram and Facebook pages. You can start with something as basic as that and hopefully as you grow into your work you can become angry enough to take the battle to the doorsteps of those who preside over the destruction of our environment.

You can even record a song about the environment as Christopher Muriithi did in 2020 using just his guitar and sitting in his front yard. Here is one more idea. You can start taking pictures of girls toilets in slums, especially in schools and start your own channel on YouTube. Take hundreds of these pictures and just post them online and say nothing, until the government acts!

You can also seek out other colleagues in the fight for the soul and heart of Kenya and organise the mother of all demonstrations online for the environment. You can make social media a non-safe and toxic place for organisations like Coca-Cola. You have done it before. In 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta had to close his Twitter handle because of constant attacks.

When I began Clean Up Kenya in 2015, all I had to use was my phone and for a year, that’s all I needed. I have lots of faith in you, young Kenyan environmentalist. Let the spirit of Wangari abide with you as you lead us into a cleaner, greener and safer future. Let 2021 be a year never to be forgotten. END

ABOUT CLEAN UP KENYA

Clean Up Kenya was established in 2015 to advocate for and promote sustainable public sanitation in Kenya. Since then we have become the de-facto national public sanitation advocacy brand. We are also experts in community mobilizing for cleanups. We have done numerous cleanups over the years, some of which have been attended by over 1000 volunteers on singular sites. At the core of our work is honest and actual engagement in communities – not PR events. We also run advocacy campaigns holding duty bodies, consumer brands, green-washing NGOs and other stakeholders to account for unsustainable public sanitation in Kenya and the global South. We receive no funding for our work but collaborate with others on projects.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Betterman-Simidi-Musasia---Clean-Up-Kenya

Betterman Simidi Musasia

Founder & Patron, Clean Up Kenya

Betterman is a sustainable public sanitation advocate and a pollution control evangelist. In 2015, after becoming extremely tired of seeing all the trash in Kenyan neighborhoods and hearing the authorities fake promises to clear the mess, he sold his trucking business to establish Clean Up Kenya. Today, the organization is a leading national sustainable public sanitation advocacy brand. In September 2020, he stepped down as Clean Up Kenya Chief Executive Officer and currently serves as Founder and Patron.