One of the critical aspects about empowering a community is exposure which will actually convince them that what you are trying to teach them is actually applicable and practical as seen in certain communities in other parts of the country. However, this does not necessarily mean taking a community group for the usual luxurious field excursion. It is supposed to be about experiential learning and more so about sharing of various experiences the different community groups have undergone (in this context) their pursuit and quest for conservation.
Factoring the reality above, A Rocha Kenya has been organizing these forums aiming to empower Community Forest Associations around Arabuko Sokoke Forest and Dakatcha Woodland in Kilifi County and Ngong Hills Forest in Kajiado County. Earlier in the year, these forums have seen the Community Forest Associations from Kilifi County visit Wildlife Works at Kasigau, where they were exposed to the REDD+ Project (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) which involved learning about the carbon credit business including calculating the value of an ecosystem as carbon sinks. In addition they have led the Ngong Metro CFA to visit Arabuko Sokoke Forest to explore the ecosystem. This provided a good experience of the different opportunities offered by the forest. The major highlight being the visit to the elephant hole at Arabuko Sokoke swamp and a boat ride through the Mida creek that exposed the group to the potential of exploring ecotourism opportunities.
Flash forward to November, the forum was set to be held at Ngong Hills Forest, where the Kilifi County CFAs were supposed to visit and share with their counterparts of Ngong Metro CFA. The group from Kilifi consisted of a total of 32 people, eight members from each of the four CFAs which were Gede, Sokoke, Jilore and Dakatcha. Day one saw the group visit Oloolua forest which is one of the three forest blocks of the Ngong hills forest. Here, they were met by members of Oloolua Forest Environmental Participatory Group (OFEP), which is one of the user groups in the Ngong Metro CFA. Oloolua forest is an indigenous forest covering 671ha, gazetted by the Kenyan Government and under the management of Kenya Forest Service. It used to team with a variety of wild animals, however due to human pressure they have since disappeared with only a few spotted sporadically. The core reason for the immense pressure thrusted on the forest can be traced to politics in the 1990s; where 18ha of the forest was licensed to business men and cleared for quarrying, all in the name of gaining political mileage for the Member of Parliament at the time. The un-rehabilitated quarries were left behind characterized by huge depressions which left the forest precariously without any outstanding warning signs. They have posed a great risk not only to animals in the forest but also humans with several deaths and injuries reported.
Despite these challenges all was not lost, the OFEP group committed themselves to restoring the forest into its original form as if heeding to Theodore Roosevelt words, “To waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.” They therefore embarked on replanting trees in the area cleared for quarrying covering 5ha out of the 18ha without any financial assistance from external sources. Surprisingly also those who had devoted themselves to this work were old women who were clocking half a century and beyond having seen it all, which really challenged the group from Kilifi County who consider themselves still young and energetic but had yet to reach such milestones. “These women were working hard to restore the forest for generations to come,” these were words confessed by their Chairman. The main challenges that the Kilifi group learnt their counterparts were facing were inadequate funds, lack of political good will and an ecological challenge in the name of lantana camara an invasive species in the forest which had colonized the cleared areas that were meant for quarrying. Most of the challenges were similar to what the other groups were facing and they motivated each other to continue with their passion for conservation.
The afternoon was scheduled for the group to visit the forest at Karara Field Study Centre which is A Rocha Kenya’s National base in Karen, Nairobi. The forest is intact characterized by many species of trees most of which are of great medicinal value and in addition it is home to various species of birds such as the black cap, thrush nightingale and marsh warbler. The community members were able to find out more about the work of A Rocha Kenya at the Centre such as Farming God’s way, a form of conservation agriculture.
The second day commenced by climbing the picturesque Ngong Hills, polka dotted with wind turbines, and the peak offering a magnificent aerial view of both Nairobi and Kajiado counties with a slight hint of Narok County further in the horizon. It was evident that indeed it is the highest point in Nairobi.
Led by Bedan Leboo an official of the Ngong Metro CFA, the CFA members were taken to the third block; Empakasi Forest or locally known as Kibiko, the second having been the forest on the Ngong Hills. The forest is mostly characterized by plantations of Eucalyptus sp but highly significant to the locals since it was the crushing site for a plane that had carried the late Honorable Prof. George Saitoti who was once Kenya’s Vice president and a tough, vocal legislator who hailed from that region.
The major highlight of the experience sharing forum came in the afternoon when the group was taken to Kerarapon forest, still part of the extensive Ngong Hills Forests which acts as the source of River Sabaki also known as Athi and Galana. The forest, typical of any water tower had a resemblance of a rainforest characterized by chirping birds, tall, broad-leaved and gigantic trees, with small springs at the bottom, supplying water to a river dependent upon by most parts of the coastal areas before it pours its waters into the Indian Ocean. It was breathtaking but no! scratch that, it was wildly exhilarating for the community members from the coast with one Mzee David Chivatsi who lives right at the mouth of river Sabaki delighted at the sight of the springs and who could not contain his excitement evident by how ecstatic and frenzied he became such that he had to call home just to inform his loved ones what he was witnessing.
After such an eventful experience the trip came to an end with the CFAs having been exposed to a whole new world of conservation and how the Ngong Hills Forest is intricately interrelated to the Sabaki River.