Where kids learn to care for nature

Catherine Gichungu, Greenit Decors director at the garden on June 6, 2022. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG

When Catherine Gichugu started Greenit Decors back in 2016, it was to mend a broken heart – hers. A year prior to while building her family home, she was devastated on realising that the Meru Oak tree, a species from which her warm and inviting kitchen cabinets were curved from, was facing extinction.

“When I went back to get more wood for shelves, the cabinet supplier told me that the Meru Oak was an endangered species. I realised that as an end user I had a hand in creating this crisis. Founding Greenit Decors was my way of doing something to ensure it lives on,” she tells me from the garden centre located on Magadi Road.

Greenit Decors is a company dedicated to the conservation of indigenous trees. It is located under 12 indigenous trees, some of which she informs me are rare species. For example, the red stinkwood (Prunus africana), a tree famous for its medicinal properties and for not being adequately conserved.

On the two-acre plot, it’s clear to see that Ms Gichugu accomplishing her goal. There are more than 40 indigenous tree species well-tended to, awaiting to find new homes. However, it’s not the trees that have brought me here today.

It’s her passion for conservation for the future through Mizizi Eco Circle, a programme designed to encourage Kenyan children to learn and share the values of caring for nature.

Mizizi Eco Circle is a product the nostalgia that shadowed her during the three years it took to set up Greenit Decors. Plenty of her childhood memories are steeped in nature.

Catherine Gichungu, Director Greenit Decors posing for a photo at Mizizi Eco Cirle in Karen, Nairobi on June 6, 2022. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG

She remembers her grandfather – James Rukwaro Wandau - using various tree products to make concoctions that were used on human beings and cattle alike. He was also a walking nature’s encyclopedia.

“He knew a lot about trees and was keen on passing on that information to us,” she says. “This art of story telling is the inspiration behind Mizizi Eco circle. In the days of old, children belonged to the society and parents were collectively responsible to pass on societal values to all children. Unfortunately, this is not the case today and a lot of conservation wealth and wisdom is getting lost because those who had it are no longer there,” the nature lover says.

Perhaps it was this knowledge that conserved the Meru Oak whose wood she used the first time for her kitchen cabinetry. With Mizizi Eco Circle, she hopes to make to ensure that the values are passed on to the coming generations.

“It is no longer a secret that our environment is in bad shape. In fact, the top three crises facing humanity today are climate change, pollution, and loss of biodiversity. The environment we are leaving our children in is far worse state than what we inherited from our own parents. It is, therefore, our responsibility to champion environmental conservation but also prepare our children to continue with this long after we are gone,” Ms Gichugu, a mother herself says.

Unfortunately, most children don’t get to explore nature because their parents are not excited about nor interested in it.

Since Greenit Decors launched the programme, they have worked with various schools to introduce children to nature. At the centre children come, discover and learn about the beauty and magic of nature.

A gardener as well, Ms Gichugu shares that when children come in initially, they aren’t sure of what to expect. But she soon wins them over with her excitement as she shows them around.

On this day of the interview, I get to follow the route the participants take.

Classes begin with a tour around the area. Though she walks fast from one spot to another, she speaks slowly to ensure that I understand everything she’s showing me. I suppose she does the same for the children too.

We walk through the plant maze where she talks about the trees, and then through the potting, propagating station, recycling, composting and vermiculture and vermicast stations.

There’s also an organic garden section with vegetables for children to see and touch. I wasn’t brave enough to touch the worms in the vermiculture bins. The tour ends in a mordenised traditional grass-thatched circular hut (banda), perhaps reminiscent of the olden days.

“We get to interact with children and ask what they’ve seen or enjoyed during the walk. The vermiculture stations is a favourite because of the worms since they get to touch them,” she explains.

With the theory over, it’s time to get their hands dirty. The children are taught how to plant trees and are tasked with transferring indigenous trees into milk packets, which they’ll go home with and nurture to life. They’re also given a journal where they note down their thoughts as they care for it.

Planting indigenous trees is important because they are built for this environment. Whereas there are some exotic trees that are valuable, some of them end up being invasive. They also don’t support local species such as bees, beetles, and birds among others.

Catherine Gichungu, Director Greenit Decors posing for a photograph inside Indigenous trees seedlings at her gardens in Karen, Nairobi on June 6, 2022. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG

“Indigenous trees that are wonderful for this are the Acacia, Cordia Africana, Cape chestnut, Croton, Dombeya, and Warbugia Ugandensis among others. Their African names also need to be preserved because they’re not only meaningful but educational.”

And at the end of it, most children don’t want to go home. “Some of them form faces when they hear that it’s time to leave,” the passionate conservationist says.

What Ms Gichugu hopes for is that the time they spend in nature with her burns in them a love for nature that lasts and is passed on.

As we part ways, a beetle flies and rests on my bag. Knowing that this was once a worm, I hope that it will always have a place to call home as more of us and our children commit to environmental conservation for as long as it’s called today, for future generations.

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