Amid the plunder of forests and rising skyscrapers in towns leaving little spaces for greenery, a ray of hope lies in Nairobi’s Karura Forest.
About 4,000 Kenyans craving greenery are flocking to the forest every weekend, says Dr Winnie Kiiru, a conservationist and biologist, who chairs the Friends of Karura Forest.
Almost every Saturday by 7am, the parking lot is full and ‘latecomers’ have to park in a field.
“On a good weekend, which would be sunny days, we get many people who come to walk, run, ride bikes or hold picnics. In a year, we get about 40,000 visitors because some months, of course, are wet,’’ she says.
Years ago, Karura Forest was a den of thieves and a spectre of death where people were murdered. But now Nairobians spend their free time watching dik diks that are a little bigger than cats running in pairs as jolly children frolic on grass while fitness enthusiasts jog and ride bikes on the trails.
The Friends of Karura, who are volunteers, have turned the forest into a safe recreational space which is almost rivalling the Nairobi National Park. How do they do it?
“We hire people from Githogoro and Huruma slums as gardeners, scouts, clerks … So those who would have been involved in criminal activities here are employed,” says Dr Kiiru.
“A lot of what happens here is passion to maintain what Wangari Maathai started and we do it without expecting anything in return,’’ she adds.
They also have a bursary scheme to pay fees for needy children, most of them from neighbouring slums. So far, they have contributed about Sh2 million to the education fund.
“This forest doesn’t just interest a person who wants recreation, it also serves the interests of that person who will never come here to walk but will come to work.”
However, the story is different in other Nairobi forests such as Ngong and City Park. They are unsafe and offer no tranquillity. In the 80s, City Park’s main attraction was a maze but it lost its lustre to criminals.
“We have a good problem in Karura, everybody wants to come here. People are coming from Karen when there is Ngong and Ololua forests that are next to them. Others come from Kileleshwa when there is Arboretum that is next there, while others come from Parklands yet there is City Park nearby. Why? Somehow the citizen engagement that is required to develop these green spaces is lacking,’’ says Dr Kiiru.
To turn the parks into safe recreational spaces, she says, Kenyans need to overhaul them without expecting anything in return or waiting on the government.
“Friends of Karura ensure that the picnic sites and the tracks are well maintained so that people who want to jog, do their bicycle rides or walk can enjoy the forest at a low cost of Sh100."
See no value
Most towns lack adequate green spaces and the few that exist are under threat as they are on prime real estate locations. They also lack people to replant trees and flowers. At Karura, which sits on 2,500 acres, replanting is done often especially now that they are removing exotic trees to plant indigenous ones.
Lack of awareness is also a weakness. Not many Kenyans see value in investing in botanical gardens and some developers think that setting aside acres of land for trees and flowers is losing lettable space.
Dr Kiiru says conservation efforts should start at an early age.
“Actually, every school should have a nature trail so that children can see butterflies, see how leaves dry out and fall off trees, how trees grow. They will start valuing flora and fauna at an early age. Parents also need to spend times planting trees with their children to nurture their love for nature.”