Greening Ondiri, the resource-rich Old Lake


Ondiri wetland in Kikuyu. PHOTO | COURTESY

Last week my friend, octogenarian agronomist, Prof David Ngugi, invited me to his pet project, Ondiri Gardens, which is just under three kilometres west of Kikuyu town, overlooking Ondiri swamp.

Sitting on 11 acres of red soil land, Ondiri Gardens immediately gives you a feeling of tranquility as you enter through the main gate, surrounded by mature indigenous trees, well-manicured lawns, and chirping bird life. There are more than 1,000 indigenous trees each carefully labelled with the corresponding botanical name, such as mutati (Polyscias kikuyuensis), mutamaiyu (Brown Olive) and muringa (Cordia Africana).

In between the tall trees and shrubs is an open space suitable for hosting events, with separate provision for a secure car park. The area sloping to the east is bench-terraced and planted with various indigenous food and fruit crops such as beans, pawpaw, mango, avocado, arrow roots, yams, and napier grass.

Prof Ngugi has been working on this project over the last 10 years at his own cost. Ondiri Gardens is a classic showcase of community environmental protection.

Being in close proximity to Kikuyu town, Ondiri Gardens is valuable land for residential development but Prof Ngugi has opted to forego that benefit and instead provide a legacy of environmental conservation for the benefit of future generations and to contribute to the preservation of the Ondiri Wetland.

He is a member of this community and he lives in the neighbouring Thogoto village where he is regarded as a role model on matters of education and environmental conservation. During my visit, I also had a chance to meet two young people, David Wakogy, the co-ordinator, and founder member of Friends of Ondiri Wetland Kenya (FOWK) and Beatrice Kimani, an active member, who took me around.

FOWK is a community based organisation which was established in 2016 to rehabilitate and protect Ondiri Wetland. It currently has 150 members.

Before the arrival of the white man, Ondiri swamp was known as “kahenia” meaning a shining body of water and was a popular watering hole for the cattle of the Maasai and the Kikuyu peoples. But with deforestation and subsequent erosion, the lake came to be covered with floating reeds on peat, forming a quaking bog. It is the largest in East Africa and the second largest in Africa after Douala in Cameroon.

Once the first white farmers and missionaries settled around Kikuyu, they called this body of water Old Lake which the Kikuyu somehow managed to bastardise as “Ondiri”. Ondiri was the home of various animal and bird life, including, the Sitatunga antelope and the Crested Crane.

Ondiri swamp has three outlets to the south comprising Nyongara, Gitwe kia Mbagathi (source of Mbagathi River) and Rungiri which is also the source of Kikuyu Springs. It has no visible water inlet but contrary to popular theories, the source is not Lake Naivasha but rather Maanguo swamp in Limuru which itself is fed subterranean from the Aberdares.

To the south of the swamp is “Maa ya Ihii” (the right of the boy child) where young boys were traditionally circumcised using the cold water coming from the swamp as an anaesthetic.

Ondiri is also one of the sources of the Nairobi River and in 1906 was the first source of the capital’s water supply through the Kikuyu Springs waterworks. The swamp was at one time used for power generation for Alliance High School. With the rapid growth of Kikuyu town and its environs Ondiri began to witness environmental degradation with greenhouses abstracting large volumes of water and discharging harmful chemicals into the swamp. Private exhausters were also discharging raw sewage into the swamp while squatters invaded the riparian reserve slashing and burning vegetation.

FOWK was formed to address these challenges and to create a botanical garden with a diverse collection of fauna and flora for economic gain of the local community. There are plans to build a board walk across the swamp, an amphitheatre, an aquarium, a restaurant and, a research centre.

By restoring and preserving the Ondiri wetland FOWK hoped to return the animal and bird life making the site a tourist attraction whose income would benefit the community.

During my visit, I was happy to see that the Crested Crane had returned withfour adult birds and two chicks. A recent survey by an ornithologist revealed that there are 76 species of birdlife at the Ondiri Wetland.

FOWK works closely with the national and county governments, Nairobi University students, Alliance High School, Rotary Clubs, and KEFRI. One of the key interventions of FOWK was to sensitise the local community on the importance of environmental conservation and how, they as residents stood to be the biggest beneficiaries.

Kikuyu, being the “cradle of education” in Kenya, tends to have a high literacy level and it was therefore relatively easy to sell the idea to the community and for them to be become stakeholders in the programme.

The owners of greenhouses moved them back from the riparian reserve and started to treat their effluent while the squatters stopped slashing and burning the vegetation on the wetland.

FOWK hopes to put up an electric fence around the perimeter of the wetland to further protect it from would-be predators.

I believe that change will be brought about and managed by young people in this country. It is gratifying to note that this initiative is being spearheaded by young people who are totally committed to the cause. On the other hand, they are also benefiting from the wisdom and experience of Prof Ngugi who is acting as a guiding hand in this journey. This is a powerful combination which should serve as a role model for other similar initiatives.

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