It’s Jamhuri (Independence) Day in Kenya and hundreds of people are spending the holiday hiking through the scenic Gatamaiyu forest.
The hike is part of an awareness campaign by the East African Wild Life Society (EAWLS) and its partners.
Crisp clean air meets birdsong and everyone is in a good mood. We try to keep our voices down so as not to spook the herds of elephants still found in Gatamaiyu. But it’s difficult to contain our enthusiasm, especially when we get to the waterfall.
A bleak history
The last time I was here the story was quite different.
The air was not so fresh, pierced as it was with the smell of burning wood from hundreds of illegal charcoal kilns dotted around the landscape. Instead of a long leisurely walk, I had joined a team from the Kijabe Environment Volunteers (KENVO) and the then Forest Department (now Kenya Forest Service), to walk grids around the forest, off the beaten path, on a charcoal search and destroy mission.
David Kuria, KENVO’s team leader remembers those days only too well.
He tells the hikers that only a decade ago tree stumps from illegally harvested indigenous, hardwood trees littered the forest floor.
It was difficult to stomach the destruction, he says.
So together with the authorities and with buy-in from the surrounding communities, his group set about ridding the forest of illegal activities. They patrolled the forest, alerted authorities and partners such as the Kenya Forests Working Group on tree poaching for timber and charcoal, and destroyed whatever kilns they found.
A fresh start for the forest
Past plunder is still visible today in opened up areas. But things are markedly different.
For one thing, David says there’s no illegal activity in the forest anymore.
Visibly relaxed are the rangers accompanying us from the wildlife and forest services, who only warn us to be quiet around elephants. In the past they would be tense at the possibility of a confrontation with poachers.
It is also evident in the kind of activities that now take place such as these nature walks and income generating activities like bee-keeping done by the community. Destroyed areas are replanted with indigenous trees.
I marvel at this as we end the walk. I have incredibly lost the soles to both my shoes and I am literally stepping on the ground as I arrive at the KENVO headquarters to song and dance. It’s true what they say, if you want to know where someone has been, ask their shoes. Mine have a story to tell.
A version of this article appeared Swara magazine January – March 2015. East African Wild Life Society organises The Pathway to Freedom Conservation Walk annually to contribute to Aberdare forest conservation and the preservation of the history and culture of this region.
What to love ❤: The turnaround in Gatamaiyu is credit to the dedication and commitment of KENVO. The award winning community based organisations exemplifies what the youth can do to prevent deforestation.
Call to action: Should you wish to partner with KENVO or learn more about their activities which now include ecotourism and income generating activities such as water bottling, please see this video and website.