On the last Sunday of 2014, I had quite the romantic date. The love of my life and I bought boerewors hotdogs and Cokes from Tusky's supermarket and headed for the Nairobi Aboretum. We located a bench where we sat and ate as we went through our gratitude to God for the ending year.
It was perfect. In this pocket of space, the air was cool. It was like we had left the December heat at the entrance of the forest.
And for the two of us, the forest helped us understand a new aspect of our character, about how we fit in the universe, in addition to thanking God for bringing us this far together.
That's the love part.
The revolution part is feeling sad about the sad state of the forest. Initially, I wanted to get angry at the poor job that the Kenya Forest Service is doing to maintain the place, but my mister pointed out that it’s not neglect, but over-use, because of the sheer lack of adequate space in which Nairobians can relax. Also, there was a lot of litter on the grounds, indicating the insufficient number of dustbins. And the numerous monkeys rummaging through the rubbish for food did not help things. And there are so many large patches of soil, meaning that the demand for the space is more than the grass can take. Many of the benches are in disrepair.
But Mother Nature has done her part. Very well at that. It’s us human beings who have failed. Despite investing so much in education and being the home of the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, our politics hasn’t graduated from uncouth, crass populist obsession with money and land, to civilization that integrates public space and the environment into our social and political consciousness. I bet if you told Nairobians that the Aboretum was being subdivided into plots for sale, they’d dash to get a sacco loan so that they could get the title deeds and build those standard, and really ugly looking flats that make David Karani call places like Kitengela (and I would add Githurai and Ongata Rongai) towns “without plan, without soul.” Just around the same time, my mister and I had been perturbed by a picture in Kenyan dailies of Nairobians swimming in the pond in Uhuru Park. That pond is meant for fishes and boats, but is now a swimming pool because our city fathers haven’t thought of building public swimming pools.
Kenyans need space. They need recreation. Uhuru Park on the weekends is beginning to look like Nairobi show. Roundabouts on our highways, like at Naivasha/Ngong Road Junction, are meant to be ornamental but have now become grounds where people sit and nap. It is both amazing and heartbreaking to see men sitting on the limited space along the busy Langata Road, watching the planes take off from or land at Wilson Airport with their children or lovers. Surely, such men should get some public infrastructure support in their endeavor to make their children dream of being pilots or of travelling to far lands. The Telkom grounds near Jamhuri Park are crowded with youth football clubs during the weekends, and schools during the week. But neither Governor Kidero, nor the Environmental CS, have had the idea of taking back that land on behalf of the people of Kenya and turning it into a park. There’s another huge tract of land opposite Crossroads supermarket in Karen, which, if you ask me, should not be developed at all. It should be converted into a public park. In Bulbul shopping center on Ngong Road, there’s a field where local clubs play football every Saturday and Sunday, but which is fast being encroached on by business people. It doesn’t take much to imagine what those young men will be doing on Sunday afternoons when the field is gone.
We still have some open spaces, but we don’t have leaders who will risk unpopularity in the short term and establish a legacy of open spaces for people to meet, fall in love, play with their kids and walk in their old age. That is why we Kenyan citizens may have to consider having a real revolution similar to the French one, where we seize land our rich land owners and turn their mansions and meadows into public facilities. We, the majority of Kenyans, need space. We need to date without coughing an arm and a leg for coffee at Java or to travel to Korna Baridi for nyama choma. If we must go to there, we need decent public transport to travel; it shouldn’t be the reserve of people with cars. The top brass of the Culture or Transport ministries ought to be talking about having bike paths on our roads, but how can they think that way, when they’re moving around in chauffeur-driven cars with sirens that clear the traffic for their convoys? How can politicians know that somewhere to bask, play a game, watch planes take off and land, is important, when they go to their country clubs to unwind, or can use taxpayers' money to fly for a holiday in the name of "benchmarking"?
With more public space and recreation, maybe our young men wouldn’t be drinking away their frustration with not being able to afford to take girls out on great dates. With public swimming pools, rental bicycles, maybe teenagers wouldn’t be driven as much into pornography on their phones or violent video games on their screens. With more beautiful spaces, youth would benefit from businesses such as photographers and food vendors.
In other words, public space and our natural environment are about our mental health, our financial values, our masculinity and femininity, our sexuality and even employment. So all those blaming focus on the girl child for the flawed masculinity in Kenyan boys need to get a life, and instead campaign instead for more spaces where their sons can use their energies creatively and usefully. Flawed masculinity is very much tied to our voracious greed that fills every empty space with ugly concrete structures.
And to get away from that flawed masculinity, and dysfunctional social life, we must stop thinking tribe, political parties, title deeds and money, and start thinking Neighbors. Family. Peace. Smiles. Play. Silence. Nature. Flowers. In one word: Love. And that revolution involves the non-human actors of the universe – the climate, the planet, the vegetation and the animals. Protecting the environment means protecting our soul and humanity.
On that warm Sunday afternoon, the Arboretum was the perfect place to inspire my beloved and I in our discussion of how to remain authentic and protect our relationship from the public values on manhood and womanhood corrupted by greed. But as it turns out, Mother Nature is fighting the same battle as well.
Mother Nature always inspires great links between love and art. Think of the folk song "Ritwa riaku," especially Eric Wainaina's rendition, about a young man who risks being eaten by wild animals as he waits for his beloved.
Several photographers are taking beautiful shots of couples in Arboretum. One of my favorites posts about this is Andrew Onyango's post "Love, trees and color." It says:
We should all be so fortunate in life...
To find someone loving and caring enough...
To go to a forest with us...
And let a photographer friend take a bunch of pictures of us together