Published on 19/02/2011
Alice Macaire, wife of British High Commissioner Rob Macaire, embarked on a journey to transform Karura Forest into a safe recreational centre barely six months after arriving in Kenya two years ago.
Karura forest had become a security threat with Kenya Forest Service officers finding at least one dumped body a month. Alice's efforts are paying off, and those close to her say she has great networking and mobilisation skills. She spoke exclusively to KIUNDU WAWERU on her role as a diplomat's wife and the chairperson of Friends of Karura forest.
My family loves the outdoors. When we moved here two years ago, I found our home was next to this beautiful forest and I asked our staff if I could go in there.
"No, absolutely not! It’s dangerous," they said.
I was interested in finding more about this so I drove myself to the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) headquarters inside the Karura forest.
I was lucky because the first person I was introduced to was Charity Munyasia, the Head of Conservancy. I asked her if I could visit the forest and she said yes.
But there was a caveat. She could not guarantee my safety, as the forest had become a bane of criminal activities.
With greatest respect, I told Charity that anywhere else in the world, a forest would be a great amenity, especially one in the middle of the city, so that instead of people sitting in traffic, they could walk in and unwind. It was possible to make Karura forest safe.
On hearing this, Charity became upbeat. She said she knew the forest had great potential but that KFS was hindered by limited funds. She urged me to help them conserve the forest by talking to people with similar interests. I talked to a few people who said they would be happy to come on board. Interestingly, Charity did not know that I was the wife of the British High Commissioner. She thought I was a mzungu (white) woman keen to help.
Two weeks later, Charity excitedly called saying she thought she had found a waterfall inside the forest. "What do you mean you think you have found a waterfall?" I exclaimed.
Charity replied, "Come to the office and see for yourself!"
I went to the office and she took me to see the waterfall. We were both wearing high heels as we negotiated our way through the shrubs and suddenly, without warning, whoa! In front of us lay a beautiful waterfall.
I asked Charity how the waterfall could have possibly escaped their notice and she said they did not come here much. It was too special for me not to protect it and after discussing it further, we decided the reason it was unsafe was because it was not fenced.
Charity arranged for a meeting with all stakeholders - Runda residents, Muthaiga, Huruma and a representative from the Unep - and the decision was unanimous to make the forest safe. Our first meeting was graced by my husband Rob Macaire, Prof Wangari Maathai, Unep’s executive director Achim Steiner and William Wambugu who is also helping with the conservation of the Arboretum and others.
We agreed there was need to form a committee and thus Friends of Karura was born and I was appointed chairlady. We started by clearing the shrubs and creating a family trail. On its opening day, 650 people turned up.
I was touched by a 70-year-old Kenyan man who shed tears. He said he lived a kilometre and a half from the forest and he regrets not having enjoyed the highlights of his life, like his wedding, graduation and birthday parties, in the forest with its cool, comforting shades.
Sections of Karura Forest. Photos: Martin Mukangu/Standard
Prof Maathai said her dream for Karura was not to see skyscrapers but rather a forestry education centre. We took that up and we recently launched the Karura Forest Education Environmental Trust. The guest of honour was Noah Wekesa, the Minister for Forestry and Wildlife.
One of the committee members was John Chege, from Huruma slums. He felt that the forest should be fenced because their children may wander there only to find dead bodies dumped there. Women from Huruma also collected firewood from the forest either for cooking or for sale; and they, too, were not safe.
Chege also agreed that some people from Huruma benefited from attacking people in the forest. We had to come up with a project that would make all these groups benefit positively from the forest.
In another meeting, Al Kags, who is in our board, asked representatives from Huruma whether they knew the attackers. It turned out that most of them were in the meeting!
One man rose and said they did what they did because they had to feed their children. We realised that our first solution in incorporating the people from the slums was in the form of scouts.
We recruited 15 men who got trained by KFS rangers; but as there was a long-standing enmity between these two groups, we brought in a neutral person — Danny, a British Army officer who trained them for six months. Together with 14 rangers, the scouts now patrol the forest 24/7. The women have been allocated two days a week to go in and collect dead wood.
We still needed about Sh8.5 million for fencing, but I must say I’m lucky to be the British High Commissioner’s wife and I get to meet influential people. I met with the director of East African Breweries and asked him if the company could fence a section of the forest. To our pleasant surprise, they agreed to finance the entire project! To support the salaries of the scouts, we approached Barclays Bank and Prime Bank and they came to our rescue.
Today, with 900 hectares of Karura forest protected by an electric fence, it is safe! Many people have come to appreciate the forest as a recreational site and they regularly visit to unwind with their families.
We have introduced gate charges and reduced the number of gates open to the public to maintain security. Kenyans adults pay Sh100, children Sh30 while foreigners pay Sh200 and Sh50 for adults and children respectively. The money collected goes into a kitty shared by Friends of Karura and KFS.
I’m happy about what I’m doing and I enjoy being in Karura. There is a love valley (laughs) that people can use for thrills or weddings. There are also caves where the Mau Mau used to hide, a small lake and cool picnic and camping sites.
Our biggest challenge is the negative image still associated with the forest. The other day I was walking this man on a tour and told me he once came to identify the body of his sister who had been dumped there.
Looking into the future, I hope people can begin to see Karura as safe and visit in large numbers. You know, this could be the city’s central park and the number one family destination.
My children enjoy the forest so much — we ride on ponies there and even swim at the foot of the waterfall that flows down Karura River.
Report Courtesy of EA Standard's Eve Woman Magazine