Why roads agency may be barking up the wrong fig tree

Fig tree at the junction of Mpaka Road and Waiyaki way in Westlands, Nairobi. [David Gichuru/Standard]

A fig tree that stands tall and proud along Waiyaki Way will not be cut down to make way for a road.

This emerged after the Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA) said it plans to move the massive tree from its location outside the Westlands post office.

“This iconic fig tree sits right at the centre of the Nairobi expressway operation area. We have planned to transplant and relocate the tree to a new location as part of our environmental conservation efforts,” said KeNHA in a tweet.

Dozens of trees on the Waiyaki Way median strip have been felled to make way for a four-lane dual carriageway that starts from Mlolongo to the James Gichuru junction. KeNHA’s decision was a response to uproar from Kenyans who took to social media to accuse the agency of environmental destruction.

But the new plan immediately sparked debate about the viability of the momentous exercise, which is believed to be the first of its kind in Kenya.

Forest Action Movement Director Dominic Walubengo said digging out, lifting and transporting the tree to a new site requires heavy machinery that may not be available locally.

“The tree is big and its roots may have penetrated deep into the ground. It will be hard to uproot without damaging them,” Mr Walubengo said.

He said: “Smaller trees have been transplanted and many died. This one is very ambitious and requires sophisticated technology. It would be better to plant many trees to replace those that have been lost.”

The plan could also run into cultural headwinds after the Kikuyu Council of Elders said special rites should be conducted at the tree’s current location and where it will be moved.

According to the Agikuyu, the fig or Mugumo tree is sacred to the community.

“You cannot just uproot and relocate it. There are special rituals which, if not executed, will make the entire exercise futile. We have to do rituals at Waiyaki Way where it is currently standing and in the identified area where it will finally be placed,” said council chairperson Wachira Kiago.

Mr Kiago further warned that if KenHA proceeds with the exercise without involving the elders, it will be a bad omen.

An attempt by The Standard to establish what had led the agency to spare the tree failed to unearth any fresh information, with KeNHA’s communications team only saying the tree was spared because it is sacred and to encourage conservation.

KeNHA said they could not disclose other details, including where the tree will be relocated, the cost of the exercise and the entity that will be entrusted with the formidable task. 

“There is nothing to add to the information we have given out. We consider the information enough for now,” a KeNHA officer said on the telephone.

Whether the State body had thought this exercise through or it acted on a whim to ward off criticism remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Kenyans took to Twitter to questioned KeNHA’s abrupt turnaround, saying scores of trees have already been cut down along Waiyaki Way. Tina Kris (@TinakrisKe) applauded the move to save the Mugumo tree but questioned why it appeared to be a singular effort.

“This is good but why didn’t you do the same for the other trees if environmental conservation is part of you?” she posed.

Replying to KeNHA’s tweet, Israel Otieno (@izraelotieno1) suggested that the agency should embark on a massive tree planting to make up for the trees that had been chopped down.

Others warned that KeNHA was engaged in a futile attempt because the tree would not survive the planned relocation.

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