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Reclaiming Nairobi's forests

By | Published Sun, August 14th 2011 at 00:00, Updated Sun, August 14th 2011 at 00:00 GMT +3

CHARITY MUNYASIA, the head of Conservancy at Nairobi Forests, and Alice Macaire, the wife of British High Commissioner, are credited with making Karura forest safe. As Alice is about to leave the country, Charity sheds a tear and narrates to KIUNDU WAWERU their Karura success story

Three years ago, Karura forest was a no-go zone due to unbridled crime. But two unlikely women came together and rehabilitated the forest making it one of the coolest places to spend a day in Nairobi.

Alice Macaire’s high profile contacts came in handy and Charity was armed with passion and experience.

Charity during a tree planting exercise at Karura forest organised by Miss World Kenya. [Photo: JOseph kiptarus]

Charity was transferred from the Rift Valley to Nairobi in 2007 as the first woman Provincial Forest Officer.

For 17 years, she had worked in Western and Rift Valley provinces and Nairobi presented her with unique challenges such as land grabbing by the big fish and infamous crime in Karura forest and the Arboretum.

In line with her principle of working to make a difference, Charity thought the only way out was to turn the city’s forests to eco-tourism facilities.

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"My colleagues laughed at me," she remembers. "I could not walk through Karura without armed rangers and here I was saying it could become a tourist attraction."

Charity and her team began by increasing security in the Arboretum, which had always been a recreational site, but which the public had started shunning because of cases of mugging and rape. People streamed back and Charity thought the same could be done to Karura, a herculean task as millions of shillings were needed for fencing, not to mention changing people’s mindsets.

Alice Macaire happened into the scene, and a casual talk turned into one of Kenya’s environmental success stories. The two women marshalled support and today Karura forest is a popular and safe recreational centre.

The success was not an accident for Charity who has a track record of achievements in the male dominated field. She recalls many people’s shock after she decided to study forestry in the university.

"I was raised on the slopes of Mt Kenya, surrounded by forests. My father was a timber merchant and I would help him in his work from a young age. For me, it was the natural thing to do," she says.

After graduating from Moi University, Charity chose to work as an extension officer, educating and encouraging farmers to plant trees in their farms.

"My friends, whom I had graduated with, thought I had lost it. My chosen field had no money, but I told them that I was out to make a difference," says she.

That was in 1990. Charity was posted to Kakamega as the Assistant District Forest Officer.

"It was like throwing a frog into a river," she exclaims.

She worked with the communities and local stakeholders like Kenya Wood and Agro-forestry Programme (Kwap) and she achieved a lot.

About the same time, the government was laying down a master plan for forests and every district was asked to come up with one. Kakamega emerged with the best master plan.

A year later, Charity got married and was transferred to Eldoret as her husband was working at Moi University. While there, Charity learnt that Kwap, the NGO she had worked with in Kakamega, was looking for an extension officer for Uasin Gishu. She applied and got the job. The salary was four times what she was getting as a government employee.

"I was happy to get the job, but since money was never a motive, I weighed my options, including the fact that the job was a four-year contract, and decided not to take it," Charity says.

This impressed her bosses and they transferred her to Nakuru to head Miti Mingi Mashambani Project, which was funded by Finland. Charity took the job with fervour, impressing her bosses.

"I trusted my staff and letthem know what was expected of them. They trusted me back and the project was such a success that it was used in the formulation of the Forest Act 2005," says Charity.

At this time, uncontrolled land grabbing was taking place in the country’s forests. As a result, Charity never introduced herself as a forester.

"If people knew you were a forester they would ask you, ‘How can I get timber or a piece of land?’" Charity says.

The Mau scandal led to sacking of all forestry officers in 2003 by Newton Kulundu, the then Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife minister.

"I did not mind the sack for in 2002 I had enrolled for a Masters degree programme at the Egerton University," says Charity, smiling.

The foresters were later reinstated and Charity headed other successful programmes in Rift Valley before she was transferred to Nairobi.

Over the years, Charity had refused to join NGOs who sought her and they wondered why she stuck to a job that did not pay that well.

"I have no regrets. My patience is paying off," she says.

Whenever she passes by the Globe Cinema roundabout, she smiles. Together with her officers, they planted trees along Nairobi River behind Kijabe Street before other groups joined in. For her work, the Universal Peace Federation made her a peace ambassador.

She received the All Round Best Lady Officer Award for a paramilitary training course at the Administration Police Senior Staff Training College in Nairobi.

She maintains that all the Nairobi Forests will be safely rehabilitated.

Rob Macaire has been prematurely summoned back home and Alice and Charity are in grief.

"It’s a sad blow; but Karura forest will stand tall even with Alice’s exit," says Charity.

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