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Race to restore Kalama's lush forests, rivers

By | Oct 9th 2010 | 4 min read

By Joe Ombuor

When Mary Mbula was growing up in the hilly Kalama countryside, about 30km east of Machakos town, the hills were veritable water towers, covered with thick wood where big snakes slithered on wet rocks.

Girls and women went to fetch firewood only when accompanied by armed men. Besides snakes, fierce wild animals teamed in the woods.

Today, the hills are bare, and barren. The rocks are dry and the woods replaced by stunted shrubs that cannot hide a defecating child. Gone are the pythons, boa stricters, and roaring felines of the olden days. The water towers have been reduced to thirsty towers.

Mbula, 80, nostalgically remembers the good old days when it rained regularly in the now denuded landscape. Streams flowed from the hills to Kyetololo River that had water throughout the year.

Food was plenty and diseases few.

"The water was clean and cases of diarrhoea and other water borne diseases were rare. We were generally healthy," she reminisces, her brow brightening with the memory.

Stress Free

That was nearly half a century ago. The environment was attractive and people lived long, stress free lives.

Now, fast forward to 2010. An elderly and groggy Mbula who walks with the support of a stick regrets she has lived too long to see the damage that makes the once well endowed Kalama and adjoining areas resemble a wasteland.

"I’ve lived through the destruction. It got worse after independence when our own Government failed to protect forests against greedy individuals. The colonialists were against environmental degradation. They did not allow settlements and cultivation on the hills, protected riverbanks, and ensured the woods were never raped - exploited only under strict regulations.

"That ceased when post-independence administrators, forest officers and agricultural experts condoned destruction for selfish gains or colluded with unscrupulous exploiters. What a pity!

"Gradually, the woods thinned out, finally giving way to bare rocks as streams and brooks waned. Oh, how I miss the cool climatic conditions. How I wish the frequent rains would be back. River Kyetololo still flows in my memory. It is a pity it has shrunk to death and shows signs of life only during the rains, she says, pausing to wet her palate with saliva. Tears film her eyes as she mourns the death of a heritage.

Today, only sand remains where water once coursed.

"At first, we could easily access water for domestic use by scooping it through the sand. But, unlike in the olden days, something was wrong with the water stored in the sand. We fell sick often with diarrhoea and other diseases. Children were the most affected. The water, though looking clean, was contaminated. You ignored advice to boil it at your own risk," she says.

"Still, worse days loomed ahead. They came in the form of commercial sand harvesters who carried away the commodity in lorries; paying us much needed money in return. We enjoyed the money, oblivious that it would only win us misery." The old woman swallows hard as a sad hue permeates her wrinkled face.

"The money was a curse of sorts given the speed at which it was converted into alcohol, prostitution, drugs and other vices. Our society got depraved. Rot had set in," she says.

Food Shortage

With little rainfall, food shortage and hunger became common in a once well-fed and prosperous society. Sand disappeared from the riverbeds in the wake of the lorries and with it, the vital water.

"We trekked long distances to fetch it on donkeys and on our backs," says Mbula.

Relief started trickling in when community leaders identified sand harvesting as the cause of the water shortage. They then banned it but even then sand accumulated painfully slowly because the rains swept it off the smooth rocks.

Mbula’s wrinkles ease under a laboured smile as she talks of "this timely saviour, " referring to the Poverty Eradication Network (PEN) that came to Kalama to restore water by building sub-surface dams along rivers abused into sheer rocky stretches.

Such a dam built at Kyakilai village at a cost of Sh500,000 in 2004 has provided a lifeline for well more than 11,000 people, among them Mbula and her grandchildren. The dam, a concrete wall spanning 60m across the river, has resulted in the accumulation of sand deposits that stretch for hundreds of metres upstream. A blanket of lush vegetation that the residents cut for their livestock covers the riverbed, thanks to the huge reservoir of water underneath.

A committee headed by project chairman Titus Nzau Mumo ensures no wanton sand harvesting takes place. Schools, churches and individuals requiring sand for construction have to apply for license to allow them scoop sand from specific sites.

Downstream, clean water oozes from crevices in the rocks under the dam, forming into a well from where residents draw it without interfering with the reserves upstream.

The dam has given rise to small-scale irrigation projects that have turned the area into a vegetable export zone. Among the farmers today laughing all the way to the bank from vegetable earnings is chairman Mumo with three acres of sukuma wiki, spinach, pili pili hoho (capsicum) and tomatoes.

People who once relied on relief food and handouts from good Samaritans today grow their own food or buy food with money from their cash crops.

"There is no better way to eradicate poverty than making a people self- reliant," he says.

Mbula and other women have formed Kyakilai Women’s Group. Apart from growing vegetables for sale and food, the group owns a tree nursery. They distribute tree seedlings among themselves and sell the rest to PEN, which distributes it to schools, churches and hospitals free of charge.

As an incentive, PEN awards farmers whose produce is the best in quality with learning trips from other farmers.

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