An Eastern Mennonite University senior returned home to Kenya last summer to complete an environmental sustainability practicum planting trees in impoverished communities near Nairobi’s city center.
Arnold Muthoki, an environmental sustainability major and sociology minor, worked with Mathare Green Movement (MGM), a community-based organization founded in 2017 to bring trees to barren areas in Mathare. It hopes to plant 10,000 medicinal, fruit and beautifying trees in Mathare within five years, said Muthoki.
A function of the Mathare Social Justice Center, a collective of community members and activists promoting social justice, its logo is a fist in a tree, representing how a weak seedling can grow to be big and strong.
Making a struggling community greener is no simple task. Obtaining funds to purchase seedlings – and finding them to buy, and places to plant them – are all challenges, along with accessing water and protecting the trees from animals, flooding and the dense, often uninterested population, Muthoki said.
Safety concerns, too, inhibit progress. The region, once used by freedom fighters and the Mau Mau for hiding weapons, is known for its violent crime and police brutality.
The predominance of the color brown in Muthoki’s photos of Mathare’s dense shantytown structures stretching into the distance, sewage crossing an open dirt area, stands in stark contrast to the green lush in pictures of an adjacent, wealthy community called Muthaiga where houses are nestled in green lawns and abundant trees.
But Muthoki also has photos of where once-bare ground along a stone wall near a school in Mathare is covered in grass and shrubs, and another of where MGM has cleared away trash and created barriers to protect seedlings.
The organization purchases trees, often with the help of sponsors or NGOs, and has a small nursery for starting its own. It seeks to identify kinds of trees appropriate for local soils and needs, asks landowners to donate space for planting the trees, encourages locals – who must purchase any water they use – to recycle used water by watering seedlings, and is developing its communication and training operations to foster environmental consciousness and a communal sense of responsibility for the trees.
Muthoki planted trees in public places and, with the help of students, at schools where MGM hopes to promote environmental awareness in students. He also helped with forestation and cleanup projects in collaboration with local people and other organizations.
In spite of its many obstacles, the work has helped Muthoki realize that he is “in love with the environment,” and has provided a context for his academic studies.
“Gaining knowledge from EMU has really given me a starting point in being more environmentally conscious,” he said. “Working with MGM and seeing first hand how they try and change people’s lives using the environment has inspired me further, and will continue to do so even as I pursue further studies. Basically, EMU armed me with what I needed and all I had to so was apply it at MGM and see what difference I could make.”
Read more about environmental sustainability practicum experiences: