Green Resistance in Mathare Where planting trees is radical

Mathare Green Movement Nairobi
Mathare Green Movement Nairobi | Photo: © Peter Kongo

In Nairobi, a city highly segregated by class, trash ends up in – and becomes integrated into – informal settlements. Waste is not just part of the landscape; it comprises it. Dumped from other parts of the city in the name of creating a “waste economy,” trash becomes embedded in the soil, burned into the air, piled up until it changes the topography. 

In 2018, a group of young men took a “tree census” in Mathare, an informal settlement in Nairobi. They were volunteer members of the Mathare Green Movement (MGM), a grassroots organization whose aim is to change the relationship between Mathare’s residents and the land on which they live.
 
In Nairobi, a city highly segregated by class, trash ends up in – and becomes integrated into – informal settlements. Waste is not just part of the landscape; it comprises it. Dumped from other parts of the city in the name of creating a “waste economy,” trash becomes embedded in the soil, burned into the air, piled up until it changes the topography. Add to this the fact that land ownership is fraught (few people own the land they live on, and much of it is prone to illegal land grabbing), and what results is people who are, with each generation, more disconnected with anything “natural” than the one before. The MGM volunteers circled Mathare over the course of a month, documenting every tree that they found. In the end, they learned that there was only one tree for every 1,200 people.
 
It’s Saturday morning in the Mabatini ward of Mathare, and already about a half dozen young men have cleared a path on the side of a steep hill, leaving a channel for dark, putrid water from a leaking tank upstream. As they push into the ground with shovels, the soil that comes up is mixed with plastics and dust and clothing. Under a top-layer with multi-colored plastic matter is an unnaturally black soil – not fertile black, but dead black.
 
The volunteers, some of whom are from a local youth group called the Shantys Youth Group and others from MGM, are here to transform this space into a park. After spending more than a year speaking with community leaders and people who live in the surrounds, they have finally gotten the go-ahead to start digging. Later will come trees, a combination of medicinal, ornamental, and indigenous species.
 
MGM is deconstructing the “public park.” Their trees are planted in forgotten schoolyards, random unused strips of land, or any other space that isn’t being used. Everyone is a volunteer; there are no sponsors nor politicians involved.
 
Wyban Mwangi, a Mathare-based writer, is a member of MGM. Taking a break from digging, he explains, “If you change the environment around people, you can change how people think of it, and you can change how they see themselves.” In his creative work, Mwangi pushes what he calls “Mathare Futurism,” imagining the future of Mathare through the eyes of people who live there, not from outsiders’. Planting trees, he says, it is not just about “beautifying” the space. It is about creating habits of cooperation.
 
But how can planting trees possibly accomplish that? The sequence of work is simple, Mwangi explains, but importantly, it requires long-term and collective action. First, a group of people must come together to imagine something as a collective, in this case, a park. They must work towards it over a long period of time, like seeking permission to plant on an unused plot of land, a process that can take months. They build it together, doing the physical work of digging up the soil, and then they cultivate it, maintaining the trees forever. The goal of MGM is that, over time, tree-planting becomes a community “habit,” something people become accustomed to and come to expect – the result being not the trees themselves, but the act of working together to realize an imagined future.
 
“We don't do ‘events,’” says Oyunga Pala, one of the founding members of MGM. “Too often in Kenya we focus on the optics of tree-planting and neglect the long-term process of cultivating, protecting, and sharing the tree.” The length of this process, the rootedness that “raising” a tree requires, he says, is antithetical to the forces that shapes the lives of many youths in Mathare: precariousness, disposability, suspicion. The simple work that MGM is doing – reclaiming the art of collective cultivation – is thus more radical than it would first appear.
 
Recently, MGM took its members on a group trip to the lush Karura Forest, one of Nairobi’s largest parks, just on the other side of a superhighway from Mathare. For most of the members, it was the first time they had ever been there. The park was fenced, secured with armed guards, and required an admission fee far beyond the means of most people who live in Mathare. Pala explains that, for many of Nairobi’s poor, when they see a tree, it means they are in an affluent area. It means they are in a place they can only access when passing through or working there. The tree, in a disturbing and twisted way, is a class barrier.
 
At the same time, Mathare, like many other urban informal settlements around the world, has become the city’s dumping ground, meaning that what residents see, and where they live, is trash. Needless to say, this makes for a dangerous, unsanitary, and undignified place to live. When we think of sustainability, this is perhaps what we immediately think of: waste, that we should produce less of it, and that we shouldn’t dump it where people live.
 
Waste management and reduction is, no doubt, very important. But MGM volunteers have thought of “sustainability” beyond waste. Practicing Mwangi’s “Mathare futurism,” they have imagined what it is that they are trying to “sustain” in the first place: a form of dignified living, created through collective action.
 
By early afternoon, the group of volunteers, which grew in number every hour, had completely carved out the strip of land, removing trash and turning over soil. During these few hours, the space had become the centre of a flurry of activity, as passersby stopped to watch, voice their support, ask questions, or even join. Within a few weeks, trees will be planted, and after a few more, the space will evolve into a park. Perhaps more often than we recognize, sustainability is achieved through such small, green acts of resistance.