MARGARET CHISANGA, Nairobi
IF YOU ever plan to walk from the entrance of the United Nations Office in Nairobi (UNON), Kenya to the main conference hall several metres away, do not wear heels, specifically six inch stilettoes.
For a brief moment, I envy a masaai woman draped in full traditional gear as she begins the assent towards the conference hall, the jiggling sound of the metal ornaments adorning her feet receding as she slowly glides forward. But the sight of the beautiful flags distracts me.
The route from the gate to the buildings is set on a curving narrow paved walkway lined with flags of the UN member States. I spot the flag of the Holy See almost directly across the Zambian flag; a good way to start posing for pictures.
The walk under the flags is set to evoke thoughts and conversations around the resolve and resilience of the human race to stay steadfast and conquer despite the many challenges afflicting the earth.
According to worldatlas.org, the United Nations (UN) recognises 195 sovereign countries. 193 of these countries are members of the UN, and two – the Holy See and the State of Palestine – are not. By some definitions, there are 197 countries in the world. This number is drawn when Taiwan and Kosovo are included.
Walking on that curving pathway, with my toes suddenly realising the hurdle ahead, I do not count the flags. Instead, I think to the task ahead of me, covering the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) 2018, which aims to build international and private sector commitment towards forest and landscape restoration in Africa.
At the invitation of the Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor) and partner organisations, I join 24 journalists from around the world. The two-day forum, with over 800 delegates in attendance, is preceded by a tour of the Wangari Mathai corner, the Karura Forest and the Branckenhurst Forest and Botanic Garden.
Journalists also attend the Third AFR100 Annual Partners meeting which reinforces efforts and pledges of African countries in scaling African landscape restoration.
The agenda is covered by a startling revelation that every year, Africa loses an estimated 2.8 million hectares of forest due to deforestation and land degradation. This has a serious effect on the environment and its people, including the Masaai, that all resilient tribe of warriors I thought I would be mingling with for six days the moment I received my travel itinerary.
If ever you get a trip to Kenya and imagine an abundance of Masaai blankets, masaai slippers, ethnic jewellery, unique culture and exotic food, do some research. It will surprise you to learn that the Masaai, whose distinctive culture, dress style and strategic territory have made them one of East Africa’s most internationally famous tourist attractions, constitute only five percent of the whole Kenyan population.
Their long preserved culture, despite education, civilization and western cultural influences, has made them a symbol of Kenyan culture.
However, even they have not been spared from the effects of degradation on their land. Thus, their presence at the forum where a delegation shares the White Mountain initiative – a Masaai community-led holistic landscape and livelihood regeneration initiative.
To be a Masaai is to be born into one of the world’s last great warrior cultures, and not even the story of land degradation will cause them to change their ways. Alter their lifestyle in significant ways maybe, but change them altogether, never. Their story is intriguing, their resolve admirable, their cloth and jewellery enticing, and so I go shopping. But there is one hurdle; Nairobi is known for its insane traffic jams. And the Masaai market has a different location for every day of the week.
If ever you plan to do some shopping during a short conference break, have a brother living in Nairobi. On this one, I score a first. Riding shotgun in his super big car with a special number plate, we meander around traffic jams and locate the masaai market at the Junction Mall.
Though they traditionally dressed in animal skins, today, typical Masaai dress consists of red sheets called shuka, wrapped around the body with loads of beaded jewellery placed around the neck and arms. The typical masaai walks barefoot or may wear flat leather sandals.
However, stylists have created a special value by adding colourful beadwork over the flat sandals. Art crafts depicting Masaai culture are also carved and sold at the masaai markets. In order to get the best price, bargaining is recommended, but I am no stranger to this culture.
In no time, I am a happily broke woman. So is my newest best friend, journalist Nelly Kapatuka from Malawi. Two broke women with excess luggage consisting of Masaai cloth, slippers and jewellery. So broke actually, that big brother, our very own ‘zebiggey’, comes to the rescue with lunch – the most delicious pizza ever.
The effects of modern civilisation, education and western influence have not completely spared this unique and interesting tribe of the Masaai. When it comes to food, the Masaai too, have been integrated into modern eating habits. Soft drinks and takeaway packs occupy some corners of most stands at the market. I do not see any exotic Masaai dish.
However, in many ways, the Masaai are the heroes of resilience, standing steadfast in their faith against turmoils of the modern influence. The best way to experience this is by booking a Kenya safari tour, which enable tourists to have a first-hand feel of the Masaai nomadic life by visiting the Kajiado and Narok districts, a few of the remaining Masaai strongholds.
Back at the conference, more countries pledge to enforce measures to ensure degraded landscapes are reformed through replanting of trees while ensuring sustainable lifestyles for community in the landscapes.
I have hope the Masaai White Mountains initiative will have resounding success. After all, it is being run by the Masaai, my kind of warriors.