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How I Went to Kenya, and Had to Re-Learn How to Be an Environmentalist

Adapting to life in Kenya means adapting to an environment where it is harder to be a good environmentalist.

There are a lot Americans like me: people who are conscious about their impact on the environment, who take pains to lessen that impact, and who feel guilty where we fall short. We’re people whose jaws drop when we witness someone toss a bottle out their car window. (“Oh my god, they LITTERED!”) We recycle our recyclables, we eschew bottled water, we compost, and we’re friendly with Amtrak and urban biking. Where we feel our lack (for me, it’s owning a car) we feel ashamed and are tempted to downplay it. (“But really, I walk most places.”)

I arrived in Kenya in January on a Fulbright fellowship—my first extended stay in a developing country. I’m here to write. And along the way, I’m building a life in a place that forces me to let go of the conventions of Western environmentalism.

Kenya's particular context is an intriguing one for examining what it means to be an environmentalist in the developing world: this country is home to Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, honored for her environmentalism through the Green Belt Movement. Meanwhile, Kenya's showpiece natural landscape is championed worldwide; indeed, the national wildlife service is one of the strongest government sectors.

But that's on the macro-level. On the micro-level, environmentalism as an intentional set of individual choices is largely absent from Kenyan life; that is, choices made specifically because they are more ecologically sustainable. There is, of course, a class dynamic at play: as Maathai has pointed out, poorer people who must focus on their immediate needs are far less likely to consider choices where the environmental benefit is long-term. At the same time, many day-to-day Kenyan habits, like sharing clothing and buying seasonal food directly from the local market, are prevalent not because they are fashionable or because of any particular ecological concern, but because it is simply the most affordable and reasonable thing to do.

Still, from one who comes from an American sensibility of trying to integrate my eco-beliefs into my daily habits, adapting to life in Kenya means adapting to an environment where it is harder—for me, at least—to be "good.” There are, simply, different choices that are available.


Recycling and choosing tap water over privately bottled water are simply not options in Nairobi; the systems aren’t in place to make these viable and consistent choices. These are two referential issues. Plastic bottles that can only bear a few turns of reuse finally pile up in distressing heights at the trash collection site for my apartment building. They will eventually be burned.

Waste management is quite amorphous in Kenya, in part because cities often don’t have regular or efficient transport systems for collection and disposal. The national environmental authority just this month announced it would require city councils to set aside space for landfills, and to document the amount and type of waste produced by residents. The major cities of Nakuru, Kisumu and Mombasa will be setting up the very first landfills in Kenya. New regulations also require these landfills to have a waste separation strategy to allow for recycling. This is admirable, if vague: What exactly will be separated out as recyclable? How will recyclables be processed?

This development provokes my American paradigm of recycling as an act that depends upon individuals taking responsibility for at least some part of the process, whether it’s dragging green bins to the curb or carrying plastics and paper to the community recycling center on Saturday mornings. What is the impact of a recycling system that is, in effect, invisible from citizens, compared to one where citizens participate? Will it be more efficient? Less efficient? I don’t know. It will be worth watching how the regulations take shape in Kenya to find out.

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