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

In the meantime, ad-hoc recycling is a regular part of life; many people pick through neighborhood trash collections looking for metals and other materials they can use or sell. “I accumulate quantities of plastic water bottles, plastic egg containers, and plastic bags that would be shameful at home,” said Joanna Goldberg, a Canadian living in Nairobi with her young daughter. “I noticed a woman collecting plastic everything from our apartment's rubbish area. Now I bag it all up and leave it out for her when I know she'll be coming by.”

I am reminded of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” refrain that was drilled into my mind in grade school. Among the three R’s, recycling is by far the most prominent one in the US, widely accepted as the civilized person’s responsibility. My suspicion is that recycling won the public relations campaign over reducing and reusing because it is a way to continue our habits of high-level consumption without feeling so guilty about it.

Here in Kenya, confronted far more directly with my piles of trash and without recycle bins conveniently placed around town to provide me with an easy out, I’m left to take reducing and reusing more seriously. And so, I buy less. I eat less. I exercise my creativity muscles in thinking about how I might give new life to a plastic bag or an empty bottle of shampoo. And you know what? It’s actually kind of fun – like a game. I don’t mean to stop playing once I return to the US.

Goldberg, too, has adapted: “Dollhouse and furniture for my daughter made of cardboard boxes. I even made tables for my daughter out of the styrofoam packaging from our small fridge. All our holiday decorations—from Halloween to Hanukkah—were made from newspapers, plastic bags and string. I didn't know how to get rid of it, so figured I'd use it for something.“


Like Detroit, where I come from, Nairobi is a car-dependent city with traffic that runs thick. Unlike Detroit, Nairobi is alarmingly unfriendly to walkers. There are few sidewalks or walkways; there’s no such thing as right-of-way; trenches suddenly appear overnight; traffic, for all intents and purposes, is lawless; and vehicles – especially the infamous matatus – have been known to abruptly wheel off the road in an attempt to escape traffic snarls. Meanwhile, walking is simply not a wise idea after dark – not just for foreign women like me, but for Kenyan women and men too. The sun sets at 7pm; I have to plan accordingly. Oh, and for good measure: bicycles are actually banned from Nairobi’s downtown district.

While there are a great many people walking and biking through Nairobi every day, most of whom arrive safely at their destinations, the lack of infrastructure means there are more unnecessary fatalities and injuries than in a developed city, even when the traffic flow is at an equal rate. British researchers, in a 1991 study, compared the pedestrian risk in Nairobi and Surabaya (Indonesia’s second-largest city) with that in British cities, using a constant rate of 1,500 vehicles per hour. They found that pedestrians in Nairobi were at an 86 percent greater risk than in the UK; in Surabaya, the risk was 172 percent greater.

So, while I have been pleased to cease driving while I’m abroad, I’m finding that the most sustainable form of transportation—walking—is, simply, harder. My habit of daydreaming while ambling about is checked: I need to be careful, watch where I’m going. This isn’t always a tense experience; it can be a beautiful one, nudging me to be attentive to this extraordinary city, traffic and all.


In significant ways, life in this developing city supports environmentalist choices that are less common in the US. Even those who can afford one don't bother owning a laundry dryer (and often not a washer either). It’s seen as pointless, mostly in terms of the cost of electricity—though one Kenyan woman I spoke with said she doesn’t want a dryer, even though she could afford one, because she prefers the freshness of clothes that have billowed out in the equatorial sun to those that have banged around in a hot machine.

As well, frequent power outages require adapting to a lifestyle less dependent on electricity. Nobody so much as raises an eyebrow when the lights turn dark at a café; nobody is surprised. Few will complain when, at home, the computer they’re pecking at turns dim. This is just what happens. People simply light a candle and move on to doing something else. Adapting to this fact of life in Nairobi has made me more particular about how I arrange my days. When I have access to electricity and an Internet connection, I don’t waste it; I do what I must do first. There is little room for frittering. When I don’t have access to electrical connections, I don’t waste that time either; I write out drafts of stories I’m working on by hand, so that when I am plugged in again, my work is already nearly done, and then I enjoy the space that opens out to me for reading books or visiting my neighbors.

In other words, I am learning to consolidate my electricity needs, instead of assuming that I must be connected to do any sort of work or have any sort of fun. While I still feel anxious when a deadline approaches and I’m chasing wireless connections around the city, I do appreciate the lessons I’m getting in making the most of my un-wired time … and in patience.

It’s noteworthy that Nairobi is a fast-growing city. As the fierce rate of construction moves forward, and the middle-class continues to expand, demand for electrical power is increasing. More broadly, the energy demand in developing nations is expected to grow by 70 percent by 2030, according to ExxonMobil’s Outlook for Energy 2011 report.

Natural Landscape and Sustainability

The Kenya Wildlife Service is one of the most robust sectors of governments, managing 22 parks, 28 reserves, five sanctuaries, four marine parks, and six marine reserves throughout Kenya, altogether totaling about 8 percent of the country’s landmass. The magnificent parks are fundamental to Kenya’s economy: the tourism industry stands for 12 percent of GDP, with land managed by KWS accounting for 90 percent of safari tourism and about 75 percent of total tourist earnings. But pains are taken to ensure that these spaces are not only for tourists; admission prices for citizens are quite low, encouraging Kenyans to interact regularly with the natural world.

Developing nations have largely taken the lead in guaranteeing constitutional protections for the environment. Namibia’s founding constitution, developed after it gained independence in 1990, was one of the world’s first to write environmental protections into its guiding document. South Africa followed suit with the constitution it passed in 1996. Ecuador did the same in 2008, going so far as to acknowledge nature’s “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” While institutional capacity to enforce these rights varies, the acknowledged aspiration is a powerful force in moving forward with intelligent development.

When Kenya passed a new constitution last year, it too affirmed environmental rights as the fundamental law of the land. Specifically, Kenya’s constitution says that, “Every person has the right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes the right … to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations through legislative and other measures….” The text includes provisions that give Kenyans the right to sue for damage to the environment (preemptive to any human harm) and it eliminates “process and activities that are likely to endanger the environment.”

It’s hard not to consider this constitutional affirmation of environmentalism next to the perpetual battles fought, for example, against the US Environmental Protection Agency. Though the agency was founded by a Republican administration in 1970, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s campaign platform calls for abolishing the agency. It’s an idea that’s echoed in a bill introduced this month by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), which would merge the EPA with the Department of Energy, though the two agencies have very different functions. The bill has 15 co-sponsors.


What I’m going to bring back with me when I return to the US is a deflated pride. Having the gift of an alternative vantage on individual environmentalism punctures the assumptions I brought with me. In the US, it’s easy to be lulled into “checklist environmentalism.” Use LCD lightbulbs. Don’t litter. Recycle. Compost. Take the train. Bring your own cloth bag to the market. And indeed, these choices matter: let’s you and I take joy in them.

But what I’m realizing is that in some ways, the items on the American environmental checklist are arbitrary. It might have included any number of other choices that are hardly mainstream yet: Reduce, reuse and recycle even the things that aren’t “officially” recyclable. Wash clothes by hand. Let clothes air-dry, in or outside the house. Eliminate nearly all electrical appliances, and/or the amount of time each day you depend on them. Support the public park system and integrate visits to parks into the ordinary rhythm of your life. Affirm environmental protections into the basic law of the land.

Friends, we have much to do.

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