“I am Obama’s brother!” a stranger shouted to me through the open window of a matatu (small bus) as I was crossing the lush countryside of western Kenya. That was 2006. According to a New York Times article this week, cars in western Kenya, “now sport bumper stickers with statements like ‘Obama, first cousin.’” Kenya has claimed America’s president-elect as its own, and the badge is revitalizing tourism, which plummeted following the gruesome riots during the country’s elections last December. Kogelo, the village where Obama’s father grew up, has become a hot ticket on Kenya’s tourist trail, according to the Times article. But there is another reason to visit the region: Kakamega Rainforest. Home to more than 400 species of birds and five types of monkeys, Kakamega is a bite-sized remnant of the vast tropical forest that once spanned the waist of Africa. The forest is being chipped away, but two guru birders aim to save it.
Kenya is four-fifths desert and the rainy hill country in the west is one of the few regions that support extensive agriculture. As a result, populations here have swelled and forests have shrunk. Kakamega, a forest smaller than most U.S. counties, is one of only several pockets of rainforest left in the country. The forest is surrounded by a sea of maize fields and tea plantations—the former is Kenya’s staple food and the latter is one of its chief exports. The poor villagers of the region continue to use the forest for fuel, medicine and building materials as they always have, only now there are more of them and less forest. With Kakamega being one of the last places left for villagers to draw resources, the forest has dwindled. Birds like the great blue turaco, which need large areas of forest to survive and were common in the time of Obama’s grandmother, are rarely seen today.
Benjamin Okalo and Wilberforce Okeka founded the Kakamega Environmental Education Program (KEEP) in 1995 to educate nearby communities about why the fuel wood and medicinal plants being swiped from the forest were putting the entire ecosystem at risk. Okalo and Okeka learned the forest through years of self-exploration and through assisting the international scientists who came to study its unique birds, butterflies and primates. With funding coordinated by researchers like Marina Cords, a primatologist at Columbia University, and groups like the Pittsburgh Zoo and the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), KEEP constructed an education center in the forest. Local villagers, and students from around the country visit to explore the forest and participate in income-generating projects such as harvesting honey from bees or raising butterfly pupae, which are sold to research centers in Kenya and fashion designers in the United States, who use the colorful patterns for inspiration.
“At the beginning we just went to schools and shared our knowledge,” said Okalo, “but later we realized this wasn’t sustainable. We needed something that would actually make money to save the forest, and then we needed to give this money back to the community.”
Kakamega, a forest smaller than most U.S. counties, is one of only several pockets of rainforest left in Kenya. (By Gilbert Ongachi)
On a muggy morning I packed into a matatu with more than a dozen members of a local youth group and set off across western Kenya for Kakamega. We got stuck in the mud twice but by early afternoon arrived; although the kids I was with lived in a village just fifty miles away most had never seen the forest before. Okalo gave a speech in the education center and then guided us through the dense, noisy jungle. He can imitate the calls of most of Kakamega's birds and knows many of the medicinal plants.
Beneath a thin tree he dug his hand into the earth and pulled up the hairy root of a vine. Upon splicing it open a white cream oozed. Okalo passed the root around for us all to have a taste. This was mondia, one of several medicinal plants locals poach from the forest. Known as “African Viagra”, mondia has a suite of supposed properties: it can enhance memory, stimulate milk production, smooth skin, kill hangovers and increase appetite and sex drive. To stop the plundering of mondia from within Kakamega, KEEP has encouraged local farmers to plant the vine. They recently opened a factory that turns the plant into powder packaged for salves and toothpastes.
The root was handed to me and I took a bite. Never have I experienced such a rainbow of tastes. Initially, the mondia was bitter, like raw cocoa, then sweet, like sugarcane. The aftertaste was spicy, like fresh mint.
Drawing tourists to the forest is another one of KEEP’s income-generating projects. The group built a series of huts for overnight stays and is currently establishing a trading post where villagers can sell homespun crafts and clothing. As tourists flock to Obama’s homeland, nearby Kakamega should not be missed.