The trees started talking to Muta when she was thirteen. Her mother took her on Sunday walks religiously after church while Baba was out drinking with his friends. This was the little thing her mother told her:
Most people do not see the trees. They just see past them, and the trees in turn just see past you.
Muta looked at her mother’s very light brown face with big, dark eyes and made sure to listen to every word because she knew that her mother knew everything, and if she missed anything she would move back a little closer to knowing nothing. Except,
except the one time when she was telling the little muscles in her ears to stretch and listen harder to her mother’s explanation about the origin of the Fever tree, also known as anthcaixantahtonjn. But not actually. Her mother had just said the English words so fast, they sounded like letters forced together without being korogad properly.
Ehe, then this one time, while she was unscrambling the letters of the proper name of the Fever tree and internally chiding her ears for not lengthening enough to hear Mama properly, a Moringa spoke to her.
“Huh?” Muta asked.
“Huh, what?” Muta’s mother responded, wondering at this child of hers who had grown in ways she could not fully fathom.
Muta was confused. Maybe she was hearing nothing more than the wind’s whispers. After a moment, her mother continued speaking about the roots of the Fever tree.
Muta heard a chuckle, then a chortle. The Moringa asked again, this time in English,
What is it that you want with that one? Us, we are more interesting than the prickly Fever.
This was when Muta was thirteen on a Sunday, listening to her mother talk about how Fever trees evolved thorns that grew to protect themselves and conserve water. This was when the trees began talking to Muta.
But what you need to know is that that was then, and this is now, and now the trees have stopped talking to Muta.
• • •
A Little History of Karura Forest
In 1932, we measured 1,063 hectares, which, for those of you who do not understand the language of our colonial history, is 2,627 acres.
Proud, towering, volatile, beautiful.
Nairobi would not be the green city under the sun without us.
We were its gift. Even when the wazungu came, we stood.
We grew caves to protect the Mau Mau, the ones who knew us to be sacred. We witnessed their blood oaths.
We grew their trees of life. The Mugumo could be found in us in abundance.
We made this bargain.
A promise to hide them if they promised to remember us when they were free. To protect us. Now see….
• • •
Was it a coincidence that the Moringa was the first tree to talk to Muta on that Sunday walk after church with her mother when she was thirteen? Here is the little thing that Mama told Muta about the Moringa Oleifera:
It is one of the fastest-growing drought-resistant trees.
Yani, when the rains refuse to fall and the other trees give up, the Moringa remains standing, resilient. More than that, it is medicinal, carrying mending vitamins through its veins until even its words sound like healing.
So now you must remember this first speaking tree as survivor and healer. Ones that are both are hard to find, but they recognize their own. Mama used to say that she was raising an advocate, like the woman Muta was named for, but even healers sometimes can be broken.
• • •
A Little History of Karura Forest
In 1964, the “developer incursions” began. You cut us in half. We hid you, freed you, and you cut us in half.
Teaching those saws to roar so loud that no one would hear our anguish when they tore us down.
In 2005, we counted ourselves and we were, in your double tongue, 564 hectares and 1,394 acres.
We had made a bargain. We kept our end. You broke yours.
• • •
Muta never met Ms. Maathai, for whom she was named, but she is convinced that her mother had been half in love with the woman.
Mama passes away two months after Ms. Maathai. An unexplained stroke.
Everyone is surprised that her drunk of a father has outlived her mother, including himself. For a while, Muta commiserates with her father in his drinking binge. This is the closest she has ever been to Baba, when they sit together on this side of sadness.
She asks him to take her to the forest and he refuses. Muta goes on her own. She whispers to fill the air:
Muta and her father argue about how her mother is to be buried. Muta knows she wanted to be wrapped in cassava leaves and then cremated.
“It is not proper for her to be burned.” Her father is unrelenting. He slurs his words as he speaks, skinny as a stick, eyes bloodshot, and somehow still unrelenting. This is where their closeness ends. Muta knew it could only last for so long.
She fights, cries, begs. The extended family agrees with Baba. Her mother is to be buried in a coffin like a faithful Kikuyu Christian woman.
Muta goes back to the forest filled with rage. “You let her die! Now they are going to bury her in the ground. If you are as old as you say, could you not have saved her?”
The trees do not respond. She looks hard at the dark soil at her feet, then up at the big Jacaranda in front of her. “She loved you, fought for you and you did nothing to save her!”
The Jacaranda huffs and blows its leaves away from her as she bangs her fists against its bark. The Oak next to it has always been haughty, thinks itself too big to say more than one word to a human.
“Speak!” Muta shouts. “I didn’t ask you to speak then. Now when I need you, you stay silent?”
The Moringa squeaks, Mschana, how many of us have been left to die? How many lives have we saved while your people abandoned us? Are we also not in mourning?
The Jacaranda finally chimes in, its voice deep and velvety. “You talk about your loss, one loss. We have roots that have lived through centuries of massacre. We carry every burned and broken tree as a wound on our barks only a day old. You are a child. You know nothing of loss.”
Muta, infuriated and blinded by her own grief, spits on the ground before walking out of the forest.
• • •
A Little History of the Karura Forest’s Sister
In 1938, one of our sister caves was excavated.
She is called the Njoro River Cave, and I am sure you are wondering how we know about her when she is so far away from us.
We gossip through our roots.
So, there she was, opened by these people called the Leakeys, only for them to discover the 80 skeletons that were partially burned, surrounded by beautifully coloured beads.
We do not want to talk about the bones. We want to talk about the beads.
Blues & purples & reds & greens
w/ brown glinting hues reflected off cowrie shells.
This was the other bargain we made. You do not cut us to bury your dead, & we hide your ashes in our caves. We give you colours & you make beads & we mix them with your ashes to protect your spirit. This is the bargain we made.
• • •
Muta is trying hard to see the trees, but they are losing their distinct features. The Yellowwood leaves fall the same way the Waterpears do. Their colours, once emerald and fern, olive and viridian, become one version of green. This is the process of forgetting.
Her mother is buried in a coffin in the Central Rift Valley, somewhere near the Njoro River Cave. When they are lowering the casket into the ground, Muta has nothing else to hold on to.
“Please speak now,” she whispers. “I need you.”
She is greeted with silence.
On the night that her mother is buried in a coffin, Muta dreams of leaves falling and disappearing into the ground.
• • •
A Little History of the Mothers of Freedom
In 1992, our sister park called Freedom became a site of revolution.
This is a story about what happens when you keep your end of the bargain.
Remember, in 1989, when your farce of a leader wanted to build a Times Media Complex on our sister park Uhuru?
But our advocate fought on our sister’s behalf. She saved us. So, we shared our secrets with her.
That is how you confuse and break them. Strip the way your mothers did, and we will curse them for you. Are we not the givers of air?
The keepers of balance?
The storers of secrets?
In most stories of lost and found, usually there is a thing—a totem—a tangible source of grounding for the story’s holder to find what they have lost. Muta’s mother did not leave her with anything but the names of the trees and their histories. Words and stories, intangible things. So Muta is stuck and remains stuck for years.
• • •
Two years after her mother’s death, Muta meets Chemu. Chemu, who majors in botany and is always spewing facts about the region, habitat, or geological period of any given plant. She reminds Muta of her mother. They start taking walks through the city on Sundays, filling the time Muta would have spent in the forest when the trees were her companions. They tell each other memories they had forgotten in their own heads, remembering the past into the present.
One particular Sunday, Chemu and Muta walk through Uhuru Park and sit on a bench near Freedom Corner with their chips maitu and two bottles of Coke. A breeze picks up and sends a chill down Muta’s spine. She closes her eyes as she shivers and then feels something brush against her shoulder. She hears it whistling as it slides down the front of her shirt and lands on her lap. She opens her eyes: an escaped leaf, the delicate wrinkles on its brown-yellow hues standing out. She shivers again.
“You okay?” Chemu asks.
“Yeah,” Muta answers.
Chemu stays silent, recognizing Muta’s yeah as an unfinished sentence.
“You know that story of Wangari Maathai?”
Chemu chuckles. A random question but not surprising, considering how all over the place their conversations generally are. “Which one? There are so many.”
Muta smiles. “I’m thinking about the one that happened here, in 1992, when Moi was president.”
Chemu rubs the back of her neck. “You’re gonna have to refresh my memory. I’ve never been very good with history.”
“Yeah, neither was I.” Muta smiles as she remembers. “But my mum taught me everything about Wangari Maathai. She was a little… well, obsessed. This particular story was when Moi unjustly arrested and detained political ‘dissidents’ and their mothers came and protested in the park.”
Chemu’s eyes open wide as she remembers. “Ohhhhh! The one where the old women starved themselves.”
“Hunger strike,” Muta corrects.
Chemu shrugs. “Same thing.” She has already moved on.
Muta purses her lips and exhales. “My mother was there.”
“Here,” Muta responds, gently holding up the little leaf between her thumb and her forefinger. “In Uhuru Park with the other mothers, resisting cops and tear gas and threats of death. She was here.”
Muta opens her other palm wide, letting the leaf fall into it. She watches the breeze lift it up slightly, but it resists flight. It seems the little leaf has chosen her as its final destination. “It was the first and only time she ever met Wangari Maathai in person. The woman who made her so much of who she was.”
Chemu clears her throat but Muta goes on without registering. “The part of the story I love is when they stripped. Can you imagine all those women being attacked by the violent goons of Moi, and then how do they retaliate? They strip.”
The leaf starts to whistle again, encouraging the spoken memory. Muta thinks she hears a whisper. She looks behind her and raises an eyebrow, stretching her ears. A large oak tree stares her down.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Chemu asks again.
“Yeah….” Muta responds after a few heartbeats. “My mum told me this part that was not written in history books. She said the goons’ wooden batons turned on their keepers and started attacking them. There was so much commotion, no one really saw everything that was happening.” Muta laughs softly. “My mum would swear to me that the sticks had minds of their own and came alive after the women stripped.”
Chemu smiles. “You seem to like that story a lot, huh?”
Muta shrugs. “I guess…. The thing is that my mother was pregnant with me at the time. She didn’t know it yet, but she found out when she got home. She told this story to me a thousand times. Sometimes I think I can remember it for myself. Not just the version of it that she told me—I remember the actual nakedness and vulnerability, the being bared in front of those men. But also, the restlessness and the freedom and the curse that was being unleashed.”
It is Chemu’s turn to raise her eyebrows. Muta remembers herself and smiles. “Just words and stories.” She chuckles and changes the topic of conversation to a memory less heavy.
The next week Muta goes to visit Karura Forest. The leaves are still and the only things that whistle are the birds.
The trees remain silent.
• • •
A Little History of the Excavated Caves in Karura Forest
In 1941, a white man came into our home uninvited.
Of the things we allowed to be found:
crescents, cores, potsherds,
an ostrich eggshell fragment, and some pigs’ teeth.
39 pieces of bottle glass,
1,726 stone tools made of obsidian & quartz,
22 Kikuyu glass beads (19th and20th century types),
& 1 copper ring.
There are more things but not all of them must be named. The things that were never lost, we hid well. Us, we know how to keep our end of the bargain.
• • •
Muta has not been to Karura in over a year. After the death, she would go persistently, straining her ears like she did when she was thirteen. She would cajole the Fena, beg the Jacaranda, whisper to the Fig, sing to the Cedar, but even the Moringa would not say a word. As if Muta had only imagined the years of conversation. Her visits went from once a week to once a month, to once every six months.
You cannot blame the girl. Nairobi is a moving city: distracting, always busy, so forgetful. It is easy to get lost in its transient nature. Besides, Muta had other things to worry about, like how to pay for the rest of university after her mother died and how to cover some of the debts her father owed to not lose their house. Talking trees were a child’s indulgence.
When Muta was in her last year at uni, her professor sent her an email with a job opportunity.
Content Creator Wanted.
Green Belt Movement
Founded by the late…
Muta laughed when she saw it, laughed because otherwise she would shake or cry. This history would not leave her alone. It was a starting position, but it paid, which was more than she could say for most other internships in Nairobi offered to just-graduated students with no experience. She applied, hoping she would be rejected. When they called her to invite her for an interview, she sighed heavily into the phone.
That was about a month after her last visit to Karura Forest. Now it has been three years since her mother died, one year since her last visit to the forest, and she is sitting in the Green Belt office watching a Nobel Peace Prize speech, celebrating ten years since Professor Wangari Muta Maathai became the first African woman to win the prize.
Muta cannot help but think of the word irony. Then, as Wangari is speaking on the screen, Muta hears something. Her attention is caught but there is no pause or rewind in public viewings of this nature, so Muta tries to settle her thoughts, thinks she may have imagined it. Her mind is stuck on this thing and for the rest of the day, she cannot focus properly until she gets back home.
And this is what Muta finds when she gets back home and rewatches up until minute 4:31 of Professor Wangari Maathai’s Nobel lecture, where the beautiful dark woman in her spectacularly orange kitenge dress and headwrap says:
In my own community, the elders carried a staff called thegi. Whenever there were disputing sides, that staff was placed between them and as soon as the elders placed that thegi… or that staff between them, they stepped back, stopped fighting, and went to seek reconciliation. Many African communities have this heritage and tradition….
When something as improbable as talking to trees is lost, then the rules of probability are also lost. So, who is to say what can and cannot be found again? Who is to say if anything was ever really lost?
• • •
A Little History of Karura Forest’s Advocate(s)
Between 1994 and 1998, a total of 564 hectares were sold in secret.
We watched you give us away in pieces in service of your gods. Hiding your treachery behind “national development”.
Do not think we do not know the names of the 64 companies you sold us to.
We did not say the names out loud, but we whispered them until they were carried by the wind into the ears of our advocate.
Us, we hold and release secrets.
In 1999, you reminded us not all of you had forgotten.
We watched the children of UON protest with the freedom mothers, our advocate(s).
We will remind you of January 1999.
We will remind you how blood was shed when your dictator’s goons came to remove the protestors.
We will remember how our advocate kept your end of the bargain. How she replanted & reforested & diminished our anger.
& how we decided then that we will still tell you our stories.
• • •
Her father’s voice is softer than she expected and Muta is rethinking this decision. She has not heard him in so long. She clears her throat and breathes hard into the phone.
“This is a surprise.” His words aren’t slurred. Is he sober?
Muta clears her throat again. “I just wanted to, uhh… to say thanks for the package you sent me of Mama’s things.” It has been two years since he sent it; Muta put the old letters and files that documented some of Mama’s work as an advocate in a drawer and forgot to even thank him. They both know it is a flimsy excuse.
“Yeah,” he responds. “I thought you would like them.”
“Yeah,” she says, “I did.”
There is silence. An Is that all? hanging in the air.
Muta bites her lip—a nervous habit. Are you keeping well?”
“Me, yes, yes. Good, good. Your Tata has been taking good care of me. And the Gicagi air has cleared my lungs. Your mother was right about one thing: being with the land is healing to the soul. Heh, cities are not built for being.”
Muta stops herself from clearing her throat a third time. “That’s good.” She pauses for a moment. “I guess I’ll get right to it then. Do you know if, well, if Mum had a specific wooden stick she kept somewhere?”
“Yeah, yani mti.”
“Muta, what are you going on about?”
“Just answer the question, Baba.”
He sighs. “No, I have not seen any stick that your mother left behind. If there was such a thing, it was probably thrown away by your Tata after the funeral.”
Muta groans and rubs her temples. They do not talk for a few seconds, then Baba asks. “How are you keeping up?”
She does not answer.
“I thought you would come for the memorial service last month. We were sad to not have you.”
She will not play this game again. “That grave,” she responds tersely, “is a farce. A disgrace to her memory.”
Baba sighs. “Okay.”
“Okay,” she responds.
They hang up.
This is the first time in over a year that Muta returns to the forest. She looks specifically for the spot where the Moringa talked to her when she was thirteen. She cannot find it. She finds a Fever tree, but it is not the one Mama showed her. She thinks for a moment that she is lost, but the forest is smaller now than it was then, and she is bigger now than she was then, so she knows she cannot be.
She sits by a cave in the middle of the forest. She stays quiet. She can hear the delicate gushing of the small waterfall. This time, she does not beg or cajole or cry. She is still grieving. The forest is always grieving. They both grieve in silence.
Muta is not stuck now, but she has accepted her forgetting. She goes back and gets lost in the movement of the city, putting aside Maathai’s words, her father’s voice, her speculative imaginings. This is not a difficult thing to do in the city. Nairobi is a moving city, after all.
• • •
A Little History of Loss
We are tired of telling you our story.
Leave us alone now.
Let us grieve ourselves.
• • •
It has been eleven years since Wangari M. Maathai passed away, and Muta is sitting in the office planning a memorial festival. They are to invite Femi1, Fena Gitu, Lisa Oduor, Chepkorir Langat, and maybe have an act or two performed by Sauti Sol or H_art the Band.
Muta is working for a big environmentalist NGO now and they are pitching the memorial festival as part of a series of feminist advocacy-centred events, which is why predominantly female acts would be better. She calls up Chemu, who took her old job at the Green Belt Movement.
“By the way, I found something that you might find interesting,” Chemu says just before they end the call.
“Hmm?” Muta is still distracted, putting notes on her calendar. She won’t be able to make the meeting with Patricia Kihoro because she has to take Noni for a checkup.
“A baton, a wooden baton bent in on itself,” Chemu says.
“Muta, are you listening? It was found at her home office where she had transferred the Green Belt when Moi was trying to shut it down.”
Now Muta starts to pay attention.
“Immediately it was brought into the office,” Chemu continues. “I looked at it and thought of you. Remember the version of the Freedom Corner protest you used to tell us?” Her voice is getting higher with every passing word. “The one your mother told you? How after the women stripped, the wooden batons…”
“…turned in on themselves,” Muta says with her friend in unison.
“Exactly!” Chemu says excitedly. “And then they started beating the cops who were harassing the women as if they had grown their own minds.”
Muta has not thought about this in a long time. “Where is it now?”
Chemu pauses. “Of course, no one believed the story I gave them, but everyone agreed that if it was important enough to be hidden in Wangari Maathai’s home office, then it must have some significance.”
“Where is it now?” Muta asks again.
“In the office, but I am going to try and get it to the event.”
Muta’s mind is running but it is almost five o’clock, and given Kiambu Road traffic, she must leave now if she wants to get home in time to tuck Noni in.
“Okay,” she says. And when she gets home, she puts her daughter to bed and makes herself a cup of tea, then moves into her study room and rummages through old boxes of books and papers.
Muta thinks about the thegi, a peace staff.
• • •
A Little History of Your Vision Pillars
Economic & Macro
Where do we fall? You made a bargain.
• • •
It is Noni’s thirteenth birthday, and she wants a picnic with her mum. Well, that’s not all. She wants to go watch a movie with her friends, also—but first, a picnic with her mum. Guka has been sick, so he moved in with them, and since then, Mum has been so stressed and Noni knows her mother feels she is becoming distant, is terrified that turning thirteen means that they will somehow move from mother and daughter to strangers. For as long as Noni can remember, her mother has been pouring herself into her work, leading conservation campaigns across the country and protests against deforestation.
“Si you told me Cucu also took you when you were my age,” she pleads with her mother, “Karura is just here, ata.”
Our little Muta is grown now and there are wrinkles around her eyes when she smiles. No matter how much she tries not to be too soft, she knows she will indulge her daughter. “Ha, yes, but that was different. We didn’t have all these fancy virtual forests like you do now.”
Noni rolls her eyes. “Mum, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve been to Karura. You don’t have to throw shade….”
“Like a tree!” Muta interrupts her daughter and laughs at her own joke. The truth is, she has avoided the forest since the last time she was there almost ten years ago.
She had managed to convince Chemu to let her take the wooden stick home after the memorial festival commemorating Professor Wangari Muta Maathai.
“To be returned,” she had promised, knowing even then it was a lie.
She had prepared herself, read up on thegi rituals, and planned her trip into the forest.
This time, she got truly and thoroughly lost, whispering as she walked,
Then she sat down, held the stick up with her palms upward, and aired her thoughts.
“I am angry that you abandoned me.” She was not sure if she was talking to the trees or to her mother.
“I am disappointed in myself for hoping for more.” The leaves started to whistle, softly at first.
“I am disillusioned with this country as you taught me to be.” The whistling got louder.
“I am sad and alone. A motherless daughter.” The whistles moved to whispers and a Cedar branch shook behind her. She did not stop.
“Peace, please,” She laid the stick down. “I just want rest.”
And us? It was a small Fig tree behind her that asked. Do we not want rest?
Tears fell and wet Muta’s cheeks. “I can help you. Talk to me and let me help you.”
The whispers picked up, then receded, a cascade in the air. You already forgot us. Like every other human. Cut us down, betrayed us, forgot us. Leave what is ours and go.
“Peace,” Muta pleaded. “I have not forgotten you.”
Then show us. It was the Moringa, always the healer. Reconciliation requires more than words.
The rest of the forest hushed and Muta placed the folded baton on the ground, then stood up and left.
That was then, nearly ten years ago, when Noni was a toddler and the world was still processing the slowing down of time; and this is now, when Noni is thirteen and Muta is taking her for a picnic in the middle of the forest for her birthday and they stumble upon a Moringa tree and Muta smiles and she starts telling Noni a little history about how
it is one of the fastest-growing drought-resistant trees.
And more than that, it is medicinal.
A survivor and a healer.
And then Noni hears a laugh and a chortle.
Like your mother, it whispers.