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Conference of the future: A journalist’s perspectives on the Fifth MESHA African Conference of Science Journalists

By Tebby Otieno I tebbyotieno62@gmail.com

As the MESHA Fifth African Conference of Science Journalists drew to a close last Friday, many things kept crossing my mind.

 

First, it must take a strike of some genius to organize such a big conference. The amount of work that goes on in the preparation of this conference must be enormous laced with a lot of hard work, I suppose.

 

The manner in which the themes were arranged to fit in snugly into four days, with the first day being set aside for health, the second day dedicated to agriculture, with environment, biodiversity and climate change being the main concern on day 3 – struck me with awe. 

 

Issues of what we do – reporting science journalism – fitted in snugly on day 4 – the last day of the Conference. This excellent, meticulous arrangement and planning only comes from experienced conference directors. I found this approach stimulating, enriching and professional. So logical were the presentations that as a first time attendee, I felt nothing but joy. When the conference began, within the first three presentations, my fear, mixed with anxiety, quickly evaporated, leaving me in the realization that this was a Conference of note. So, as they say, I sat back, listened and enjoyed.

 

At exactly 1am each subsequent night, we received the day’s conference bulletin! What a surprise! With barely any resources, the Secretariat managed to put together this daily publication with the alacrity of the Korean Sword! Whatever magic our Secretary, Aghan Daniel uses on his team to put up such an out of the world show, remains a mystery for me and perhaps to many MESHA members.

 

Wait a minute. And so where did the International Federation of Agriculture Journalists emerge from to make such scintillating opening remarks at the beginning of the conference!  This is yet another aspect that has left me in awe! The opening ceremony had three speakers, – our own MESHA Chairman, Mr Bozo Jenje, a representative of InfoNile, our partners in the Conference, Alis Okonji and Lena Johansson, the President of ifaj. She shed a lot of light on the Federation and stated that human rights and freedom of speech were key tenets in promoting science journalism.

 

The keynote speech, from Dr Samuel Oti left me thinking – how can I contribute towards decolonizing health rights and funding for my own African brothers and sisters?

 

The day of health…..mine. This was a gem. An experts spoke eloquently on how much hope there was in the introduction of the vaginal ring in the intervention against HIV that left me wondering – have all women of Africa heard of this ring? Then came the presentation on U=U by Dr Lazarus Momanyi, a Ministry of Health official. U=U basically means undetectable is equal to untransmittable. Good enough, I now know that adherence is key in wrestling HIV/AIDS. I asked our Conference Director, Nduta Waweru why they had to bring a science café into the conference and her answer was…..”Our funders, AVAC, okayed our request for this session, adding that it is rewarding to once in a while meet other journalists who ordinarily do not attend the cafes.”

I also noticed that this year, there were more than 5 sessions on biodiversity. Why the prominence to this branch of conservation? The organisers told me that since February, MESHA received funds from JRS Biodiversity Foundation to do a project called Journalists Acting for Biodiversity (JAB). This support enabled the invitation of four scientists to talk about biodiversity at the Conference.

 

Sessions on agriculture were mouth-watering. That there are 500 species of edible insects in Kenya was an amazing fact that has convinced me now to believe that insects have a big role to play in food security in Africa. From the agriculture session, I picked the knowledge that I need not worry about Genetically Modified Organisms since our endemic species are intact – in fact they are kept in a gene bank! And very country has its own genebank.

 

It was also cool to note that there is a fallacy about so called farmer saved seeds, as our farmers do plan what is called grain and not seed. Where are all these seed people been? I have kept on wondering. That there are regulations that seek to ensure that we do seed business harmoniously within the economic blocs. Even though I am an avid reader, I have decided that I will read even more. How come I have all along not known that there are continental guidelines the use of Biotechnology for food and agriculture? Thanks to the Conference now I know. It was gratifying to hear Dr Simplice Nonou, Head of Agriculture and Food Security at the African Union Commission talk about biotech in Africa and led us as journalists into understanding what is happening in Africa as a whole.

 

It was a brilliant idea to bring science journalists to share with us their experiences in covering climate change. I learnt a lot and will practice what I heard other journalists across the borders do. 

 

Callings on African governments and international agencies

 

If any event needs funding from agencies, the UN body, African Union, large and international NGOs, the Kenya Government etc – that event is the MESHA Fifth African Conference of Science Journalists. 

 

This Conference holds the future for African science and should hence be made BIG. It is that single event that provides a forum to showcase science being done in Africa. It is that gathering that acts as a single market where all the science done in Africa yearly can be brought together and presented to the masses – devoid of jargon. 

 

My take is that the Conference is that a must attend event by all who work in the space of science. It will require attendance from each of the 54 African countries, it can be our heritage where the West come to listen to us as they savour our science. 

 

I call on the industry players, producers of goods and services in Africa to come out and support the Conference. This conference can no longer remain low keyed. It must attract the high and the mighty!

 

Come on people of Africa and put money in this Conference.

 

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Institute vouches for protection of sandalwood, a rare hard wood

By Tebby Otieno | tebbyotieno62@gmail.com
Nick Lenyakopiro grew up knowing East African sandalwood as a medicinal tree used by his parents
and grandparents. He says that once the leaves of this indigenous tree have been boiled, children
with cough-related diseases are then covered using a blanket and allowed to inhale the steam for
some minutes. This is how the healing process using East African sandalwood takes place. “The
culture of Samburu does not allow trees to be cut down. You either pluck the leaves or remove the
tree plank,” says Lenyakopiro. Samburu is a hot and dry region whose residents are mainly
pastoralists. During drought, they also cut the leaves of the sandalwood to feed livestock.
“Sandalwood still exists and locals here do not know any economic value attached to it like selling
them to other people or exporting them,” says Lenyakopiro. What he did not know was that some
people away from his community had known other benefits of this rare tree species. As he would
later find out, officers in Maralal Police Station had arrested those who involved in trading in it. “All
of a sudden cases of sandalwood started coming up. Maybe someone somewhere just stole the idea
that sandalwood is making money somewhere,” he says. Lenyakopiro is a station manager at a local
radio station in Samburu. He says he uses the station to educate their audiences on the need to
protect sandalwood.
“We have actually come out to champion the protection of the sandalwood. We tell our audiences
not to allow foreigners who come to the forest asking for it,” he says. Apart from treating children
and feeding animals, Samburu community also uses East African sandalwood as a preservative and
cleaning ingredient. Douglas Leboiyare, living in Ngari village, says locals use it to clean traditional
gourd used to preserve milk. This ensures milk remains fresh as if it were refrigerated. “Women also
use it when they have given birth and experience swollen, painful breasts. Again, after using it to
clean the gourd, milk can stay there for three days without fermenting,” says the 51-year-old.
Despite the importance of this species of tree to Samburu residents, they are now worried of its
availability in future. This follows the rate at which it is being cut and sold to outsiders.
Leboiyare says stories about availability of its market in the neighbouring countries started in
2010/2011. “Those people started coming to Samburu telling people that the tree pays money. It
seems there are business people from outside Samburu who come here with brokers so the tree is
cut. Only God knows if it will survive,” he says. According to Leboiyare, one big sandalwood tree can
produce one tonne while a small one produces about 200kg. The brokers pay locals Ksh60 per
kilogramme and they cut many trees at ago to fill up a lorry.
It is because of this that residents here formed Naramat Community Forest Association (CFA) in
Kirisia Forest so that they protect this species. Leboiyare is the chairperson. “We are trying to stop
cutting of this tree here in Kirisia Forest by creating awareness among the locals. We also arrest
those we find cutting it but there are still crooks who continue to cut it,” says Leboiyare. Naramat

CFA consists of 140 scouts members who do patrols to make sure there are no intruders accessing
Kirisia Forest. “They normally cut this tree into small pieces. When we find them we arrest and hand
them over to officers for legal action. However, if they manage to escape we destroy the small
pieces of trees they leave behind,” he said. Leboiyare says he has never seen seedlings of East
African sandalwood. What they are doing is protecting the naturally growing species. He, however,
appeals that if there are seedlings, then they be given so that they can plant more of it in the
deforested areas.
“This tree grows where there is high temperature and since the government has not been able to
preserve it, we decided to leave our livestock and protect our forest,” says Leboiyare. In 2007,
President Mwai Kibaki issued a ban on sandalwood tree harvest. The president, vide Gazette Notice
Number 3176 dated the April 4, 2007, declared Osyris lanceolate (East African sandalwood-
Msandali) as a protected tree species for a period of five years. The Gazette notice was to be
executed by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). Dr Willis Okumu, a senior researcher from the Institute
of Security Studies, says prosecution of cases of trading in sandalwood is still supported by the
Gazette Notice Number 3176.
“Sandalwood in Eastern Africa has also been listed in appendix two of the cities of the increased over
exploitation. Despite all the legal framework that we have, it seems that we have not really
succeeded in preventing the exploitation of sandalwood,” said Dr Okumu during a phone interview.
There have been subsequent legal provisions, like the Wildlife Conservation Management Act of
2013, which have listed East African sandalwood as endangered species that people cannot trade in.
Dr Okumu reveals how their recent research in Samburu County, tracing networks enabling East
African sandalwood smuggling and trafficking, found people behind this illegal trade. “We realised
that sandalwood trafficking in Kenya is facilitated by some State actors, hence the lucrative nature of
the product,” said Dr Okumu.
The investigation further found out that there is a lot of bureaucracy and criminal organisations
involved in trafficking of East African sandalwood. East African sandalwood is found in areas where
most locals are pastoralists like in Samburu County. Peter Gachie, a scientist from Kenya Forestry
Research Institute (KEFRI), says most people who are interested in trading in this tree take
advantage of the vulnerability of the locals who are looking for an alternative source of livelihood.
“East African sandalwood is a precious plant that has been overexploited. Its scientific name is Osyris
lanceolate. It is in the family of sandalwood and has its relatives in India and Australia, which we
usually term as the true sandalwoods,” Gachie said. Gachie says that East African sandalwood is used
in cosmetics industry to make oil and also some medicine.
Oil being very valuable has led to this species of tree to be overexploited in other countries. “In
those other countries it has been domesticated so people are cultivating sandalwood, but due to
limitation of the species they have now come to poach our own,” he says. The lucrative value of East
African sandalwood products continues to put the tree in a danger of exploitation and destruction.
KEFRI says communities where the tree is harvested have little knowledge about the value of its
products, the reason they are robbed of their precious resource.