It’s ten o’clock on a Saturday morning and Vincent Rono is at the Cheptuyet River, in Kenya’s southern Rift Valley. The river has long been a customary gathering place for members of the Kipsigis community, who once brought their cattle here to lick salt while the farmers discussed livestock.
But Rono is engaged in a quite different activity: washing motorbikes.
“I come here every day from 7am to 6pm,” the 19-year-old says. “(In that time) I can wash about 20 bikes, which gives me 400 Kenyan shillings ($3.90) at the end of the day.”
Like most young people in the area, Rono is in search of money-making opportunities, and the rainy season – when vehicles get muddy – is one of them.
But the local Kipsigis people – an ethnic subgroup within the Kalenjin tribe – now rarely come to the Cheptuyet with their cattle. Pollution of the river from businesses like Rono’s, along with worsening drought, loss of traditional plants and generational changes in views are causing old traditions and cultural practices to fade away, older people say.
Chemene Tesot, 79, describes the Cheptuyet River as an important community resource. The river was traditionally divided into sections for watering livestock, and for women and men to gather.
During severe droughts women would perform rituals at the river to encourage rain.
“These places are considered secret. Cultural ceremonies like initiations take place here,” Tesot said. In earlier times, the riverbank “was covered with big trees and everyone respected it; no one was allowed to invade,” he remembered.
But young people are less interested in cultural practices, he said, and increasingly are extracting resources to earn an income without considering the impact on the ecosystem, he said.
“Not so long ago, before the area was cleared, a particular bird used to live in tall trees along the river, and when it sang we could tell the seasons. Nowadays they are very rare to be heard,” Tesot said.
Sammy Serser Koskei, 65, a resident of a nearby village, said many local cultural sites have now been destroyed, particularly as indigenous trees have been felled.
“Young people don’t care much about (the) environment. They farm near rivers and encroach, while others no longer respect and value the designated places for forest and wetlands,” Koskei said.
“The 50-metres rule is no longer observed,” he added, referring to a longstanding rule from village elders that commercial activities or buildings must be at least 50 metres away from rivers or dams.
In 2017, the National Environmental Management Authority similarly established a 30-metre protection zone around rivers.
Drought and Degredation
Kenya’s 2015 report to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity highlighted unsustainable land and water management practices, including encroachment on protected areas, unregulated human settlement and unsustainable agricultural development as the major causes of habitat loss.
Richard Byegon, assistant chief of the Sugumerca administrative subdivision, said that environmental degradation and river pollution have become significant issues, especially during periods of drought.
“Locals wash and do their domestics chores in the rivers. They no longer have respect for water catchment areas, but we are currently making efforts to create awareness on the importance of conserving (riverbank) areas,” he said.
Peter Chemaswet, a Kalenjin historian, said his community’s traditions support environmental conservation. “The Kalenjin culture can’t allow destruction of biodiversity. (The) forest is a safety net during dry seasons,” he said.
Nigel Crawhall, who works for UNESCO in Kenya, said that Africa’s culture and traditional practices have become less linked to conservation of biodiversity as sources of livelihood change, driven by an economy that relies heavily on natural resources.
“(The) local population are increasingly relying on the ecosystem for food, money and other needs, overusing the natural resources. Hence (the) destruction of biodiversity,” he said.
“They prefer to extract resources like charcoal from these sites for money, rather than preserving (them).”
Evans Ombongi, of Kenya’s ministry of sports, culture and arts, said that the government is trying to help communities link conservation efforts to what they value most in their culture.
As an example, he cited mursik, a drink prepared by the Kalenjin from cow’s or goat’s milk, which is fermented in a calabash gourd lined with charcoal from an indigenous tree to give it flavour. Encouraging the production of mursik “can effectively enhance conservation” by preserving the trees, Ombongi said.
But persuading a younger generation to make preserving nature a priority may remain a challenge, experts say, as rapid population growth drives a need to find jobs for millions of young people like Rono, with his motorcycle-washing business.
The young man brushes aside concerns that his business might make the Cheptuyet River unsuitable for its traditional uses of watering livestock or performing ceremonies.
“Water pollution has not been my concern; I want to meet my everyday target of making money,” he said.
This article was written by Wesley Lang’at, a freelance journalist based in Kenya and focused on climate change issues. It was edited by James Baer and Laurie Goering for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights.