The sounds of children singing fill the air by a sandy beach in Malindi, a coastal town in the East African Nation of Kenya. The children sing a song of a unified country, a country where negative ethnicity is non-existent, and a country where the environment is respected with a clarion call of ‘One People One Nation.’
Over 150 children from various regions, ethnic backgrounds and age play and interact with each other for the first time, but it seems like they have known each other their entire lifetime.
Only four years before, Kenya had gone through one of its worst political, economic, and humanitarian crises. General elections were held in Kenya on December 27, 2007 and widespread irregularities triggered protests and violent clashes with ethnic undertones. The violence led to 1,500 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Canada was one of the first countries at the time to welcome a power-sharing agreement, brokered by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which provided for the establishment of a coalition government to end the political crisis. That agreement was to become the first step in returning peace and stability to Kenya.
Back at the beach, the children play and receive certificates of friendship as they prepare to plant trees that will build hope and foster cohesion among different ethnic communities, as part of a bonding experience.
This “A Child, A Tree” program has been organized by the Green Friends Foundation, which has received funding from Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The organization aims to end negative ethnic attitudes in Kenya as well as create a strong foundation on environmental awareness among school children.
“Children will be the future leaders and they have a big influence over their local communities,” said Godfrey Karume, the founder and chief executive officer of the Green Friends Foundation. “Children do not harbor stereotypes and ethnic inclinations that adults have gained through socialization. The large part in the fight against negative ethnicity as well as climate change can only be won through a concerted effort by all, both children and adults,” he added.
School-going children are placed in groups (called cells) of six, with each child representing one of six participating schools from different regions and ethnic communities in Kenya. The children then plant a tree together, representing the national bond that they have created and agreeing to take up responsibility in nurturing the planted tree.
The trees used for the exercise are indigenous and slow growing, signifying that the bond of friendship created will last a life time and that they, as children, will form a new generation that will rise above negative ethnic attitudes.
“This project will play a role in advancing peace and cohesion in Kenya but most importantly it puts the children at the center as they are the hope of a better and peaceful future as well as a future where environmental sustainability is promoted.” - Melanie Boyd, Head of Cooperation at the High Commission of Canada in Nairobi.
Through the current CIDA funding, Green Friends Foundation will work with at least six public primary schools around Kenya’s coast, targeting 600 primary school children and twinning them to other public schools in Kenya. The goal is to have at least 1200 trees planted and nurtured in the region and another 10,000 trees planted and nurtured in schools countrywide each year. This will contribute to improved values of democracy, cohesion and nationalism among school children and society at large.
Seated at one end of the beach, 13-year-old Jacqueline Tinkuli has travelled over 12 hours with other students from her school in Narok, in the Rift Valley. She is Maasai, the well-known pastoralist community of Kenya.
It is her first time seeing the ocean; it is also her first time making friends with children from other ethnic communities along the coast. Jacqueline discovers that her new friends have the same dreams, the same fears, the same aspirations as she does.
“Although my friends come from a different tribe, meeting them has helped me to understand that we are all the same. We have all been created by one God and we are all Kenyans”, said Jacqueline. “We did not choose to be Kenyans, we should therefore learn to love and accept each other,” she added.
Upon returning to her home village, Jacqueline plans to speak to her parents, extended family and friends on the importance of nationalism and the acceptance of other ethnic communities regardless of their points of view or culture.
“By planting the trees with friends from my cell, we will be healing the land, but I think it will be healing our hearts more,” added Jacqueline.
Almost half of the 7 billion people in the world are under the age of 25, with 90 percent of the children and youth living in developing countries such as Kenya. Through CIDA's Children and Youth Strategy, one of the Agency's priorities, children like Jacqueline can today grow to become resourceful, engaged, and productive adults, ready to carry on the work of building a better future for themselves and their countries.