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Mikoko (mangroves): The community efforts to restore a mangrove ecosystem in Mida Creek, Kenya

Written by Imara Bella Thorpe, Mida Creek Conservation Community

Saplings being planted in rows by community members, Watamu, Kenya. © Imara-Bella Thorpe

Journey through the mangroves...

You are exploring a secret passage, from source to mouth. In this case, 'source' being the edge of the mangrove forest and 'mouth' opening into the main water body of Mida creek. Walking down the passage, deeper into the forest, the mud under your bare feet becomes softer and eventually your feet are underwater. The incessant rolling of the tides from the strength of the moon, move this body of water in oscillations, night and day. It’s the late afternoon, just after high tide. It was a full moon last night, so the water level is close to the source, where a familiar large tree lives on the path (Avicennia marina). As you walk down the track, the mangroves close in around you and the leaves brush against your body. Mangrove shoots and the shells of small creatures residing here multiply beneath your feet. You stop to look around at the dense forest layers from the soil to the sky, far into the green shaded depths. The trees are majestic, but their value spreads beyond this intrinsic beauty and mystique. The species that live here hold medicinal uses and the straight poles of the Mkoko Mweusi (Ceriops tagal) can be likened to bamboo and are used for construction.

The memories of civilisation drift away, and the forest is eternal. Despite your vulnerability, you feel at ease.

This feeling of being exposed is born from the constant changes and unknown surprises that nature holds, yet the comfort seeps in as you reconnect with nature. The water gradually becomes deeper, and you begin to swim as the path melts into a tributary. Mangrove roots sprawl like spiders’ legs in the deep turquoise water of the creek. Above water, the mangrove forest whispers sounds of clicking crabs scurrying across the roots, leaves softly dancing with the wind and water lightly seeping through the spaces between. Underwater, there is more silence. It is dark and eerie as only pockets of sunlight filter through the compact canopy and dark organic matter is deposited and mixed with the white ocean sands. Fish are sheltered by mangrove remains in the deepest sections of the curving flow. This is their breeding ground and nursery for their children. Eventually, they will return to the reef where they will spend most of their life. Comprehending the lives lived by these creatures is difficult as they are hidden well. If you look carefully, you may see a blue phase speckled bush snake, camouflaged well from birds of prey by having evolved to replicate the turquoise water. Existing among the mangroves, it is hard to ignore the amount of organisms this ecosystem supports, and importantly, how you fit into it.

Swimming through the mangrove creeks is one of my favourite activities in an area where I have been travelling for the holidays my whole life. Kenya is my home, but having been raised in Nairobi, I still feel like a tourist in many parts of the country. There is often a large divide between tourists and locals, with little mixing. This makes my experience in Mida Creek even more meaningful, as it is an opportunity to break through this invisible yet palpable wall. I am acutely aware of the privileges I have in this world. I am lucky enough to not have to think about these trees in purely transactional terms, such as their uses in construction and charcoal production. This is a story about worlds colliding.

One of the teammates on the football team, nicknamed ‘boy’ , holding a Mkoko Mweusi sapling. © Imara Bella Thorpe

My most recent visit to Watamu was this August. To get to Nugu Nuts, the hostel where I was staying, I had to ride on the back of a boda (motorbike in Kiswahili; a popular form of transport in the area). En-route, I was conversing with the boda driver, Elvis (left in the image), as he drove down an uneven dirt road. Jumping between Kiswahili and English (Kenya’s national languages), we chatted about what we do in life, and we found some common interests. I study Ecological Science at the University of Edinburgh and one of Elvis’ many jobs is as an ecological tour guide. Recently, with some friends, he started a community project for mangrove restoration in Mida Creek. He pointed out a sandy road to the left that would lead to their mangrove nursery. Elvis said that they planned to start moving and planting the saplings tomorrow. The site was just behind Nugu Nuts so I couldn't help but to get involved! Instead of the holiday I had planned (consisting mostly of relaxing), I ended up planting trees for a few hours a day and constantly meeting new faces. I interacted with many people, young and old, most being from the Giriama tribe. Members from a local junior boy’s football team were also encouraged to volunteer along with the older members of the community.

The Mkoko Mweusi (Rhizophora mucronata) saplings were passed down the line, hand to hand, from the nursery into the tuk-tuks. Then, an army of overloaded tuk-tuks and bodas full of saplings and people navigated through the sandy lanes to the site which was only a few hundred metres from the nursery.

When we arrived at the site, the numerous red and grey crabs promptly fled into their tunnels. Everyone was in good spirits, and we all laughed and joked together while digging and planting in the mud. I learned greetings and phrases of the local language, Kigiriama, which is closely related to Kiswahili, both being Bantu languages. A popular Kiswahili phrase is “tuko pamoja”, meaning “we are together/one”, this sentiment was clearly felt throughout the experience. It was in these moments that Elvis also recounted how his passion for ecology “just came into my life when I was 10 years old, back in primary school, when we were conducting beach clean ups organised by private sectors and hotels”. It put the power of this project into perspective and indicated how it could fuel future generations of community engagement. After long hours under the sun, when efficiency began to wane and the pace slowed, we headed to a restaurant on the roadside where Elvis’ sister, Evelyne, prepared lunch. I tried a delicious local juice that was made from avocado and pineapples to go with a main dish of Samaki (fish), ugali (maize meal in a dough-like form) and sukuma wiki (collard greens, onions and spices). Throughout the meal, we chatted about other activities involving the community, like beach and mangrove shore clean-ups and the Prawn Lake Conservation Group, which is a restaurant sourcing local seafood. Their future goals are to make the mangrove project more business oriented so they can support their livelihoods. From my observations and time spent volunteering, I suggested that more women get involved. There seemed to be a gender imbalance, and having more women engaged in the project would only help to enhance the community benefits.

Photo of Evelyne digging a hole for the sapling to be planted. © Imara Bella Thorpe

My involvement in this mangrove restoration played out organically, borne from beautiful coincidences. It is from these paths crossing, that others have also been able to get involved. One of the main forms of job creation from the project is becoming an ecological tour guide. By building friendships with tourists, they have garnered more interest and sponsorships. More recently, an American organisation focused on forest restoration has taken part by donating recording instruments and training some of the community members to monitor the sapling growth and health. There has been a natural succession to building this project, which happened through the kindness, modesty, and hard work of the community.

Why mangroves?

Globally, there are approximately 70 species of mangrove. Nine of these grow in Kenya, which makes them easy to identify. The mangrove forests represent 3% of natural forest cover, taking up 60,000 hectares along the coastline. Mida Creek is a tidal creek in a tropical climate, with a dense drainage network through the mangrove forest [1]. These tidal creeks are an important transition zone where fresh and saltwater mix. Unfortunately, there has been a high rate of mangrove deforestation (around 6.5%) over the past few decades [3]. Mangroves are a vital ecosystem to maintain due to a number of ecosystem services they provide; timber, reducing erosion, dampening impacts from storm surges, and being a refuge and nursery for a number of animals. Mkoko Mwekundu (Ceriops tagal) is the species that is most popular in its use as a building material, so its numbers are declining fast. Mkoko Muthu (Avicennia marina) is used for its medicinal properties; to treat burns, ulcers and arthritic pain [2]. The losses of these trees are negatively impacting human livelihoods through decreases in fisheries, shoreline stability and resource sustainability. Whilst on exchange in Australia this past year, I was also able to work in the southernmost mangrove forests comparing different methods of mangrove restoration through seed planting. The main problem was the removal of mangroves for more space on the beach by the locals. This turned into a damaging cycle of beach erosion, and the ocean started to eat away at their backyards. Fortunately, there is now a growing understanding of the importance of mangroves in supporting the bodies of water they inhabit and the communities surrounding them. With more community engagement, the future is looking prosperous. A Kiswahili proverb says it perfectly, Mazingira ni chanzo cha kufuzu, meaning 'the environment is the beginning of success'.

As we support nature, she will support us.

Mangrove roots and trees in the Daintree Rainforest, Australia from a research project. © Imara Bella Thorpe

Capturing a moment in time

During most activities I take part in, I try to capture them through some sort of lens. Whether it’s a Nikon D5300 or a phone camera. Although I study science, I am a creative. I use these images to restore my memory of the experience and inspire new projects. I post the photos with a meaningful caption and respective locations, in hopes to inspire somebody to stop scrolling along the relentless algorithm and look toward their local green spaces. These images are also always a reminder of the things I've done, what I love and why I do it. When I’m so far away from the reality of my home, stuck behind a computer in grey, freezing Scotland, I can look at these images and remember what I live for. I want to encourage people to put even a small amount of effort into expressing and communicating things that they believe are for the greater good of the planet and humanity. To share their experiences with storytelling.

Special thanks to all the organisers and sponsors of the project, you can find their Instagram handles here:


[1] Healy, T.R. (2005). Tidal Creeks. In: Schwartz, M.L. (eds) Encyclopedia of Coastal Science. Encyclopedia of Earth Science Series. Springer, Dordrecht.

[2] Nabeelah Bibi, S., Fawzi, M.M., Gokhan, Z., Rajesh, J., Nadeem, N., RR, R.K., RDDG, A. and Pandian, S.K., 2019. Ethnopharmacology, phytochemistry, and global distribution of mangroves―A comprehensive review. Marine drugs, 17(4), p.231.

[3] Spalding, M., Kainuma, M., & Collins, L. (2010). World Atlas of mangroves. ITTO, ISME, FAO, UNEP-WCMC, UNESCO-MAB and UNU-INWEH. London: Earth scan Publishers Ltd.


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