Mustafa Gerima is an environmental activist who was motivated to leave his ordinary life behind to save a rare tree from extinction. He is passionate about saving Shea trees and the communities that depend on them. This is a copy of our interview, lightly edited for clarity and space.
Rinexii: When did you first notice the Shea tree was disappearing?
Mustafa Gerima: It was in 2019 when I was traveling from the Rwenzori mountains. I saw numerous white sacks along the way especially as we were entering the West Nile. When I tried to ask fellow travelers as to what these white sacks were containing, I was told they contain charcoal for sale. Then I said to them: we used to have charcoal coming from along the Nile not from the upper part here, how come they have now shifted to this part? I was told that they have now resorted to cutting the precious Shea nut trees for burning charcoal.
This momentarily pricked my ears and forced me to go into an unplanned lecture in the bus. I continued:” Of all trees, why have they gone for the Shea trees very well knowing that these trees are our identity as a community? Have they forgotten that it’s from these trees that we get our oil for smearing a newborn baby and also use it for preparing our delicacies as the people of westnile? Have they forgotten that the oil from these trees used to be our dressing for the poorly cooked beans in boarding schools? Why the Shea tree really????.
Then I consoled my self that I am not going to live by this nonsense. I am going to do something about this ecological war. As a Biology teacher, I am not going to allow this species go for extinction just because of useless charcoal business. So I came up with a decision to walk from the parliament of Uganda to my own people to talk to them to let this tree species also survive. And in August , 2019, I walked 520 km from the Ugandan parliament based in the Capital City , Kampala to the West Nile city of Arua.
Was there a defining moment that pushed you to quit being a Biology Teacher and switch to being an environmental advocate?
It was in February, 2016, I was admitted in Lacor Hospital in Gulu, the regional city of Northern Uganda. I was suffering from an anal fissure and had to be operated on. While at the Hospital, I saw people scrambling for the few tree shades. I said to myself, it’s from the Hospital that people know the importance of trees but out of the hospital they are busy destroying the trees.
I decided that when I walked out of the hospital, I would create a classroom in the open air instead of remaining to teach in the four walled classroom. After recurpurating for three months, I started my Environmental awareness creation and I wanted to stand on the highest point of the country and here the Rwenzori mountains came to my mind.
Then I called my platform as the Rwenzori mountains Initiative, which today is registered as an organization and legally recognized by the government. RMI had four thematic areas and one of which was the protection and Conservation if endangered species. It’s from this point that the Shea nut issue came into my mind. But today save the Shea nut Movement has taken over 98 percent of my time and energy leaving RMI an orphan.
Rinexii: You walked 600km+ to help draw attention to the plight of the Shea Tree. How did people know about your walk?
I walked 664 km from the Ugandan parliament Kampala to the UNITED Nations Environment Program (UNEP) office in Nairobi, Kenya. But this was after the 520km walk from Kampala to Arua, the regional city of Westnile. In the course of the walk there was of course some media coverage although not to the level I had expected. But on the Kenyan Soil the media attention intensified and so the whole of the Kenyan community and the global Community was in the know that someone in the name of Mustafa Gerima was walking for a noble cause.
You have a GoFundMe for saving the Shea Trees. What happens after someone donates?
This GoFundMe is a recent Initiative that was merely to test the waters of fundraising. Otherwise my main action plans for Saving the Shea nut species is to raise 7 million Shea seedlings within ten years period and raise funds to buy 7 thousand hectares of land for restoring Shea nut trees.
Others are lobbying to establish Shea nut processing factories all over the Shea belt and this is already taking effect. Three factories have already been established through my advocacy and many more are in pipeline by those who have the money to do so. So this current fundraising drive, it’s proceeds go to buying Shea seedlings from the rural women who have been raising the seedlings on their own. Part if the funds are also used to increase the capacity of my Shea seedling project which I have started raising single handedly this year on my customary land that was meant for building my family house on it.
It’s a two acre piece of land. Remember my wife and children are still living in the neighboring country of Tanzania where I lived and worked as a teacher for more than Fifteen years. I am able to invest my full time because the family is not near me. Nevertheless, this is not a pleasant thing as my absence from the family also affects them a great deal.
I can see from what you’ve written that being away from your family is tough. Do they support you on your efforts?
Indeed it’s tough because my children are still young; first born is 12 years and the second one is 8 years now but I left her when she was just two years old. It’s their Mother and Grandma for them physically although I sometimes send them some very little money that I receive as handouts in the course of my advocacy. My first born was used to me and my prolonged absence from her greatly impacted on her life until of recent when she understood my situation and now she keeps on giving me encouragement. Their mother has not been happy though.