Letters from Ocean Heroes

A Letter from Michelle Muchilwa

November 5, 2020

To my fellow youth in Kenya,

Prior to joining the Ocean Heroes virtual bootcamp, I had a lot of misconceptions about my country. I was utterly pessimistic about my nation. I so looked forward to bailing out to the western world after my high school education to places I perceived to have working systems. As a matter of fact, I’d paraphrase the biblical scripture in John 1:46 to “can anything good come out of Kenya… much less Kisumu?!” My mom’s continued to assert that it is up to us to challenge and change our broken systems, but it felt like our voices fell on deaf ears. I was not going to spend time sorting out other peoples’ messes while I had my whole life ahead of me! I mean, how was I supposed to be patriotic when all we were set to inherit was broken systems, promises, disunity, corruption, and the huge public debt so often highlighted in local news broadcasts?


This was me before the Ocean Heroes 2020 Virtual Boot Camp that I chanced upon by happenstance in the COVID-19 season of school closure. I was challenged to the core of my being. For the first time in my life I had people, mostly peers, looking to me to create positive change in my environment and help curb plastic pollution in Lake Victoria.
The first time I walked into a government building, I was petrified. We were at the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) to inquire about the fabrication of Precious Plastic recycling machines for my Ocean Heroes campaign. I remember marveling at the size of the facility. The very size of the facility made me feel intimidated. It seemed empty, since COVID 19 measures meant that a lot of people were working at home. I remember standing with my mum and my brother at the receptionist’s desk, so nervous that I was almost shaking. I thought that she’d be mean, I thought that she wouldn’t take us seriously and send us away. Instead, she was warm and helpful. She led us to a conference room where we met two youthful engineers. We were surprised at their warmth, positivity and keenness. They were very encouraging, a far cry from the tales we’d heard over the years of arrogant, totally disconnected, know-it-all government operatives. They loved our ideas. Sitting, in very comfy chairs, in that conference hall - we felt listened to, our ideas accommodated and applauded as we expressed them. This was a great confidence booster.

We agreed on the importance of establishing the extent of plastic pollution within Kisumu to help in figuring out machine sizes and the sustainability of a recycling project. This sent us back to the drawing board. We approached a close relative who works for the East African Community Lake Victoria Basin Commission (EACLVBC) Secretariat in Kisumu to see if any data on plastic pollution in Lake Victoria exists. The EACLVBC is a specialized institution of 5 East African Community partner States, mandated to coordinate sustainable development and management of the Lake Victoria Basin. She referred us to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to check for data. The NEMA County Director for Kisumu, informed us that NEMA deals with enforcement of environmental laws. He did however tell us about plastic policy in Kenya and what NEMA is doing to combat plastic pollution. He was passionate, aware and informed, and friendly as well. He directed us to seek data from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), an organization we pass everyday on our way home with no idea of what goes on there. It turned out, the Assistant Director of the KMFRI Kisumu research center was also very welcoming and keen on our project. Whereas no study has been conducted to establish the extent of plastic pollution in Lake Victoria in Kenya, he invited us to work with their KMFRI Lake Debris Volunteer Program in their weekly beach clean ups to help in collecting and analyzing litter. After a certain period, we would be in a position to establish data by inference. He went further to propose that we learn the basics of marine research methodologies and data analysis in the process agreeing to be our Campaign Mentor.

I was surprised at the fact that as a young Kenyan citizen, I could walk into any government office and expect to be helped. That moment changed my view of myself as a young Kenyan Citizen. This gave us the added impetus to take up a challenge to organize on short notice (3 days) the International Coastal Cleanup Day in Kisumu for the very first time. The County Commissioners Office in Kisumu, together with other administrative organs of government and the local Police, gave us the necessary assistance in making our two-kilometer march to sensitize the public on the importance of a plastic free lake - a huge success. The EACLVBC were also very supportive despite the short notice and printed banners, posters and T-shirts for the event. The Executive Secretary, Dr. Ali Saidi Matano, came to our International Coastal Cleanup and launched our campaign. He has also offered to provide mentorship and support our campaign.
This is how it happened at every government agency we visited. We were granted an audience and each agency offered to assist where they could. At Kenya Pipeline Company, we were given in-kind support for the International Coastal Cleanup event we organized with KLDVP and our local community. Waterbus, a sustainable boating company, provided in-kind support for our ICC cleanup. Kisumu Beach Resort, which sits on the Lake, was also very supportive. Our local community has gotten involved because they want their Lake back and want their voices heard in terms of bringing back the indigenous knowledge that helped conserve and preserve the beautiful Lake in ages past.

I used to see government as this abstract, powerful, authoritative, scary figure. But visiting these government institutions has demystified government and completely changed my view. I now realize that government is meant to serve every Kenyan and help them reach their fullest potential. Government leaders are not big, scary or unreasonable. They are people - people that are put there to serve and believe it or not, they appreciate feedback.

When we started Osiepe Sango (Friends of Sango), we never believed that we could actually create change. I never thought it possible to actually bring together the community, government, NGOs and private companies together to bring back Lake Victoria (Locally known as Lake Sango). Our campaign has caused people within our home and community to ask questions about plastic and is starting a conversation within Kisumu. People are finally beginning to ask questions. As Carrie, from Dittoe PR, recently stated, when you set out to do something, it seems as if everything aligns together to propel you forward. This holds true for our campaign if our reception in state agencies and the recent speeches by our president concerning the youth are anything to go by. We must seize the moment and bring about lasting solutions.

I have realized that we as the youth of Kenya, have the power to build and mold our nation into one that we want to live in. After all, this nation was built by the youth. In his recent Mashujaa (Heroes) Day speech on 20th October 2020, our president Uhuru Kenyatta talked extensively about youth. He encouraged us to get off the wayside of pessimism and get into the arena to create change. ‘’A good starting point for our young people is to look for a problem and solve it.’’

He further challenged youth thus: ‘’…Did you know that the ‘Makers of this Nation’ were dominated by young people who worked closely with a few elder statesmen? Did you know that the Independence Cabinet and the new administration were also dominated by young people? And did you know that the first draft of Sessional Paper Number 10 of 1965, which became the blueprint vision of our economy, was written by a 29-year old technocrat known as Japheth Shamalla? … If, indeed, our Founding Fathers were young people when they created Kenya, our young people can find a new Kenya in our lifetime. They have what it takes to create a new wave of heroism if they get on the arena, prepared to pay the price of dreaming… 'if it’s got to be; it’s got to be me.' That is, if anything will happen, it all depends on me. If change will happen, do not expect your neighbors to be the ones to cause it. You are the one to do it. Answer the summons of change and be the driver of it… If our attention goes to the bad and the ugly, all energy will flow to the negative and we will become a nation of angry and disillusioned people. But the young people who will embrace the positive and the possible, will emerge as heroes and ‘makers of things’…On my part as your President, I will continue to accord our youth every opportunity to serve in the public service.’’

It is encouraging and exciting to know that a new chapter is opening up in Kenya where the views of the youth are taken into account and youth are encouraged to be the drivers of their destiny.

Michelle Muchilwa