When John Ouko walks the green, leafy paths of the Nairobi Arboretum, he sees thousands of tiny signs of hope for a tree that was so cut down that Kenyans feared they would lose it – the Mpingo tree.
“It seemed like it was going extinct in parts of Kenya,” Ouko said Newsweek over a recent Zoom call. Ouko, 36, has been with the Kenya Forest Service for a decade, the last three years at the arboretum.
Excessive deforestation has decimated the mpingo in many parts of its native range, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature has also done so categorized the species as almost threatened. The arboretum led by Ouko is working to change this by growing mpingo seedlings row by row.
“As we speak, we have about 17,000,” he said.
The arboretum cares for the seedlings for about eight months before sending them to surrounding villages to be replanted. The Mpingo seedlings are part of a larger project to expand Kenya’s depleted forests, protect soil and water resources and remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
Kenya has expanded forest cover since launching a reforestation initiative in 2019, and the government set an ambitious new target last year increase the country’s forests Coverage is expected to increase from just over 10 percent today to 30 percent in 2050. Ouko said the mpingo, also known as African blackwood or grenadilla, plays an important role.
“The Mpingo tree is an indigenous tree that needs to be protected as a heritage site,” he said, adding that it is also particularly well adapted to harsh growing conditions. “This is a tree that typically grows more than any other tree in the dry.”
The Mpingo has another quality that connects it with people all over the world, even though many of them may not know it. The tree’s dark, dense heartwood is the preferred material for making many musical instruments, including clarinets, oboes, piccolos, piano keys and violin parts. This earns the Mpingo another nickname: the music tree.
Ouko said that musicians are now also coming to the tree’s aid.
“They will come and entertain the students,” he said, “to show them that even the instruments they use are made of this wood.”
Ian Tyson is a professional clarinetist in New York and one of the musicians who participated in the preservation and restoration of the tree. He is the executive director of a nonprofit group called Daraja Music Initiative. “Daraja” is a Swahili word for bridge, Tyson explained.
“We combine conservation and music education and connect music with the Mpingo trees,” he said Newsweek.
The Daraja Music Initiative works primarily in Tanzania, where it offers music classes in some local schools and takes students on field trips to view the trees and help plant them.
“The Mpingo is the national tree of Tanzania, so most of our students are familiar with this tree,” Tyson said. “But they don’t always know the amazing qualities of the tree and that it’s what keeps these instruments played all over the world.”
Tyson said that until recently, few woodwind players seemed to know where the wood from which their instruments were made came from. But like many consumers, he said, musicians are showing increasing interest in how and where their goods are made and whether workers are treated fairly and materials come from sustainable sources.
Music also allows his group’s volunteers to connect with young people in Tanzania despite language and cultural barriers.
“Music is simply universal. Their eyes light up when we learn a new tune and we were just able to communicate a little bit more,” Tyson said. “There’s this spiritual aspect because I think music is such an important part of our lives.”
In Nairobi, Ouko learns how trees enrich people’s lives in many ways. The Nairobi Arboretum dates back to 1907 and Ouko said it is now home to about 350 species, which is a popular refuge for people to escape the noise of the city.
“People from Nairobi come and enjoy seeing the trees, they enjoy the silence here,” he said.
He grew up in the small town of Homa Bay near the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya, where he said his father inspired him to go into forestry. Now he encourages his children to plant, preserve and care for trees.
“When it comes to planting trees, let everyone participate and they should preach this gospel everywhere,” Ouko said.