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My Encounter With A Black Mamba - Desmond Majekodunmi

My Encounter With A Black Mamba - Desmond Majekodunmi

Desmond Majekodunmi is a lover of nature, animals and the environment. He is a lover of life in its various forms. The conservationist and environmental activist is known for his many endeavours,  such as advising the government on key environmental issues and advocating for clearing  shipwrecks from the Lagos shoreline. He was also instrumental in working with the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), for inclusion of the subject of ecology into the curriculum. He is also a governing member of the NCF, an author, script and songwriter, documentary film maker and an electro acoustic engineer and farmer. Majekodunmi invited The Interview to share his love and appreciation for nature in the beautiful oasis that is the Lagos State Urban Forest and Animal Shelter Initiative (LUFASI), an urban forest park he runs in collaboration with the Lagos State government. During this encounter, Majekodunmi reminisced about the good old days of the genesis of the farm, hosting a garden party with His Royal Highness (HRH), Prince Philip , the Duke of Edinburgh, and future plans to save the environment.  With this particular interviewee, there were many truths - most especially, the need for us to nurture nature.

How did you begin your Nurturing Nature initiative?

It really all began when I went to Kenya. The level of development going on there, with thousands of people trooping in to enjoy nature, and with the nature of Kenya, I was very impressed by that. When I returned to Nigeria, I thought I'd start a farm. I was in my late thirties at the time. I found some land in Lekki right where we are now and then I started this farm here at LUFASI Park. I consulted the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture(IITA), and they advised me to be very careful with Lagos soil because it is very delicate; they also advised me to adopt minimal tillage practices.

IITA is really an oasis of information on agriculture.

Why farming? What did you intend to cultivate?

The main thing I wanted to grow was sweet corn because I had some fresh sweet corn in Kenya and it was nice! And so I thought, if I can really get sweet-corn cultivation going in Lagos, there would be a big market for that. We started and then the sweet corn grew; we also grew tomatoes and other vegetables.

With the IITA’sguidance ,we approached farming with short term, medium and long term views, and the long term was horticulture. So we looked at tree crops that did well here and we found two, cashew and oil palm. Nigeria has this research institute in Benin which the Indonesians and Malaysians took good advantage of many years ago, because they had this cross-breed of local palms which is very good for palm oil cultivation.  We then visited Benin every two weeks to bring back seeds which we then planted. The palm trees came to maturity and we started to produce palm oil, but in doing so we discovered that there was a big demand for the fresh fruits. They said it was some of the freshest fruit found in Lagos and, of course, there is a large appetite for “banga soup” here in Lagos.

I’ve had a few moments of regret and worry in this enterprise of “tree cutting”; when we were cutting a tree down some years ago, this huge snake, a big black mamba, fell out of that tree. It saw me and I saw it but I was so frightened that I froze and it just went away. That was what saved me, the fact that I froze. I was told that if I had even blinked my eye, the snake would have attacked. I will never forget that tongue, tasting the air. We followed the IITA’s advice and left some trees and patches of forest untouched. 

How did you start working with the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF)?

Some guys from the NCF heard about the farm and before I knew it, I saw over thirty people with binoculars, cameras and such and they came not for me, but for the birds. The Avicultural society within the NCF was excited by the existence of the farm and tried to identify the different birds we had there.

This is how one got to know the highly-esteemed members of the NCF, such as the late Chief S.L. Edu. He was one of the founders of the foundation and a great friend of the late Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Also, there were Philip Asiodu, a former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Petroleum Affairs and Special Adviser to several heads of states;  Ambassador Aduke Alakija, the first Nigerian female ambassador and Francesca Yetunde Emmanuel, the first Nigerian female Permanent Secretary, and many others.

These were other high-calibre people in society who were really involved with the Foundation and I was very impressed with their activities. Several of them were family friends and friends of my father, who was former health minister. Chief S.L. Edu decided to organise a small garden party and he said he had one or two VIP guests coming in; so, I thoughtthis was good. At the time, my late wife, Sheila, was strongly into her music. She was a great singer and we started writing songs about saving the environment. One of such songs was called, “Green Leaves”; another was called ”Mother Nature”.

And so the late S.L Edu suggested I bring Sheila to perform at the garden party. We later found out that this VIP was none other than HRH Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. He loved the songs; ignoring all the protocol, he came straight to us and in that accent, he said "...marvellous, absolutely marvellous!" He endorsed what we were doing and gave us a letter for to take directly to Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Records.

This was years ago and these guys were already talking about the need to safeguard our environment and its various life forms. That really encouraged one. But when one started reading the literature made available by the NCF, one started to appreciate the relevance of all this; their primary focus as an organization at the time was the protection of species and prevention of habitat destruction.

One got involved from that level and later realized that this goes far beyond animal extinction; that there is a possibility of the human species becoming extinct. All the scientific information being transmitted about global warming and climate change just rang a bell:  the effects of climate change, the dangers of catastrophic weather occurrence, irreversible damage to the ozone layer and the unravelling and breaking down of the planet's life support. There were also some nice quotes from people like the Duke of Edinburgh, explaining that the earth was left unto our care and for our children. The more one read, the more one became more alarmed, especially after coming across writings from people like former US Vice President, Al Gore. His documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth" was a real eye opener, because what he narrated in it and the evidence he presented touched on very raw nerves, especially in environmental circles.

God orders one’s footsteps, and maybe He knew that since I had radical tendencies, He gave me this calling. People like us who do what we do have stepped on government’s toes  several times. For example, the German Green Party sponsored me to create a documentary on global warming in Nigeria. It was a bit difficult because they wanted me to do something similar to what Al Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth”. We went around and spoke to the market women and they weren't really responsive. A typical reaction to our question, "what do you know about carbon dioxide?”, was typical Nigerian / Yoruba sarcasm: "carbon kini?"

There was someone we spoke with. A woman. This is someone who would run circles around you with what I can call“mental arithmetic”. And so we had to start from a whole different angle. That again was one's footsteps being ordered by God, because it connected me with what is very much a common denominator and it is that we love our children, we really do, no matter how hard a person is. Unless you are just part of that aberrant five percent. We also want to bequeath to them a planet that will sustain them and those they will bring into the world. The documentary sort of concentrated on that.

And so, she goes into her living room to find her kids lying down on the floor, she can't wake them up, she screams and the neighbours come round to find that they had put on one of those little generators placed inside the room, and so the children had inhaled the fumes. We have a happy ending with the doctor reviving the children after which he asks her, "madam don't you know that the fumes that come out of the generator are poisonous. You have carbon monoxide and Carbon dioxide...", and then she says, "carbon kini?

To explain further, carbon monoxide is not only toxic to humans but also to the balance of the environment. The documentary was screened in a number of places and it got me in big trouble with the Lagos State Government. They sent the security services after me because we showed them the worst-case scenarios; we also depicted, in pictures, the result of the destruction of the environment in fifty years if the incessant acts of pollution continue.

What was the issue? Was there a fear of your being used against government for political propaganda purposes?

They were not happy with the documentary. But then I didn’t draw up the graphs. I didn't make them up. The graphs and information used in the documentary depicted the destruction of Lekki and several other areas as a result of acts of environmental recklessness. But in all fairness to Lagos State, (former Governor) Fashola took climate change and the issue of the environment really seriously.

Lagos state is said to be a good prototype for other states to work with towards attaining environmental protection. Many cite the work of the former governor, Fashola, in creating major green areas in the state as well as an effective waste management system. Do you think more can be done?

Considering what was there before, which was nothing, I think the people in government in Lagos, especially in recent years, have made tremendous amount in matters of protecting the environment, and with the burgeoning population of the city. But there is still a lot more to do. The use of electrical energy, cars, generators and so forth and so on has definitely causing increased pollution. We need more green spaces. That’s the only way we can handle this. We need more green spaces for our population.

Our leaders have visited all sorts of developed countries and they have seen what they are doing; in those spaces, many green spaces are built through specific designs and for certain purposes.  Many leaders in such places have also agreed that they really need to sequester the carbon being emitted into the environment. It is a crisis our leaders should know must be resolved and resolved quickly.

What about those who say the talk of carbon emissions destroying the ozone layer and the talk of human extinction as a result of the ensuing global warming is a hoax, a script that people like you have latched onto? What do you say to those who ask for the evidence of this crisis? What is the simplest explanation for someone you believe doesn't quite understand the stakes with this issue of the environment?

We have to start from a point of logic. The reality is that two plus two equals four. The fumes that are emitted from generators and cars have a toxic effect, and it can be proven by locking yourself in a room with the generator! Hopefully one won't be so foolish as to need that kind of empirical evidence.

There are other ways of proving this phenomenon. You can test what comes out of the generator. So, that tells us that when you burn carbon, it gives off toxic fumes, parts of which are carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Next, we study a bit about atmospherics. Anyone who has ever flown in a plane knows that when you get to a certain height, there is no oxygen because you have gotten to the acknowledged ceiling of the atmosphere. It might be nice to delude ourselves and believe that the atmosphere is unlimited and goes all the way to the moon. But the reality is that it has a strict limit and the troposphere doesn't extend beyond 50 to 60 kilometers above the earth. So everything we put out and which goes into our environment doesn't go beyond that. Next we have to do some calculations of the different types of generators that are being used, including the generators in use in cars, and all the different energy sources, all of which use oil, coal or gas and emit carbon. It is a simple deduction.

Then we go on to understand how and why planet earth is different from other planets; it is different because its atmosphere traps just the right amount of heat. Our planet is just right and that’s why we live here. Average temperatures are now spiking after many, many years of people on planet earth abusing the environment.

CFC's have finally been eradicated after much push-back from the corporations and similar interests. There is also the tobacco industry with the corporate giants protecting it. Now we also have the carbon war; we are dealing with the biggest boys of all who have managed to monopolise oil extraction, cartelswho just want to protect themselves. But we on the other side are not coming with a sledge hammer; instead, we are saying, "we understand you...but why do you want to destroy your children whom you love so much?"

As a conservationist and an environmentalist, do you ever feel that the fight is never-ending or that this is your overriding purpose in life?

I feel I am getting stronger and that we are making ahead-way. More people are getting involved. I have been running a radio program for the past three years now. It’s The Green Hourprogramme on 99.3 FM. The reactions to the programme have been great, with a lot more people getting involved in our activities.  We keep hammering on the basic points that the environment is our, your life support system. Try holding your breath; perhaps you can, for five minutes max. Then try ten minutes and you are dead! Why can't you hold your breath for more than five minutes? Because you need oxygen to breathe. Where does the oxygen come from? It comes from the plants, the greenery and the forests especially.

So what does this mean? Oxygen is a life-support system, just one of the things that the planet gives us. What about water; how long can you go without water? But guess where the water comes from? That is also from the forest. Even though you have the evaporation process that comes from the ocean, rain from the ocean has never been recorded more than 200 kilometres in-land. It always falls within the first 50-60km and then it goes into the ground. The only things bringing it back into the atmosphere is the tree sucking it up from the root, pushing it up again and it goes up again and further.

In case that is not enough, the food that we eat is a product of a good environment. That is why we keep hammering on this point for our people. 

But how does all that affect the price of rice in the market?

Trust Nigerians, when you point out that this has a very direct effect on the price of rice, it has an effect. And it does. We even got this particular message across to the Presidency a few days ago, pointing out that  environmental degradation is a major factor causing the large-scale insecurity now being experienced in the Northern part of Nigeria. If those lands had not been allowed to become deserts, insecurity in those parts would have been far less. 

How do you make your fellow citizens imbibe a culture of protecting the environment? Can we indeed trust the various levels of government to take this up seriously and play their part?

Starting from the children is a very good place. Unfortunately we don't have time to just rely on that; it has to be from the bottom-up, and that is from the children. It should also start from the very top as well, to meet in the middle. When the bullets took over the ballot in this country, the people's voices could no longer be heard. We destroyed democracy andthen lacked the leaders who truly represented the interests of the people. The likes of Gowon and Obasanjo who were military leaders displayed some sort of compassion. Even when the NCF sounded the alarm over 20 years ago about the rate of desertification in Northern Nigeria,and the intervention came, this was still highjacked by the military regime at the time. The money was misappropriated and then deserts which could have been stopped were allowed to take over relentlessly, destroying the land. But right now there is an interesting programme going on, across the desert belt of Africa. It’s called The Green Wall programme. The Green Wall Agency has also been established and one is hopeful that this time it will be taken far more seriously. One of the things that gives us hope is that one of the states affected by desertification, Katsina, is where our incumbent president hails from; the state is also experiencing some of the biggest sand storms ever recorded in the region. If that won't drive home the message of environmental protection and conservation, I don't know what else will.

Having said that we are very hopeful that the voice of the people will finally be heard on this important issue of protecting and conserving the environment and that it will be acted upon.

Speaking of voices, do we have any plans for a Farm Concert, perhaps?

One has always been into music but I decided to save my father the embarrassment of telling his friends in the cabinet that his son was playing drums in a rock band. I then decided to straddle the middle by becoming an electro-acoustic engineer. But when I married my late wife, Sheila, who was an excellent singer, we wrote songs that would encourage people to embark on meaningful activities like protecting nature. She then passed on rather tragically several years back. Now that I have recovered from her passing,  I can see myself slowly going back into the music part of environmental advocacy.

We are actually looking at inspiring some Green concerts, perhaps getting some leading musicians to write songs about this. It is crucially important and so nice, even though there are several other important matters that require that awareness, like HIV, girl-child education, polio, insecurity and domestic violence, among others. But if we don't fight this problem of environmental degradation, all others will come to naught. When you see thousands that have been displaced along the West African coast because the ocean has encroached on land, those suffering in the Middle Belt because climatic conditions have destroyed the natural growth patterns of crops, not to mention those displaced as a result of desertification, then the importance of the issue should be very clear.

What is the point of having a child in a school but then you allow the school to catch fire? This matter is definitely most important and that is why [United Nations’ Secretary-General] Ban Ki-Moon and others have said this is a crisis that we will need to quickly deal with.

What do you think about Pope Francis's stance on the need to protect the environment?

We are so impressed with Pope Francis, especially his second encyclical which laments environmental degradation and global warming and calls for unity in action. The Pope tells us in that document that we are a part of creation and it is our duty to be responsible for our environment. He also said this damage to the environment most affects the poor. The encyclical was for the whole world and not just Catholics. And then I understood why he called himself Francis! I think he is ready to tackle the issue and that other world leaders are increasingly becoming sensitive to this crisis.

What can ordinary people do to protect the environment?

I think we first have to accept in our minds that the environment needs to be protected. It is essential that we then use our abilities to protect the environment, especially as stewards over the things God created. And then we have to get to the next level of mental appreciation, that if we don't protect our environment we are compromising our future and that of our children. We should ask ourselves if we want to be part of the problem or the solution. Finally, we should all consciously ask ourselves: “what can I do to be part of the solution?”

 We can try to live green. It is as simple as planting small plants in a jam jar garden; nurture the little green space you might have and if there is more space you can plant more. You can also actively join one of the many environmental groups and insist that public officials roll out effective agendas to protect the environment. Insist that those in government do the right thing for the environment.

 In Nigeria, one of the biggest things we can do is reforestation, such as this one in LUFASI Park. It is one of the bronchia of Lagos that effectively sequesters the carbon footprint of this area. We should remember that each human being in his or her lifetime requires eighty trees just to breathe.

 

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