Above: Standing on the quacking bog, it’s as deep as the pole. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published: Saturday Nation magazine 18 January 2020

The wind is a constant in Kikuyu town on the outskirts of Nairobi. Standing on the periphery of the urban jungle that came about in the early 1900s because of the Uganda railway, we’re looking at a green glade of grasses ruffled by the breeze.

“Ondiri comes from ‘old lake’,” explains Naftali Mungai who is the patron of Friends of Ondiri Wetland Kenya (FOWK). “When the white people came here a century ago, they called it the old lake. The local Kikuyu could not pronounce old lake so it became Ondiri.”

Picnic by Ondiri Swamp. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x800)
Picnic by Ondiri Swamp. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Mungai escorts us to ‘Old Lake’, a lodge facing this amazing lake that’s one of a kind wetland. Across the road is a sawmill and a tall iron-cast water pipe for the steam engines in the historical town with its century old train station. “There were lots of Indians who settled here then and you can see some of their dukas in town.” They are literally dwarfed by Kikuyu’s high rise modern buildings.

I can’t wait to get down to the bog, a wetland that’s so unique, formed by dead plant material called peat. Most of the peat bogs we have today are from the last ice age and date some 12,000 years ago, which means that peat forms super slow at a rate of one millimetre a year.

The Beautiful Bog

Fifty years ago my grandfather brought us kids here and l remember being transfixed by the green sponge because stepping on it the grass quivered. And that’s because we were standing on water carpeted by a layer of grass growing on peat.

Walking across Ondiri swamp . Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x800)
Walking across Ondiri swamp . Copyright Rupi Mangat

Ondiri Swamp is no ordinary swamp. It is Kenya’s only quacking bog and Africa’s second deepest wetland after Duale in Cameroon. Despite its special standing, it’s had no legal protection. And because of that we’re staring at a sea of greenhouse plastic roofs surrounding the bog, including the Southern bypass road. The road was built using the water from the swamp without the locals being notified.

It’s what led a few concerned citizens like Mungai and David Wakogy to start the Friends of Ondiri Wetland in 2016 to look after its interests. “At first people thought we wanted to grab the land,” says Wakogy. “But we have organized workshops and worked with different groups to explain that the swamp is a common resource and cannot be misused by a few individuals.”

The men including the young Robert Gacheru, a budding journalist who guides us down a steep path from the Southern Bypass to the beautiful bog. A bridge of tree planks lead to where the bog is shallow. Wakogy escorts us to the patch where the bog quakes.

It’s phenomenal.

On Ondiri Swamp . The tall pole is the depth of the water. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x800)
On Ondiri Swamp . The tall pole is the depth of the water. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Gacheru points to the two holes in the bog. “When we were kids, we would jump in and swim under the grass to the other hole guided by the light falling through.”

“We even played football here,” adds Wakogy.

The swimming was banned after some boys got swept away by the strong underwater current and their bodies never retrieved.

David Wakogy chairman of Friends of Ondiri Wetland Kenya by the submerged pole in the swamp . Copyright Rupi Mangat
On Ondiri Swamp . The tall pole is the depth of the water. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Then to prove the depth of the bog, Gacheru lifts a pole out of the hole. It’s about 30 feet long. He lets go of it and it vanishes into the water until just the tip is visible.

A stream flows out of the bog and under the Southern Bypass. It’s crystal clear and the source of Nairobi River that joins the Athi and finally the Sabaki to drain into the Indian Ocean.

Wakogy brings out a hand full of the wet earth from the bog. It’s peat. It looks like soggy mud.

For millennium, peat has been used as fuel and in construction. It is also a time scale of our past because the slow decomposing matter holds a record of pollen deposits that scientists can reconstruct the past from.  “That’s because the water underneath is oxygen starved and anything that falls into it is perfectly preserved…a bit like the mummies in the pyramids,” explains Fleur Ng’weno the amazing naturalist.

And as an ecosystem it is the most the most efficient carbon sink on the planet.

The next big surprise is that there used to be sitatungas in Ondiri, the rare semi-aquatic antelope. Today it’s found only in Saiwa Swamp National Park and along a few papyrus swamps around Lake Victoria.

With the ‘Friends’ keeping an eye on Ondiri Swamp including a whatsapp group where anybody dumping sewage or building on the riparian zone is reported to authorities, things are looking better. There is hope that in the coming months, Ondiri the unique bog will be gazetted and even declared an Important Bird Area ( IBA) because it is still home to Critically endangered species like Grey crowned cranes.

Fact File

To visit Ondiri Swamp contacts Friends of Ondiri Wetland:  https://www.friendsofondiriwetland.org/ <friendsofondiriwetland@gmail.com>

Or call Gacheru on 0720 214155/+254207868132

And join Nature Kenya http://naturekenya.org/  for an exciting outdoor life.