Boy steps into Maathai’s shoes at age 12

"Our family loves the environment” Stephen Njoroge. Photo/SARA MOJTEHEDZADEH

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  • And at just 12 years, Stephen Njoroge has planted over 10,000 of them — and made it to the UN history books

Stephen Njoroge is sipping a mango juice, dressed in a blue school uniform like any other boy his age. Mango trees are his favourite — but as an environmentalist, Njoroge loves trees of all varieties.

And at just 12 years, he has planted over 10,000 of them — and made it to the UN history books.

Last Friday, his efforts to create a sustainable future for Kenya were honoured at the UN International Day of Peace.

Kenya’s most eminent conservationist, Wangari Maathai, once said tree planting was “her little thing”. 

Three years ago, Njoroge decided to make it his big thing — and has been working to keep Kenya’s forests healthy ever since. 

Not surprisingly, Maathai’s legacy has influenced the young boy, but he says his organisation, We Care Club, was a family operation from the start. 

Start a club

“Our whole family has had this love for the environment so I decided to start a club to show how we really care.”

Thanks to his uncle who grew seedlings, Njoroge and his school friends had a ready supply of young trees to plant — first in their backyard, and then in public forests like Karura.

And thanks to Njoroge’s father, they were never short on inspiration either.

“My dad worked for the United Nations and he really loved the environment” remembers Njoroge. “We always used to go for trips with him. checking the climate of places and the kind of trees that grow there.”

The elder Njoroge has since passed away, but his son is keeping his legacy alive at the UN.

“He is a young person who has made a mark, and we want to recognise him, especially because he is working for peace,” said Irene Mwakesi of the United Nations Information Centre. 

But planting 10,000 trees requires no small amount of teamwork, so Njoroge insisted that his entire class at Mariki School in Nairobi accompany him to the UN celebration in Nairobi.

“I had to bring the whole army!” he maintains.

The We Care Club is a veritable army now. It has grown from just 100 members to over 5,000.

“A fact that I’ve learned is not everybody is a tree hugger,” says Njoroge. “ So we try and find what they are interested in. For example a number of people in the club like playing football. So we plant trees and find a place where we can play football together.

“Since we are kids, we don’t like all these official things. So we are trying to make it a bit more fun.”

That is a relief for Njoroge’s mother, Mercy Njoroge, who says: “It’s a big responsibility he’s taken on his shoulders. So to protect the fact that he’s a child is important to me.”

And Stephen, for his part, credits his mother with helping him balance his environmentalism and school work, a gargantuan task for a boy who has planted the equivalent of a small forest.

“She’s the one who gives me the repeated inspiration. When I’m feeling down and feeling like I can’t handle all the pressure, she’s the one who usually helps me out, tells me how to set my goals and take them one by one.”

Stephen certainly has ambition in abundance: he has already served as an ambassador for Kenya at the 2011 United Nations environmental summit in Indonesia, has travelled to five continents, and hasn’t ruled out a running for President.

His political career may have to wait for some years, but Njoroge sees his youth as an asset rather than an obstacle.

“I noticed that its only older people who are inspiring children. Now I’m trying to make children inspire older people.”

To that end, he has started a campaign to enlist the help of public figures in Kenya for his tree planting projects.

Last week, he officially launched the We Care Club, an event attended by the Ministry of the Environment and the Kenya Forestry Service officials. 

But Njoroge has another invitation to extend — to the President Kibaki.

“President Kibaki’s birthday is coming up and we want to do something special for him since this is going to be his last year as the President.

“We can do something he likes. Like go play golf, or something like that.”