Environmental matters were in the news this past week. The headlines read: Nyandungu Eco-Tourism Park to be expanded. Kigali’s wetlands rehabilitation project to generate over 100,000 green jobs. Rwanda designates 35 swamplands to be fully protected. No surprises there. Environmental conservation is big in Rwanda. But it was not always like this. There was a time when degradation appeared to be official policy. Which is why today’s restoration and rehabilitation became necessary. ALSO READ: Rwanda designates 35 swamplands to be 'fully protected' Perhaps the political and urban authorities at the time did not know any better, lacked exposure to urban life, or could not shake off their rustic mentality. Any open space, especially wetland was suitable for agriculture or informal settlement. Nearly twenty years ago, I almost succumbed to that sort of mentality. A friend of mine came to me with a proposal for us to grow sukumawiki in the Nyandungu marshes between where La Pallise Hall used to stand and the road that goes up to Kigali Parents Primary School. We had, of course, first to seek permission from the district authorities of Gasabo or Kicukiro (we did not know where the border between them was). The choice of sukumawiki had something to do with both of us having lived in Kenya for a while and developed a partiality for the green vegetable. But for a practical reason, too. It was beginning to catch on in Rwanda and we reckoned we could make some money out of it. Our farming enterprise did not take off. We did not even get to go to the district authorities to seek permission. The government had beaten us to it and had other plans for the Nyandungu wetland. Our idea died before it could get into the ground. Before long, we noticed some activity in the area. Teams of workers were soon busy doing landscaping the area, building terraced anthills (for what, I still do not know) and creating ponds. The place where we wanted to grow sukumawiki and in which artificial anthills were erected, is now a forested part of Nyandungu Eco-Tourism Park. The trees are back, new ones have been planted and the open grassland it has given way to a growing forest. It seems it has been left to exclusive enjoyment by birds and other small animal species, and they are doing so with great abandon. The rest of us look at it and admire the lush green and teeming animal life from the outside. I pass there every day and I am always commanded to look at the transformation and regeneration and I wonder: would our sukumawiki have been as attractive, able to hold the attention of every passer-by? Perhaps it would have fed a few more people and we would be a little richer, but little else. After all, were we not reminded more than two thousand years ago that we shall not live by bread (sukumawiki) alone? We also need to breathe wholesome air, let our eyes feed on nature’s bounty of beauty, our hearts fill with pleasure and our souls with contentment. The park on the other side of the road is shared space between humans and birds and other small creatures. For humans, it has been designed for them to walk, run or ride and keep away unwanted diseases and ageing. Groups and families can picnic there. There is space for the solitary or those who seek solitude as well. Last week’s stories on development of wetlands and other reclaimed areas took us back to the time when we had a place called Kimicanga (the place of sand). It used to be an eyesore of an unplanned informal settlement (the politically correct term for slum) teeming with people on the outer edges of society, eking a precarious living doing odd jobs. No one ever wanted to give the place a second look. The name has disappeared. Perhaps because there is hardly any sand in sight. Today, it is an attractive, newly forested area that compels you to want to stop and take in the sight and sounds, and the clean air. Up the road, at the park just below KABC and Minadef, the story is similar. Few can remember that beans, maize and potatoes for those struggling souls in Kimicanga and similar places used to be grown in these green, serene parks. They were good to look at when still growing but not a pretty sight after harvest when the land was bare and looked scarred. Our sukumawiki garden, the vegetable being a hardy plant and ever green even in the harshest of times, might have appeared more attractive. Not many remember how the Gikondo wetland looked like in its former life as Kigali’s industrial area. It was another sore sight of an industrial slum and degradation. No longer. The industrial area was relocated to a new cite in Masoro, but without the mess. It now looks like an upmarket residential area and not an industrial park. For proof of its changed character, it houses some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in Rwanda, the sort you would normally associate with quiet, serene, leafy surroundings. The swamp is re-establishing itself, the natural vegetation regenerating quickly, overcoming tons of sand and cement poured into the area, all manner of oils and other awful effluent. That regeneration process will soon get a boost to speed it up. The story is the same in Nyabugogo. It used to be a depository of manner of waste, from garages along its entire length and surrounding informal settlements. The stench was overpowering. Some of it remains – of fish in the nearby markets. When I look at the beautiful parks and gardens and restored wetlands in the middle of the city, I do not regret that our sukumawiki plans did not get off the ground. We can grow our food in plenty of other places. My friend and I grow our sukumawiki and other very Rwandan vegetables in our respective backyards. The city and its residents must also breathe. The usually sedentary city folk need space for exercise and leisure. It helps if that space is beautiful.