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On little strips of land, Kenyans grow everything from roses to azaleas to gardenias

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the past six years, NPR international correspondent Eyder Peralta has taken us all around the African continent. He's now moving on to report for NPR from Mexico. But before leaving his post in Nairobi, Kenya, Eyder wrote a love letter to one of his favorite parts of the city - the roadside plant nurseries.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS HONKING)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Nairobi tends to be a chaotic city.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

PERALTA: It's a sprawling metropolis, so the streets are a jumble - people, buses, police, goats, cows. On the side of the road, you can buy anything from a samosa to furniture to a puppy. But my favorite thing is that on the side of almost every street, you find a nursery. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Kenyans commandeer little strips of land, and they grow everything from roses to azaleas to delicate gardenias.

GEORGE JENGA: I'm George Jenga. When you translate Jenga, it comes George builder.

PERALTA: Nearly 20 years ago, unable to get a job, George went into the forests of the outskirts of Nairobi and started collecting seeds. Since then, he's turned this bit of roadside into paradise. He walks me through his garden, a smile on his face. He has learned as much as he can about all of his plants.

JENGA: Like, this one is called Podocarpus falcatus. This one is good for timber.

PERALTA: He picks a hard, round seed.

JENGA: This pod, it germinate within one year and eight months.

PERALTA: Most of the plant sellers in Nairobi sell flowers. They grow quick, and it is what people want, but not George. What George loves are indigenous trees. So he waits years for a pod to turn into a seedling to turn into a tree.

JENGA: Our generation is not for the trees. They are going after quick money. And quick money, you cannot get it while you are in a garden.

PERALTA: George moves fast past his flowers. They're just not his thing. But about trees, he can talk for days.

JENGA: This is Vitex keniensis. In English, it is called Meru oak. This one, it is called Calodendrum capense. The seed has a lot of oil.

PERALTA: For wrinkles, he says. He keeps calling out names and uses. But as we move away from the road, his nursery becomes an oasis. We start hearing birds. He dodges bamboo, skips over rocks, and suddenly, we hit a stream. This is the source of life for his plants.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

PERALTA: This is the most charming part of Nairobi, that in the middle of all the chaos, there is always beauty. It's a place where you discover that the aphids making your roses brown also attract hummingbirds, so you let them be.

I can see why you like this.

JENGA: You know, a wise scholar said when you treat the nature the well, the nature will reward you. I’ve been rewarded

PERALTA: He's in good health. His kids have gone to school off these plants. And it's not lost on him that as Nairobi becomes a mega city and climate change ravages the Earth, at least hundreds of thousands of trees have passed through his hands. Sometimes, he says, he sees some of his seedlings around town.

JENGA: I walk there. I see a tree. I laugh myself. This has come from my hand.

PERALTA: (Laughter) So that's a good feeling.

JENGA: Yes. I feel...

PERALTA: Yeah.

JENGA: Yes.

PERALTA: Yeah. You're fulfilled.

JENGA: Yes. I have done my part.

PERALTA: He shakes his head. He didn't graduate high school, he tells me, but he has done his part. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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