Green Shaded Conversations with Mpambira

From the Warm Heart of Africa to the Concrete Jungle

“Good morning, I just landed,” I dutifully texted Mike [Rizo][1] as I stood in line to clear Customs at O’Hare International Airport.  I had just disembarked from a 28-hour flight from my home city, Lilongwe, Malawi, by way of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a fifty minute-refueling stop on the tarmac of Dublin Airport under a dark ominous Irish night.

I had landed in Chicago, Illinois, in the U.S of A, into the unknown despite multiple hours of preparation and, endless reviews of checklists and the trip’s travel itinerary. This was the morning of Saturday, September 23rd, 2023, and my official day of arrival for the in-person sessions of the Urban Ecology Community of Learning and Practice Seminar (UECLP) hosted by the United States Forest Service-International Programs Office. Eleven of my global peers and I had successfully undergone a comprehensive selection process following a call for applications into the 2023 cohort. This was followed by virtual sessions consisting of a wide variety of differently themed webinars and activities that begun our journey into sharing experiences, learning from each other, and most importantly, getting to know each other. My arrival in Chicago was right in sync with the second portion of the seminar which entailed an in-person exchange in Chicago, Illinois and Washington, DC from September 23rd to October 7th. Each city was to showcase its own flavor and vibe to our learning in Urban Ecology, but it proved sensible to start the journey in Chicago as it had longer-running programs and a much more entrenched foundation, whilst D.C signified a vast array of new opportunities and inclusion of novel innovations, but both sites did really complement each other quite well and the transition was seamless.

From April of that year to the sunny fall morning of my arrival, participants and organizers of the seminar had regularly kept in touch gradually progressing through the remarkable timeline that defined the seminar right up to the crescendo and what we had all been looking forward to, experiencing this great buffet of erudition and industry on site. This was how I had gotten to know Mike ever since he had interviewed me during the admissions stage. Looking back now to then, my perceptions of green spaces in urban environments were strictly composed of city parks or similar settings, and my idea of an urban ecology practitioner was of a trained ecologist requisite with an encyclopedic knowledge of botanical names for tree species, pretty much the Forestry geek I had been trying to be for a long time. But, as the program progressed and I got to learn of experiences from other countries, my definition of green spaces changed, I got a much deeper appreciation of different ecosystems and how urban ecology practitioners from those respective areas approached the subject to address their signature needs and opportunities. I mean, who knew I would be learning about rooftop gardening in Cairo, a city which has more people than the entire population of my country and has undergone massive environmental degradation due to massive urbanization. Not only did I get to meet and develop relationships with whom I perceived as fellow traditional ecologists, I also got to learn about how people from different professional backgrounds are also driven by similar passions to act towards promoting green spaces and their benefits in their respective cities, I got to learn from engineers, entrepreneurs and even hip-hop artists!

As my flight was landing at least five hours before the next group of participants would be processed through O’ Hare, Mike had volunteered to pick me up from the airport, thus saving me the lethargy of idling around waiting for a shuttle to our hotel that would only materialize around the time another flying vessel would ferry 3 colleagues from Vietnam into Chicago. It was either a dreaded wait or some solo hitchhiking into the windy city, but thankfully Mike had broadened up my choices.

Jet-lagged and heavily caffeinated, I sauntered into Arrivals bleary-eyed pushing my trolley and looking around for a grey U.S Forest Service shirt, I finally locked eyes with Mike, and we made our way to his car that was waiting outside nearby. Mike seemed anxious, after making pleasantries and asking about my flight, he abruptly informed me that he had some errands he had to undertake before dropping me off at the hotel that was situated in Lincoln Park Neighborhood near Chicago’s old town and close to the sandy shore of Lake Michigan. Since it was around 8 AM and my hotel room would only be ready around 2 in the afternoon, I did not mind this arrangement plus I was hoping to get the most out of America’s third largest city by whatever opportunity. We were to spend 7 days in Chicago including an excursion across state lines into neighboring Indiana followed by another 7 days in Washington D.C that featured a day trip to Baltimore, Maryland. We would get to meet and engage with a wide foray of urban ecology practitioners ranging from youths, academics, community volunteers, city employees, park managers, local schoolteachers, and their students to various subject matter specialists whose contributions to the 2023 UECLP experience would be memorable and left endeared in the hearts of both participants and organizers alike. Among the visits in Chicago, we had the pleasure of engaging with El Valor personnel and beneficiaries at an adult center, El Valor is a non-profit organization that also has adult programs which offer services aimed at maximizing opportunities and life experiences of adults with different abilities. During this visit I was exposed to new ways of ensuring inclusivity in ecology programming by way of incorporating nontraditional partners and stakeholders, I had previously never thought of people with different abilities as stakeholders and, had overlooked their exclusion in access to environmental education opportunities and different utilities from nature. Such opportunities of new learning were also available during the D.C leg where for instance we got to learn how the Baltimore City Council Recreation and Parks Department (in Maryland) makes use of wood wastes by recycling and transforming “street trees” into profitable lumber!

Mike was one of the organizers and the only one based out in Chicago, and together with the rest of the tireless shepherds guided the multinational contingent almost effortlessly with close to divine patience. Apart from the two great coffee drinking countries of Malawi and Vietnam, participants flew in from Bangladesh, Brazil, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Ghana, and Ukraine. Altogether, there were 11 diverse backgrounds that found common language in Urban Ecology and Community Engagement. We had Conservation Biologists, Foresters, Natural Resource Managers, an entrepreneur, and University Lecturers within our grouping of participants.

Mike and I found ourselves “nerding” out on the various invasive plant species that lined our drive from the airport to “errands” that I was yet to determine, it had been close to 50 minutes, but that was time that had breezed by so fast over our talk comparing flora and fauna of Chicago, Illinois and Lilongwe, Malawi. We both marveled at the similar instances where alien species had been introduced at certain points in the great histories of our two respective cities mostly with good intentions but unwittingly proliferated undesirable outcomes for their host ecosystems. I got to peer at Buckthorn, Honeysuckle and Garlic Mustard amongst some of the invasive species that Mike pointed out and I got to recognize along the roadside whilst I regaled him with tales of Gmelina arbolea and Lantana camara, the two main bandits that cause havoc and run unchallenged in a protected green space right in the heart of Lilongwe City.

Mpambira Kambewa is in Chicago


I began to feel the car slowing down and more frequent side glances from Mike as we approached what seemed to be some high walls and towers, we had transitioned from what had been a busy highway to more neighborhood style inbound roads with medium rise building adorning the roadsides. There were more instances of people walking their dogs and snarling bikers noisily making their presence known in the medium heat of what was promising to be a consistently sunny day in Chicago. Up ahead, I took one more look at the emerging structure with high walls and two visible towers, then it suddenly dawned on me why the complex structure seemed to be familiar to me with a somewhat déjà vu quality. This was the iconic Old Joliet Prison, a structure very unmistakenly recognizable to an obsessed fan of the 1980 American musical action-comedy film “The Blues Brothers”.  Aghast and dazed with excitement I looked over at Mike who was now smiling, and it was then I instinctively uttered the famous line Jake Blues told his brother Elwood at the beginning of the movie “The day I get outta prison, my own brother picks me up in a police car!”

Mike had been crafty you see, as we got to know each other in the preceding months we had found out about our shared love for everything Blues Brothers and blues music, both important cornerstones of the great city of Chicago, along with the great Michael Jordan, Kevin Macallister and Kanye West (according to me at least).

The experience of visiting some of the famous sites of my favorite movie of all time was enough to deem my trip successful and several bucket list tasks accomplished, but that was only a start to an experience I swear could have only been designed by a cunning group of individuals who had somehow hacked their way into my psyche and created a program that spoke to my passions in ecology and community engagement work. Left, right and center it seemed the organizers 0f the UECLP 2023 seminar had left no stone unturned in stimulating my never unwaning interest in the scintillating nexus between Nature Conservation, Community Development and Environmental Justice.

As I run around the Old Joliet Prison, which had since been out of use and subsequently turned into a museum, I marveled how I had just been taken to Prison as soon as I got into Chicago for the first time and “straight outta Lilongwe”. As I took selfies in the prison yard, little did I know of the great big flood that was coming my way in the proceeding days, a behemoth of understanding that opened my eyes and made me realize what I knew but had failed to see all along in my years of practice in urban ecology and community development work.

The beauty about it all was that I got to share these experiences with likeminded passionate individuals who have expanded my “All Star” go to team of experts whenever I have the need to consult, critique, verify or explore different themes of programming urban ecology and protecting green spaces.

Far away from the Warm Heart of Africa, I got my passion reinvigorated and creativity  re-injected in the green islands that are nestled in the concrete jungles of Chicago, Baltimore and D.C.

[1] Michael Rizo is an urban outreach and partnerships specialist for the US Forest Service International Programs.

4 thoughts on “Green Shaded Conversations with Mpambira”

  1. Great blog! Cant wait for more. Love the side stories and most importantly, learning about your work ( you are on a mission from God!)

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