NAIROBI, Kenya — The fig tree, four stories high and almost a century old, its arched branches forming a giant canopy, has served as a landmark for generations of Kenyans in the bustling commercial neighborhood of Westlands in the capital, Nairobi.
“Not all trees have the same status,” said Peter Kiarie Njoroge, an elder in the Kikuyu tribe, which regards fig trees as the “house of God,” and the abode of their ancestors. This one, he said, craning his neck to peer up at the giant leaves, is “like a guard post.”
But the famed tree’s days are numbered. It is standing in the path of a four-lane, 17-mile highway now being built through the city of Nairobi. Government authorities say they will take it down — and though they have promised to relocate and transplant it, experts say that may be impossible for such a hulking specimen. Construction vehicles were already stationed nearby on a recent afternoon, and workers said they were preparing to get started any day.
This tree has now become the most visible symbol of growing public opposition to the massive new highway — the Nairobi Expressway — for reasons ranging from environmental to economic to aesthetic. Some Kenyans have been outraged that the highway builders have already mowed down dozens of trees along the route, and might cut through Uhuru Park — an iconic downtown swath of green. Others oppose the project because they say it will put Kenya into even deeper debt to China, which is building the project at a cost of about $550 million, which taxpayers will be responsible for paying back, one way or another.
Kenyan officials defend the road as necessary to unclog the city’s notorious traffic backups. Charles Njogu, a spokesman for the Kenya National Highways Authority, said that the new road will cut through the heart of downtown, reducing the time it takes to drive during rush hour from Westlands to the international airport from about two hours to just over 10 minutes. The project, he said, will also create about 3,500 jobs during and after construction, and help reduce the estimated $165 million Kenyans lose each year sitting in traffic jams. It is slated to be completed in 2022.
Mr. Njogu declined to respond to any questions about the project’s environmental impact or the fate of the fig tree.
The expressway has come under withering criticism from many camps. Lawmakers in Parliament initially questioned the decision to start building the road before the environmental agency had issued licensing documents. Environmental groups said that there were no proper studies on the impact on air quality or green spaces, and howled about the plan to cut through Uhuru Park. The park was saved from bulldozers in the 1980s by a Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai, who died in 2011.
Even after the government said it will spare the park, environmentalists were not assuaged. “As we’ve seen in the past with other types of developments that have gone through, one thing is said and then another is implemented,” said Elizabeth Wathuti, head of campaigns at the Wangari Maathai Foundation.
The foundation is part of a consortium of groups that have appealed the decision to issue an environmental license for the expressway.
A law requires construction to stop until the case is decided. But the contractor, the China Road and Bridge Corporation, has already begun the work, including cutting dozens of trees along the highway’s path.
In a city with shrinking green spaces, Nairobi residents are concerned that the expressway will impact biodiversity. With almost 5 million people, Nairobi has two urban forests and two nature reserves left. Public parks, gardens and playgrounds are all shrinking because of expanding development, according to a 2020 report from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme.
Ms. Wathuti, who led a recent protest against taking down the fig tree, said the expressway project shows how the government is interested in infrastructure and commercial development at any cost.
“I think the best gift that we can give to the next generation is to protect these spaces,” she said.
The economics of the expressway “doesn’t make sense,” said Tony Watima, a Kenyan economic consultant and columnist at Business Daily. In a country where the majority of people live in rural areas, and in a city where most people take public transportation or walk to work, the government should not have gotten into a public-private partnership that serves only the few who drive, he said.
“You are creating a government policy that continues to entrench social and economic class,” Mr. Watima said in a telephone interview.
As with many China-backed projects in Kenya, he added, “We always have to find ourselves trading between the environment and economic value, which is a wrong thing.”
Motorists using the Nairobi Expressway will be charged tolls, and the proceeds will be paid over 30 years to the China Road and Bridge Corporation.
Yet details remain scant about how the company will collect its fees, who will bear the costs of repair and how much to charge the vehicles used by commuters — like matatu minibuses, said Mark Odaga, a senior program officer with Natural Justice, a legal advocacy group working on environmental issues and human rights.
Some question whether an expressway is really the best solution to Nairobi’s traffic congestion. Once completed, the thoroughfare could face the “Braess paradox,” in which adding roads to an existing network end up impeding overall traffic flow, said Amos Wemanya, a campaigner with Greenpeace Africa.
When Najma Dharani, an environmental consultant, moved from Pakistan to Kenya in 1992, she went around documenting the trees and shrubs native to East Africa, eventually publishing the “Field Guide to Common Trees and Shrubs of East Africa,” in 2002.
From the start, the giant fig tree, she said, took “my breath away.” For days, Ms. Dharani said she would go and sit under the shade of the tree, which she said is as much as 100 years old and identified as Ficus lutea, one of the over 30 species of fig trees in Kenya.
“This particular tree is a symbol of Nairobi,” Ms. Dharani said in a telephone interview. “I have never seen anything like it. We should keep it as a national heritage.”
Authorities have said they will uproot and relocate the fig tree, a move Ms. Dharani says is not feasible.
But if that decision comes to pass, Mr. Njoroge hopes elders from his community will be allowed to conduct a ritual, so that they can “bring peace and harmony” to all those who will one day drive by the expressway.
Mr. Njoroge grew up listening to accounts about the sacred nature of the fig tree, locally known as mugumo or mukuyu, and its place in his community’s origins and religious beliefs. As a young man, he heard the story of how a traditional Kikuyu seer, sitting under a fig tree in Thika, north of Nairobi, in the 19th century, had prophesied that British colonial rule would end in Kenya when that tree withered and died. Nearly 70 years later, the tree died and the British departed.
As he became a scholar of religion and a tribal elder, he joined his family and clansmen under a grove of fig trees to perform sacrifices to God, hold circumcision ceremonies and to pray for riches, fertility and rain. He said he was resigned about the plan to fell the tree, but lamented it.
“All living things have their rights which must be respected,” he said. “You just don’t need concrete all the time. You need the green.”