Bringing African Roots and Shoots to Malibu

Deus Cosmos with Malibu resident Gloria Van Santen. Cosmos, who is from Tanzania, works with the Jane Goodall Institute's Root and Shoots program in Africa. Photo by Melonie Magruder

A visitor from Tanzania shares the worldwide message of conservation and social cooperation.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Deus Cosmos, a slight, soft-spoken 23-year-old from the Mara region of Tanzania in Africa, has traveled more than 10,000 miles to share a message of environmental conscience and a model of social cooperation with Malibu.

Cosmos is an ambassador for the Jane Goodall Institute. Recently arrived from the Musoma Rural District in northeast Tanzania, Cosmos came to work with the local chapter of Roots and Shoots, a youth-directed branch of Goodall’s worldwide environmental awareness organization.

Local resident Gloria Van Santen, who founded the Malibu Roots and Shoots chapter called The Zumers, is hosting Cosmos.

“Deus has presented his various Tanzanian projects to students at local schools and is working with our Zumers chapter that is made up mostly of Malibu High students,” Van Santen explained. “It’s part of a worldwide outreach effort to make young people aware of how they can help not just their own environment but the whole world’s.”

Cosmos, who speaks English and Swahili, first became interested in the Jane Goodall Institute when he contributed sketched-from-memory illustrations of local wildlife to a foundation publication at age 11. Cosmos described his experiences of working in rural African villages to encourage conservation and preserve unique local wildlife habitats.

“When I saw what the Goodall Institute does, I started to wonder how I could bring Roots and Shoots to my village,” Cosmos said. “I thought that if I could work with kids my age, they could have a meeting of minds with their parents and we could make our lives better.”

One of Cosmos’ projects was nominated for a Volvo Adventure Environmental Award in 2004 and involved a nonconfrontational effort to solve a centuries-long problem between Tanzanian farmers and a local scourge-bands of marauding baboons.

“The baboons would come down from the hill and eat all the crops and steal the farmers tools and clothes,” Cosmos said. “So the farmers would burn the hillside forests where they lived. But the baboons would not go away. They would hide and then come down to steal the farmers’ vegetables again. It was a cycle that didn’t stop.”

The 177 students involved in Cosmos’ Roots and Shoots program developed a plan to educate local residents, reforest the burned-out hillside and plant crops in the hillside jungle that fed the baboons.

“We explained that the baboons would just keep coming back to steal their food if they burned the forest,” Cosmos said. “But Tanzania is famous for our animals and we must protect them. So if their food is already up in the forest, they won’t come to steal from the farmers.”

Most people were receptive to the plan and soon cassava, cashew, cucumber and cacti were flourishing in the hills again. The baboons were satisfied, the farmers’ crops were safe and the conservation efforts of a group of children have preserved native habitat for future generations to enjoy.

“Our plan also helps wild goats, monkeys, birds and nungu nungu,” Cosmos said. “I can’t think of the English word.”

After a brief chat with Van Santen, he smiles. “Oh, it’s a porcupine.”

Van Santen brought Cosmos to Malibu to inspire her Roots and Shoots members. “We help the Park Service in replanting native plants and in protecting the endangered Channel Island Fox,” she said. “Every year, we teach about foxes at the Santa Barbara Zoo’s Fox Festival. So Deus’ work in his country mirrors a lot of our efforts here.”

Cosmos has found America to be strange and wonderful. “The hardest part is ordering at a restaurant. There is too much choice,” he said. “And it’s amazing how people treat dogs here. What you spend on a dog for a week could support a person in Tanzania for a whole year!”

He said he wants to continue working with Roots and Shoots, which now has more than 6,000 chapters in 87 countries.

“I want to study at home and boost my people’s vision,” he said. “It means I will study IT and visual communication and maybe I can work as an ambassador for my country.”

Cosmos noted that the Tanzanian government welcomes the youth group’s efforts as a way to attract investment.

“There are gold and mining interests in Tanzania,” Cosmos said. “But there is no infrastructure. We need partnerships to make sure money stays in Tanzania.”

Meanwhile, the Roots and Shoots program has inspired local youth, as it has with Cosmos.

Simon Ettenger is a Malibu High junior who has worked with The Zumers seven years and hopes to become a veterinarian.

“I have a passion for the natural world,” he said. “Roots and Shoots allows us to help animals, humans and the environment. It takes care of us all.”