I still cannot believe that I shall never again see Dr. Reginald Mengi. I did not meet him very often, but the power of his personality, his charisma and his kindness was such that I soon felt I had known, admired and loved him for years. No wonder he inspired so many young people in Tanzania.
We met for the first time in 1993, soon after Roots & Shoots was founded in Tanzania. I had been invited to the 100th birthday celebration of Dr. Albert Schweitzer at the UN in New York – and told that I could bring an international group of young people. And that all their expenses – air fares and accommodation – would be paid. By then Roots & Shoots was gradually growing around the world and I was excited as the UN was the perfect place to launch it as an international program. I chose five passionate and active young Tanzanians to be part of a group of 14 other Roots & Shoots members (from DRC, Angola, the UK and USA). As you can imagine, they were all very excited and worked hard on the projects they would present. At the last minute – just 2 or 3 weeks before we were due to leave for America – I was told that after all there was no money available for airfares for my R&S group and that I would have to cancel.
I was horrified. How could I disappoint them? I was determined to find the funding somehow. This was where Reginald Mengi came into the picture. British Airways provided 2 free tickets, and Reginald agreed to pay for the other three (I found donors for all the others). It was a perfect example of his generosity, and an example of his commitment to improving the lives of Tanzanian youth. Indeed, his radio station, Radio One, helped us during our first very successful Roots & Shoots week in Dar es Salaam the following year, announcing and reporting on all the events that were organized.
Reginald was not only an extremely successful business man, media mogul and philanthropist – he was also passionate about the environment. He was born in 1944 in the village of Machame in the Kilimanjaro region when the famous mountain was surrounded by forests. By 1988 he was shocked by the extensive deforestation in the area – in many places the land had become semi-arid. And so he initiated a tree planting project. By 2019 twenty seven million trees had been planted and the area was transformed. Before he died, Reginald told me his goal was to plant 100 million trees – and this is where I hope our Roots & Shoots program in Tanzania (there are some 2,000 clubs in almost every district) can help his dream become reality.
I was really touched and honoured when he asked me to be a special guest at the launch of his wonderful book “I can. I must. I will” that describes his origins in a hut with a mud floor, his passion for education and how he finally became the most successful and respected business man in Tanzania. And not only that – he was courageous, outspoken against the corruption that steadily grew after independence in 1961.
Towards the end of his life we became close friends. I remember delightfully relaxed evenings at his house, where I met his second wife Jaqueline and their delightful twin sons, Jayden and Ryan. When I think of the two little seven year old boys at the book launch it brings a warm smile to my face. They were wearing identical pale grey suits, with smart ties and shoes, and Reginald and Jacqueline were so obviously proud of them as they stood together, and started the proceedings – a number of speeches by prominent political and business leaders, including President Megafuli.
We were all delighted when Reginald agreed to become the Patron of JGI Tanzania – what an honour for us. He remained committed to the education and empowerment of young Tanzanians. He made a generous contribution to the establishment of our JGI environmental education centre in Pugu Hills. This centre adjoins the forest reserve that represents the largest fragment of an ancient forest that once stretched, unbroken, from Mozambique to the shores of the Indian Ocean. It is a glorious forest where there are many different animal and plant species. It is only a few miles from the centre of Dar es Salaam and provides a wonderful opportunity for children from the city can experience the magic of the forest world.
I received news of his death while I was far away in Australia. I was shocked and found it hard to believe that I would never again feel his warm embrace, be gladdened by the twinkle in his eyes, hear his soft voice telling some fascinating story. Reginald Mengi, if you still maintain some contact with this sorry world, know how many people love and miss you. And know how grateful I am, personally, for all that you did for JGI, for Roots & Shoots. And thank you especially for your friendship.
The Jane Goodall Institute is a global community conservation organization that advances the vision and work of Dr. Jane Goodall. By protecting chimpanzees and inspiring people to conserve the natural world we all share, we improve the lives of people, animals and the environment. Everything is connected—everyone can make a difference.