Conversations with the Green Belt Movement community members in Kenya’s Aberdare Forest Reserve

Gloria Kendi Borona

In December, 2014 I had the great pleasure and joy to interact with and participate in tree planting activities with the Green belt Movement (GBM) at the Aberdare Forest Reserve in central Kenya. First, a few lines about the GBM. The GBM was created by Kenyan Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai in 1977 to respond to the needs of women who reported that they had to walk for longer distances to fetch water and firewood. Wangari Maathai’s response was “why don’t we plant trees?” and thus one of the greatest environmental movements on the African continent and beyond was established. Tree planting then became an entry point through which to address other related issues such as governance, social justice and community livelihoods.

I have always read and known about the GBM and Maathai’s work for many years and it has served an inspiration in my own life and my own efforts to work with communities to resolve issues around the conservation and community livelihoods puzzle in the African context. So, when I decided to enroll for my PhD in forest resource management, I hoped to work with the GBM community groups in one of the key forested landscapes in Kenya. Did I mention that I am Kenyan?

So, in December, 2014 I travelled to the Aberdare Forest Reserve and got to meet a GBM group and we got talking and planting trees. My goal was share my research interests with the community and see if they are willing to collaborate as co-researchers. My research focuses on the invocation of indigenous knowledge systems in forest s and or cultural landscapes. Once we planted several trees we sat on the hilly slopes of the Nyandarua ranges and I introduced myself and explained my interest or thoughts and very spontaneously a discussion about the application of indigenous knowledge systems in conservation ensues. I am thinking to myself – you are very stupid to not have brought a tape recorder with you….this is fascinating stuff. You see, I really did not know what to expect before getting there and from my experience working with communities (for over eight years in diverse African contexts) I have learnt to just approach everything with an open mind and move with the flow, so to speak. The interesting thing is that the discussion ends up being completely aligned with the themes which I was hoping and still want to explore for my research and I had not even mentioned them!!

After this very interesting and dynamic discussion I finally ask the community members- Would you be willing to collaborate in this research project?   One woman says “ mbona tusifanye Kazi na wewe…..si wewe ni mtoto wetu”/ which loosely translates to – why should we not work with you. You are our child. Now, in the African context or at least in most of the communities I have worked with a child belongs to the whole community and there is that sense of belonging that is constructed around this sense of kinship. The community was so generous and gracious with me and I am driven by the need to reciprocate this, by conducting research that honours local ways of knowing.

More blog posts by this author here and academic writing here.

We also got talking about Wangari Maathai…. And the sense of respect or even reverence the community has for her is palpable. Mind you, some of them had never met her but they spoke about her like they knew her and had worked with her. Now that is power and influence with a positive slant. One of the GBM staff members who was with us recalled the Mugumo tree that was at their offices in Nairobi fell when Wangari Maathai died in 2011. This story about the Mugumo started another whole thread of conversation about the sacredness of the Mugumo tree a strangler fig that ecologically powerful   and physically dominant in the Kenyan landscape.

We continued planting trees and talking about other things including the role of the forest as a strategic point from which the Mau Mau guerilla movement launched one of the most spirited fights for independence in Britain’s colonial empire (this another blog entry al together!).  Tree planting is difficult work especially in such terrain. The tree nurseries are established in the GBM members’ homes which are at the bottom of the hills. The whole process involves collecting seeds from the forest, propagating them and once the seedlings have sprouted then they carry them up the slopes and plant them, usually during the rainy season. The rainfall seasons are no longer as predictable as they used to be and this is affecting tree planting activities. So, in essence climate change is affecting climate change mitigation strategies! Because, really, it is not just about planting trees, it is ensuring that the trees survive, and without rain or reliable rainfall …well, you get the drift. My very short encounter with these people makes me think they are the real unsung heroes of conservation or climate change mitigation interventions. We all talk about planting trees and how good it is but we do not necessarily think about the amount of effort involved. The effort is enormous. And, I do not think there is any amount of financial compensation that is commensurate to the kind of work that these communities do for the planet.

What can we do? What should we do? Continue planting trees or supporting organizations that plant trees or other resource use interventions.  As Wangari Maathai tells us “Those of us who have witnessed the degraded state of the environment and the suffering that comes with it cannot afford to be complacent. We continue to be restless; if we really carry the burden, we are driven to action. We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations to rise up and walk”.

Blogpost and photos submitted by Gloria Kendi Borona (Kenya) – kendigloria(at)yahoo.com

The content, structure and grammar is at the discretion of the author only.


This post is published as entry #3 of our #Forests2015 blog competition. It is submitted in the “Youth” category.

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11 thoughts on “Conversations with the Green Belt Movement community members in Kenya’s Aberdare Forest Reserve

  1. Gloria, way to go on this conservation issue. We all need to be responsible and committed to preserving our environment.The aberdares is a beautiful place, if individually this and other areas are preserved as well, we will all have a wonderful environment to live in!All the best in this noble endeavor as you play your part!!

    Liked by 1 person

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