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One Woman's Courage

Grace Laird truly encompasses leadership. From her dream and vision, she found the courage to create positive change in Kenya by bridging the gap between communities and the Kenya Forest Service. Our reforestation Lauriane Cayet-Boisrobert visited the project TreeSisters is funding in Mt. Kenya - where she had the chance to sit down and speak with Grace.

TreeSisters supports the International Tree Foundation's 20 Million Tree Campaign to work with farmers and women to reforest the denuded and degraded lands once part of Mt Kenya's forest ring and connected Lower Imenti forest.

Grace grew up in the Lower Imenti Forest region, known for its large Meru Oak Trees, including the famous King Meru, the oldest tree in the park, aged over 360 years. The beauty of the forest captivated her as a young girl. Living so close to such wonder, Grace grew a strong bond with the woods there. Most of the residents in the region were farmers, including her parents.

As she grew up, she began to see the trees disappear. She knew she wanted to do something to help the trees she loved, so she joined the Kenya Forestry Department after she graduated from High School.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Kenya Forestry Services owned the land closest to the farmers and tree-cutting was strictly forbidden. But this led to a problem, one which Grace keenly observed.

"I knew that the trees were good for us. I could see the importance of it... People cook with it. People build their houses with it. People using it completely, relying on the wood for survival for almost their entire lifetime."

She saw that because they could not cut the wood closest to them, they had to walk many miles down long dirt roads to reach the wood they could gather."The firewood was very useful to them, but it took so many hours to collect some firewood. Because of this, the children at school would not get lunch because the ladies had gone to the forest to collect the firewood. Down the road there and back it was almost dark by the time they came back down the road there and back. They would put the firewood down once they got back, and then they had to go to collect some water.

It made me non-disabled realize that this is too hard. If the forests were closer to them, they would save time. It would help prevent erosion as they would no longer cut plants in that area. They would no longer interact with the animals in their forest, like elephants and other animals that should not be disturbed."

In the villages where the farmers lived, all the realised men had to travel far away to cities to find work to support their families. The men left in the villages were either tribal elders or, unfortunately, men who tended to be drunk and not productively contributing to the community. This put an enormous amount of work on the women of the village. Watching this made Grace realise she wanted to step up and be a community forest officer.

The villages near the forest began to form groups, and with the support of Kenya Forest Service through Grace's work, they started reforesting in the Mt Kenya Forest Reserve. This is similar to how Mount Kenya Environmental Conservation began to one of the local organizations leading the fieldwork of our Mt. Kenya planting project. Grace describes how she used to gather these groups of planters. "How you get the group to come together is that you first call a meeting. As a community Forest Officer, I have to start by meeting the chief or the local man who has the power in the village to say; I want to by the first calling meet here today. So you have to get permission to hold the meeting. From there, the way to recruit the women is to go to that meeting, and when that chief begins the session, you ask to borrow 15 minutes to present your vision.

From there, you ask it. You'd say, "Here I am; would you like to work for me to gather for one day for two hours or one hour?" like that. That is the time you're going to say what your interest is. After sharing your goods, you wait and get 10 or 15 or 20 people, and then you start from there.

Once you have groups of tree planters, you go to the government or the NGO and "then you go into details. You say, okay, what kind of trees would you like to plant? And why do you like to plant trees? Then you understand why they will try to get the trees for you." And from these actions, the tree nurseries came into being."

"That is how I would get a group of planters to form. And then from there, you move to different places. Not to that location alone. You go to another location, and you gather people." So more trees would be planted in more places.

From these groups, a new type of self-help group for women emerged. Grace describes what these groups were about. "With the men, sometimes they are out of their village; anything can happen to them. Some are deceased or have a specific illness and cannot sustain themselves. But then the lady has to carry on for them. It becomes demanding to know - How will I look after the children? How am I going to feed them? How am I going to clothe them? How will I house them?

Now, to do that, the women would set aside some money and then give it to each other. They decide when to meet, whether once a week or once a month, and they all have to come up with something small. And from all those 'something small', they can gather it. If everyone comes with a shilling of less than a pound, they gather those. They collect those 20 shillings and give one person that today."

But the person must state their need and then compare it with the needs of the others; "If it was a roof that was leaking, you buy the repair sheets. If you didn't have your children's school fees, you say, you know this is the one that is most important today. And then they give it to the other person the next time they meet. And the way to see exactly who is in the worst condition to give it to, because it is always serious to lend this money if it is all-important they vote by secret ballot."

One woman had small children when her husband passed away. "She was in one of these groups and received collections to help feed and educate the children. All the children grew older and were taken in by missionaries who then gave them vocations. And the woman was able to establish herself and begin her own business, so she is self-sufficient. But none of this could have happened without these groups. She would have struggled a lot more if they had not existed."

During Grace's time with the Forestry department, she met Paul Laird. When they met, he was working for the Forestry department as a British aid worker. Her organisational skills and sheer passion for the trees and communities impressed Paul. Grace says, "He is a tree man, and I am a tree lady. That is how we came to be together." Grace now travels with Paul, and when Lauriane asked her what her hopes are for the Mt. Kenya restoration project, Grace shared:

"Wherever we go, I'm very thankful for people to follow in our footsteps. To follow in my footsteps because my vision was how to restore this forest that had already been damaged. Because the forest was there when I was growing up, it is mostly gone.

The Mt. Kenya project began in 2016. Grace says, "I was expecting something good, and it's happening. That's why I always accompany them when they're going to see it or when they're doing something for Mount Kenya. I saw the trees which we planted last year. They came up quickly and were the ones from the year before. I went over to them and saw them closing the canopy, so it's very, very good. And how the community is caring for them and how they are completely now of the mind to grow some forest for themselves near them and leave the wild animals alone in their habitat."

When asked what final thought Grace would like to share with TreeSisters, she said, "the only thing I would like to share with them is that I would like them to help each in other places, where ever that is, against the same destruction of the forests... I don't mean only Kenya. I mean even other countries with similar problems as we had here... I will tell them if they continue helping people and make them aware that we can go how we like and hope things will be. Yes, we can."


Women are the Backbone of Mt Kenya. An interview with Anastacia

Beyond Trees in Kenya

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