Gawdencia Juma Dende once aspired to be a "cateress"—teaching other women “to be great cooks to their families”—but instead became an environmentalist. A mother of six, she lives in equatorial Kenya, where deteriorating conditions make survival the only meaningful task. As a second wife, Dende is looked down upon by her culture and lives at the mercy of her first family. But her circumstances have not defeated her—instead they’ve made her stronger.
Traditional practices of cutting and selling wood and using firewood for fuel in Kenya and other developing countries have, writ large, caused a cycle of deforestation and soil erosion that has deepened poverty and contributed to global warming. Forests are vast storehouses for carbon, and experts say that disrupting these natural ecosystems accounts for about 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Dende started seeing the effects of climate change in her community about five years ago, when rainfall became erratic and low water levels in springtime affected people’s drinking supplies. Villagers were forced to travel two and a half miles for water, a task that could take hours.
The suffering Dende witnessed inspired her to take action. First, she appealed to a local agricultural institute and got grant money to plant new trees. But because there was barely enough water for people, she changed her focus, and with help from the nonprofit water.org and its local partner, Kenya Water for Health Organisation, she developed a new clean-water source for her village, a borehole that pumps clean water out of the ground. It replaces a contaminated surface spring that was causing illnesses and has since dried up. Dende now heads the local water users association, where she manages a clean well for drinking, watering crops and livestock and planting trees. "I am proud that it takes villagers less than 10 minutes to collect water, round-trip," she says.
She is plowing her extra time into new projects, and is helping other women mobilize to plant trees, use energy efficient stoves and support HIV/AIDS positive teenagers and widows. Her greatest desire is to buy her own plot of land where she can settle her children and grandchildren.
With reporting by Maurice Jakadawa/KWAHO and Patrick Alubbe/water.org.