Abigael Ndinda, 22, could easily pass for a model thanks to her striking looks and a smashing smile — but she says she has never given it a thought.
Instead, she draws satisfaction from soiling her hands on the farm or at a tree nursery bed back in the village.
Ms Ndinda’s roots in the largely semi-arid Makueni County buttressed her conviction to champion tree planting to reduce the effects of desertification in the area.
As a teenage girl, she saw boreholes dry up in her neighbourhood and the only nearby River Kikuuo recede at alarming rate. She vowed not to stand on the sidelines and watch the grim picture unfold.
And so after completing high school in 2008, she was never at a loss how to keep herself busy as she waited to join college. She stepped up efforts to conserve the environment in her village in Matiliku Division.
While her peers lazed around, Ms Ndinda was busy planting trees on the family farm.
She says she tried to interest some of her friends in the project but they laughed her off. Her friends could not understand why such beauty could soil her hands. Not one to give up easily, Ms Ndinda pushed on with her cause and approached various churches in her area with the idea.
That was five years ago. On March 21 this year, Ms Ndinda became the first winner of the inaugural Wangari Maathai Scholarship Fund in recognition of her unyielding efforts to conserve the environment.
The student of clinical medicine at Mount Kenya University received Sh850,000 ($10, 000).
The Wangari Maathai Scholarship Fund was started last year in memory of the late Prof Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan conservationist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
It is supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, Green Belt Movement, and Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF). The judges were looking for a woman aged between 18 and 25 who demonstrated the values promoted by Prof Maathai. For them, Ms Ndinda espoused all that and more.
Ms Ndinda’s passion for the environment dates back to her childhood years when her mother gave her and her siblings a rose flower to tend. Failure to water one’s flower meant one went to bed hungry.
To be on the safe side, she dutifully watered her rose flower twice a day. “My flower bloomed and was the best among my siblings,” she says with nostalgia. “The praises I received from my mother planted in me a passion for nature,” she says.
She remembers a particular event to mark World AIDS Day, December 1, 2008. The performances of the day focused on the theme at hand: HIV/Aids. When her turn came, she recited a poem on environmental conservation.
“Of course the organisers of the event were mad at me, but I cared less; I had made my point,” she quips, adding that her obsession with trees cost her friends who could not relate with a ‘farmer’.
Ms Ndinda recalls the difficulties she experienced trying to established her first tree nursery without a penny and the required skills. “All I had was an idea and my passion,” she says.
She says she received financial support from churches and recruited 10 members into her community conservation group.
Ms Ndinda next approached her grandfather for a piece of land to establish. Early 2009, Ms Ndinda visited the district youth office in Makueni where she met Laban Mwangi, the officer in charge.
After sharing her story with Mr Mwangi, he linked her with the area agricultural offices. Here, she says, they were taken through the procedure of making a nursery bed, taught the right irrigation method, and shown how and when to transplant seedlings.
Since then, it has been one success story after another of environmental conservation for her.
Ms Ndinda says she got to know about the Wangari Maathai Scholarship Fund through a website she subscribed to known as Scholarship Position. I missed many classes while preparing my proposal for the scholarship, something that put me on a collision path with my lecturers.
She later received an invitation from the organisers to appear before a panel of six judges for an interview.
“It never crossed my mind that I would emerge the winner out of 70 participants,” she says.
Ms Ndinda insists that the award was not about her but a recognition of environmental conservation efforts.
Beyond the personal satisfaction, she is happy to see her friends who initially wanted nothing to do with her ‘dirty’ venture warm to conservation after the award.
Ms Ndinda concludes the interview by quoting her role model, Prof Maathai: “God always forgives. Man forgives at times. Nature never forgives.”