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Future Rising Fellow Amplifies Stories of Indigenous Kenyan Women as a Climate Solution

Raini Sydney, 21, is a gardener, storyteller, and creative-in-learning. His experience is built on collaborating with and learning from entities and individuals to drive social development at the grassroots level. Having spent most of his childhood on the rural farms of the Kenyan countryside, he has seen the adverse effects of climate change and pesticides on the livelihoods of the rural population. Raini is an African Leadership University (ALU) graduate with a bachelor's degree in Global Challenges. He is also a trained conservationist with Conservation Leadership Pathway training from the ALU School of Wildlife Conservation.

You spent most of your childhood in the rural countryside of Kenya. How did this shape your relationship with nature and understanding of agricultural practices?

The earliest years of my life were spent in the most agricultural region of Kenya. My siblings always wanted to spend time in town, but I preferred the peace and quiet of the farm and helping my family cultivate maize.

My mother, siblings, and I were displaced in 2007 after a violent local election, and we moved to live with my grandmother in another part of rural Kenya. At the age of seven, I developed my love for nature by watching my grandmother tend to her farm and listening intently to the stories she exchanged with her mother — my great-grandmother — and also with mine. I learned so much through the traditions of the women in my family about specific crops and their purposes for attracting insects and animals, far before I encountered plant science in my school courses.

When I graduated high school, my grandmother convinced me to use the money I’d received for my high marks to buy four goats and a cow. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and now there are more goats on the farm even to count!

When did you begin your journey as a storyteller?

I got my first camera in high school and began taking pictures of birds. I started a blog with my friend around the same time where we shared stories about our lives and interests. It was a great creative outlet for me. Later, I took photography more seriously and ended up working with Jackson Wild editing scripts for their fellowship program. I fell in love with film very soon after.

How did these experiences shape your university studies and interest in wildlife conservation?

I studied Global Challenges focusing on the social science of sustainability and completed my capstone project about agriculture and conservation. My dream has always been to be a farmer. I’d love to find land in an arid area of Kenya, convert it into a nice agricultural space, and retire there with my dogs.

I definitely have my grandma to thank for my path to wildlife conservation, especially for a perspective that prioritizes local methods of maintaining the land. I’ve witnessed pro-conservation efforts that displace Indigenous populations and neglect their contributions in the name of environmental protection. I look at myself as someone who acknowledges the balance between mitigating climate issues but never at the expense of others’ well-being, and I always bring this lens into my work to pivot away from efforts that build on neocolonialist ideas.

Tell me more about your Future Rising project. What led you to tell this story?

I am making a short documentary about my grandmother highlighting her agricultural knowledge and how it has been passed down through generations in my family. I want to explicitly address the way that Indigenous women are not recognized in mainstream nature and conservation efforts, despite being essential stewards of the land. I hope her wisdom will inspire more people my age to value environmental protection by witnessing her in action. There are so many valuable lessons to learn from her traditional methods.

What has it been like creating a project uplifting the women in your family?

Telling a personal story is always a bit difficult, but I really want to appreciate the women who hold so much knowledge and how they have brought me to where I am today. I’m in an interesting position as a man telling a story about women, especially for an organization centered on empowering women and girls, but I think my adamance to uplift this story reinforces all the more that men also need to be advocates for gender and climate issues.

You describe yourself as a “creative-in-learning.” How do you hope this project will expand your skills as a creative storyteller?

I’m devoted to learning and growing as much as I can. By 2026, I want to work in conservation filmmaking. I’m interested to learn more about telling stories that are impactful and not just entertaining, especially learning how to carry out effective impact campaigns which place the right people at the center. I think that we celebrate a lot of people who do minimal work and ignore those who do the largest part of the work. I hope to remove these barriers to visibility and play a large role in providing spaces and opportunities for access. Some people call this “giving a voice to the voiceless”, but I don’t believe these communities are voiceless at all. Their voices are deliberately shut down so they don’t speak. I seek to uplight them instead.

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?

My mom said to me the other day: “try to live, you’re still 21”. It’s a simple phrase but it really resonated with me because sometimes I forget that I’m still a kid. I think a lot of young activists become so focused on their work that they burn themselves out or forget themselves along the way. I try to remember that these issues have been around long before me and I find peace in the fact that I’m still so young and have more time to make my mark.

What are you watching and reading right now?

Lots of nature documentaries and a few about business and history. Basically, all of the things you’d find your parents watching. I don’t spend much time in front of screens and my family calls me an old soul for it. I’m also reading Aké by Wole Soyinka yet again. I carry it with me all the time. It’s the kind of book where I find news gems every time I read.

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