When Wendee Nicole travelled to Uganda as an environmental journalist, she had no idea that what she saw there would lead her to sell her home and immerse herself in social and conservation efforts.
Global Ideas: When did you first go to Uganda?
I first traveled to Uganda as a journalist in January and February 2014 under a grant from #link:http://mongabay.org/fellows/wendee-nicole/:Mongabay.org# to examine the “next big thing in tropical forest conservation.” I had traveled to all the continents except Antarctica and Africa, and coming to see my favorite animal, the mountain gorilla, was a dream come true. But I ended up more deeply moved by the living conditions and plight of the indigenous Batwa “pygmies,” who lost their forest homeland when the national park was created in 1991.
Not only that, they lost their rights to hunt, gather honey and other forest products. They had lost their identity and their livelihood, even though research has shown that illegal poaching in the forest is lower – not higher – when they lived in the forest. They are still struggling mightily with deep poverty, high rates of alcoholism and HIV, low levels of education and high death rates.
You now live in Uganda permanently, what inspired you to move there?
I had taken photos in the Batwa village of Kalehe and I kept looking at this one photo I’d taken of a young boy, Beckham. His eyes spoke volumes. As a journalist, I’d uncovered some problems in the local nonprofits and so rather than volunteering and having no authority or not being able to affect how the money was spent, I decided to #link:http://www.redemptionsongfoundation.org/:start my own organization# with some Ugandan friends, so I knew the money would go to helping these families, and after trust was established, towards conservation as well.
After selling my house, I moved to Uganda permanently in September 2014, where I live in a rented house just downhill from Kalehe, a Batwa village and less than a mile from #link:http://www.ugandawildlife.org/explore-our-parks/parks-by-name-a-z/bwindi-impenetrable-national-park:Bwindi Impenetrable National Park#.
Had you thought about setting up an NGO previously, or did the idea come when you arrived in Uganda?
My two children went off to university, so I was an empty nester and it was time to start a new chapter. After receiving the journalism grant and traveling to Uganda, it was apparent that this was my destiny. I also have a dream to work on many conservation projects here, including wildlife farming, which we hope will reduce illegal poaching of duiker antelope and bush pig in the forest.
I have another vision of reforesting between Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks – two isolated forest patches where endangered mountain gorillas live, but that will take much time and broad scale support. In the shorter term, we would like to establish a native tree nursery and replant hillsides, which have been deforested. Doing this in a way that benefits the indigenous Batwa with carbon sequestration credits would be ideal.
What does your work in Uganda entail?
The Redemption Song Foundation includes myself plus a small number of Ugandan staff who assist with all work and help translate for me; English is the national language but if people are not school-educated, they speak only the local tribal language.
We manage two artisan co-ops in which locals weave gorgeous handmade baskets and make other items. We pay them a fair trade price, and I sell the items in the U.S. Monies generated go into a community development fund, and the locals decide what they need. So far they have opted to build a bridge across the river, get clean water, improve their homes, enroll in health insurance, and get mattresses so they don’t have to sleep in the dirt on the ground. Another co-op opted for goats. Our daily work varies daily. We take women to the hospital to get on family planning or get HIV medication and have gotten several children from age 8 to 13 back into school. Every Tuesday afternoon we hold an educational soup kitchen for the Batwa kids. We feed them much-needed protein, and teach them something educational each week.
How have you been received by the communities you work with?
The child in the photo that “called me” to Uganda, Beckham, lives in Kalehe village. I wanted to help this community so that’s where the bulk of my initial efforts have gone. They were always warm and friendly, but they didn't trust me immediately. This started to change after I bought many baskets and told them the money would even multiply when I sold them in the U.S. At first they were skeptical: so many organizations have made promises for things which never come to pass. But even before my first trip back to the U.S., I had sold enough baskets online to pay for a first project – building a bridge so they would no longer have to wade across the river. All of the villagers participated in building it, seeing this happen surprised and delighted them. They also see how much I truly love their children. I love them all, but kids are such a delight – the kids really seem to love visiting here and playing with me.
How will alleviating poverty in the area help conservation efforts?
Many in conservation still accept the “tragedy of the commons” theory proposed by Garrett Hardin in 1968 – which says people will always seek their own self-interest leading inevitably to depletion of a commonly held natural resource. It seems logical when you hear news of overfishing the world’s oceans, destruction of rainforests around the glove, and desertification, but Ostrom’s research showed which scenarios lead to outcomes other than tragedies, ones allowing local people and the environment to coexist harmoniously.
You are doing your bit, how does it feel to know you are making a difference?
It is a beautiful thing to look back at the photos and see how much the children have changed in just a few months. Some children were malnourished and had worms, and several who had dropped from school are now enrolled and doing brilliantly. They have new clothes and have been taken care of medically. There is and has been discrimination toward the Batwa due to their prior living conditions and their short stature, some of which is tragic. A local rumor is that raping a Batwa woman cures HIV. We also built the fifth grade classroom at the Rugando Parent’s school and have done other projects such as give reusable menstrual pads to girls to help keep them in school longer. We still have much work to do.
What would you say to others who are thinking of taking a similar plunge?
We all have different paths in life. Travel where you have an interest, and see where you can help: what is destined for each will reveal itself. But if you already have a project in mind and want to take the leap, do much research, prepare yourself mentally, and get a good support network around you. It can be lonely, emotionally challenging, and heartbreaking. But it is also immensely rewarding.