Why We Need More Black African Women in Conservation
A Voice from Tanzania
June 23, 2020
Catherine Nchimbi joins local women in Tanzania to celebrate International Women's Day. (Photo: African People & Wildlife/Samson Beah)
I am an African woman working as the Conservation Enterprise and Marketing Officer with African People & Wildlife. After watching the events taking place with the Black Lives Matter movement, I was moved to write about my experiences and the opportunities that we as Africans—particularly women—have in the field of conservation. While the Black Lives Matter movement began in the U.S., it directly affects all people of color worldwide, including Africans.
In light of the ongoing conversation regarding race and the constant denial of basic human rights of my fellow Black people in the U.S. and across the world, it would not be fair if I pretended I have not been a victim of racial discrimination. While my career in conservation is an amazing experience, the journey that led me here has not been a smooth path. I have suffered from gender, age, tribal, and racial discrimination.
Although born in Tanzania, I grew up in Botswana—a beautiful country that is home to people of diverse races and nationalities. I attended a school that also hosted many students from different parts of the world. Growing up in a multi-cultural environment, I constantly socialized with a diversity of people, at school, home, and anywhere else I went. Though it was very painful to be judged and mistreated because of my race, it never led to the severity of me worrying about my life. I believe this was partly because the majority of the people around me were Black, and at the time, I was too naive to think that my race could get me killed.
"Being an African woman pursuing a career in conservation is not easy. Not many women rush to the opportunity when they see a job is located in a remote area. Once you reach a certain age, too many societal expectations can prevent you from pursuing life away from family, especially in a country where many women end up being wives and mothers at a young age."
A young woman collects firewood in Tanzania. (Photo: African People & Wildlife/Felipe Rodriguez)
The school I went to was owned by Americans, and we learned a lot about U.S. history. But we were never told about all the horrible treatments that Black people in the U.S. were subjected to because of their race. As an adult, I question why we never learned about this back then, while it would have been a good time to understand racism and the measures taken to promote equality since slavery ended. Apart from my experience growing up in Botswana, I had the opportunity to travel to other nations around Africa, where I also experienced racism. Despite these challenges, I pushed forward to get to where I am today.
As I reflect on my experiences with racism, the whole situation has led me to consider my current position in life, the women I work with, and what it means to be a Black woman working in a field where few Tanzanian women find themselves. Although challenging, especially in regard to my gender, my work has been an opportunity for me to explore and discover another side of life that has somewhat been closed off to many of us African women. Being an African woman pursuing a career in conservation is not easy. Not many women rush to the opportunity when they see a job is located in a remote area. Once you reach a certain age, too many societal expectations can prevent you from pursuing life away from family, especially in a country where many women end up being wives and mothers at a young age. Through my role at African People & Wildlife, I interact and work closely with the men and women in the communities around me. In a patriarchal society where women are not really in positions of authority or where women are not treated equally, this can be difficult.
"In order for them to be motivated, young African girls need to see more women like them who are actively taking part in conservation. Unfortunately, a lot of people working in conservation do not look like them. We have many famous female conservationists from all over the world but not enough African women."
While this may seem discouraging, there is a dire need to have more women working in conservation—a broad and nuanced field requiring people of different backgrounds and skills. Not only do we as women contribute as team members, but we also act as role models for younger women and girls who may feel that they lack a voice or have no right to contribute to the future of their own communities. These are women who are not certain of what they can do to support the environment and the community. In order for them to be motivated, young African girls need to see more women like them who are actively taking part in conservation. Unfortunately, a lot of people working in conservation do not look like them. We have many famous female conservationists from all over the world but not enough African women.
Members of the Women's Beekeeping Initiative harvest honey. (Photo: African People & Wildlife/Felipe Rodriguez)
Working with the Women’s Beekeeping Initiative to promote empowerment through conservation is an opportunity for me to collaborate closely with many different groups of rural women. Over 1,200 Maasai women are doing their part to protect our environment and to make better living conditions for the people and the wildlife in the areas they live in. While men in this society are known to be the breadwinners, women are sometimes left to fend on their own for daily sustenance. By taking part in conservation enterprise, the women gain an income that gives them more opportunities to support their families.
I am astounded by the positive changes these women are making in their lives and communities by taking the opportunity to conserve their environment. Their achievements have shown me the impact one person can make in conservation. Imagine if thousands more African women out there decided that they wanted to pursue a life in conservation—how much more change could we create?
The ongoing effects of climate change are impacting the communities I work in, leading to so many issues like the drying up of water sources and the extinction of plant and animal species. Many more individuals are needed to make sure that we combat the changes that are occurring because we as Tanzanians are not protecting the environment in the way that we should. We are a country that boasts of its amazing landscapes, wildlife populations, and beautiful tourist attractions such as national parks. It is our duty to protect the things that put us on the map.
"I have hope that a new generation is rising in Africa, one filled with women who will seize opportunities they once saw or felt were not theirs to take."
African People & Wildlife Monitoring and Evaluation Program Assistant, Yamat Lengai, collects data in the field. (Photo: WildAid)
Working in a multi-cultural organization made up of 98% Africans with different skillsets makes me proud and shows that we can contribute to conserving our natural heritage. But of this 98%, only 8.7% are African women, which shows we have so much more work to do. By speaking out, my hope is to make more African women realize that they are capable of taking on such a challenge, and that they can rise up to realize their full potential. I am also glad to say that as an organization, African People & Wildlife continues to put additional effort into getting more women involved, including through our new Women in Conservation internships. These are open exclusively to Tanzanian women and will provide interns with not only a chance to work and learn but to be mentored by some strong women in the conservation field. The organization has also committed to ensuring greater gender mainstreaming and is currently reviewing our programs for new, innovative ways to get more women involved and to promote equality.
I would love to see more African faces when people discuss conservation, like the way they have talked about the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and her contributions to the environment. Being the first African woman to win this prestigious prize, she was an example of what others can do if they set their minds to it. She showed us that the smallest action can produce very big results.
Africa is our home; in the end, we benefit the most by protecting it. As African women, we can push past racial and gender discrimination to beat the obstacles we are constantly faced with. The challenges I have overcome in my own life were worth it, because I continue to influence and show young girls and women in Tanzania that success is possible. I have hope that a new generation is rising in Africa, one filled with women who will seize opportunities they once saw or felt were not theirs to take.