Putting Herself Out There: Harriet’s Bwindi experience

Advocacy | 8/12/11

When we checked in on progress of the Bwindi census in September, we met Harriet Kyakyo, a volunteer with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the only woman participating in the census as a team member. She ended up spending a total of 4 weeks in Bwindi, with two weeks on, two weeks off, and another two weeks on. When I was there with her team, we had a very engaged discussion of why women should and, from some people’s perspectives, should not be encouraged to participate in the census. The following is the experience she faced in her own words, with a follow-up Q&A between myself and Harriet. Please join the conversation and write your thoughts as a comment on this post.

When I reported to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park for my voluntary work, I was given a list of activities that I was going to be involved in and one of them was the gorilla census since I was part of the monitoring and research department which was attached to the census. But actually it was not really a must that I was to participate because everyone thought that no lady could handle the terrain in Bwindi. I kept on pressing the head of the department until he included me on the list of the participants.

After confirming that, I was so excited and I started preparing myself psychologically. But this still didn’t take away all my fears because the words from the people around me just kept on ringing in my mind. “She won’t manage; they will bring her back here on a stretcher,” one of our colleagues had mentioned. I prayed to God so much that He would help show every that I was capable of participating in the census and indeed He did not abandon me.

Team members review the map and the plan before entering the forest.

Team members review the map and the plan before entering the forest.

On the night of 6th September 2011 we traveled to Ruhija, one of the outposts in Bwindi for training. The training was to equip us with skills that would enable us carry out the census in the right way. Before we reached the outpost, we stopped at a certain village (Mburameizi); one of the passersby asked a question that truly hurt me. “Are women also taking part in the census?” and one of us answered, “yes.” Surely this gave me moral to go and do the best that everyone else would live to commend.

The training went on well and after it every one was given a team. Our team was to work in the northern sector. The first few days when the census had just started, it was very hectic. By the third day of the census I had gained a lot of strength that it amazed everyone, including my teammates. Actually one them had said, “Harriet, I no longer consider you a woman, you are now a man.” This he said because no woman had ever had such zeal and stamina like I had.

Days became weeks, I would take GPS points, direct my colleagues with the compass, collect fecal samples and the other chores everyone else did. I became very experienced that at one point Dr. Martha Robbins, the field organizer of the census had mentioned making an assistant team leader. I bet because of the nature of gender some of my colleagues could not come to terms with that suggestion.

Harriet, Lawrence, and Ismael record census data.

Harriet, Lawrence, and Ismael record census data.

I cannot say that everything went on smoothly, there was a day we encountered a wild gorilla group, and this group had probably seen us from a distance, so we approached it unknowingly. It charged us and we had no option but one of our colleagues had to scare shoot in the air. Harriet here I was, never in my entire life had I experienced a bullet at a very close range. This scared me a little, but still I didn’t give up. The other challenge was when it came to putting up a tent when we got into a new camp. At times I would book a place, but since I didn’t know how to build a tent, I would wait for the men and in the process of waiting the malicious ones would take over my area for the tent. I am naturally a calm lady, there was no need to fight back.

Of course I can’t forget the many stinging insects and plants that none of us dodged. The other challenge was falling down. This later became normal because at times the terrain was slippery that nobody would miss the fall. But at least God protected us from falling onto cliffs that at times had rivers underneath. I personally, am water phobic so each time I met a water source, I would be affected psychologically.

Apart from the challenges above, surely I can say that the census is one exercise that I will live to tell. First of all it gave me experience I wouldn’t have gained from anywhere else; at times seeing the gorillas face to face that so many are wishing to come across, I interacted with high profile people from whom I got various ideas and of course working as a team gave me lots of friends.

I thank my teammates for without them I wouldn’t have managed to come to the end of the census. That is Bakebwa Ismael, Raymond Kato, Alison Byamukama, Lawrence, Christopher Byaruhanga and David Lorika and the rest I may not have mentioned. God bless them all.

My last word to all ladies out there; if you are determined to do something, let no one else put you down. It is just the courage that you have that will make others know that you are able. Ladies as well as gents can do the same chores if given the chance…………!!

Harriet Kyakyo

Question for you, Harriet: What can the collective we do the next time around to make sure more women have the courage (and support) to volunteer like you did?

Harriet’s response: Sensitization. The community’s attitude towards ladies participating in the census is negative. This does not encourage the interested parties (ladies) to involve themselves in census. So if the community a round us can be sensitized so they know that women as well as men can do the same work if given the opportunity. Mobilization. Many a times the ladies are not mobilized and probably have no idea about the activity. So if they are mobilized in time, am sure many will be ready to give a hand in the next censuses to come. For the recently concluded census the list of participants did not include any lady, until I volunteered to be part of the team. What does this imply?? Ladies probably didn’t get the information!!

I realized (from experience) that taking part in the census does not require only the very energetic, all it takes is a determined heart. So in this way i would advise the ladies not to have fear. Everything is possible when one is optimistic.

Many thanks to Harriet for her courage, participation and candor. It was well received.

The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) currently consists of Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International and the World Wide Fund for Nature. We recognise that the earth's survival is dependent on humanity's ability to maintain a healthy and balanced environment that includes all species of wildlife.