December 7, 2022

The Secret Notes and Meaningful Moments Behind 20 Years of Community Conservation in Uganda

Rebecca Goldstone New Nature Foundation

By: Rebecca Goldstone, President & Co-Founder, New Nature Foundation

We asked Philadelphia native Rebecca Goldstone to share her thoughts on community conservation, having actively worked in the field for over 20 years. Rebecca is the President and Co-Founder of New Nature Foundation, where she works to increase harmony between people and wildlife. NNF has been active in Western Uganda since 2006 and in Northern Vietnam since 2014, supported by over 30 AZA and WAZA institutions. To date, more than 115 million pounds of firewood have been saved and over two million biomass briquettes produced, protecting countless trees and species of wildlife. With over 500,000 logged interactions with community members around Kibale National Park and Khau Ca Forest, NNF celebrates nature and believes that conservation should be fun for all involved. For more information on New Nature Foundation, visit their website and read their 2021 Annual Report.

How Proud Am I?

Across the past two decades of working on New Nature Foundation’s community conservation projects, receiving praise about the work never makes me feel comfortable. Gracious compliments and thoughtful questions are always nice, but often they don’t sink in: I hear the words and don’t connect to them. I think to myself: if only they could see it in action, meet Ugandans and work together, then there could be such greater meaning. To condense our efforts, the wildlife, the people, the forest, and those moments when it all works out just right, is just too much! If only we could transport ourselves to a Ugandan village or be surrounded by the smells and sounds of an African rainforest, then I wouldn’t need to say a word. Since that’s an unrealistic plan for a non-profit director, let’s stay on the more practical path of sharing our work with the world outside of Uganda, encapsulating the successes with enthusiastic cheers, the failures with honest shrugs, the joys and heartbreaks, illnesses, and strengths.

Support from people learning about our work is meaningful and truly important, but if you asked me where my encouragement comes from, it’s emails like this one from a Ugandan man I received last month:

“Becka, you have been part of that long journey I have walked. My nine years I worked with you are fundamental years in my life they made me a man whom at least some of the people in the community admire and an inspiration to youth and young people. How proud am I? Am not wrong to say that the coming future is definitely coming from that precious time I had with you. There are many things I can say. I can’t thank you enough, how I wish you attended my graduation ceremony! Am happy to hear from people saying that am a product of science center which 100% true and I promise to talk about science center wherever I go.”

Establishing NNF’s five community Science Centers organically arose from knowing people like Bashir (the author of the note above). An amalgamation of the life experience of many of the staff in Uganda created the framework of our conservation action, along with a dash of research, public opinion, and adaptations of other successful programs. Appreciating people’s truths, connecting without words, being nurturing and patient while authoritative and (if necessary) forceful, these have turned out to be the framework for me to lead this work.  Take it or leave it, people. I am who I am.

Community, Family, and Truth – In Harmony

Michael Stern and I created New Nature Foundation together, built from a love for each other, for animals and for nature. Just a whole lotta love. We finished our undergraduate studies and moved to the rainforest, our mentors changing from university professors or once-in-a-lifetime zoo bosses to the enveloping smiles of strangers (superficial at first but in time, pure). Teaching us respect, understanding, struggle, and what really matters in life. This is what we base our work on – what is truly important in life. This strong foundation is the basis of NNF’s mission: The New Nature Foundation strives to conserve wild animals and wild places through education, empowerment, and an emphasis on creative solutions that promote people living in harmony with nature. A lofty goal for two Philadelphia kids young and in love, also coherent and followed up with logic, strategy, and taking any given circumstance and making the best of it. 

“Hire Lucky Elvis”

They say don’t sweat the small stuff, but I think maybe that’s part of the key to our long-term success. Small stuff adds up. To prepare this piece, I read some old notebooks from past trips, aging volumes all titled “Keep Calm and Carry On”. The lists, the notes that capture a moment in time, the reminders to FOLLOW UP, deflating the ego to acknowledge that each partner can (ok, sometimes doesn’t – but in theory can) add value to this work. I also advocate talking to yourself and writing everything down. Some “helpful” messages I’ve written to myself include: “People are complaining about the t-shirts fading; are there wild chimps hanging out in Mugenda? Michael fell in a pit at the hardware store; try cooking fajitas; make new sign for cows; why are staff not wearing shirts in Kidepo? Brenda is replacing Flo; buy a coil to boil cassava; buy  birds of east Africa; How can we impart this vision – be messengers? Who has heard of family planning and what do they think it means? Hire Lucky Elvis.” (Lucky Elvis was a “groupie” at one of our Science Centers, always interested to learn more and always signed his drawings with his full name. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to ask, “Hey Elvis, feeling lucky today?”)

Highlight the fun times, remind yourself of when times were tough, pay attention to all of it, because with so many moving parts, you never know what will make the project stronger, the adjustments more deliberate, or the colleagues, staff, and partners feel better heard and appreciated.

African Time

Our time is important. Work becomes overwhelming and holidays disappear too quickly. We skip lunch, forget to clock out, or, worse yet, are forced to schedule a chat time with our bestie because the meetings are taking over! In Uganda, this is not necessarily the case. For events, meetings, anything – no one is ever on time and it can quite honestly drive a girl crazy. Your inner voice yells, “Don’t they know all the other things I have today?” Look back at ego, smile, and say “Mpora Mpora (slowly, slowly),” a mantra of the Rutooro language. Good work takes time, it takes real conversations with people who are late, or disagree with you, it takes grinning while saying no to officials who think they deserve a bribe, or telling staff that same lesson for the 100th time. In America, it means write the email but wait before sending it, smile when they forget your name and commend the men for a job well done, turn the phone on silent mode (just started this in 2022) because the message/emails/texts will still be there later, and try to take the time to say a quick “how are you?” or “thank you!” to every single person who helped along the way. Oh, and be nice to yourself!

Trust Your Gut

Remind yourself every day: you built this (not alone of course) – this conservation community created this crazy thing that all those nice people keep saying is remarkable, so don’t second guess, put things in perspective, and keep on fighting (I am a Philly girl, after all).

To wrap up, though this may seem redundant, community is the critical piece in functioning conservation initiatives. We are all a team – Ugandan, American, zoos, local leaders, international colleagues. Taking out any piece disturbs the harmony that binds us all together. So like I said: hire Lucky Elvis, cook some good food, and work hard.

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