While attending university, she said she often wondered what her chances were of getting meaningful employment after her studies.
Despite not being exposed to conservationism from an early age growing up in Entumbane township in Zimbabwe, Mandela Rhodes Scholar of 2020 Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo is carving a prominent path in the field.
Nkomo said it was her duty as a steward to not only protect Africa’s wildlife, but to foster a sense of belonging and natural heritage among Africans. Her love for nature led to her deciding at age 16 that she wanted to pursue a career in conservation. But there were no career expos or talks and with little exposure to the field, Nkomo did not know how to get involved.
That is, until a talk at her school discussing journalism as a potential career path led to her being pointed in the direction of forestry.
“When I asked what I could do being interested in nature, they said there’s a course in forestry. The whole school laughed at me; everyone thought I was silly for caring about forests and wildlife. I retreated after this, but applied the next year, and I have never looked back.”
Since then, Nkomo has been to the United States as a trainee for conservation leadership and migratory raptor counting, has worked with the Tropical Biology Association and has been awarded two research grants to do field and conservation work on southern ground hornbills and African vultures.
But an unpleasant realisation soon hit Nkomo: most conservationists in the field were white. She said conservationists were not making it hospitable or affordable for young, black conservationists to get involved. Among other reasons, she said people naturally tended to prefer working with people they were comfortable with and related to from a cultural perspective.
She said for most people of colour, in order to infiltrate the industry, they often have to change their accent and topics of conversation, to become “a person that relates to the culture so that people feel comfortable working with you”.
Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo. Picture: Supplied
“Once they’re impressed, you can be yourself and start showing them about a whole other culture.”
Not many black conservationists have the patience or luxury to stick it out, which is why many of her former classmates have ditched their plans to get into fields that are more inclusive. While attending university, she said she often wondered what her chances were of getting meaningful employment after her studies.
“To be effective in the field means having a GPS, binoculars, a camera, hiking boots and field pants. These are expensive. Many cannot bear the sacrifices needed to get expensive equipment if they are not employed.”
The conservation sphere has an unfortunate legacy of racism not created by current conservationists, which routinely ignores issues plaguing communities that are essential to conservation work.
“Most practitioners and researchers are not in touch with the issues on the ground. There is a dilemma in not knowing, because you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Being from a privileged background, she said, meant often not relating to some of the true issues that needed to be explored within conservation.
“Many don’t question the norm; it’s so internalised. I’ve met colleagues that don’t seek to learn the true pronunciations of area names or study sites, or learn local languages, which disrespects local people and shows a lack of interest in their culture.”
This was potentially problematic – not being willing to learn languages and cultures in addition to environmental work meant potentially compromising the study due to bias. People put on their best face, not their real self and smile for the visitor. She called for people not to be studied “like specimens on a petri dish”, but rather with humanity, to engage, interact and gain knowledge from them.
Nkomo found herself at a stand during a trade fair in Bulawayo to raise awareness about the plight of vultures being poisoned. She said most people are being told that African traditions are mere myths, because science says so. This, she emphasised, is not the way to get through to people.
African cultures and philosophies are studied under and reported through a Western lens, and this does not get to the core of changing negative behaviours.
Nkomo understands that people do not want to ruffle feathers by questioning the norm, but said that since the world as we know it was “crafted to accommodate Western culture”, this must not overshadow the importance of other cultures.
“People in conservation should not feel the need to defend or bear the guilt of past exclusionary legacies they did not put in place even if they benefitted from them,” she said.
Before colonisation, African clans had their own way of preserving nature. Nkomo said some cultures believed certain animals were considered bad omens and were avoided and not consumed. Others had specific sacred areas so that the flora and fauna would not be disturbed.
One example, Nkomo said, was that some families ate fish, while to others rivers were sacred because of their totems. But from a Western perspective, this is not understood or reported fairly, and traditions, including muthi, were often blamed for species extinction.
Nkomo said because she loves what she does, her friends know her as someone who works hard, but has never worked a day in her life. But the silence over the skewed narrative still perpetuated in conservation and environmental careers directly affects black conservationists. Her mission is to have black people included in the conservation space, and treated as equals.
“I want the African to be understood. Not just to be invited to the table, but to have a say on what’s on the menu.”
For more news your way, download The Citizen’s app for iOS and Android.