From filming in front of television cameras to planting seeds in Uganda’s soil, 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow Shaban Senyange spotlights the mutual benefits of wildlife conservation.
Though his family ideals pointed toward a career in the medical field, Shaban’s belief in the prosperity of both humans and wildlife proved to be the leading force of his career in media and community outreach. Coexistence means healthy humans, healthy animals and healthy ecosystems — a concept behind several of his environmental campaigns, such as Greening Schools, as well as his travel and eco-awareness show, ECOZONE.
Shaban and his network of volunteers are working to create the next generation of what he calls “environment stewards” as he hopes to make a lasting impact on youth and change their behavior when it comes to protecting the wildlife and the land they inhabit. “Living each day to make sure I create that one change, that one impact before my candle burns out, motivates me to do what I do,” he says.
Check out this YALI Voices podcast to learn more about how Shaban’s wildlife management philosophy guides his community in an eco-friendly direction!
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: SHABAN SENYANGE
SHABAN SENYANGE: Growing up in Kampala was exciting. But my family wanted me to be a doctor. And as it is, like every child on the African continent, your parents have already predetermined what they want you to be, sometimes even before you start talking. So, they wanted me to be a doctor. And I have an immense love and respect for doctors, but I had a deeper connection to animals. We had a lot of cats, we had a dog. I remember we had three goats at the time and plenty of rabbits. So I often, you know, spent a lot of time taking care of these animals, and I think that is partly where my passion started. When I went to university, my family was still insisting on me selecting a medical course, and I — behind their back — decided to study wildlife health, which was a very, very hard thing for us to get to an understanding, even when I just started school. And I remember getting them on board and watching a lot of National Geographic, and then that curiosity; they would ask me questions about what they watched, and they wanted me to explain. And through school, my passion got deeper for wildlife conservation.
SHABAN: My name is Shaban Senyange, and I’m from Kampala, Uganda.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICEOVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to YALI Voices wherever you get your podcasts. You can also listen to all the podcasts at yali.state.gov, where you can also stay up to date on all things YALI.
Kampala native Shaban Senyange, self-described nature boy, is passionate about the intersection of wildlife and public health. He believes that a symbiotic existence between both populations is vital for a healthy ecosystem.
In this YALI Voices podcast, Shaban — the creator, host, and producer of ECOZONE, a wildlife and travel show that seeks to create awareness about environmental and wildlife conservation — talks about the value and benefits to communities that comes with proper wildlife management, mentoring youth, and working tirelessly to create positive change.
SHABAN: So, I studied wildlife health, which is — so the only things that vets do that we do not do is surgery. But when it comes to disease diagnosis, epidemiology, and, you know, pharmacology related to wildlife health, we do. Maybe the other thing is veterinary science — you have a whole range of animals to take care of, whereas wildlife health, you really specialize in, you know, the wild animals. And there are vets that have crossed from livestock into now specializing into wildlife health. But, you know, the number is growing right now, but it wasn’t very … popular in the past for people to specialize in wildlife health.
When I talk about wildlife, I’m talking about all animals that are not domesticated. And that will include your big five, as most people love to call them, to the antelopes, even to the insects, to the worms. Everything that is part of the Earth that is not exactly under human control. And that also cuts across into the plants, but you’re not exactly going to go treating plants, ’cause I specialized in, you know, primates and the cats. Plants are also a huge aspect of wildlife health because they’re part of the ecosystem. But I ventured more in the animals.
SHABAN: My interests and my passions really are best on the interface between wildlife health and public health, ’cause a lot of times when we talk about, you know, the health aspect, we always ignore the intersection of these two populations. One of my — what do you call them, mantras — I believe that the health of a planet is intrinsically linked to the health of our populations. And whatever affects environment health, then exactly affects, you know, human health. I’ll take an example of communities that live around these protected areas. These protected areas, one, have the resources that these people can rely on to support their livelihoods, in terms of tourism, in terms of businesses that, you know, come around with the tourism industry.
But then also, these people have to live with the problems associated with living next to wild animals, whether that is human-wildlife conflicts, the elephants tramping over people’s crops. And there has to be a perfect balance. And that is a place that is not exactly explored. You find people who are into conservation taking care of the animals only. Then people who are into public health taking care of, you know, the human aspects only. And when you are working in a community that is surrounded by the national park, there has to be that, you know, intersection, that interdisciplinary approach. And also, you’re living in communities where there’s a lot of disease interface, from wildlife to livestock and into the human populations. Take examples of, you know, we’ve had a lot of anthrax outbreaks happening in these communities — Ebola, malaria, all these, you know, diseases that can be transferred across different populations. There’s been cases where primates — and those are chimpanzees, gorillas — have, you know, caused infections in the human populations, and even vice versa. You know? And I think if we are to promote conservation in Africa, there has to be that interdisciplinary approach, looking at these sections not as separate entities, but as a collaborative effort. And that really sparked my interest into working in this space.
SHABAN: I eventually started off, you know, by working on ground in the field of conservation, but when I learned that a lot of people do not know about these issues and the media does not cover such issues … based on my passion when I was growing up, I always wanted to tell stories when I was 13, but I never got the platform to do it. And that really pushed my aspirations even more. So what I did, I, you know, drafted a proposal, I took it down to this TV station, and I told them what I wanted to do. They were excited. So what I did, what I’ve been doing for the past two years is I’ve created this TV show that creates awareness around wildlife and environment conservation and also linking that to public health. And one of the things that has been most exciting, when we did season one, it was really about creating that awareness ― environment, conservation, tackling the issues. But most importantly, looking at people who have actually done work to give back and to promote sustainability of both environment and protecting wild animals and then linking it back to development of the communities around, which is a very, very important aspect.
And then season two, we wanted to make things a little more exciting. And so we merged conservation and travel, showing people that you can go to all these places, enjoy them, travel, see the wildlife, but at the same time be reminded of how endangered these ecosystems are, and most importantly, what our responsibilities are to, you know, conserving these places, ’cause a lot of people will think, oh, it’s the Uganda Wildlife Authority, oh, it’s the national parks supposed to take care of it. And we forget what our roles are as people to protect the ecosystem.
VOICE OVER: We asked Shaban about an issue faced all over the world — the constant push and pull over who and what takes priority — the needs of people or those of animals. Later he talks about the problem of poaching — its negative impacts and why it’s important to engage communities in conservation efforts.
SHABAN: I would not exactly place priority, whether it’s humans or wildlife. We all know that humans are at the top of the food chain. And one of the reasons as to why I got into wildlife health and, you know, the whole animal aspect is, when my family was pushing me in a corner, I told —I remember telling them, “The humans already have a voice.” You know, you will easily walk into a room and you will tell the doctor exactly what is happening. You have people who will fend for you. Animals don’t. You know? And I wanted to be that voice. Even at a young age, I was getting very political.
So that really drove my passion. And like you said, there’s a lot of, you know, conversations and, you know, interest around who should be priority. I got a chance to work with this organization last year that was monitoring health of the endangered mountain gorillas. And the CEO said something that really stuck with me. She said if you are able to attach value to a resource and people can benefit from it, the extent at which these people will protect that resource is unimaginable. If you show people that by conserving wildlife, by protecting these animals, there will be a continuous flow of income from tourism, their businesses will grow around these protected areas, these people will directly participate in making sure these animals are protected.
And I think that is sort of the approach that we should take. Like we should not be looking at only conserving, you know, the animals or protecting these animals. It has to be a collaborative management with the communities that are living around the protected areas. And also this aspect of, say, organizations coming into Africa, you know, and just doing things. Them thinking that they are helping a certain community without asking the community what they exactly need is not really helping the community at all. So I think there should be involvement with the communities in our space to do with conservation of wildlife and also linking that process to benefiting the communities, I think, will go a long way into possibly ending that discussion around whether it should be the humans entirely or conservation. ‘Cause they’re all part of the whole planet, and each species really has a role to play.
SHABAN: The problem of poaching is one that has taken Africa by storm, not only in Uganda but across different parts of the continent, especially elephants and the rhino. You know, we lost the last black rhino in Sudan a few months ago, and that was a huge blow to conservation. And we are living in a time where we’re seeing the extinction of an entire species. When we read stories about the dinosaurs, you’re like, oh, that was a different era. But it’s actually happening right now.
And, you know, I documented something. It was the very, very first episode that I did on the show, “Wildlife Crime.” And I remember one of the issues they told me, “You need to be careful. It is such a sensitive topic that you do not want your first story to be the last.” And they were telling me, someone who is just new in the field of media and journalism, conservation journalism, no one was doing that in Uganda at the moment, and no one was tapping into these issues. And I wanted to bring these issues to life in a very honest way. And they told me, “It’s a dangerous syndicate. There are so many key players.” And, you know, right now, no one knew me at that time, and it would be so easy for me to disappear. And, you know, the person who was telling me this is one of arguably Uganda’s best environmental journalists. And he was telling me, you might, you know, need to be careful, and he’s had his life threatened a couple of times. And that just went to show me the extent of the problem that poaching brings to our communities. The fact that people already know what that would mean for conservation of animals and tourism coming in. Tourism, you know, contributes greatly to the Ugandan economy. And that has really started to go down because of, you know, the numbers of the animals in the national parks. Uganda has half of the world’s mountain gorillas. And if we do not protect that, then, you know. Tourists pay 600 U.S. dollars to track gorillas. That is one permit. That is a lot of money.
And it goes back to the communities, it goes back to, you know, promoting the sector. That is just one species and just goes to show how much money tourism brings in. That will not happen if these animals are not around, you know. We could do so much more with them around than without. And, you know, it really takes me back to the whole aspect of engaging people in these conversations, and that is what drove me from not only doing work on ground, but also creating awareness with, you know, the Ugandan audiences, ‘cause it really, really goes a long way. And then taking it back to the aspect of how exactly do we then make sure that the communities are also benefiting? I mean, this might vary from national park to national park or from country to country, where people are allowed, you know, access to certain resources — say, medicinal plants, or they will have access to firewood.
But the aspect of hunting inside the national parks is still a very, very sensitive one. And this also creates a lot of heated debates around should communities be allowed to do this, or should they not. But I know there are some national parks, especially I think in South Africa, where they will occasionally … I’m trying to sound very, very politically correct here. Sort of take off a certain population, ’cause the wildlife populations, the ecosystem alone will support a certain number. And say in national parks where you have a reduced number of predators and the prey is increasing to a point where it’s going to now affect the ecosystem, they will take off those numbers to a point where the ecosystem can support. And, you know, this is where, you know, you find the restaurants into wild meat, and then also some of that food is given back to the communities. If this happens at occasional or seasonal occurrences, where you can do this to protect the ecosystem and give back this kind of, you know, channel this to the communities, if you’re able to involve the communities and show them the importance of conserving a resource, they will directly, you know, benefit from this resource.
I’ll give you an example. There’s a group of women in one of the national parks, outside the national parks, in a community in the western part of Uganda. And you know they had, for a very long time, they had issues with elephants going into their gardens and destroying the crops. Now, they largely depend on these crops for their livelihoods. Now, what they did, in addition to using pepper, red chili, to, you know, chase away the elephants; they learned how to make paper from elephant dung. So they would collect the dung, and then they would, you know, process it to make paper. And then from that they would, say, design cards or writing pads, you know, you can use as album covers, and they were able to generate money from that — using elephant dung. So, they learned how to eventually use that resource to create an alternative source of income and then learned to live in harmony with this resource.
VOICE OVER: Shaban shared another example of communities conserving and using natural resources in a sustainable way that protects the environment. He also fills us in on two projects he’s working on, the Greening Schools campaign and the Hike for Maternal Lives.
SHABAN: I also love that women are now stepping up and being at the forefront of conservation, ’cause it’s a space that was male-dominated, and women are stepping up and showing, you know, we have a voice. ‘Cause women are very influential — one, in the society, but most importantly, in nurturing the young generation. And so this group of women have learned how to use agricultural residue and turning that into briquettes, which are a perfect alternative for charcoal and firewood. And that has been the leading cause of deforestation in Uganda. So they took one problem, which is waste management in Uganda, and then addressing another problem, which is deforestation and climate change, by creating a solution. And this, for me, just blows my mind. And, yeah, so this is actually why at the start of this year, me and a couple of friends, in conjunction with a tours and travel company, started the Greening Schools campaign, where we’re working with young people in primary schools across different parts of Uganda. We are targeting 200 schools at the moment. And we want to train. We’ve already started. We launched with one school in Kampala before I traveled for the Mandela Washington program.
And so we trained the kids — aspects to do with environment, teaching them about protecting the environment and what they can do. And then at the end of this whole process, we have them plant trees in their schools. So their schools reserve space for us to plant trees. And then we get all the kids involved in planting these trees, and then we will start to go and check on the progress that these trees are making. We just don’t want to plant the trees and say, “Hey, we planted the trees. Bye.” We want to make these kids, you know, environment stewards. We call them our young environment champions. And it really starts from that. Like when a kid learns that this is essentially going to impact my community in a positive way, you bring up that spirit in them. And these are the kids that are leaders of tomorrow, and we have to start with them now.
SHABAN: The biggest problem that we have facing the environment right now in conservation is the fact that people think someone else will come and save the environment for you. And it could be as easy as making sure that plastic bottle, after you’ve, you know, taken your soda or juice, is properly disposed. Whether that be a sacket from a sweet or candy, or the tiniest detail, really, making sure you properly dispose of the waste. Looks like a very, very simple act, but it really, really can create, you know, such an immense change in the system and, you know, plastics being out of this world, ’cause they take thousands of years to decompose. But really it has to do with, me personally, and I can share my own personal experience, and hopefully that can answer questions that people may have. The fact that the education system in Uganda — and I’m not speaking for the rest of the African countries — you know, to a bigger extent is really theoretical, especially in the primary schools.
We are told so many things about history, which is important, science, social studies and math, which is great. But there’s limited practicability of some of these things. And I think when you teach kids how to do stuff, that has even a more lasting impact in their brains and changing their behavior than just telling them things. And so looking at that and wondering, how can we then start to build the next generation of environment stewards, we said we need to, you know, teach kids how to care more. Not just teach them, but have them care more. And for us, that was the gap we saw and then, you know, stepped into starting to plant trees. And I like what you said earlier, about the logistics involved and you not needing money to do it. When we started off, we did not have support from anyone. But we said, you know what, let’s see how many students we have in the school, how much space the school is providing. Then again you’re forming collaborations with different schools. I think that is the first step. Like what idea are you bringing? Has it been tried before? If so, can you reach out to the person who started the idea, see what they lacked, see how — what other thing I’m bringing to the table to make their project even bigger. ‘Cause you will do so much more as a joint force than saying, oh, he already started his own thing. Let me start mine. I don’t want to do, you know, competition. If you’re in the same space and there’s a gap that you see that is missing, the other person who has done it before and has done it for a very long time might share, you know, stuff that together you might build a more impactful project than if you went on as individuals.
And that’s also a problem that we have — that you have so many NGOs that are in one location doing pieces of different things to address community challenges when they could even do so much more if they were collaborating together. And if you’ve already identified that person, how can you form partnerships? ‘Cause partnerships will go a long way into making your project even go longer than just looking at the monetary aspects. And I think that’s also the problem that a lot of young people, when they’re thinking about impactful projects, they’re always thinking about “money, money; I need money, I need money,” which is a wrong way to look at stuff. Like if you have nice collaborations, you have a great workforce, people who are willing to invest in time, even without thinking about the money aspect, that team will have you go a long way. And that’s what we started with — talking to the schools, telling them about the project, them providing the land for us to be able to plant the trees. And then we bought, you know, the seeds from our own pockets. And then we arranged the program — we invited local authorities and people from responsible agencies — the National Management Environment Authority, and the Uganda Wildlife Authority, some of the local leaders, so that we have their political involvement, ’cause they influence even a bigger crowd. The parents will get more involved if they know this is a legit program. And that’s how we got started. And then, with time, then you have people who will extend support and saying, “Oh, I’ll make sure the day you’re launching in a school I’ll take care of refreshments,” or “We shall take care of printing the T-shirts,” or, you know, “We shall get the trees,” or … And people will come in if you’ve already built something solid.
SHABAN: The Hike for Maternal Life is one of the aspects that we started to then use tourism as a way to solve challenges of communities that are around tourism hot spots. ‘Cause for me, and —I started using this tagline a month ago. I’m a travel maniac. I love traveling. And my friends back home call me Nature Boy. I was like, you should not only travel to a place. Don’t just travel. Leave a mark. And tourism is supposed to be that. Not only to expose you to beautiful places, but, you know, leaving an impact in the places that you visit. You find a lot of — it’s one thing getting into a national park and finding all these infrastructures, and it’s beautiful, and then immediately you walk out of that national park … the community that is around the national park is like night and day, you know. They face the most pressing challenges, whether that be health, education, infrastructure, poverty. You know, it’s bad. And that is what had us start. So we then started thinking about what kind of support we can extend to the mothers and what kind of age group we were targeting. And then again, my passion, working with young people, ’cause they are the leaders. And so we said, how about we attach a challenge to something that the young people are very passionate about? That was travel. So we arranged trips; we plan trips and say, “Oh, we’re going to hike Wanale Hill and Sipi Falls,” which are brilliant, brilliant places to visit in Uganda. And then we use proceeds from that trip to then give support to the mothers in a maternal hospital around those community tourism hot spots. And maternal mortality is a big issue in Uganda. We have, you know, the rate is at 436 deaths per hundred live births, which is — 100,000 live births. And it is, I mean, even just losing one mother or a child due to complications that can easily be prevented is bad. That should not happen. No mother should lose her life, you know, giving birth to kids. We arranged these trips, we have young people coming through. And then we tell them we’re going to spend Saturday afternoon or Sunday afternoon going to these hospitals and doing what we can, whether that be cleaning the hospitals, whether that, you know. So we carry laundry soap, sugar, blankets, mosquito nets. That was the first time. The first time we did the hike we were six people. You know, they were worried. We’re like this is OK. Let’s start with the numbers we have. But make sure we create the impact we want to see. And then I was like, okay, let me see if I can use my phone to record this video and have some of my friends in the media do this story on TV.
As we are moving through and my friend is talking in the local language, we get to this bed where this mother, she was expecting, she’s lying in the hospital, and I’m there, you know, we’re filming everything. And then we handed her — you know, it’s a bar of soap, sugar, a blanket. Like, you know, it’s the basic stuff. And she looked at me dead straight in the eyes and she said, “Thank you.” And it wasn’t just “Thank you because you did this.” The “thank you” came from a place where she was really grateful, and that just broke me. I remember walking out of the hospital and I tried to control myself, I was like you need to go back in there and show them you’re not here feeling sorry for them, but you’re just here to help.
It took me a lot of time to get my stuff together and when I went back, you know, I continued filming, and I think it was that point where we realized that this cannot stop. It cannot be a one-time thing. We had more NGOs coming on board, you know, volunteers in the district where we were doing this campaign. They came on board, and they helped out. And, this year, we want to do it even bigger.
We really wanted to start with one place, one hospital, and create so much change before moving on to the next hospital, because this is also a problem that a lot of young people who are tapping into, you know, addressing these challenges, that they think about the coverage more than the impact. You know, it doesn’t make sense if you have offices and field station in all parts of the country but then not register any amount of impact. If you set out to create change, I think you should make sure you have that change realized before you eventually move on to cover. So for now it’s always been in one place, in Uganda. But the dream is once we start seeing change and, you know, people coming to help, and that point we feel like we’ve done our part, then we’ll start moving the campaign to all the other parts of Uganda.
SHABAN: My biggest fears. My biggest fear — not just my work, but also personally, is knowing that I did not live a life where I did not change someone’s life for the better. It scares me, ’cause I grew up in a family that risked and sacrificed a lot of stuff. I lost my dad when I was 3, and sort of, you know, being taken on by my grandparents and them bringing me up that way, it was one act that totally changed the way I looked at stuff. And you know, every now and then I always have a conversation with them and say how could I possibly ever repay them for that. And they always tell me, “Be that for somebody else.” And that sort of influenced my career decisions and what kind of work that I want to continue to do.
And, you know, it worries me a lot that I might not be as impactful in people’s lives as I set out to be. But then again, my uncle always tells me I don’t give myself enough credit, because, like when I want to do something and I see how much it can create change, not only in people’s lives but also in conservation and protecting animals, wild animals, which I’m huge passionate about, you know, it scares me. And, you know, life is short. And sort of living each day working tirelessly to make sure if I can just create that one change, that one impact, whether that be one life and change that before my candle burns out. That is what scares me, but also motivates me to continue doing what I do.
SHABAN: Africa has, for a while, been painted the wrong picture. We focus on that famine happening somewhere on the continent, political instability, and we focus to, we sort of, you know, stay away from the people who are creating impact in the smallest ways possible. I call them unsung heroes — people who dedicate their life and efforts to creating change. And there’s so much power in to, there’s so much power that can come from sharing their stories, because through stories we learn, through stories we can impact other people, and through stories we can have a proper call to action. And the YALI Network is doing that. By just providing the platform for people to share their stories, it can go a long way into, one, educating people, but second, motivating people, ’cause who knows? People are probably planning to do exactly the same thing, but do not know if it’s possible, or they lack the resources to be able to do it. And, yeah, that is also what you guys are doing. And then the other is, you know, to continue telling the story of the African young leader. And hopefully we get many more people to share their stories and continue to do the amazing work that they are doing.
VOICE OVER: Thank you Shaban. To learn more about ECOZONE, Greening Schools, and the Hike for Maternal Health, you can reach out Shaban on Facebook at shaban.kenyi. That’s s-h-a-b-a-n dot k-e-n-y-i.
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