Natural resources are the basis of survival for local communities in Africa, making it critical for them to lead conservation efforts on the continent. African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) has always believed in African leadership in conservation as the best path toward the long-term success of conservation efforts across the continent.
Our belief in African-led conservation inspired our partnership with Jackson Wild to launch the African Conservation Voices (ACV) program in 2021, empowering African filmmakers through training, mentorship, and resources to help them tell powerful African conservation stories from an African perspective. In 2022, the ACV Media Labs initiative comprised field workshops and culminated in producing six short films that amplify local conservation stories from Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park landscape and the Maasai Mara in Kenya.
Both “Weight of Water: The Story of Athenasie” and “Agent of Change” feature conservation heroes leaving their mark by finding solutions for local challenges. Addressing issues relating to water access and human-wildlife conflict, the films showcase how these African leaders advocate for conservation-friendly behaviors among their communities.
Women are the custodians of natural resources
ACV fellows Alain Hirwa, Jean Claude Dusabimana, and Manzi Benjamin focused on Athenasie Mukabizimungu, a true leader in her community in Rwanda. Like in most rural areas in Africa, poor access to water forces women and children in her community to walk long distances to find water for daily use. Children carrying their weight in water, mothers balancing water containers on their heads with babies strapped on their backs, sometimes going into protected areas to fetch water — the harsh reality inspired Athenasie to devise a solution.
She came up with the idea to build water storage tanks, got training on their construction, and moved from house to house, mobilizing her community members. Despite skepticism from some, her efforts bore fruit, and together with other women, Athenasie formed a cooperative, which now has at least 300 members. They construct tanks in their community and neighboring villages and have even gone to the Democratic Republic of Congo to teach tank construction. They also raise community awareness about sustainable development and conservation, practice small-scale agriculture, and run small businesses.
Having water near the community has helped the community and prevented further degradation of Volcanoes National Park due to reduced bamboo collection and poaching when fewer people enter to collect water.
ACV fellow Hirwa said, “It was my first time to work on a project with people I had just met. I like the openness and energy and the different skills everyone in my team brought to make the project successful. The process allowed everyone to tap into their inner creativity.”
“The story of Athenasie is very human and involves people interacting with the environment. I could relate to her story because I grew up in a rural area and know about the challenges rural communities face,” he added.
Helping the Maasai community understand the value of wildlife
“Agent of Change” is a story of changing perspectives. The filmmakers Kennedy Ole Kariuki, Felixie Kipng’etich, and Marete Selvin shone a light on Rorat Ole Mako, a young Maasai warrior and safari guide in the Maasai Mara. Mako’s early attitude towards wildlife was shaped when, in an unfortunate incident while looking after sheep and goats, a leopard attacked and injured his brother, taking his eye and leaving a big scar on his face.
From then, Mako believed that wildlife should not be allowed to live. He slowly realized that tourists were coming to the Maasai Mara to behold the incredible natural ecosystem; he transformed his perception of wildlife and became a safari guide, helping his community adopt new mindsets and practices.
Today, Mako is a staunch wildlife lover who spends his days not just as a guide for tourists but as a guide for his community. It is not easy to change the perceptions of his community, especially for the older generation. Still, he is patient and understanding of their hesitation, given the conflict they have experienced by living near wildlife.
ACV fellow Marete Selvin, a journalist, reflected on the “unique and eye-opening experience” of telling Mako’s story. “What I have learned from being part of this program, especially in story treatment, will propel my career and change the impact of the stories my team and I choose to tell,” she said. “It has especially been helpful to learn from our mentors how to come up with solutions swiftly, particularly in the field,” she added.
“For me, Mako’s story was very interesting because, as a young warrior, he represents the dilemma between following his community’s traditions and the importance of conserving wildlife. His story presented a full circle of a problem of conservation, human-wildlife conflict, and the need for the community to take care of themselves first before they think of the other things around them,” explained Marete.
Athenasie and Mako’s films are stories of triumph and hope. They highlight two local leaders who stepped up to address conservation issues and improved their communities’ lives while conserving critically essential biodiversity areas. Their films reiterate why elevating African leadership in conservation is not an option but the solution.