It occurs to me that this saying is apt for describing my journey towards conservation. A combination of perseverance and a series of fortunate events have led me to the exact spot where I sit and write this note: in my brand new office on the campus of Michigan State University (MSU) where I am now starting my Ph.D. in the Research on the Ecology of Carnivores and their Prey (RECaP) Laboratory. My journey is an improbable one and the spot where I sit now is a far cry from the spot where my journey began.
Where it all began
I was born and raised in central Uganda, in a large extended family. In the early days, my family mostly practiced peasant agriculture. Small scale farming was the primary source of income that supported my family. We lived in a village surrounded by natural places. When I was nine years old, my father moved us to Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. The backdrop of my home changed considerably, but I learned how to adjust to my more urban surroundings. However, we still made frequent trips to the gardens in my birth village to continue to farm so as to supplement my father’s income as a truck driver. My father drove tipper trucks, ferrying sand to construction sites around Kampala. My mother had an even more important job: she had to raise me and my siblings. I have three brothers and three sisters. One of the lessons that I have learned from my upbringing is to have a good sense of my roots, live within my limits, and be content with what life offers at given points in time. A lot of my self-confidence I owe to my mother who always encouraged me to work hard so that I could pursue higher education.
Growing up, I did not always want to be a conservation ecologist. Indeed, right up until the end of high school, there had been little opportunity for me to appreciate what conservation even meant or what careers might be available in that sector. That being said, I always had a passion for nature and natural places. During high school I fell in love with science. With relish, I studied all that science had to offer including Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematics. Initially, I believed that my dream was to be a laboratory-based scientist specialising in pharmaceuticals. In applications for joining university after my high school finals, I had Pharmacy beautifully set up at the top of my list of preferred courses for consideration for a government scholarship. In addition to your first choice, there were two additional spaces for second and third choice options. Without much thought, I filled in the spaces with Medical Radiography and, for good measure, Conservation Biology.
After filing the application in November 2008, I heard nothing for months. Presuming that my application had been unsuccessful, I resigned myself to considering other options to make a livelihood. This was a necessary consideration because without assistance, there would be no way for me to attend university. My father took me on, and started teaching me how to drive large cross-country cargo trucks. I would venture out with him between Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, and the Congo.
Then in May 2009, the sun smiled on what would prove to be a very fateful morning. I receive an unexpected call from my friend Kenneth. “Kasozi” he called my name excitedly. “Ki ekiriwo (what’s up?),” I replied with intrigue. “Did you read the newspaper this morning?” “No” I responded rather anxiously, at this point my adrenaline started rising. “Well, on page 3 it says that you – Herbert Kasozi - have been admitted to Makerere University on a full government scholarship!” I had a stunned moment of silence as I was comprehending what Kenneth had said. “Kasozi……Kasozi…Okyaliyo (“are you still there?”), he asked. Without replying I dropped the phone and ran out of the house. Sprinting, I headed straight to the news agents. Without even paying first, I grabbed the paper and thumbed to page 3. Kenneth was right, there was my name next to the phrase – “admitted to Makerere University on national merit with full Uganda government scholarship.” This moment of incredible elation and pride was tinged with a deep sense of disappointment. The heading above my name was Conservation Biology. The ramifications hit me like a punch. I was not admitted to study Pharmacy. There was no way for me to change my area of subject and stay on the scholarship. I either accepted the scholarship, or attended Makerere University as a privately paid student. The twists and turns of life can be dizzying if you break them down in detail. But I can tell you this, had I not been rejected for the Pharmacy course I would have missed my passion in life.
At university in Uganda, many students from humble backgrounds like mine with no financial assistance are unable to maintain the payments for tuition, board, field trips, and other scholastic necessities. Thus, it is these students that commonly miss out on key activities, and lack the necessary resources to properly pursue their degrees. These realities diminish their productivity. It is always a tough experience, which translates into higher involuntary dropout rates from university. With a government scholarship, I was very lucky. I was able to immerse myself into all classes, field practicums, and lab sessions with no financial impediments. The Conservation Biology programme at Makerere included a couple of field research trips and internship opportunities where students had a chance to do fieldwork in places such as Kibale National Park (KNP) and Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP). These initiatives provided everything traditional classes in university buildings could never offer. The vastness and uniqueness of these places is something to behold. Growing up in a city, they were not like anything I had seen before, from the enormous trees in the rainforests of KNP to the beautiful rolling Borassus savannahs of MFNP, and the wildlife with in, it is only in such places that one can truly appreciate nature! For my case, working in KNP and MFNP in my first days not only captured my imagination but also drew my attention and life to conservation forever. Since those days, my love for understanding nature has always expanded rapidly.
During my undergraduate career, I was very fortunate to have been surrounded by mentors. One such individual is Dr. Robert Kityo. Dr. Kityo is a professor and curator of the Zoology Museum at Makerere University. All the time in his classes I never suspected that he would be integral to lighting my path towards advanced conservation biology experience nor that he would expand my field research potential for many years to come.
Dr. Kityo provided me some of the toughest challenges in my academic career so far. Soon after I completed my undergraduate studies in May 2012, he took me out into the remote southern part of MFNP to start work on one of his projects. I had to quickly learn as we worked. On just my first day of work I learned how to set camera traps, retrieve the SD cards and reset the batteries, and use a GPS unit to navigate to camera trap locations. We would have a minimum of 6 cameras per array with a maximum general spacing of 1.5 km between them to be navigated by foot in the scorching sun, with tsetse flies biting constantly and very tall grass concealing buffalos, elephants, and potentially – lions, leopards, or spotted hyenas. After the training period, Dr. Kityo told me that I was on my own. I would now have to deploy and check camera traps independently. On my first day out alone, I almost shed a few tears and wanted to go home. The anxiety of what might be out there was crippling. But recognizing the importance of this opportunity for my personal growth, I resolved to continue. And I grew stronger by the day. Elephants and hippos became my neighbours, rather than my enemies. I learned that you always had to be vigilant, but a healthy respect of large mammal ecology was invaluable to keeping myself out of harm’s way. This opportunity well and truly introduced me to field work, to the life of a bush scientist, and gave me the stamina that I will forever benefit from in my career as an ecologist. During this time, I apparently proved myself to Dr. Kityo because subsequent opportunities to work on a diversity of projects were then presented to me. These exposed me to several people, and I got to acquire more field research skills such as small mammal, bird, vegetation, and fossil survey techniques as well as specimen preparation. Ultimately, it was my performance during these experiences that let to Dr. Kityo offering me a M.S. position in the Zoology Museum at Makerere in mid-2014.
Two years ago, I could not have imagined I would be starting a PhD in the USA right now. Connecting with the RECaP lab was yet another fortunate chance event in my life. I again realise the value of maintaining friendships with the incredible people I have been lucky to meet in my journey in conservation. Tutilo Mudumba, a current PhD student in the RECaP lab, and a long-time friend whom I first worked with in Murchison Falls NP in 2011, introduced me to Dr. Robert Montgomery in February 2016.
An email correspondence, initiated by Tutilo started it all:
“Herbert, I am introducing you to my mentor and Ph.D. Advisor, Dr. Robert Montgomery of Michigan State University. I have briefly talked to him about your potential to excel and how you came to start working with me. I am sure when we next come to Kampala in May, Dr. will get to meet you in person and get introduced to Dr. Robert Kityo, your major advisor.”
And what a pleasing response:
And thank you Tutilo for making this connection. Tutilo has shared with me much about your research program and how you got your start. I am excited to hear more. As Tutilo outlines, it would be excellent to make the acquaintance of yourself and your supervisor Dr. Kityo. when I am in Uganda in May. In the meantime, don't hesitate to let me know if you need anything.
Come May 2016, I got to meet Dr. Montgomery! We had an excellent meeting with him, Tutilo, Dr. Kityo, Dr. Sande (Head of Zoology at Makerere) and Sophia. I must admit, before the meeting, I spent the entire night reading about giraffes, modelling, and large mammal ecology – I was anxious to make an impression at what would be the stage for my next move!
After the meeting we set out for MFNP the following day, and I had my first one on one interview with Dr. Montgomery at the Paraa lodge. It was a moment of good exchanges and we got to know each other better.
Since that meeting, Dr. Montgomery has been instrumental in establishing funding and a position for me to work and study as a PhD student in the RECaP lab at Michigan State University (MSU). My position in RECaP would not be possible without the generosity of Mr. Gerald Kutchey and Ms. Kathryn Synder. Jerry and Kathryn are two individuals that have taken an interest in me and have put me in a position to achieve my ultimate dream: to become a professor of wildlife ecology. It is their support that has made this possible. They are the reason why I boarded a plane in Entebbe, Uganda – the first time that I had ever stepped foot onto a 747 – bound for the prestigious Michigan State University. I am indebted to Jerry and Kathryn and live every day honouring their generosity with my hard work.
Reviewing my journey into conservation, I cannot say that the last 10 years have been easy. I have faced very many challenges to be standing here today, but my early passion for science and my ever-expanding love for conservation has provided me with more than enough fuel to persevere in adversity, and to take each opportunity as it has arisen. I am now excited and eager to begin a new chapter of my life through starting my PhD at RECaP.
Starting a new chapter
I am coming to RECaP with wide ranging interests. I have been lucky to have been exposed to quite a lot of field research in different areas and sites in East Africa. From mammals, birds, amphibians, plants, and fossils, I feel set to conduct research on anything. I feel I have allowed myself enough time to explore and I am more than convinced that giraffe ecology and conservation is where I will be happiest for the next phase of my academic and research life. My time in RECaP will be spent investigating different aspects on the ecology and conservation Rothschild giraffe in Uganda. The giraffe has always fascinated me! From its strange and odd shape, agility, demeanour, tranquillity, and unbelievable strength I find the giraffe to be one of the most beautiful animals. Motivated by this passion, and the fact that not much work has been conducted on this majestic creature, the time is now for me to join the pioneers of the giraffe research world.
Bold and braced, I made the big move! On the day of my flight from Entebbe, Uganda to Detroit, Michigan via Amsterdam, I had my last lunch with my mum and my siblings. Everyone was simultaneously saddened by my departure and very excited to see me leaving for America. As the eldest in my family, I play an integral role in the functioning of my household. I look after my siblings, make sure that my mum is secure, and work hard to ensure that everyone is taken care of. Before leaving, I wondered how I would be able to do this from the States. It is however, reassuring that in the end I will return to my life at home as it is my dream to be a professor of wildlife ecology at Makerere University. My life-long dream has always been to make a contribution to Uganda. It seems cruel that in order to achieve this dream of being a difference-maker in Uganda, I have to leave my home. But that is what it takes given that, at this moment, there is no Ph.D.-level training in wildlife conservation in my country or even the East African region, more broadly. Thus, I have to leave my home to join RECaP at MSU so that in 5 years-time I will be in a position to become a professor at Makerere. It is my hope that my family will get used to my absence, but most of all I am happy to have departed with their blessings.
Boarding that plane to come to the states at Entebbe International Airport, I was intimidated by the journey. I was wondering and scared of what my experience was going to be like. The nine months I will spend in East Lansing (before I return to Uganda for summer field work) is going to be the longest time I will spend away from home, and in itself one of the biggest challenges to undertaking the PhD. I always have to tell (and remind) myself what working with RECaP entails - lots of hard and tough work requiring many days away from home, either in the bush in MFNP or on the plane to East Lansing and other international destinations around the world.
Getting into life in East Lansing
Landing into Detroit Wayne International Airport, I was already intimidated about the idea of landing on US soil. All my time in the queue for the last interview with the immigration officers was spent in anticipation, with nothing to expect as anything could happen. I managed to pass that as well! Reality set in directly thereafter. I would be leaving for the states with an understanding of the place that was only informed by TV and movies. With everything different from home, my whole system had to adjust. Dr. Montgomery’s family and my roommate Jorem (a Ugandan Ph.D. student that has been at MSU for three years) have greatly helped my transition, I commend them for a tremendous job helping me settle in. As much as I am anxious to see how well I will take to an American life style, I embrace the challenge and ready to go!