Valerie Akuredusenge is on a mission—to connect children with their environment and build the next generation of conservationists to help save the critically endangered mountain gorilla of Rwanda and protect other wildlife at risk.
Born in the northern province of Rwanda, Akuredusenge began her career as a tour guide for an ecotourism operator, taking tourists to see central Africa’s stunning wildlife. She shares, “When I started guiding multiple tours in my local community, I had the experience and the chance to connect with nature and the local community. I discovered how beautiful nature and my neighborhood was. I found out that nature is very important for humans.”
She continued, “We as humans depend on nature, so, without nature, life could stop. But, nature depends less on humans. Humans need to care for nature, otherwise, there won’t be any life for humankind.”
Her tour guide experiences inspired Akuredusenge to enter the field of nature preservation, and, in 2006, she became involved with Art of Conservation, a nonprofit organization that develops wildlife protection initiatives. There she worked on educational programs for primary school students. Her career has also included creating and delivering presentations on conservation to a global audience.
Programs Inspire Students to Care about Endangered Gorillas
It was not until 2013 that Akuredusenge was able to take her love of nature to the next level by becoming the program director of Conservation Heritage – Turambe (CHT), a nonprofit in the Musanze district of the Northern Province of Rwanda, where she has remained ever since. Sustained mainly through financial support from the Houston Zoo and the Papoose Conservation Wildlife Foundation, both located in the US, CHT also receives small grants and donations. Funds are also raised through the sale of papier mâché animal masks, made by a collaborating artist.
“Turambe,” in the Kinyarwanda language, means “let’s be sustainable.”
As program director, Akuredusenge creates educational curriculums and delivers conservation classes to primary students in partnership with schools in and around Volcanoes National Park, home to central Africa’s endangered mountain gorilla. She concentrates on the children’s surrounding environment, encouraging them to think about how they can make an impact right at their doorstep.
She says, “Children are really very amazing. I was excited about how they were seeing nature and their local neighborhood and how they were expressing how they see nature and their future. I believe children are able to change the future. They are the main channel—they can easily deliver the message to a wider audience. Teaching children is teaching the entire community.”
Inspired Children Multiply Environmental Initiatives Throughout Communities
Another key feature of Akuredusenge’s work is to raise children’s awareness by teaching them about gorillas’ behavior and diet, as well as their relationship with humans, outlining what steps the students can take to keep them safe. The children are able to bond with nature through field trips to see the golden monkeys and mountain gorillas in their natural environment. Although COVID-19 has disrupted the schedule of visits, Akuredusenge hopes to take a group of twenty to the Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda in October 2021.
There are other activities too. Students participate in local community initiatives designed to protect wildlife, including planting bamboo trees close to the national park. Akuredusenge declares: “We encourage them to do similar activities at home. We have recorded over 500 initiatives started by children at their home, including planting trees and creating gardens. This shows us that they are making an impact on their community.”
Parents and local communities are supportive of her work. They are involved through “Parents and Partners Open House” sessions, where people are invited to celebrate the projects’ achievements and where feedback is sought. Akuredusenge says, “Some parents come to us and say, ‘my child has improved.’ Before our ‘Staying Healthy’ lessons, children were not washing their hands, their body, or their teeth. They tell us they appreciate the work we do with their children. They tell us they are eating the fruit from the trees planted by their child.”
COVID-19 Creates Budget Challenges That Hinder Action
However, CHT is facing obstacles along the way: the main one is having to work on a tight budget. This means that they cannot fulfill the numerous requests for program work that they receive from many of the 100-plus schools surrounding the national park. Currently, CHT is working on only five such programs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added to existing funding difficulties. The organization’s budget was cut in half compared to pre-pandemic levels, a member of the staff had to be laid off, and in-person activities could no longer take place.
Undeterred by these challenges, programs were delivered remotely. Teachers from partner schools were given smart phones so they could coordinate students’ activities at home. During the first half of 2020, the children were able to create kitchen gardens, collect plastic bottles and bags, plant trees, and even build houses out of the plastic waste they had collected.
A Vision of Harmony Between Humankind and Nature
So what’s next for Akuredusenge? Her hopes for the future are focused on ensuring that the local community is in tune with nature and the wildlife population stays healthy. She says, “I want to see the local livelihood of community members improving by trying to meet their basic needs, so they don’t need to enter gorilla habitats. And we will keep on trying our best to connect them, especially children, with nature by organizing guided field trips. I want to see humans and gorilla populations living side by side in harmony.”
*Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for nonprofit organizations, trade unions, the education sector, and government agencies.