“It’s Unfair to Romanticise the Old Way of Life at the Expense of People’s Well-Being”, Thandiwe Mweetwa on Expanding the Circle

“It’s Unfair to Romanticise the Old Way of Life at the Expense of People’s Well-Being”, Thandiwe Mweetwa on Expanding the Circle

In our approach to conservation, it’s absolutely critical to change with the times. While you must be clear about your mission, you must also continually assess and evaluate whether your current actions are making a real impact.

Thandiwe Mweetwa

During the colonial era, a significant disconnect was created between people and conservation—Thandiwe (Thandi) Mweetwa is on a mission to bridge it.

Her vision is to instil a 21st-century approach to equitable benefits from nature to create a lasting positive impact. Currently serving as the Integrated Landscape & Custodianship Manager with the Nsumbu Tanganyika Conservation Programme in Northern Zambia, her work addresses the importance of making room for wildlife and people in our shared spaces.

Her professional interests include large landscape conservation, community-based natural resource management, community engagement, human-wildlife conflict management, diversity/inclusion in conservation, and youth skills development.

Thandiwe’s commitment to conservation has earned her recognition as a National Geographic Explorer. She is also an alumna of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa Program.

The Women for the Environment 2023 fellow shares her journey with Damaris Agweyu.

Thandiwe Mweetwa (provided)

Thandi, if you could be an animal, what would you be and why?

That’s an easy one—a wild dog.

Having spent time observing how they go about their daily lives, I think of them as my spirit animals. I’m probably ascribing human qualities to them right now, but seriously, watching them interact is pretty inspiring. When they’re out and about, they look like they’ve got this permanent smile plastered on their faces. It’s like they are always happy. I love that.

And then, I look at how they organise socially. I know it’s to ensure that they pass on their genetics. But looking in, I admire how they have each other’s backs. If you are a wild dog that’s injured and unable to keep up, the pack will feed you. If you’re sick, you can babysit. And so you’re still contributing to the group’s well-being while adding value to the next generation of dogs.

I also love how they cooperate when hunting. The feeding frenzy that follows looks savage, but it is such a well-coordinated scene. They’ll let the pups eat first, and they’ll take turns watching for danger. It’s like each individual constantly contributes to something bigger than themselves; that’s super cool.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if more human beings operated like that?

Can you imagine? Living by that whole “it takes a village” ethos where everyone contributes, and we are all kinder with one another? That would be a game-changer.

I read this somewhere: “If people are the problem, then people are also the solution.” Do you think people are the problem?

I have mulled over this idea as well. Like, who is the problem? It goes without saying that there are bad people on this planet. Greedy people, who are running poaching syndicates to enrich themselves at whatever cost. But then, I’ve grappled with how easily we label entire communities as “problems”, especially in conservation discussions. I have certainly been guilty of this myself.

We readily criminalise people’s ways of life without understanding their motivations or truly considering their positions in life. Some people just need to gather firewood to cook for their kids or fish so they can get money to pay school fees – is that a problem? Sure, there might be some issues in how these activities are carried out, but we must approach it with more nuance.

So, the problem is greed. Fishing to get as rich as possible.

And using the tiniest net possible! Meanwhile, you’ve already got a comfortable life. Do you really need to fund guns for elephant poaching? No. That is where people become the problem.

Tell me about your journey into the world of conservation.

Listening to stories about wildlife from my mother and watching documentaries on TV heavily influenced my choice to get into conservation. When I moved to the eastern part of Zambia, it was like diving into this immersive experience where I was surrounded by so much wildlife and I got to really appreciate nature.

In school, I was part of the conservation club, and that’s where the idea that this could be my life’s work struck me. I learned quite a bit about the challenges faced in this part of the world and other places. I asked myself: What can each of us do to make a difference?

Initially, I had my sights set on becoming a wildlife vet. I saw myself treating and rescuing injured animals affected by various human activities. That vision stuck with me until my second year of university. I didn’t enjoy the anatomy and physiology classes where we had to dissect little preserved pig fetuses. I was also squeamish at the sight of blood. I realised there was no way I would bring myself to scrub the wounds of live animals. Becoming a wildlife vet didn’t seem like a good idea anymore, and I was at a crossroads.

Luckily, I found my way into ecology, which involves working with people. My journey turned out different than I initially envisioned – it’s now less about wildlife only and more about the intricate relationship between humans and the environment.

Balancing modernisation and the preservation of ecosystems is a tricky one. Do you believe we can have both?

It’s not easy in any shape or form, but it’s possible.

I mean, times change, as do people’s aspirations and needs. Back in the day, my grandfather and his father would walk from place to place. But today, communities need good roads for faster access to healthcare centres. 

It’s unfair to reject any form of development and romanticise the old way of life at the expense of people’s well-being. Carefully planned, I think we can strike a balance. We know where the critical landscapes are. We know that animals are adaptable and resilient. With those two things in our back pocket, it’s possible to have development that keeps people happy while ecosystems are secure and protected.

It’s a challenging discussion because we often see development and conservation as a clash – like they’re sitting at opposite ends of the table. But considering the rapid growth of our continent, we have to find a middle ground.

What’s your general outlook towards life? 

I’m an optimist. I believe that things will always work out in the end.

Despite the field I’m in, which often involves a lot of crisis reporting and doom and gloom, I believe every little thing we do makes a difference. People tend to see nature as fragile, but I see it as incredibly resilient.  

Another one of my philosophies is being comfortable with questioning the status quo. There can be a lot of pressure to conform, especially in societies like ours. But I value the ability to question things, especially if they don’t sit well with me.

Can you dive deeper into your perspective on the resiliency of nature?

I think the blanket view of all nature being fragile is tightly linked to so many things that are wrong with how conservation has been and is being practised. One thing that jumps out where I live, in a rural area, is that many people here still rely on firewood for cooking.

But a lot of the messaging around taking care of forests is focused on the doom and gloom. It’s like if you cut one tree, then that is it; the forest is gone, and it’s never coming back. But within my lifetime, I’ve seen areas regenerate. Slash-and-burn agriculture, which is often demonised, has been practised by many African communities for generations. 

With responsible management, ecosystems recover. I have seen areas where we used to cut trees for firewood in the mid-2000s. Today, you wouldn’t even know we touched them. Wildlife populations, too, can rebound with minor adjustments. Abandoned fields can turn into thriving landscapes in just a few years. 

Remembering this when we’re doing all sorts of projects is critical. The frantic state of constant panic is closely tied to how we perceive and treat people who live off the land. They’re often viewed only as destroyers of the environment. But if we understand that these communities are simply taking what they need in order to survive, we would help break away from that stereotype and have better outcomes.

I read something that you said: “We can’t be doing the same things we have done for years in the name of staying true to the mission. You need to move and adapt and change as things present themselves”. 

I was reflecting on the need for adaptability and evolution in our approach to conservation.

In many of my discussions at work and with various people, mission drift or mission creep came up. This is when organisations start with a particular mission, but over time, they change their activities and methods. There’s a debate about whether it’s good to evolve or if an organisation should stay true to its initial mission and way of doing things.

My view is that it’s absolutely critical to change with the times. While you must be clear about your mission, you must also continually assess and evaluate whether your current actions are making a real impact. Is your approach outdated? Has your understanding of the problem evolved? Is the problem still the same, or has the socio-economic context changed?

Do you think conservation is evolving as it should, or do you think people are “stuck on the mission”, so to speak?

There are instances where people hold onto traditional methods and resist change. However, there’s also a noticeable shift towards a more holistic approach to conservation.

In my country, conservation was synonymous with law enforcement – arresting poachers and removing wire snares. But there’s a growing recognition that conservation needs to embrace a broader perspective. It’s not just about protecting and conserving wildlife; it’s also about addressing the human livelihood side of the equation. This shift may not be happening as fast as some would like, but it’s definitely in motion.

I’d like to see more support for women in conservation. In most cases, it’s difficult, worse still, if a woman wants to start a family. They are not given enough flexibility to deal with the stresses that come with balancing their needs and obligations.

I’d also like to see a change in how your typical conservationist is portrayed. We’re missing out on a lot of good people who can contribute. By breaking down barriers and being more accommodating, we can tap into a wider pool of talent and expertise that will enrich the conservation community.

If you had the power to change one thing in this world, what would it be?

I’d take away greed. Without greed in the mix, we would only take what we need. And then nature would rejuvenate itself without any problems. And, yeah, there’d be no need for the conservation sector as we know it today because we would all care for and use our resources more sustainably and wisely.

Your epitaph is imprinted on your tombstone. It says: Here lies Thandiwe Mweetwa. She…

Brought power back to the people.

It sounds very grandiose. But it’s my long-term mission. I want to be remembered for bringing people’s sense of stewardship and power back into the conservation space. I don’t want our communities to be mere recipients of handouts or bystanders being told what to do. I want them to feel a genuine ownership of their landscapes, both literally and in decision-making.

I also want to be remembered as somebody who made the circle bigger. During our first WE Africa retreat, we talked about expanding that circle. Whether it’s through training others to participate in conservation or raising awareness about a fairer, more inclusive, and just sector, I hope to leave a legacy of having expanded the circle.


This interview is part of a series profiling the stories of the 2023 WE Africa leadership programme fellows, African women in the environmental conservation sector who are showing up with a strong back, soft front, and wild heart. 

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