"I'm Not Scared of the Unknown", Dr Lucy Kemp on Welcoming Discomfort

Profile photo cropped.jpg

Article by: Damaris Agweyu

Publication date:

What I am really trying to do is "un-northern hemisphere" conservation planning frameworks so that communities are part of the planning process, not just an implementation item.

From her humble beginnings of waitressing to put herself through university to her current leadership roles in conservation, Lucy Kemp's journey reflects a spirited evolution.

She is the Project Manager for the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project and the Africa Chair for the IUCN SSC Hornbill Specialist Group. Additionally, she facilitates conservation action planning workshops for the IUCN SSC Conservation Planning Specialist Group.

With a rich and varied background, a heart for the planet, and a willingness to face challenges head-on, she brings a multidisciplinary approach to addressing complex challenges.

The Women for the Environment 2023 Fellow shares her story with Damaris Agweyu.

WhatsApp Image 2024-04-05 at 6.46.11 AM.jpeg
Dr Lucy Kemp (provided)

Lucy, how would you describe yourself?

Generous, I would hope. Fun. Yeah, I'm definitely more fun now that I've gone through WE Africa. There was a time when I'd lost my fun.

I was raised to do things properly, regardless of what they were. I'm not afraid of hard work. I waited and worked as a carer to help put myself through university. My shift would end at 2:00 a.m., and then I'd be up at eight to be back on campus. From that experience, I became fiercely independent.

I need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and if I had gone into business or something where my goal was just to make money, that would not have been enough. My reason is conservation. I can't imagine myself doing anything else.

What caused you to lose your fun?

I was so focused on running my project to the best of my ability, probably to a level of perfectionism, which is silly. The result was complete burn-out. I had no self-care and was running on empty.

Then, my dad went through a series of brain operations last year, and that consumed me. I was very stressed, worrying about him and trying to keep working. Thankfully, at the same time, I was on my WE Africa journey, and that shifted something for me. I don't sweat the small stuff anymore. I've regained my ability to laugh and find humour in things. And I take my self-care very seriously. I never had days in my diary where there was a gap to take time off, so this year, I decided I was not working on weekends. I've started being creative again, healing my relationships and spending precious time with dad.

WE Africa also made me brave enough to buy a lodge, which is something I'd never thought I could do or even afford. It hit me that I needed a place for my dad, somewhere he could be safe and cared for. And now I wake up to the most gorgeous views with animals on my front lawn and brown hyenas drinking out of the pool.

Did you do it for your dad or yourself?

It was a combination of both. Through WE Africa, I realised that I had a very strong poverty mindset. I grew up rich in terms of having lots of amazing experiences and a wonderful family, but money was always tight. At one stage, we couldn't have two proteins on a sandwich because that was too extravagant—ham and cheese!

I'm now in a better financial place, and I realise I no longer need to carry this poverty mindset. Replacing it with an abundance mindset has made my life richer, not necessarily money-wise but in the people I meet and the experiences I have. It's freed me to see opportunity everywhere and made me brave enough to fix a lot of things.

Take my relationship with my partner, for instance. For years, he and I struggled with his alcoholism. It made me feel sad and diminished. But last year, I realised I deserved more for my heart and soul. So, I made a tough call, and you know what? He's been sober since, and it's transformed our relationship.

Where does your journey into the world of conservation begin?

I had quite an unconventional upbringing: my dad is Zimbabwean, and my mum is Zambian. You could say I'm a bit of a colonial mongrel. Both my parents were biologists, and our lives revolved around their work. In a way, that sheltered us from the apartheid mindsets.

Every Christmas holiday was spent in Kruger National Park, where we'd be up at dawn tracking birds and camping in the wild. My dad used to put chairs around the edge of the tent so the hyenas didn't eat our heads. He thought our feet were fair game, but our heads had to be protected. It was a very free upbringing, and I just loved the bush. If I wasn't at school, that's where I was.

But as I grew older, I realised these spaces were slipping away. Going to university in Cape Town didn't help. I thrived in wild spaces with room to breathe and freedom to be myself. This translated to national parks because that was my upbringing. But increasingly, I realised that it just needed to be a place where things are gentle. I knew then that I needed to follow a career path that allowed me to preserve those sacred spaces and all that lives within them.

I had no desire to study birds. That was my dad's thing. Conservation biology was also out of the question because it was filled with his colleagues, and I didn't want to be judged by his peers. So, I studied marine biology instead.

In the middle of that, I stumbled upon a job opportunity in Kruger National Park, working with wild dogs and cheetahs. The call of the bush was too strong to ignore, and my marine biology supervisor was really good about letting me go there for nine months. He was more than my supervisor; he was a real-life mentor.

After completing my thesis, I moved to Namibia to teach conservation biology. I didn't have a conservation biology background, but I figured the best way to learn was through teaching. It opened up a whole new world. I had six semesters of students coming through to gain these insane life-changing experiences in Namibia. I felt that we could have been doing much more to provide the same experiences for Namibian students.

One day, I grabbed the satellite phone, climbed the nearest mountain, and made the call. I resigned on principle. Looking back, maybe quitting in such a dramatic fashion wasn't the smartest move because now I was back home, living with my parents and trying to find a job because I'd quit on principle. It was just collective misery.

Finally, nine months later, I got an opportunity to work as a relief manager for the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project. I applied, got the actual position, and trained as a conservation planner.

Because the position has been mine to develop in any way I want, thanks to the trust from my Board, I include a strong community component. It's actually got nothing to do with the birds and everything to do with the people who share the landscape with them, so I'm trying to convert the species science into something that will work on the ground gently, kindly and effectively. My work is made easier because the ground hornbill is such a culturally important species.

WhatsApp Image 2024-04-05 at 6.46.07 AM.jpeg
Dr Lucy Kemp (provided)

How so?

Ground hornbills are believed to bring rain, so traditional rural communities hold them in high regard. Interestingly, it's often the commercial farms where the ground hornbills most struggle to survive. They may be seen as a nuisance, and there's no genuine appreciation for them. But in communal grazing areas, they thrive because they're valued and fiercely protected by the people who live there. This is not a popular narrative, but it is always assumed, within the still overwhelmingly white conservation circles in South Africa, that these areas are no good for conservation.

And so what I've been doing with my conservation plans is going village by village, doing mini-workshops, finding out what people think about these birds, finding out what they believe are the issues, finding out what they think are the solutions, and then bringing all of that knowledge to the big government meetings. I also bring representatives from each of those villages to ensure they know I've brought their message through truthfully and cleanly, and they can continue to be part of the process. The first place I tried this was for Namibia. We produced the most beautiful conservation plan based on the lived reality of people sharing the landscape with these birds.

What I am really trying to do is "un-northern hemisphere" conservation planning frameworks so that communities are part of the planning process, not just an implementation item. Because the people who share the landscape with those species will always lead you in the right direction. It's been this amazing learning journey of co-creating conservation plans with communities.

Have you ever had to live with what you don't believe in?

It's almost a physical impossibility for me. There are things I will live with if they get me to the bigger picture. But usually, I cut and run if something doesn't align with my values. I have been unsure how to put a roof over my head several times. I've washed dishes, picked fruits, and done whatever I needed to do to find my feet. So, I am always ready to face whatever consequences come with my decisions. I'm not scared of the unknown.

But I'm also aware that making those decisions would not be as easy if I were a mother with dependents. I have only had to make them for myself, and this has given me the freedom to cut and run when I need to.

I also acknowledge that white privilege counts in my favour; I encounter it almost every day, and it's disgustingly unfair.

How do you deal with it?

I made a promise at Madiba's funeral to never be complicit by my silence again. I just need to learn not to cry when I get angry. 

Post WE Africa, I can now stand my ground. It can get uncomfortable, but I eat the discomfort. There are lots of places I don't get invited to and people who don't talk to me anymore, but that's fine because they're not my people anyway.

I think that's also the thing with being so firm—it makes things easier. I'm independent in my soul, my principles, and my roots. As long as I find my people, whether they're Zimbabwean, Zambian, or Moroccan, that is my tribe.

What's your general philosophy towards life?

It's tattooed on my foot: Be here now.

You can sweat the past and worry about the future, but there's really no point. I try to be in the present and do it richly with full intensity and awareness, but I sometimes forget—hence the reminder tattoo.

Following your WE Africa journey, is there anything you've decided to do differently as a leader?

I don't like to be seen, but through WE Africa, I learned that if you are going to have a leadership role, you need to buck up and be visible.

I'm now creating a podcast that uses my voice, not my face. There's a compromise there, but it's still a step in the right direction.

I want to interview anyone working on hornbills in Africa or Asia. I am especially interested in the cultural associations with these birds and how that can be used as a conservation opportunity. The goal is to share different conservation tools that are working around the world and, hopefully, encourage a new network of conservation biologists to adopt them.


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.