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“The Stories We Tell Ourselves Wield a Lot of Power”, Lucy Waruingi on Confronting Self Limiting Beliefs

Lucy Waruingi, image source: supplied

Lucy Waruingi is the Executive Director of African Conservation Centre (ACC) and the current chair and founder member of the Conservation Alliance of Kenya (CAK).

She has had a long-standing interest in managing and interpreting biological and environmental data for decision-making and informing initiatives that enhance local livelihoods in rich biodiversity areas.

Lucy is keen on using geographic information systems and spatial applications for conservation and development decision-making.

She shares her story with Damaris Agweyu.

Lucy, from a personal growth perspective, what do you struggle with most?

I tend to hold myself back and shy away from speaking about my accomplishments. I think this may stem from the fact that I have always been petite, and over time, it translated to my believing I can’t ever be a front-runner.

Up until university, I acquired nicknames like Little Lucy, Micro, and Atom. One funny incident occurred at my first job at the Wildlife Conservation Society, then Kenya Office. I was in charge of the IT department and was ordering some equipment over the phone. The man I had spoken to came into the office, asking for a Lucy Chege. I said that’s me. He was like, “No, there was a bigger woman I was speaking to on the phone”. He couldn’t relate the voice and authority from the person he’d had a phone conversation with to this small girl standing before him.

The most hilarious incident was when I took my first work assignment abroad on my maiden international flight. Though I was twenty-eight years old, the stewardess handed me toys. She mistook me for a minor travelling alone and thought I needed to be entertained!

I recently preached at Kenya High School — my old high school. I talked about my high school experiences that were primarily related to my size. I could see that the students resonated with my story, not necessarily from a size perceptive but from their perceived shortcomings — be it looks, intelligence, or whatever it is that supposedly hinders one from becoming great. Such perceived shortcomings make you feel you’ve already been handed a bad card in life, even before you begin. The stories we tell ourselves wield a lot of power.

Has your story served or hindered your progress?

Both. I think I startled myself when I discovered I could be more than I believed.

I have always shrunk myself. This did not come from a place of being bullied, put down, or ridiculed, but from me projecting myself against others. I internalised my smallness and took it as a limitation.

When I started outperforming people in a few other things, I realised I had different qualities. I loved poetry and was always number one or two in poetry competitions. I loved drama, too, and synthesising ideas to provide clarity to others. As long as I found places to express myself, I was fine. Through that, I was selected to be a senior school prefect. Later in life when I started working, I went in as an intern and moved up the ranks to become a director.

From an intern to a director, did you say?

Yes. The work front has undoubtedly been a tremendous growth process for me. Here’s the thing, though: I found that I tended to respond more keenly to external as opposed to internal triggers to give me forward motion. This meant that I would very easily plateau on my personal growth ambitions.

An example is I’ve been talking about moving forward with my PhD for the last six years. Now, if my job came with the condition that I needed a PhD to move to a particular position, I would commit to it one hundred per cent. However, without such a stimulus, I tend to focus on my responsibilities and prioritize the needs of others.

So, there are things I know I could do, think I should do, or desire to do, that I am not doing. Now I won’t pout and say the world has denied me these opportunities, but when I reflect on them, I realise that the barrier is me, and my limiting beliefs. And that is what I am working to overcome.

Professionally, do you love what you do?

Absolutely; maybe to a fault. The work that I do matters greatly because all creation – people and nature, matter. Sometimes, though, it can get a bit discouraging. It is hard to tell if we are making a difference in our attempts to secure sustainable spaces for the harmonious coexistence of people and wildlife.

If you are a profit-making entity, it is easier to gauge the success metrics from your profit and loss sheet. But in the conservation sector, we are losing biodiversity; the land is still being fragmented, ecosystem services are being destroyed, and societies have become more intolerant in providing for nature in their development agenda.

I ask myself; what would happen if ACC didn’t exist and I didn’t do what I do?

It’s a scary question because one answer is; life would still move on, and things would get done, but wildlife and local communities would lose. It seems defeatist, but those are my thoughts on my dark days.

On another front, I hear positive comments about what we are doing. Being a director also puts me in a visible position outside our work as ACC. I’m often in government, partner and donor meetings, engaging in dialogues to inform important conservation actions. I was appointed to be the founding chairperson of the Conservation Alliance of Kenya (CAK), the umbrella body of all NGOs in conservation in Kenya. When we want to push an agenda bigger than any one of us, I see how effective we can be by providing leadership on conservation matters.

How did you get into the world of conservation?

After my first degree, I went to work at an insurance company as a management trainee. I didn’t like the job, as my initial desire was to go into IT or actuarial science. At that time, the Wildlife Conservation Society in Nairobi was looking for a statistician to help them review wildlife data trends from key wildlife areas and assess the impact of mass tourism on various wildlife species. It was a one-year contract. I was qualified but going for it meant I would have to give up a plum permanent and pensionable job. I rationalised that if I had nine months to live, I would want to spend them doing work I enjoy. So I quit my job at the insurance company, went for it and have never turned back. I eventually saw how my mathematics & statistics background would provide a deeper understanding of what is happening in our environment.

That NGO eventually closed up its administrative office operations in Kenya. However, under our founder Dr. David Western​ and other globally recognized Kenyan conservationists including Dr. Helen Gichohi, Dr. Chris Gakahu, and Dr. John Waithaka, we determined that we needed to transition and create a new institution; one that is Kenyan and driven not by what the west wanted to do in Africa, but instead by what Africans wanted to do in Africa. So we created the African Conservation Centre.

You mentioned that you struggle to talk about your achievements. Would you allow me to put you on the spot?

Errmm…okay.

Can you share some personal accomplishments that you are proud of?

On a personal level, one achievement I am really proud of is a transformative program I introduced in our church to transition young people from childhood into the teenage years. It is a program designed to help both parents and their children as they navigate this challenging stage. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but I did go to great lengths to get proper training and, in turn, train others. Twelve years and counting, the feedback we get is that this programme is helping a lot of teenagers and parents.

On a professional front, I would say developing a concept of Kenya’s first biodiversity atlas has been one of my most notable achievements. This was a huge, audacious project—the first of its kind. When I shared the concept with the Ministry of Environment, they bought into the idea, and together, we got it done. ACC coordinated the bringing together of other partners in the conservation sector to produce this Atlas. I enjoyed the process immensely, and it was a great success. The product continues to be very valuable as a reference in our higher learning institutions and as a foundation to build on for future work.

More recently, from 2017 to 2018, I led with my team at ACC to coordinate the development of Kenya’s first National Wildlife Strategy 2030, a process that the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife chaired. This was a great achievement for Kenya.

When do you feel most gratified?

When I am serving others. As a young girl, I was part of the Lord Baden-Powell brownies club, and our motto was L.A.H.—Lend A Hand. I realise that has been a running thread throughout my life, a part of who I was meant to be. My mum was also like that, always reaching out to help others. As a committed Christian, I am even more conscious that I am here to serve others, in any assigned capacity. As our motto was in Kenya High School, so it is in my life: Servire est Regnare – To Serve is to Reign!

If no one else will do it, I will do it. That’s me. But I realise that I need to reserve time, energy, and focus for me as well. Because if your baskets are always full, how can you refuel and make time to pursue your dreams?

In the last year, with the unstructured work and life environment COVID provided, I have realised that as noble as it is to serve others, there is a need for balance. And this can only be achieved if we set boundaries. Perhaps one of my internal coping mechanisms to deflect the insecurities related to being small was reaching out and helping others. This allowed me to counter the not being big or good enough syndrome. Is it possible that I have overdone the serving and made it my platform for defining achievement? This can degenerate if one is not careful to set boundaries and have the freedom to say no without guilt.

Serving is part of how I am oriented and wired. Still, it should not compromise my wellbeing because then it becomes a thing that replaces other equally important ones.

As I continue defining and getting on track with where I want to go, I know it will mean saying no to things that don’t add to my determined direction. When it comes to balance, I am aware of what needs to change in order for me to achieve these higher goals.

Do you feel headed in the right direction?

Yes. I’m now in my 50s, and I need to do this because I want at the end of my race to have finished well and finished strong. I am in the right mental space. I am becoming more conscious of the people I need to surround myself with to reach the higher horizons, the people I need to inspire along the way, and the people I need to be vulnerable with. I know they will ask me the hard questions and help me in my journey of becoming.

If you weren’t in the conservation sector, where would you be?

I think I would be in education, teaching. I get amazed at how much knowledge I want to acquire because I always want to understand, and after I have understood, I want to pass it on. I keep telling my husband that I wouldn’t mind going to the university to equip others with the knowledge and practical experience I have gathered in the conservation sector. If we don’t equip others, who will? That’s why I must follow through on completing my PhD.

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This interview is part of a series profiling the stories of the 2021 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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