“Sorry your name is not here.” The beefy security officer at the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON) entrance told Luwedde Juliet Grace.
“But I was invited officially,” Grace protested, wondering what to do.
She had travelled by bus for fifteen hours, all the way from Kampala to Nairobi, eager to attend her first ever United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA). This was her first time in Kenya.
“Next please,” the security official shouted. There was a long queue of delegates waiting for security clearance before they could be allowed to enter UNON’s Nairobi premises.
Grace didn’t even have the phone number of the UN person that she had been corresponding with. So she sent an email from her phone, notifying her contact that she was at the entrance, unable to get in. Fortunately, the matter was speedily resolved, enabling her to match into the vast, lush compound.
As she walked in between the dozens of flags that line the long pathway to UNON’s main entrance hallway, she thought about the many hurdles that she had to overcome to just be there. For starters, she didn’t belong to an accredited organization, a requirement for UNEA delegates. Secondly, she wasn’t given any financial support for her transport and accommodation. So she fundraised from friends and made arrangements to stay with a relative while in Nairobi.
Any of these hurdles could have caused her to take a U-turn. But she has learned to use stumbling blocks as stepping stones.
This was the 3rd ever meeting of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA 3). According to UNEP, UNEA is the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment, with a universal membership of all 193 Member States. It meets biennially in Nairobi, Kenya, to set priorities for global environmental policies and develop international environmental law.
In the course of the week, Grace attended the inaugural Young Champions of the Earth awards ceremony. She watched in fascination as Mariana from Burkina Faso was awarded as Earth Champion of the Africa region - Her project, “JACIGREEN", offered an innovative eco-solution to the problem of water hyacinth; Ecuadorian biologist Liliana Jaramillo Pazmiño scooped the top award in the Latin America and Carribean region for her project that was using native plants to make green roofs in Quito, Ecuador. Grace was immensely inspired by these young ladies and the other young champions from other regions of the world. If they can do it, so can I. She told herself.
Interestingly, it was because of this award that Grace was at UNEA. A few months earlier, she had submitted her application for the award. Unfortunately, she wasn’t even among the finalists. However, she found an opportunity in the rejection email that UNEP sent her.
Beneath the official email was information about UNEP’s 2017 UNEA. She decided to get in touch with the contact in the email about participating in UNEA. This triggered regular communication that culminated in her presence at UNEA.
This conference enabled her to commence a close professional interaction with UNEP. She was able to meet Damaris, the UNEP Staff in charge of Youth in UNEP’s Africa Office; Jorge, UNEP’s Director and Secretary of Governing Bodies, plus other key UNEP officials. This high-level global meeting planted the seeds for her ambition to work in the environmental policy space.
But even as she networked on the international scene, Grace’s livelihoods journey remained bumpy. She was yet to land a well-paying job, a fact that bothered her parents. Her father made it his business to try and get a job for his daughter. One day after a phone call with his sister in Dubai, these efforts bore fruit.
“Grace!” Grace’s father called from the living room.
She was in the kitchen, preparing matoke and groundnuts, her favorite meal.
“Come quickly!” her father repeated excitedly. She could tell that he had some very important news for her.
He was seated in his usual seat at the corner of the living room.
“I have just talked with your aunt in Dubai,” he said, a big smile on his face, “she has found a job for you!”
Grace broke into a smile, even bigger than her dad’s. Visions of western union instantly flooded her mind. She imagined how every month, her mother would go to Western Union to collect cash that Grace would have sent from Dubai. That would be totally amazing! She could feel her heart fill with joy.
Her father rubbed his hands together, his eyes exuding happiness.
“The job is for a maid but what matters is that you will earn your own money.”
Had she heard correctly? A maid?!! Really dad!
“A maid?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.
She instantly declined the offer, much to her father’s displeasure.
Instead of joining the bandwagon of the thousands of Africans who migrate to the Gulf States every year for domestic jobs, she buried herself deeper into a new part-time job that she had found at Media Challenge Initiative.
Karl Kraus the Australian writer and journalists once joked that, ‘a journalist is a person whose skill is improved by a deadline; the more time he has, the worse he writes.’
He captured the high-pressure nature of journalism. That’s why the Media Challenge Initiative is committed to build the next generation of journalists in Africa through training, mentorship and experiential peer-to-peer learning.
One of the young journalists who partook in Media Challenge Initiative’s training was Daniel Ayebare. One of the monthly residential training sessions, he rubbed his hands on his forehead in deep concentration.
That training followed a 360 degrees approach that trains young journalists with all-round media skills. Also at the training were several other aspiring journalists. By the time the training concluded, Daniel had gained critical journalism knowledge that included: beat reporting; how to use a smartphone as a media tool; how to edit a print story and how to take great photos. In addition, he was linked up with an experienced journalist who became his mentor. Because of this connection, Daniel ended up at NBS Television, a Ugandan TV Station. After that, he started working full-time at Nile Post, an independent online news portal.
It is because of people like Daniel that Grace enjoys working part time with the Media Challenge Initiative. It is very gratifying to be part of an initiative that ignites a lasting spark in young journalists like Daniel.
Daniel’s strides along the journalism pathway have been so steady that his mentor has now given him his own mentor. The mentee has become a mentor.
As she celebrates the progress of young journalists like Daniel, Grace remains committed to her own career growth. Like millions of other youth in Africa, she is actively job-hunting. It’s not about searching for greener pastures, but rather, expanding her horizons.
Apart from a CV with rich experience, she has an ace in her arsenal – her initiative. Ever since she became a teenager, she has nurtured the habit of making things happen, instead of waiting for them to happen.
Her goal is to find a job in the Environmental Policy and Research Space. Because of UNEA, she already knows what high-level policy making tastes like. She loved that taste and is keen on translating it into a daily feast through a job in the sector.
One of the casualties of this high stakes pursuance of her dreams is her love life. On the face of it, it seems as if the plate of her life is so full that there is no time for someone’s son to wander into her heart. Although she is conscious of this fact, she doesn’t wake up every morning wondering if today is the day that she will meet the love of her life. Rather, when her eyes flick open at dawn, she wonders whether ‘today is the day that I will venture into the next big thing.’ For her, love happens when it happens, but big things in one’s career must be made to happen. They don’t just happen.
In January 2019, Grace started working in a Public Relations firm. It is testament to her ability to crack opportunities open that she was able to find a job in a sector in which she had no professional qualifications.
Because life is often a trade-off, she had to miss the 2019 UNEA because of her new job. Although this new job lasted less than a year, she was able to cut her teeth in public relations. She learnt how to craft powerful messages that resonate with the public. This is a skill she intends to use in environmental messaging.
“I have grown,” she says, “I need new challenges.”
If she has her way, which has a knocking of having, those new challenges will be in the environmental policy and research sphere.
She wants to tap into her writing skill to transform dry policy papers into sizzling documents that can be consumed by the masses. Her dream employer is either the United Nations Environment Programme or the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). True to nature, she hasn’t waited for UNCCCD to advertise for jobs. Rather, she has seized the available UNCCCD opportunities for civil society players. She is the interim Facilitator for the Global Youth Caucus on Desertification and Land (https://www.desertification-youth-caucus.org/).
Grace has been drawn to UNCCCD because of a firm belief in the power of land to make a difference in Africa’s food security and prosperity. Not only can land be used optimally to feed Africa and leave a surplus for export, it is also one of the largest carbon sinks in the world.
Grace recently came across a speech by Ibrahim Thiaw, the UNCCCD Executive Secretary. The speech had been delivered during the opening session of UNCCCD’s fourteenth Conference of Parties (COP 14). Because of her affinity to UNCCCD, she begun devouring the speech as if it was a suspense novel. Some words jumped from the screen into her heart.
“Restoring 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030 could generate US$9 trillion in ecosystem services and sequester up to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases.”
Hmm... Grace thought and made a mental note to dig deeper into exactly how land restoration sequesters greenhouse gases. That night before drifting to sleep, she fantasized about undertaking comprehensive research about land degradation in Uganda, then zeroing in on how policies can hasten restoration of that land. Later that night after she slept, she dreamt that she was part of a project that restored large swathes of land in Karamoja region, north east of Uganda. The following morning, this dream lingered on in her mind.
In this journey of life, we all need people who keep us grounded even as they inspire us to fly high like eagles. For Grace, Hamba Richard is one of those people. She met him when she joined Teens Uganda at the age of thirteen. At that time, she had just been thrust into the turbulent ocean of puberty and was lucky to find both purpose and responsible fun activities at Teens Uganda.
Dancing was a popular activity at the Organization. But because dancing wasn’t her forte, she delved into the other programs like reproductive health and environmental issues. In that sense, Teens Uganda introduced her to two issues that have become cornerstones of her life – environmental conservation and volunteerism.
For Grace, volunteerism is a powerful tool for both self-improvement and for making things happen. She concurs with the words of Bwak the Bantu poet that, ‘volunteerism places initiative firmly into your hands.’ This then allows you to take the initiative and take firm steps towards achieving your goal.
That’s why when she finished her O-Levels in 2014, Grace volunteered full time at Teens Uganda. This gave her an opportunity to use her time constructively as she mentored teenagers who were also searching for purpose just as she had years earlier.
Two years later in 2016, she again volunteered full time, this time at ProInterns, which fancies itself as Uganda’s #1 internship platform. This gave Grace a chance to play a part in paving the way for promising students to stride into their preferred careers through relevant internships.
One year after that in 2017, it was time for Grace herself to become an intern. One afternoon, she had some rare downtime on her hands, so she decided to pay Facebook a visit. While she was reading the latest updates from her friends, she stumbled on a link of a tour firm known as Great Lakes Safaris Limited. She followed the link and found herself devouring exciting posts about Uganda’s many tourism destinations.
I would like to visit some of these places, Grace thought. And as she had learnt to do in her life, she decided to move this thought into action. She contacted Amos Wekesa, the mercurial founder of the Tour Firm. He was a public figure that she had seen on TV severally.
Although internship at the renowned tour firm was usually a preserve of university graduates, Grace managed to talk her way into an internship in the Firm’s HR department. As James Allen the British writer said, ‘the world steps aside for the man who knows where he is going.’
It wasn’t easy for Grace to commute to the Firm’s offices because they were a two-hour drive from her parents’ home. But she soldiered on. Through the internship, she was able to learn much more about Uganda’s amazing tourism destinations and visit some of those places. She also observed Amos Wekesa from up-close and learned how he had become such an iconic tourism leader in Uganda. This experience helped her in her work during this same period as a project coordinator at Vijjana Safaris, an initiative for improving community tourism and education.
The following year in 2018, Grace took yet another leap of volunteerism.
She volunteered at 40 Days Over 40 Smiles Foundation. This is a Kampala based independent, youth-led, charity organisation that helps ‘vulnerable children and communities to access quality, all-round education support and entrepreneurial training aimed at self-sustainability.’
While volunteering there, Grace was immersed into the innocent, beautiful world of children. Every day, she would go to teach Primary Two (Grade Two/Standard Two) students. Few things in the world can beat the sight of kids’ outstretched hands as they eagerly seek to answer a question that you have asked them. They are so hopeful, so immersed in the moment. Ah, how Grace enjoyed spending quality time with those kids.
Do you now see why the benefits of volunteerism can be intangible and priceless?
One afternoon in June 2018, a fellow volunteer at 40 Days Over 40 Smiles shared with Grace information about a writing opportunity at UNEP. After perusing the information, Grace felt that it was exactly what she needed, as it would make her a published contributing author. But before one could be considered for the writing task, one had to submit their CV and bio.
The problem with this requirement was that Grace had never written her bio and wasn’t even sure what that was. She approached Esther Kalenzi the 40 Days Over 40 Smiles Founder, for advice. Esther guided her and edited her bio three times. These 88 words were the result of that painstaking process:
My name is Luwedde Juliet Grace, an environment enthusiast who is passionate about conservation and tourism. I am the team leader of Vijjana Safaris. This is an ecologically motivated social enterprise which aims to engage young people to innovate and create opportunities which support eco-systems’ sustainability and livelihoods. I have experience writing about the environment and extensive knowledge working with communities plus I am an active member/ participant of the UNEP-MGCY.
I am a multi-passionate individual actively working towards the development of a career as an accomplished Environmentalist.
On July 3rd 2018, Grace emailed this bio to David Bwakali, the Coordinating Lead Author of UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook for Youth, Africa Publication.
Thanks to this meticulous preparation and Grace’s experience in ecotourism, she was given an opportunity to write about the role of ecotourism in enhancing the livelihoods of Ugandan youth. That’s how she became a published contributing author of a UNEP Publication.
Grace has achieved all this despite not having a university degree. Although she passed her final High School examinations with flying colors, she didn’t proceed to University due to financial constraints. While she is keen on pursuing higher education in 2021, she vowed after High School that she wouldn’t allow lack of a degree to hold her back from scaling greater heights.
Grace hails from a royal clan of the Buganda tribe. As such, she is a princess by birth but a high achiever by choice. And she is just getting started.
As she listens to Isaiah Katumwa, the great Ugandan saxophonist create musical magic, Grace closes her eyes and sighs.
I will use the power of the pen to create my own magic in the environmental policy and research arena. She vows.
To her fellow African youth, she has one message, ‘chase after your passion. Don’t tire. Just keep chasing it until you grab a hold of it.’