“It was an eye-opener to me on the importance of maintaining culture in societies and how it could play a significant role in strengthening conservation and public health programs.” – Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka
Walking through the life journey of Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, an extraordinary African woman, through her memoir Walking With Gorillas has been truly a special experience. Her story is ongoing, and reading this book felt like the beginning of something remarkable, not just for her but also for other women and men who want to see a better world for both people and nature. When I learned that she was writing a book, I had high expectations, and I can confidently say that I have not been disappointed.
Dr. Gladys’s journey is profoundly inspiring, particularly her path to becoming Uganda’s first Wildlife Vet. Reading her story from her early years to how she became a conservationist to her studying and practising veterinary medicine for both exotic and African wildlife to starting a non-governmental organisation, provided me with detailed insights into her remarkable achievements. I found myself reflecting on my journey, smiling at the beautiful moments she has experienced, meditating on the sad moments – some including grief, recognising the huge role she played the many times she stood up for herself and recognizing how far she has come.
What stood out for me was her unwavering commitment to following her dreams. One sentence from her book keeps echoing in my mind whenever I lose focus: “Follow your dreams and the rest will follow.” These are the words Dr. Birutė Galdikas who conducted the first study of orangutans, wrote when she signed the book that she bought after attending her talk as a vet student. .Dr. Gladys, I take the words to heart too.
Dr. Gladys’ came to my awareness during my previous professional experience, and her work immediately captured my attention. I was utterly spellbound. Having walked alongside veterinarians during my undergraduate studies, I held a glimpse of the immense dedication required to don that white coat. Interestingly, when I was making my initial course selection, becoming a wildlife vet was my dream – or rather working with wildlife. Life’s circumstances led me to choose Wildlife Management and Conservation, a decision I’ve never second-guessed. The path I have chosen still allows me to be in the same space as veterinarians, (one of my close friends is even a Veterianian and you can read her guest post here) offering a unique mix of experiences.
Before I delve further into this review, I must mention that this is the second autobiography by a Ugandan author that I’ve read, the first being Vanessa Nakate’s A Bigger Picture. I had the honour of meeting Dr. Gladys at the Women in Nature Network (WiNN) Kenya conference, which I’ve written about here. My awareness of Gladys’s work came even earlier when I was exploring the stories of women who have paved the way before me. While Dian Fossey and Dr. Jane Goodall were synonymous with African primates in my mind, Gladys’s name appeared as a prominent African woman in this field. Her willingness to share her knowledge as a public figure and co-founder of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) is truly refreshing.
Reading her autobiography uncovered many questions I had about her journey. Why did she choose to study Veterinary Medicine? What inspired her to start her organization? How did she balance her career with raising a family? What challenges did she encounter, and how did she overcome them? The book also sheds light on the challenges she faced in the Democratic Republic of Congo which has gone through guerilla warfare, highlighting the threats faced by wildlife, especially gorillas, in that region. Her unwavering commitment to protecting these species and the communities living alongside them is awe-inspiring.
My most beautiful parts of the book are Dr. Gladys’s interaction with gorillas and communities where she mentions “… where community members are empowered and engaged in solving the conflict between people and wildlife has gone a long way in reducing the tension between the community and the park management.” It felt like I was experiencing a whole lesson on the animal behaviour of gorillas, the difference between habituated and partially habituated gorillas, learning about the landscapes of Uganda’s conservation areas and insightful insights on engaging the community, stakeholders and policymakers. It was also quite interesting to read the translocation processes and I felt like I was right there in the background not forgetting to mention her doing an operation on a gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
I was also fascinated by how Dr. Gladys shattered the stereotype that only men could undertake the physically demanding work she had accomplished. When she was setting up Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) she mentioned, “I had never let my colour or gender stop me from accomplishing what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t about to start now.” Trekking long distances in the Bwindi forests, performing surgeries on gorillas, and observing them may seem like tasks for men only, but she has proven that anyone can excel in these endeavours.
One of the most inspiring aspects of her story was her practice of taking her children to work with her, especially when they were young. While I’ve often struggled with my patience when it comes to handling my child outside the comforts of home, Dr. Gladys and other women I’ve met have taught me the value of stepping out of my comfort zone for the greater good. I hope to keep that promise to myself and be more involved whenever circumstances allow.
Walking with Gorillas serves as a testament to what anyone, regardless of gender or identity, can achieve. It emphasizes the importance of setting goals and relentlessly pursuing them. Dr. Gladys’ story illustrates the significance of standing up for oneself and speaking with authority. This book has been a source of inspiration whenever I’ve doubted the feasibility of my dreams. It reaffirms that dreams are not too big to achieve, and I should never stop dreaming.
To conclude, I loved the acknowledgement section. It is remarkable and I enjoyed how the section was split into the different people she has interacted with throughout her life including her school friends. Something I’ve not yet seen. It was quite extensive and so rich.
Dr. Gladys, you are a true inspiration, and your book has left a profound impact on me. I am certain it will do the same for others. To anyone aspiring for greatness, remember to follow your dreams, and the rest will follow.
To purchase this book in Kenya you can get it at Text Book Centre.