“My Life Has Been a Process of Falling Forward into the Next Adventure”, Luwi Nguluka on Choosing Freedom

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Article by: Damaris Agweyu

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The story I would like to tell is that you don’t have to be extraordinary to excel. That might be some people’s story, but it doesn’t have to be yours. Your story is your story, and it is enough.

Luwi Nguluka brings a lighthearted perspective towards life. Yet, this doesn't diminish her seriousness when it comes to what matters. 

Understanding that success in conservation largely rests on reshaping human behaviour, she conceptualises and executes media campaigns aimed at instigating lasting change within Zambia's conservation sector.

As the Communications Director at Wildlife Crime Prevention, Luwi leads the "This Is Not a Game" campaign, focused on combating the illegal bushmeat trade—a severe threat to carnivores and prey species across the continent.

Luwi is particularly passionate about initiatives that promote diversity and inclusivity. She actively contributes to this cause as a founding member of "Women for Conservation," Zambia’s pioneering network for women involved in or interested in conservation.

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

Luwi Nguluka (provided)

Luwi, what do you value most in your life?

The freedom to express myself and explore my passions. Pigeonholing people and having to present in a certain way drives me crazy.

Kindness. I believe that we are blessed to be a blessing. I try to give as much of what I have to others, even if that's just my energy or mind.

Lastly, flexibility. Being able to pivot when necessary is important to me. Allowing yourself to no longer see things the way you did, to accept that you were wrong, to learn.

In a world where people are constantly like, "Wait a minute, who are you now?" pivoting can be challenging. 

It’s OK to reinvent yourself. If Damaris decides to be a punk rock chick today, she can. It's allowed, guys. We’re all going to leave this earth one day; we might as well spend our time here being our true selves. 

Did conservation choose you, or did you choose conservation?

It chose me. I'm Zambian, but I moved to Botswana when I was two years old. My parents were missionaries, and we moved often. They were happy to work in some of the most remote areas in the world. So, I ended up smack bang in the middle of the Okavango Delta, where I was raised—the bush and conservation were not foreign concepts to me.

I was home-schooled until Grade 3, and in Grade 4, I went to a school that was obsessed with conservation. We were at the edge of a desert and monitoring nature and its seasons was a significant part of my childhood. However, when I went to university, like any other African kid who is good at science, I chose medicine. 

Things did not go according to plan. I love science, and I like helping people, and in my head, the only way you could do those two things was to become a doctor. But I hated pre-med. I was flunking all of my subjects, and in my second year, I started taking electives outside of pre-med. One of them was ecology. 

I love nature and people and how everything is interconnected. Part of the problem with pre-med for me was deep-diving into very minute details. Ecology, on the other hand, fits with how my brain works. It allowed me to explore anything and everything and reminded me so much of my childhood and the bush. In my fourth year, I worked as a research assistant for one of my professors, a herpetologist. That is where my journey in conservation began.

Tell me more about how your brain works.

It's a bit like Dori from Finding Nemo. So many things interest me, and I have multiple tabs open in my brain at any given time. But it's not just information sitting in my head; I want to know how it helps me and the people around me—understanding the “why” of things helps us interact with our world better, which is why I lean towards science.

In a phrase or sentence, how do you approach life?

I'm stealing this from someone, "falling forward".

Tell me more.

Part of being curious is being willing to admit that you don't know everything. That and being willing to experiment. With experimentation comes a lot of failure. This bothered me a lot when I was younger, but now I'm getting more comfortable with failure. It's how I've gotten to where I am. Failing med school led me to ecology.

I did research work for a bit, and I wouldn't say I failed at it, but I realised I didn't want to live in the bush driving in a Land Rover for the rest of my life. So, in that sense, I was a failure. But then that led me to move to Zambia, which led me to more urban-based research work, which I love. Now, I work in this intersection between conservation, communication and behaviour change. My life has been a process of falling forward into the next adventure.

Getting people to change their behaviours isn't easy.

You need to be an optimist. To have this underlying belief that people can change, no matter how slow the process might be.

I was thinking about myself this morning and was so frustrated because my body has told me many, many times that it doesn't like gluten. For the last couple of days, I've been very lethargic and mildly constipated. And today, I was like, “You've been eating pasta”. Yes, it's whole wheat pasta, but it's still pasta. And now I'm banging my head against the wall because I know this. Why do I keep doing it?

But that gives me a lot of grace for people. Our campaigns are about understanding that there are things that we struggle with and have been struggling with for quite some time, but there are also things that we have overcome. 

I'm not the person that I was in university. I'm not even the person I was last year, mainly because of WE Africa. People can change, and the science of how people can change interests me.

An example is Botswana in the early 2000s. The country once had one of the highest rates of  HIV/AIDS prevalence in the world. I grew up seeing how once taboo conversations around sex were evolving. But condom use and taking ARVs were normalised in my lifetime. Looking at that always motivates me to rethink what is possible in the conservation sector.

You are a communicator; do you ever struggle with your visibility?

My issue has never been that I'm shy or don't want people to see me. I'm just very private. On the one hand, I understand that my story can change narratives around conservation work and who can have a seat at the table. So, when I can do that, I definitely do. On the other hand, how much of myself do I keep for myself and the people I have intimate relationships with? How much of myself do I want to share with the world? That's one tension I have. 

The second tension I have is living in this patriarchal and white supremacist world; even though things are changing, what we now have is the tokenisation of people of colour. When the system has found an eloquent black woman, she's the one that always needs to be seen. In my work, I intentionally create space for other people to participate and be seen. People who might not be as eloquent or visible and who may otherwise go unseen. 

We live in a world where there must be a hero—the story's lead character. And what I'm hearing you say is that you don't want to be the hero.

I want to reach young Zambian kids who potentially want to join conservation. One of my concerns is that my story doesn't reflect their lived experience. 

Because of how I look, how I talk, and my education, I can access and navigate certain spaces with relative ease. I can joke with people from different backgrounds and understand their cultural references. This is because my upbringing was very diverse. This is a privilege. 

I see how some people struggle in certain spaces because they don't have the "right" accent or education. They don't have the "right" type of humour because they're not referencing Friends or Sex and the City. It's the system, and it's not fair.

My concern is when people see someone like me and think, "Oh, Luwi is the aspirational Zambian woman in conservation”. I don’t think I am. 

The story I would like to tell is that you don’t have to be extraordinary to excel. That might be some people’s story, but it doesn’t have to be yours. Your story is your story, and it is enough. 

Luwi Nguluka (provided)

How were you raised?

My parents affirmed me so much I almost had no choice but to be successful. They would always tell me, "You can do whatever you want". To this day, I believe it. If I wanted to become an astronaut, I would go to NASA based purely on the hype they gave me. I'd probably fail every physics test, but my parents gave me the belief that I could do whatever I wanted. This helped me get into lots of spaces and rooms. 

That's not to say I've never struggled with self-esteem or other issues. In medical school, I really doubted myself. But it was more about being in the wrong place than being unable to hack it. And when I first joined conservation, I doubted myself often. But along the way, I've attracted a tribe of people who affirm me in many ways. 

I've only just now realised that I'm also a little delusional about life. It goes back to falling forward. When I moved to Zambia, as a young graduate, I was desperately job hunting.  There were times when I got disheartened. Still, I always thought, OK, if this doesn't work, what’s next? What do I like? 

At some point, I thought, “Well, I really like food”. So, I went to culinary school, and I enjoyed it, but looking back, I was a little delusional and loved it. 

I don't think I have the main character energy; it's not the Luwi show all the time. I hold genuine bonds with people because I want to know about others. But there is a level of curiosity and delusion that has catapulted me forward.

What is the most interesting thing about you?

I don't take life very seriously.

I don't want to dismiss my achievements as accidental. I work hard. I'm intentional about what I do and deliberate about who I spend time with. But the person I am with my family is the person I am with my friends, and the same person I am at work. She isn’t that serious. 

I feel like we emphasise all of the wrong things about ourselves. We show up as our job titles, the car we drive, the person we're dating. And we think that's what makes us valuable, rather than it being our ability to connect with people.

Would you say you are living an authentic life?

I think so. In a board meeting, I will show up as a slightly more serious version of myself, but I am still me.

I’ve tried being who people want me to be, and it’s made me very unhappy. In Botswana, being a third culture kid, I never had the "right" look, background, friends, etc. No matter how much I tried, I was always a little off. 

When I moved to Zambia, I chose to stop trying. I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not because it will rob me of a lot of peace and the opportunity to meet people who would like me for me. 

Going back to the privilege, I'm fortunate to work in an organisation that is flexible and accommodating. If I had to work in a more rigid institution, I would still be myself, but I would be more beaten and battered for it. I am happy to be at a place that celebrates my quirks. 

I’m also fortunate to have been raised by parents who are OK with their kids being opinionated. I can be myself around my family. So, this is a product of privilege, as much as it is an intentional choice to live this way.


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.