As might be expected for someone taking up a new position, Hilma Angula had just arrived early for the NACSO Annual General Meeting, which was to be held in the organisation’s boardroom in early December 2018.
“I am sorry I am a little late”, she said, while still standing in the doorway in a stunning African print dress. Meaning late for the interview we had planned on her life’s journey, and her new role as the Institutional Development Working Group Coordinator for Namibia’s world-renowned Community Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM) programme.
The coordinator post had not been funded or filled for some years, and is vital to provide institutional and governance support to conservancies through CBNRM support organisations and government technical staff. But who would have thought that an ordinary little girl from a small village called Efidi in the northern part of Namibia could one day become a conservation leader?
Once upon a time, not so many years ago, this was all just a dream, a dream of a little girl to travel one day and explore the world. Hilma says, “first of all, my dream was to leave the village”. Not only did she travel far from her village to Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia, where she studied at the Polytechnic, she also went on to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela University where she did a Bachelor’s degree in Nature Conservation. But her biggest leap was when she moved out of the country to Great Britain to do a Masters in Conservation Leadership at the prestigious University of Cambridge.
Interacting with people from different cultural and religious backgrounds at Cambridge gave her a broader perspective on life. Meeting and dining with people like Sir David Attenborough, a legendary naturalist and broadcaster, was a wonderful experience: “I mean, what an incredible human being he is. Having a conversation with him was the most inspirational thing for me. He told me that the world is at your feet – you choose the path that you want to follow and you follow it full force,” she says with delight as she highlights her best experience in Cambridge.
Studying nature conservation was not always part of her dreams. “I actually wanted to become a policewoman. I felt that it has power, you have influence – and I liked the uniform,” says Hilma, amusingly listing what she had admired about her dream job while looking down at her bright floral dress. For a nine year old growing up in early post-independence era, you either aspired to become a nurse, teacher, soldier or police officer. These were the people that you looked up to and drew inspiration from.
Her dream of one day becoming a policewoman was wiped away overnight when she won a spelling bee, an achievement that took her to Etosha National Park, where for the first time she saw lions and a herd of elephants. “From there my interest was to study, not necessarily something that is related to wildlife, but something that would take me to different places, and I thought yah, conservation would be ideal,” said Hilma with a beaming smile as she talked about her mission accomplished. It might be true what they say, “dreams are for free”, but the truth is not all dreams are meant to be fulfilled.
Hilma Angula first joined NACSO as an intern, working with the Natural Resources Working Group, often camping in the bush while working closely with communities. As part of the CBNRM programme, she spent a lot of time engaging with rural people, assisting them with adaptive management planning, a tool developed by NACSO to provide feedback to communities to help them manage their natural resources better.
On the way, she also picked up skills on how to promote partnerships and build networks among different people from various backgrounds, and how to facilitate and engage communities to promote conservation and natural resource management. These are the skills that very much define her as a leader and that she is passionate about. Hilma is therefore a witness to the successes and challenges of Namibia’s conservation programme, and has a strong understanding of governance issues faced by conservancies.
The busy urban life in Europe is very different to rural Africa, so going to the UK was doubly exciting because: “I think places like Cambridge come with a level of prestige in the way that they are perceived, so I felt like, I am not only going to the country of the Queen, but I am going to the University of Cambridge”. Although she googled the place before she left she says, “I was amazed by the infrastructural development, especially the organised and convenient public transport, and in the university town everyone is cycling wherever you look.” These are just some of the things you don’t get a sense when you are browsing from the internet.
“I was like, am I featuring in a Harry potter movie? The ancient buildings and small streets where everyone fits in, everything is so tucked in well together. I was very baffled I would say, but I think also impressed. I could not believe that this small place had produced so many intellectuals, and had so much information and history,” she continues amusingly as if to say, yeah! I finally managed to travel out of the village.
Despite the exciting and eye opening experience, Hilma admits that she missed her country. She says: “I missed the Namibian sun, the food, my people… and as much as I was enjoying myself, I think there was a sense of home that I wasn’t quite getting, so I think I became much more appreciative of my country. Now I think Namibia is much more beautiful than I thought before I left.”
After finishing her studies at Cambridge, although she had many offers at her feet, including some from international organisations, Hilma chose to return and to plough back at home. She says, “When I left I kind of committed myself to come back to the CBNRM programme because I think Namibia has a beautiful story to tell in terms of conservation and I wanted to be part of that story… I felt that there were gaps in our programme and there was something that I could contribute personally.”
Governance is a fundamental component of the CBNRM programme, which is based on communal conservancies. These self-governing bodies are run by ordinary rural people, who often have no formal education, but play an important role in managing Namibia’s natural resources. The number of conservancies and community forests has increased over the years, while the technical support offered remains more or less the same. It has therefore been a struggle for conservancies to comply with the regulations of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism known as Standard Operating Procedures.
Now, with more skills and exposure to international conservation ideas, Hilma is ready to occupy a bigger position and to tackle some of these problems faced by conservancies. In her new role as Coordinator of the Institutional Development Working Group, she wishes to encourage the integration of the three NACSO working groups, promote good governance in conservancies, more member engagement in conservancies, as well as exploring different means of benefit distribution to conservancy members.
She is motivated by the fact that she now has a position of influence: something that gives her hope in the sense that, “through this programme, we are touching and improving people’s livelihoods and I am in the position to contribute to the conservation story that Namibia has to tell,” she says proudly as she leaves the interview to attend the NACSO AGM. Her enthusiastic and charismatic character seems to carry her forward to take up her new role.