Working across borders to tackle Africa's problems
This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.
The country was engulfed in the violence of the genocide in which 800,000 Rwandans were killed in a hundred days and his family made it over the border into what was then Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC – to a refugee camp in Goma.
He was too young to understand what was going on.
“Most of it we learned from my friends when I was growing up,” he recalls.
But the journey was the start of a life as a refugee that was later to inspire him to work with people from all over the world as a researcher tackling Africa’s problems.
Conditions in the Goma camp were desperate. His father remembers they were burying more than 40 people a day who were dying from disease – cholera was spreading at an alarming rate – so he made a desperate decision to flee.
They headed south, crossed Lake Tanganyika and took a train from Kigoma to Dar es Salaam, before heading north to Arusha and making it into Kenya.
His father had an idea to find a colleague in Nairobi whom he had met years before at a conference. Somehow they found him and Muneza's family began to rebuild their lives.
Muneza lived for the next 18 years as a refugee in the city, and despite having moved from a Francophone country to an English speaking country, he somehow managed to excel academically.
“My life in Kenya was pretty normal, not like the experience for refugees in the big camps at Kakuma and Dadaab. But because of the war we met other refugees and formed dancing groups to share our culture. So although I grew up in another culture, I grew up sharing our culture.”
Initially he went to school in eastern Nairobi, learning English through Swahili, but later switched to a refugee school in the west of the city, where everything was taught in French. There was no dancing group there, so instead he got together with other young people from Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC, who wanted to help their community and started a scouting group, which ran community projects.
These included a United Nations Development Programme-supported initiative to help build houses for young people affected by the violence after the 2007 election in Kenya and act as mentors for young kids.
Drive for pursuing wildlife research
Muneza’s father, a geography teacher, sold his house in Rwanda to pay for him to go to the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, situated a short walk from the Nairobi National Park, where he undertook a study on mapping the distribution of birds as part of his studies.
“That is where I got the drive for pursuing research,” he says.
He had developed a passion for wildlife from a young age when his father used all the money he saved to show his children the wildness and beauty of Kenya and encouraged them to be at one with nature.
Having secured a bachelor degree in biology and deciding his career would be in fisheries and wildlife conservation, Muneza applied to do a masters at Michigan State University or MSU in the United States. A MasterCard Foundation Scholarship made it possible for him go there.
“This was a turning point for me,” he says. “I needed someone to mentor me and the scholarship made it possible for me to come to MSU and work with this wonderful professor, Dr Bob Montgomery, who has opened so many doors to my career.”
For the first time he was able to work with Americans, but also for the first time with peers from Southern and Western Africa who shared the same views on conservation and were learning new techniques in the field.
“This is important for Africa,” Muneza says. “Because we have huge human-wildlife conflicts, especially for carnivores.”
Being part of the Research on the Ecology of Carnivores and their Prey (RECaP) Lab at MSU has enhanced his skills “and prepared me to be a difference maker on the continent”, he says.
Crucially, he accompanied Montgomery in networking and meeting donors, and was able to visit zoos – which are rare in Africa – and see what type of work was being done.
“That opened doors to start research on giraffe skin disease.”
When he looked into it, there were only nine papers on the disease and it felt like this was “an animal that the world had forgotten”.
He collaborated with the Leiden Conservation Foundation and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to distribute a survey among giraffe biologists around the world to help document the spread of the disease throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.
The group’s research led to the creation of a map providing the first global assessment of the spread of the disease, which now affects seven countries in Africa, with a particularly big impact on Kenya and Tanzania. This project formed a key part of his masters research.
He also spent time in Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, a key site for lion conservation, which is home to one in 10 of the world’s lions but is surrounded by human populations, particularly Maasai. He worked on a project that tried to shift the perception of Maasai people that lions are always killing their livestock and to encourage the use of dogs to protect wildlife.
And he continued his research on giraffe skin disease, looking into concerns that the disease might make giraffes more vulnerable to lion attacks.
Last year he was one of two recipients of the American Society of Mammalogists' African Graduate Student Research Fund, giving him a three-year membership of the society and US$1,500 to support his research.
This January Montgomery sent him to do fieldwork in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda, working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and veterinary students from Rwanda and the DRC and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to help move 20 endangered Rothschild’s giraffes from the north side of the park to the south side.
During the operation he was joined by Tom Leiden of the Leiden Conservation Foundation, whom he had met in 2014 during his trips to Cleveland Metropark Zoo with Dr Montgomery to initiate the study on giraffe disease. Leiden was impressed with his research on giraffes and offered to pay his tuition to continue studies for a PhD at MSU, working with Montgomery. And Muneza is now East Africa coordinator for the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.
Ways of working together
A key benefit of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, Muneza says, is that it has enabled him to work with people from different countries.
He says the internationalisation he has experienced through his life and through studying and collaborating in different places is important to effecting change. “When you live with people from different parts of the country or the world you see that you share similar problems but may have different solutions and that can lead to a better outcome. That has helped me to see things differently.”
He believes this is also important because the world is becoming “more interdisciplinary”.
He remembers fondly that there was a scholar doing public policy at MSU who, whenever she saw him, called out, “Hello Mr Giraffe”, and always had one question: “What can people in public policy do to help giraffe conservation?”
So they had conversations around that and for Muneza it “showed me people from different backgrounds can definitely work together”.
Muneza has made his own luck. When he finished his undergraduate degree, he thought he would get a job in a few weeks. But then the reality hit him that he was still living as a refugee – it is hard to secure a job if you do not have the right papers.
So he went back to Rwanda and secured a passport, but then spent a year without any formal employment.
“My first job was working in tourism – they hired me because of my language skills in English, French, Kiswahili and Kinyarwanda. But the job also opened up access to the internet and the MasterCard Foundation Scholarships. Then knowing I was going to a world leading organisation and to work with the best minds I realised I needed to up my game.”
But one important advantage he brought with him was his ability to adapt. “One of the things they asked me was, ‘Can you handle culture shock?’ I said I thought the only shock I would feel would be the winter in East Lansing [in Michigan, where MSU is located] and this was true. I grew up in a different country and with people from different backgrounds, so I was open to learning with other people from other backgrounds.”
For Muneza the goal is “to be a leader in a discipline and somebody who gives back to Africa, to effect change in Africa, somebody who seeks to develop themselves further while finding solutions to problems on the continent”.
The training in leadership he has received as part of the scholarship scheme has helped prepare him, he says.
“Specifically here at MSU there is a Leadership Academy for African Development where every other week we have different experts from different fields come to talk to scholars about different issues.
“People also come to talk to us about etiquette, public speaking, developing projects, evaluation and monitoring – and the elevator pitch, being able to summarise what you do in two minutes if you meet someone in the elevator. Those are the skills we need to succeed.”
His goal now is to mentor young Africans and bring them to love their wildlife more and do more to protect it.
He is part of a group of MSU researchers hoping to start a centre with staff at Makerere University, Uganda, that will offer high-level training to young Africans, “because we need people with PhDs on board to drive conservation initiatives – my dream is to give field research opportunities to young Africans so that they have the exposure to undertake wildlife conservation”.
“In Africa we have rapid decline of wildlife numbers, we have poaching going on, we are losing wildlife. But everyone wants to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer,” he says. “I will be an advocate for giraffe conservation."