Dr Tiwonge Gawa describes herself as ‘a mum to beautiful twin girls, a wife, an ecologist by training, and an activist by passion.’ She quickly goes on to clarify that she uses the word ‘passion’ because, she says, ‘the things that I am advocating for are things that I personally relate to.’
Being able to personally relate to things makes all the difference when trying to get people to understand the importance of lifestyle and policy changes. It’s why Dr Tiwonge believes that the most important thing we can invest in, is helping people to understand their relationship to and impact on the environment. She says, ‘we believe strongly that for people to change, they must decide to change. You cannot force them. They must make the decision.’
The journey to becoming an ecologist
For Dr Tiwonge, that decision and her own journey to becoming an ecologist and activist started on a university field trip surrounded by the vibrant reds and greens of the Miombo Woodlands. It’s a part of Machinga forest reserve, which is in Malawi (where Dr Tiwonge lives and works). She tells us, ‘it was at that time of the year that the Miombo trees have started to produce new leaves – so you’ve got greens and reds and tall trees with big trunks that branch at the top. You have big canopies up there and you can see quite far through the trunks of these big, big beautiful trees. It was a very beautiful forest.’ Sadly, Dr Tiwonge goes on to explain that a lot of the forest has since been cut down.
Before that time, Dr Tiwonge had known that she wanted to work in a subject that she enjoyed – ‘something that I could take as a hobby and a job at the same time,’ she says. Her favourite subject at school had been biology so when Dr Tiwonge went to university she says, ‘obviously, I majored in biology’. And this is where it all started. She explains, ‘We learned all sorts of types of biology, but the ones that I enjoyed the most were by one lecturer. Her subject was ecology and she took us into the forest to measure trees and that kind of thing. Before university, I had never been to a national park or anything like that, but when I went, I loved it! I enjoyed being in that space in the wild, in the fields, hearing the sounds and being amongst the trees. When I went into the forest I knew, this is it.’