“Embrace your journey, be curious and be daring“
When Musonda Mumba landed in Switzerland 24 years ago as an intern for the Convention on Wetlands, she had no idea what winter looked like. “Nobody prepares you for that!” she now says, smiling, as the new Secretary General of the institution. In between, the Zambian-born environmentalist got a PhD in Wetland Ecology, made it to the highest ranks of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the UN Development and Environment programs, and was named one of the 100 most influential African women.
Along the way, she also founded the first Network of African Women Environmentalists, and showed it is possible to be out there, and up there, as a female, black scientist. On the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we spoke with Mumba about her journey, her learnings, and her advice for youth looking to carve out their own path as environmentalists. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You grew up in rural Zambia. How did your upbringing influence your career choice as a wetland ecologist and environmentalist?
By some universal alignment, I was born 200 meters away from a river, in an area bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo that is traversed by lakes, swamps and marshes. My grandparents ran a business next to a big lake, and I spent my childhood playing with my cousins in the Masa River. Having an early exposure to nature was amazing and, to a large extent, laid the foundation for where I am today.
As a fresh graduate from the University of Zambia, you got a paid internship with a field-based, men-only team working in wetlands. How did you navigate that experience as a young professional?
Some colleagues doubted that a woman was cut out for field work and could do things such as crank a boat engine. Well, I learned to do that. And I showed them I was as capable as any of them. But you must be very empathetic and clever about how you assert yourself: some of them had grown up in predominantly male households, so that was their point of reference. My Zambian grandmother, who was a businesswoman, taught me to put myself forward – just not in an aggressive, angry way.
Some male colleagues doubted your capability, but others did believe in you…
Absolutely, I was lucky to have very good mentors and managers who supported me. They would say: “We are meeting with the Minister, and Musonda should be the one presenting the findings of that work.” Or “Are you ready to help with the fuel for the boat? Go for it!” They trusted me and gave me space to grow.
Women are underrepresented in both science and top jobs, but you have excelled in both. What powered your journey as one of Africa’s foremost environmentalists?
First of all, I have had remarkable models of female leadership in my family. My Zambian grandmother ran the whole family business: she didn’t even have a high school diploma, but she was so streetwise and taught us so many values. My South African grandmother brought the spirit of ‘ubuntu’, a Zulu proverb meaning ‘I am because we are,’ or you are only as strong as your community. Also, I have a twin sister: we have been each other’s sounding boards, encouraging each other to take steps in new directions. And then there is my ‘SheVillage.’
What is your ‘SheVillage’?
It is a safe space; a global community of support inspired by ‘ubuntu’, whereby African women working in international organizations and NGOs can speak openly about professional issues without feeling judged and help each other out. In my career, I have had to walk into different spaces: the science room, the policy room, the multilateral room. And there were times when I felt impostor syndrome, wondering if I was really supposed to be there. My SheVillage sisters would then hold a mirror up to me, reminding me of all my qualifications, and encouraging me to walk into all those forums with my head high.
Sometimes women are underestimated by other women. What is your view on that?
This is such an important issue. For me, it starts with how we educate our girls: are we limiting and boxing them by, for example, pushing them to play with certain toys or dress in a certain way? Are we building their self-esteem or crushing it? When I first showed up in multilateral forums looking the way I do, with my red nails and jewelry, there were some startled looks—”Is she serious? Is she even capable?”— Yes, I am capable, and I am here as an expert who has something to share. And I am also myself. So, women: let’s present ourselves as we really are and let’s look out for each other.
What is your advice for youth, especially women who are looking to pursue a career in environmental sciences?
I was an intern at the Wetlands Convention 24 years ago, and I am now honored to be leading the institution. In between, a lot has happened: I had many experiences in different countries, grew a lot, but also faced numerous challenges and disappointments. I learned very quickly that comparison is a killer of joy, so my message is this: your journey is your journey: embrace it, learn from others along the way, be curious and be daring.