When you told people you wanted to go to Africa and work with animals everyone laughed. So how on earth did you end up living there and becoming a world famous primatologist, anthropologist and conservationist?
I knew I wanted to go to Africa, live with animals and write books about them from the age of 10.
I hated school, but enjoyed
learning. I wanted to be out on the cliffs with my dog, or riding (the stables let me ride for free in payment for mucking out, cleaning the tack and helping on the farm, as we had very very little money). I taught myself a lot from books. I haunted second hand book shops. My mother always said if I
wanted to do something I would have to work hard, take advantage of an opportunity and never give up.
Everyone else laughed at my
childhood dream of going to Africa to live with animals. No money, Africa referred to as the ‘Dark
Continent’, no planes with tourists
going back and forth, World War II was raging, and I was a mere girl. That was 1944.
I also had no money for
university. So I couldn’t do a degree and see if there was a job to apply for! Try as I might I couldn’t see a straightforward path to the career I wanted, but that didn’t deter me.
So I did secretarial training
instead - mum said if I completed that then I could try for a job in Africa! I chose to do my first secretarial work in Oxford. I had decided if I couldn’t go to university there then I’d work there instead and try to experience
the fun of university life without the cost and the studying! After Oxford, I worked in London as a secretary on a documentary film.
Then, low and behold, a
letter arrived from a school friend inviting me to Kenya, where her parents had just got a farm. She knew I’d always wanted to go to Africa and here was my chance! I often look back at that moment and wonder, if that invitation
hadn’t come my way would I have still made it to Africa? In my heart of hearts, I fully believe I would. I just know I’d have found another way to get there.
With my friend’s letter in
hand I returned home and worked as a waitress in a hotel round the corner. It took months, but I managed to save up enough money to buy me a return trip
to Africa - by boat! I was 23. My mother was considered irresponsible for letting me go! It was just not done in those
days, girls going off to Africa. Thank God she did not listen!
Once there, it was a dream
come true and I embarked upon studying chimpanzees. I lived and breathed Africa and absorbed myself in the environment and the wildlife. By 1986 I could see that forests were vanishing across Africa and chimpanzee numbers
declining. I then started travelling and giving lectures about the situation.
First in Africa, but realising that so many of the problems afflicting Africa originated outside, in the developed world, I began travelling and lecturing in Europe, North America, Asia including China, and South America too. My results and studies were covered by National Geographic magazine helping raise concern around the world. After I’d done so much touring and raising awareness, I decided to return to England to do a PhD at Cambridge University. This would give me scientific credibility and fulfil my long held desire to go to university. It also allowed me to take my work and research to another level, so, allowing me to continue travelling and lecturing all over the world. Can you believe it? I still travel for about 300 days each year - and I wouldn’t have it any other way! Throughout my career I’ve always had a positive outlook and so, in my mind, I’ve never really faced rejection, just hurdles to overcome! I’ve always had the support of my mother and family for which I’m eternally grateful, although my father was not a part of this - he was in the army in the war, and they divorced afterwards. There are many twists and turns in life, things can, and do, go wrong, but that’s just life! I’ve found the best way to deal with life’s problems is to look for solutions. I do this by discussing things with friends (originally it would have been with my mother), and if that doesn’t work, then I’ll take
my dog, Charlie, for a walk to clear my head, or
read a book to get into another world, and hope
to return with a new perspective!
MY ADVICE TO YOU IS...
Never forget that you, as an individual, matter, that you have a role to play in this life, that what you do each and every day does make a difference. Think about the consequences of the small choices you make - what you buy, eat and wear.
Where was it made? Did it cause harm to the environment, (eg destruction of forests), to people (eg made with child slave labour), cause animal suffering (such as intensive factory farms)? From the choices you make, you take decisions on the environment, on people, on animals. Such decisions are yours. Don’t point to others to make the right decisions.
Our Roots & Shoots programme for youth - pre-school through to University - is now in 134 countries. Each group chooses three projects to improve things for people, other animals and the environment. There are over 1,600 groups in the UK alone. Each year twelve groups are chosen to attend an awards ceremony in London to showcase their work.