Photo by Megan Nelson

Megan helps conduct fish surveys as part of marine conservation efforts in Madagascar.

For Megan Nelson, tourism alone wasn’t enough; her dreams included truly getting to know places by working and volunteering there. Soon after graduating from college, she had the opportunity to work with Jane Goodall through the Tanzania branch of the Roots and Shoots program. This program aids young people all over the world in making positive changes for their own communities, whether by helping people, animals, or the environment. Nelson jumped at the chance to talk about, teach about, and interact with animals in Africa. Now, nearly twenty years later, she is still involved in ventures in Africa and still dreaming about how she can make a positive impact on the world. Stowaway managed to catch Nelson before she headed off for another trip to Uganda.

What have you learned about the African culture?

Well, that is a big question! Every country is very different. Tanzanians and East Africans are very polite; they’re very, very welcoming; they invite you into their home; they want to feed you. They live life at a much slower pace than we do, which I really like. Family is definitely at the heart of their culture. Things don’t operate or work as well there, so on a day-to-day basis, if you have ten things on your list that you need to get done, and you get two of them done, that is a good day; you just never know what will happen. I mostly just love how welcoming people are and how much they’ll just sit and talk with you; it’s a nice place to be.

Photo by Megan Nelson

Megan spends time with kids for whom she is helping develop environmental and health education materials.

What have you learned by working with Jane Goodall?

Jane is an incredibly passionate person who has a very strong mission in her life; it expands past chimpanzees—which is where she started—out to just the greater conservation field throughout the world and also to people as well. So I learned a lot about how [the people and the conservation] can go hand in hand. One of her mantras is that every individual makes a difference, and she believes it. She really tries to give people the opportunity to make a difference, so I learned a lot about what individuals have the capacity to do and to believe in the power of individuals. It’s also been amazing to see how much someone can accomplish when they have such a singular purpose. She is just really driven and passionate and she’s really an inspiration. And she’s funny as well. It’s been a pleasure to be able to work with her over all these years.

What is a memorable experience you’ve had as you’ve served in Africa?

We had a scholarship program that was for kids that were living in an orphanage, and it sent them to high school or secondary school. I helped manage and raise funds for that program, and probably a year or two ago I had one of the students from that scholarship program who sent me an announcement to his college graduation, and wow! Going to college and working in Africa is not easy, and he came from an orphanage and went through this program, and now he’s graduating from college and has a future. Education is everything; it really, really just opens so many doors and makes a huge difference. I think that’s what I’m most proud of: providing people with knowledge and education.

Photo by Megan Nelson

Village members receive training on natural resource management and family planning topics.

What inspired you to choose a life that is so focused on service?

All the time I was growing up, [my mom] was such an example of service and believed in it so much that I feel like it just absolutely got engrained in me. I very vividly remember, when I was about ten years old, we were going through the closet getting rid of winter coats and stuff. And instead of just dumping them into a bin [at a secondhand store], we actually went to a women’s shelter that was downtown. She wanted me to see where this was going and why it was important to help other people and to donate, and that always stuck with me. She was also a teacher, so at some point, I looked back at what I had done and was like, “Oh, wow, I kind of turned into my mom!” So she really had a significant influence on my life.

Are there any future dream projects you’d like to be part of?

Yeah, of course! There are so many things that I want to do and I think would be fun to do. I just feel that if I had all the money in the world—you know, if I won the lottery—I would literally just find really amazing service projects around the world and go volunteer for the rest of my life. I actually want to go help baby sea turtles get to the ocean; I want to go hang out with orangutans; I want to go see places that are disappearing in the world. But it’s kind of funny, because at some point I reached “my dream” and there was a point in Africa when I originally went to work with Jane Goodall (back in the late nineties) and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I got my dream job! What do I do now?” I had to start dreaming new dreams, right? I think everybody hits that point where they accomplish goals, but then you have to make new goals and have new dreams. Don’t forget that!

—Ashley Holmes


All photos provided by Megan Nelson