Otim Joseph was just two years old when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency began to decimate the forests and farms of Uganda. Once the war subsided, in 2005-6, the battle against the effects of climate change -- poor harvests and erratic rainfall -- contributed to a general sense of hopelessness in his community.
Meanwhile, in 2006, unbeknownst to him, Uganda-based journalist and social entrepreneur Cathy Watson placed runner up at the St Andrew’s Prize for the Environment for the “eco-newspaper” Tree Talk and wanted to use the prize money to fund five scholarships at Uganda’s National Forestry College.
“I put an ad in Tree Talk and received dozens of applications,” recalls Watson, who is now head of development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. “One was from a young man called Otim, whose parents had been killed by the LRA and who had put himself through secondary school by working in a tree nursery. His letter smacked of authenticity, and I can remember getting tears in my eyes as I read it but also feeling excited and thinking – he’s in!”
For his part, Otim chokes up when he remembers the moment he saw his neighbor running towards him. “I was sitting under a tree, and my neighbor was shouting -- Did you hear it? The radio just said that you’ve got a place at the forestry college. I heard your name!”
At that moment, because of the power of the mentor-mentee relationship, the lives of both Otim and Watson changed forever.
Otim got a mentor, who supported his first qualification, a diploma in forestry, and would later employ him at Tree Talk, be his referee for future jobs and encourage him through tough times.
Laughing, Watson admits she also stays on his case. “I am always badgering him to focus on indigenous tree species, document everything he does and stay grounded. Young people need that. But it has been wonderful for me too. I got a mentee who went on to raise millions of trees and mentor other young foresters -- 30 at last count.”
Since 2006, Watson has funded 120 other students at the forestry college through her NGO Mvule Trust. They’ve been terrific too, she says, but few have been as mentor-able.
“Sheryl Sandberg makes that point in Lean In,” says Watson. “Young people think they want a mentor, but they need to take ideas and run with them, be open and ready to try things. Otim does that. Actually, he’s a young man on fire. Right now he is protecting a forest against poachers and encroachers. Sometimes I fear for him.”
Watson’s advice to young people is -- read everything you can get your hands on, and if you want a mentor, work like your hair is on fire.
“It is not like there aren’t any problems out there. There’s so much to do! How many of you are making sure that farms have trees and other biodiversity and that there is forage for pollinators, for instance? Address a gap with passion and verve, and a mentor will come into your life,” she says.
“Mentorship is not patronizing, by the way,” she says. “With me and Otim, the relationship is increasingly equal. I ask his advice. A lot of what I know about trees and culture in northern Uganda, I owe to Otim.”
Cathy and Otim are ambassadors for YPARD’s new mentoring program, which will be piloting in Kenya in partnership with AWARD Fellowships. Learn more about it on the following link: www.ypard.net/mentoring