When Lori Bergemann was young, her engineer father took a job in India with Hindustan Motors. While at boarding school in New Delhi, she often went to the zoo to visit the elephants. “The elephants just stood there standing and swaying back and forth,” she said. “I just felt really sorry for them. I made a secret promise to myself that one day I would find a way to help them.”
It took thirty years, but Lori made good on her promise.
Today she is a passionate, risk-taking conservationist whose non-profit - Amara Conservation - fights the poaching and snaring of African wildlife with education.
The path that led Lori to Kenya opened late in 1999. She was in her sixteenth year working at The Earle restaurant in Ann Arbor, MI when her sister Heidi invited her on a special trip. At first they planned to return to India, but after a chance meeting with a tour operator and wildlife conservationist in Kenya, they decided to change their destination to Africa.
On their second day in Africa, “We were surrounded by wild elephants, I was so moved,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘This is where I am supposed to be.’” The initial strategy was to continue residing in the U.S. and raise funds for project based work to help the elephants of Kenya, but after two subsequent trips to Kenya, they realized that being on the ground full time would be the only way to be truly effective. They set up Amara Conservation, a US non –profit, and the UK charity Amara UK Trust. In 2001, Heidi and Lori rented a house in Kenya. Heidi divides her time between Kenya and Europe and Lori is in Kenya full time. Amara is not Heidi’s full time focus, although nothing we do could happen without her dedicated support, experience, and business skills. If it wasn’t for my sister Heidi, there would be no Amara, the gift she has given to me and to what we do is invaluable” says Lori.
Often on the road, Lori spends weeks at a time in the Land Rover traveling through the remote African bush, working with Amara’s Kenyan Team, educating people about the importance of protecting and respecting the wildlife that surrounds them. They found the word ‘amara’ in a dictionary. “It means ‘urgent need’ in Swahili,” she says. “We thought it was a pretty word’ – and urgent need is what we’re trying to address.”
Lori speaks easily and passionately about her work and about Africa. Amara’s work is needed, because in Kenya the schools do not teach anything about the environment. If people understand why they have to keep their environment precious, and how they’re responsible for it they will all be more receptive to the idea of working against poaching, and finding their own solutions to the problems of a degrading environment.
Americans have the misconception that Africans, especially those in remote places, live in perfect, imaginary “primitive” harmony with nature, but they are wrong. Many rural Africans regard wildlife as a threat. “There is competition between people and wildlife,” she says, “Lions can hurt them or eat their livestock, hyenas could attack their children, and elephants might raid their farm. They avoid wildlife.
“We want to work to help people who live here make better choices, find their own solutions – help people get information to think about things in a different way – to have a sustainable long-term impact.”
Amara takes films from African Environmental Film Foundation (AEFF) into the bush to teach Kenyans about wildlife and the environment. Each trip starts with a two-day frenzy of packing the Land Rover with food, safari gear, film equipment, a generator, extra fuel – everything needed to survive for two to four weeks. Typically the team drives six hours to get to where they work, and stay in the area.
“You head down roads and across rivers, over boulders,” she says, “and it’s a long trip”. More than once, she’s arrived at a school two weeks later than expected. “They don’t care,” she says. “The kids are always thrilled, always excited. They’ll wait all day for us to show up, and they’ll be running, jumping and so excited when we get there.”
She and her team take a screen with and hang it up wherever possible, nailing it to a building or throwing a rope over something. Setting up the generator for power to run the projector and speakers – there is rarely any electricity available. Often, we shows films outdoors, with the screen hanging from the roof of the Land Rover. “They’re always wide eyed and amazed. In more remote places, we’ve had people afterwards say, ‘How did you get the elephant on the wall?’” Some people have never seen a film before.
An excerpt from Lori’s diary:
Today we were again up at dawn, a long day in the schools. It was late but we had one last place to stop, a very poor place. We set up everything, I sat down in the dirt, people handing me their babies – feeling dirty, sweaty, tired and being eaten by mosquitoes – BUT seeing the faces glued to the screen, the smiles, laughter, surprise as understandings sank in…kids, women, men, young and old… learning for the first time why cutting trees encourages drought… how overgrazing creates deserts, the value of the wildlife to Kenya, the commitment shown by the Kenya government burning ivory in 1989 ….
In this one village, seeing 1,000 people changing how they think…this really makes a difference. I feel like the luckiest person in the world.
What a gift.