Stepping up to a Name: An Emerging Take on Community Engagement

Ethiopia was a lark. In 2006 I was over-caffeinated and restless in Colorado and volunteered myself to go to the Horn of Africa with a group of people I just met. I went. I stayed. I wrote two books. I keep returning.

Mozambique was a calculated process. I saw a photo. I looked behind it, beside it, dug deep into history, current science, theory, and possible action. I put together what is now a four-year project that is fast on its way to becoming the most important work of my life.

Putting Ethiopia and Mozambique together was a gamble. In the past decade I have crystallized a question to which I am ever-seeking the answer: how does a community transition from being recipients of “development,” to participants in a shared creation of sustainable development, and then to be leaders of that process and its future?

It’s a big and complicated question. Or it’s very simple. What does it mean to be empowered? What does it look like to take action? How do we as global citizens working in conservation/development/health/environment advocate for leadership in the most remote and rural areas in the world? How do we look, unflinchingly, at our projects, missions, mandates, and actions and ask if we’re doing this right, or doing it at all?

Now is when I tell you how to do it. But I don’t yet know the answer. I do know that this question is what I’m committing to helping answer in the work were doing with The Lost Mountain. And it’s why Mozambican Geraldo Palalane and I went to Ethiopia last week.

LUPA works in conservation. I’m a professional climber, author, social entrepreneur and founder of the Lost Mountain. For the Lost Mountain to work on Mount Namuli, a 7,936-foot peak in northeastern Mozambique, I decided we needed to do a field trip to Ethiopia and learn from imagine1day, an organization that directly implements quality education to Ethiopian adults and children.

Over 7,500 people live on the flanks of Mount Namuli. During each of my visits over the past three years I’ve been welcomed and challenged by the people I have met on this mountain. I brought a 17-person team to the flanks of Mount Namuli last May  for rock climbing, cliff-side scientific research, and integrated conservation planning. As part of the conservation planning, Geraldo and his team at LUPA, a Mozambican-based conservation organization, asked many of those people what they wanted. The answers? A road, care for the elderly, care for orphans, access to cell service, access to markets. None of the answers were about the preservation of this bold and beautiful ecosystem. Unless, of course, you consider that all of these people are also part of that ecosystem.

We called our project the Lost Mountain originally because while so many people live on Mount Namuli, the mountain has been “lost” because it lived off the map of the global scientific and conservation consciousness. It was only once I started working on Namuli that I realized our project’s name worked for another reason—because many in conservation would consider Namuli a “lost cause.” A lost cause because it is exceptionally difficult to pair creating significant advances biodiversity protection significant advances in human livelihood.

If you’re going to call yourself as audacious of a name as the Lost Mountain, I have now learned, you had better be ready to step up to the plate and deliver. And that’s why I went to Ethiopia.

Imgaine1day is committed to creating leaders. I’ve seen that work in action and in results in communities across Northern Ethiopia during my collaborations with imagine1day over the past six years.  I had a hunch that the work they were doing would resonate with our work on Namuli. I believed it would inform our goal to integrate the communities who live on Namuli into the planning and execution of the conservation management plan for their own backyard. I believed it would help us all talk about what really mattered, and make real, targeted, and measurable improvements for the full dynamic ecosystem that is the Namuli area and all who live and rely on it.  And so Geraldo and I took our trip.

We spent three days in a transformational leadership training in the Gheralta Mountains with imagine1day and igolu. We’re now bringing Seid Aman from Ethiopia and Sapna Dayal from Canada to give leadership support and experience sharing of their community engagement model to the Lost Mountain Symposium.

Something big is happening. I will keep you posted.


-Majka Burhardt

Founder and Director, The Lost Mountain


Photos: Geraldo Palalane (LUPA) and Brett Conrad (Igolu) | Kahsay Girmay (imagine1day) climbing up to Abune Yemata | Geraldo at Gheralta Lodge, Ethiopia during training.