When I was 22, I went to a bar in Bristol to meet the people who would change my life. I was nervous and shy, and I stumbled over my words and felt awkward talking to all the people I didn’t know, but I did know that I wanted to volunteer for this project I’d heard so much about, gazing open-mouthed at the videos and pictures that made me want to buy a plane ticket and forget that I was scared of anything.
When I was 23, I flew to Uganda and went to an animal sanctuary in Entebbe and forgot how to worry about things as flies from the lake filled my nose and mouth and vervet monkeys hunched over their tiny babies, bathed in the last of a day’s sun. Over 28 days of wind tangling my hair into impossible knots on muddy roads with cracks like seams into the earth, lions roaring in the night, storms in the rainforest and a soaking wet tent, warm honeycomb in a field of pineapples and laughter that threatened to stop me breathing, I cried as we made our last journey through the streets of Kampala, the marabou stork silhouettes looking down at us as they stalked the tops of buildings and waited for the markets to close.
When I was 24, I almost didn’t go to Kenya, but after encouragement for which I am eternally grateful, I found myself drinking Ethiopian coffee so strong it made my eyelids twitch and listening to the whine of mosquitoes in a room in Nairobi with fifteen more ready-made friends. For the first time, I heard the sound of colobus monkeys waking up as it ricocheted around a forest, shivered in the grey of a day in the city and revelled in the contrast when the heat of the coast made walking feel like swimming and cooked the remaining rainforest mud firmly on to everything I owned. On a difficult day in the middle, when it rained as if it would never stop and bad news from home made me cry, I sat in front of a fire with new friends that felt like old friends, and still didn’t want to be anywhere else.
When I was 25, I got a phone call that made me jump up and down on the spot. I went to Cardiff and helped to make plans and contacts and tried to get my head around the fact that I was actually doing this. Then, suddenly, I was 26 and in the midst of a crisis of confidence, and it seemed the last thing in the world I could succeed at was helping to run the project I loved so much, but the tickets were booked and I found myself in Kenya and then Uganda again, and everything about the ten weeks that followed flew in the face of my fears and made certain that I would never again doubt that conservation is what I should do for the rest of my life. The life-affirming moments are too many to list, but I remember a quiet walk along a windy, moonlit beach and the washed up turtle that stunned us into silence; the singing and dancing as we planted trees on a bitterly cold morning under Mount Kenya; the distant, eerie hoot of chimpanzees before a storm broke near Hoima, and everything in between.
Last year, I was 27 and determined to get back to Kenya and to go to Cameroon, and happier than I knew how to process when it became clear it would happen. Some of it was harder than I expected, and I was more tired than I had ever been, but there were still wild monkeys watching me quizzically everywhere I went, long nights of stars and cicadas, people so inspiring I had to turn away to hide my tears, and friends that made it all better, just with a smile.
I grew up on the Handshake. It taught me what I could do, and showed me that continuing to care and strive can change everything. It made me laugh, cry and tear my hair out, and it made me fall in love with everything a thousand times over. I met friends I will keep forever, and learnt that human nature can be the best and most beautiful thing. So, thank you, Handshake – thank you to the people you are and the places you go, and the animals that made it all happen in the first place. Thank you for making me who I am.