Ugandan youngster Ndhego wins gold at literary award event

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Three generations of book authors, Ndhego Zikusoka, Hon Rhoda Kalema, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Young Ugandan author Ndhego Zikusoka has won the 2022 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award for his book Zookeeper For A Week under the Animals/Pets Non-Fiction category. 

“It all started off as a fun activity. My mother organised for me to be a zoo keeper for a week. My father would drop me at the zoo at 8:00am every day and pick me up at 4:00pm.”

“At the end of the week they encouraged me to write and share my experience in the New Vision’s TOTO magazine.”

Ndhego's two page article in Toto Magazine, May 2018 was the inspiration for writing his award-winning book

“Shortly afterwards, a family friend and children’s book author, Cathy Kreutter, advised that my story in TOTO magazine would make an enjoyable book and a good read for children because they like animals and fun activity. I decided to write.”

At the time Ndhego was 13 years old. “I started working with the Editor (Kreutter), a photographer, and graphics designer. The book has been a project of three years.”

Ndhego’s busy school schedule had slowed the project down, but with the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown, he had plenty of time to focus on completion of his book. Author Kreutter entered the book for the 2022 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award.

It won a Gold medal under the Animals/Pets Non-Fiction category. The Silver medal was won by the book When We All Get Together by Heather Bradley from Canada and the Bronze medal was won by the book titled Rabbit at the Sliding Door: Chloe’s Story by Denise Lee Branco from the USA.

Ndhego's Mum, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka and world-renowned wildlife conservationist holding her son's book at Duty Free, Entebbe International Airport

Ndhego also received a certificate for winning the Animals/Pets Non-Fiction category.

“My book stood a high chance of winning and impressed the judges because it had a unique theme and focused on work most people do not consider. It had a variety of animals and it was a real-life story. It ensured the book stood out.

“I was in school when I received the news. I got lucky, I didn’t know much about the award until I was announced winner.”

The Moonbeam Awards ceremony held on November 16, in Traverse City, Michigan, USA each year recognises a handful of standout authors for their dedication to children’s literacy and for inspired writing, illustrating and publishing.

The 2022 award was the first in-person award ceremony since 2019 due to the coronavirus disruptions, and Ndhego was among the lucky winners.

“I knew about this contest because my book “I know an Old Mzee” won silver in 2012,” Kreutter said.

Moonbeam Awards

“What I saw as unique about Ndhego’s article was his lighthearted writing style, ability to laugh at himself, but yet being factual.”

“He also had a unique story that all kids would be interested in – the zoo and animals – his experience just had to be rearranged and flow into a bit of a narrative. So you get to know him as a character and yet learn so much about the good work at the zoo and it fits into a week, so this book has a nice beginning, middle and end!”

Kreutter also states that the very strong point of the book was the presentation. “We wanted something very different than what is locally available on the market today – the designer, Makune Marcellino, went above and beyond in working on this book. We looked at many examples of books and Ndhego decided on the look he wanted and Makune made it happen,”

“And of course the printing team at New Vision was amazing to make such a quality hardcover book,” she disclosed.

Ndhego and his father, Lawrence Zikusoka holding his book

“The big point of this is that zookeeper was the only book printed and bound on the continent of Africa in this contest! And it won gold. All the other books in the contest were printed and bound in USA, Uk or China.

“We wanted to create a book that has international quality and accepted anywhere in the world. And this award proves that the quality of the book is amazing,” Kreutter noted.

“We are delighted for this win. His book is as a result of a partnership between our family and the zoo,” Ndhego’s Father Lawrence Zikusoka, a technology entrepreneur and one of the co-founders of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), said.

“We only have one Earth. We have a responsibility to protect and conserve it for our own future and our children’s future.

“We have seen the damage that climate change is having in our own neighbourhoods but we also know that we have an opportunity to turn things around and make a positive difference.

“We can all reduce the plastic waste that we create, re-use as much as possible and recycle anything we can. Although these may seem like small things, if we all do it, we build momentum and can really bring about big change.”

Lawrence Zikusoka encouraged young people to take charge of their future by learning about ways to reduce negative environmental impact – and sharing these with their families.

“I would also encourage young people to get out and experience nature and learn about their surroundings. Join the Wildlife Clubs of Uganda and other youth and education groups focused on wildlife and the environment.

He said learning to appreciate nature and conservation is such a gift and also benefits future generations.

“Our boys have been immersed in conservation from a very young age – as early as they can remember. They have understood the importance of wildlife and the environment to us as a family but also to the future of the Earth,” Ndhego’s mother, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka said

She is a conservation practitioner since 1996, and Founder and CEO of the award winning non-profit NGO Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) that set up one of the first One Health field programmes in the world to protect endangered gorillas and other wildlife.

Ndhego with his grandmother, Hon Rhoda Kalema who is also, author of My Life is But A Weaving at the book fair

After graduating from the Royal Veterinary College, University of London, in 1996, she also established Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA)’s first veterinary department.

Dr. Gladys sat on the Board of Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (UWEC) from 2009 to 2016 and the Board of Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) from 2012 to 2015, and improved engagement with the locals and young people.

The partnership between UWEC and CTPH, with a shared goal of educating and conserving wildlife, has seen the two entities work together closely since CTPH’s establishment in 2003.

With support from UWEC, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka’s son, Ndhego wrote Zoo Keeper For A Week a book that takes one through his experience volunteering at the Entebbe Zoo at just 13 years old.

“We believe that instilling conservation ethos into young people and creating a sense of duty and responsibility to conserve wildlife and habitats in today’s younger generation is critical for all our futures,” Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka said.

“I was lucky to be raised with similar conservation values and it paved the way for both my education and professional career.”

“I would encourage young people –and their parents and families –to look for opportunities for them to be engaged in experiences with wildlife and animals such as volunteering at an animal shelter or animal orphanage, interning at a pet shelter or veterinary surgery (they may be able to support with among others, cleaning cages, handling some animals, washing and feeding animals or even just getting out into nature).

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka says Uganda has many opportunities.

“Visit national parks, areas of biodiversity importance, go for bird walks and other ways to experience nature – we are truly blessed to have this as a country and it would be great if more of our people could have these experiences

Passion nurtured at a young age 

Ndhego’s love for nature and wildlife is from his mother’s vocation.

“When we were little babies she used to take us to the zoo and national game parks.  I naturally grew up to love nature and wildlife. The trips to the national parks ensured we see a lot the different environments, culture and wildlife,” Ndhego who is now 18 years old, said.

Author Ndhego Zikusoka with his father, Lawrence showcasing Zookeeper For A Week at Christmas Book Fair 2022 in Naguru, Kampala

“In Bwindi we have a gorilla conservation camp, gorilla trekking activities, coffee safaris and research work which keeps me going back to nature and wildlife. I find nature and the green environment peaceful to look at. It’s also fascinating seeing wildlife in their natural habitat.”

What the future holds as a writer 

Ndhego studies Mathematics, English and Physics at Taibah International School and is in Year 12, an equivalent of S5.

“I have not decided my career path yet. When you are young there are many things to do before deciding on a career. I haven’t decided whether I will write another book, but when I find another interesting subject, I will.

“I realised I can write and I am pretty good at it. But the book Zookeeper For A Week is not something I had planned, it was brought to me as an idea and I took it up.

“I believe that it is something that can help in the future in terms of income and keeping my family name alive.

On Saturday December 3, at Forest Cottages Naguru Ndhego, and his family attended the Christmas Book Fair 2022 organised by Goethe Zenteum Kampala, Ladu Poetry House and Mark Gordon Mugasha (MGM) a Slam Poet Creative Arts and Events Producer during which he showcased his book, and that of his grandmother, Hon Rhoda Kalema, the author of My Life is But A Weaving amid other fun activities including creative talk sessions, art and craft.

Celebrating UWEC @70 with Hon.Ephraim Kamuntu who received a leadership award for his pioneering role as the first board chairperson when UWEC was created from Entebbe Zoo.

His mother is also planning to release a book about her conservation journey titled Walking With Gorillas next year.

“For young people curious and keen to write, be open to ideas and opportunities,” Ndhego said. “I didn’t think I would write, what opened the door for me was that I was open to the idea. Put in the energy and embrace it.”

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