Leading by example
In a tete-e-tete with Malaika Vaz, explorer, athlete, environmentalist, film-maker and social entrepreneur. She has been featured in the Limca Book of Records for being the youngest on an expedition to the North and South Poles and is vocal about women empowerment and various conservation issues.
Q – Hi Malaika, welcome to Saevus. You’ve been featured in the Limca Book of Records as the youngest Indian to visit the North and South Poles. Tell us a bit more about this experience and how it came to be.
A – Thank you. The record was never on my radar when I went to the poles. It happened when our family friend Lt Colonel Faiz Siddique suggested the idea at the Victorinox night-vision watch launch event. I am quite embarrassed by the media attention for this feat, which I was involved in almost three years ago. I’ve dedicated this record to the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR), a proud institution of India. It all started when I had gone to gather information on the Sea Shepherd organisation and their mission against the illegal whaling industry. Mr Rasik Ravindra, the ex-director, and Mr Beig suggested that I touch base with the Students on Ice organisation. I am grateful to NCAOR and to Victorinox, as I am to our Chief Minister, Mr Parrikar and Deputy CM Mr Francisco D’Souza (In 2014) for recommending and supporting me on these expeditions.
Q – Tell our readers about the Students on Ice expedition. What were the highlights of the trip?
A – Students on Ice is a renowned Canada-based organisation led by Geoff Green, that selects and engages students and scientists from around the world with inspiring educational opportunities at the polar regions; and in doing so, helps them understand the need to protect the planet. Antarctica is actually like a fairy tale, there is no corner which does not look like a postcard. In the Arctic Circle, meeting the local Inuit and Greenlandic inhabitants and experiencing their food, art and lifestyles are the lessons and memories of a lifetime. Watching wild Polar bears in proximity, sighting a pod of rare Type-B Orcas breaching while a cetologist explained its predatory skills were few of the highlights. And how could I miss the adrenalin rush of sailing for three days through the turbulence of Drake’s Passage in our small but invincible Russian-made icebreaker? I made so many friends on this trip!
Q – In your opinion, how can one make the rest of the world aware of the realities of global warming and climate change, considering that not everyone can go and see the damage first hand at the Poles?
A – Though I believe that more youngsters must apply to go on the ‘Students on Ice’ expedition, and I shall be glad to guide those who are really interested, I also know that not everybody can go to the poles. But to understand the damage to the environment you can simply look around where you are: even our national animal is in dire straits and continuously losing its habitat. The other day, a senior environmentalist was mentioning that though the Gir Asiatic lion is an Indian example of good conservation, there is a risk of the lions getting wiped out by an endemic disease because they are not geographically dispersed. Thankfully, on the other end, we have the inspiring work of individuals like Sir David Attenborough, and our very own Romulus Whitaker and Nallamuthu. My own interest in wildlife filmmaking was kindled when a family friend presented us a set of Sir Attenborough’s documentaries for Christmas. Green- Oscar-winning documentarian Mike Pandey was kind enough to allow me to get a taste of filmmaking by letting me work on The Return of the Tiger, but unfortunately, I could not spend much time on the project because of school. The docu-drama is a great initiative because it aims to address the issue of tiger conservation by targeting not only policymakers but also villagers, tribals and other stakeholders, which include all of us living in cities too. Whenever it’s ready, this docu-drama will interest everyone.
Q – You represented India in windsurfing, and you are an advanced scuba diver and a recreational pilot as well. How much have these outdoor pursuits aided in your understanding of the environment and the need for conservation?
A – I love the sea and the ocean. Windsurfing and Scuba diving are my preferred water sports and no aquarium can come anywhere close to the beauty of nature’s aquarium. I know that compared to Scuba diving and windsurfing, my interest in flying is not a very eco-friendly recreation, and I try to negate the effect by reducing my footprints in other areas of life. Every time I see plastic and litter on the beach, I am reminded of the need for education and research. Very little is known about our marine resources, and I want to pursue this as my vocation. The inspirational quote I am most motivated with is: An activist is not the one who says the river is dirty but the one who cleans the river. As of now, I do my bit by talking about my experiences in schools; I’ve also anchored and scripted a television programme called “Spotlight with Malaika”. It gave me great satisfaction to donate the prize money we won at AXN’s” Minute to Win It” for the cause of the tiger. I also like to write for newspapers and magazines.
Q – You are currently studying at the Mahindra United World College in Pune that houses students from all across the world. What are the lessons to be learnt from studying in such an atmosphere and how has it affected your own global outlook?
A – I am thankful to the KC Mahindra Education Trust for selecting me to be at UWC along with students from across 90 nations. It has taught me about the porosity of borders and positivity of co-existing in the real sense. Our committed student community comes from different cultures, nationalities and religions. Studying in this highly dynamic atmosphere has definitely taught me to question my assumptions while respecting opinions that are different from my own. Not a day passes without being inspired by the ideals of the UWC founder, Mr Kurt Hahn.
Q – Tell us something about the World College Programme you are to attend in August in Bosnia & Herzegovina?
A – The programme is called “Peace by Piece” held at the UWC Mostar, a city which was the centre of brutal ethnic conflict in the 90s. It is a programme where students interested in global politics and diplomacy from any higher secondary college can apply and get selected. The fortnight-long programme is an extension of UWC ideals, focused on understanding conflict and its resolution through debate. I have been selected from India, and am also the brand ambassador for Woodland’s Proplanet green initiatives. I look forward to meeting students from around the world during the course of the programme.
Q – You also play the role of Project Manager for a movement called Akshara Outdoor Education that aims to empower women in the Mulshi Valley community. Tell us a bit more about your work here.
A – This year, I was given the opportunity by experienced mountaineer Arvin Dang to be Project Manager for a movement called Akshara Outdoor Education. It aims to provide underprivileged women, who are victims of domestic and sexual violence an opportunity to conquer a mountain in Ladakh. As a team of international students, we were able to train with these amazing women in June. I was immensely privileged to do my bit towards encouraging adventure sport as a means to boost self-confidence in the women and also raise awareness about the issue of domestic violence. The follow-up campaign of the expedition, which we will use along with the testimonies of the women, is “Not safe in Delhi, but safe at 7,000 metres” in order to confront the government’s inability to protect the rights of underprivileged victims of violence, and emphasise the role of physical training to boost their self-confidence. I also work as an outreach and marketing manager with ‘Seema’, a social enterprise in Maharashtra, that empowers local women through jewellery making, personal development, and community collaboration. My work with Seema has primarily been to increase its exposure on a global level by contacting potential sponsors, organising events and partnering with similar female empowerment and community organisations.
Q – As a young game-changer, what are the different ways in which you would encourage others of your generation to be conscious of their carbon footprints and help in creating a greener world?
A – Game changer is too big a title for me. Individuals that remain committed to their goals, inspire me. I look up to people like Oprah Winfrey and Sarpanch Chhavi Rajawat. This summer, I had the privilege to be with Sarpanch Chhavi and see the amazing work she has done in Soda village near Jaipur. There are so much compassion and dedication in her work. Something that I personally believe in is that people must be conscious of the impact that their lifestyles have on the planet, and then work towards minimising that impact. Besides that, I think the youth need to get involved in our local community because co-operation at the grass-root level with highly passionate young people can go a long way. Don’t expect it all, and don’t blame it all on the government!
Q – What is your typical day like? How do you maintain the balance between being a student and yet keeping up with so many diverse extra-curricular activities?
A – For the last year, I didn’t get to focus on my windsurfing, or indulge in scuba diving as much as I would have liked to. Presently, for the most part, my routine consists of school work, reading, meetings for different projects in addition to my daily fitness regime of either swimming or going for a jog. This year, I will be reining in on my extracurricular activities and focusing on academics to target for universities to do justice to my vocations. I have never found it hard to maintain a balance because I only get involved in activities and projects that I am passionate about. Being involved in sport and in the outdoors can be so rejuvenating that it actually helps in pursuing my academic interests. Of course, prioritising has definitely helped me accomplish all the things that I’ve set out to do in the past years.
Q – What are some other things on your bucket list for the immediate and far future?
A – I have reconciled to the fact that because of my academics, and being stationed far from the sea, my practice time for competitive windsurfing has to be compromised at least for another year. During my gap year, I hope to realise my wish to go to Africa, the only continent I have not been to. I want to attend a wildlife filmmaking course with the Big Five at Ocean’s Campus or at NHU Africa. I want to dive with Manta rays and experience the sardine run. I look forward to an opportunity to learn from the best wildlife filmmakers and institutions. As of now, top of my list is going to Semester at Sea, a shipboard programme for global study abroad. This year, over weekends and vacations, I hope to make time to upgrade my flying license at Carver Aviation which is in the vicinity of Pune. I will get my Master Scuba Diver license this December. My longterm interests are in areas of environment and foreign affairs. Besides this, like any teenager, my bucket list is very long and includes my wish to learn to play polo and skydive, but I would rather not talk about those while they’re still birds in bushes!
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