by Shelley Seale
If you think it’s tough sometimes being a woman in the Western world, with the sexism and obstacles that we still must overcome even today – try stepping outside the traditional norms in places like Africa or India.
Society and culture there largely relegates females to strictly delineated “women’s work” such as looking after the family and household. Perhaps they might make handicrafts or start a small business but for the most part, it’s still an act of rebellion and bravery to break out of stereotypical gender roles. Additional challenges such as poverty, less education, lack of power and market access further limit their opportunities.
When it comes to travel and tourism, unless they are in low-paying housekeeping or food service positions, it is a challenging industry for women. Until recently, women were not even allowed to own land in Kenya, and in India women are still routinely married off by their families at young ages.
So what about females who really want to do something radical – like become a safari guide?
andBeyond, rated the world’s fifth top safari operator by Travel + Leisure and selected by National Geographic Traveler as a Best Outfitter, is helping to change that by providing more opportunities for women guides in a field that has always been dominated by men.
Initially, even folks at andBeyond were hesitant. Dee Adams came to the company with her husband Tony to help build up Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa. She was adamant on completing the ranger course in spite of strong resistance from Hugh Marshall, Field Operations Manager. Adams passed the course with flying colors, becoming not only the first female ranger of andBeyond but also one of the strongest arguments for changing Marshall’s mind about women rangers and guides. The very first group of trainees to qualify at Phinda had two women members.
East Africa was a little slower to follow; in 2005, Aziza Mbawane became the first female ranger in East Africa – her goal since childhood, inspired by her travels around her home country of Tanzania with her parents. Qualifying in Arusha, Mbawane worked on town tours, river cruising, snorkeling and diving trips before returning to her first love, the Maasai Mara, and joining andBeyond to guide first at Lake Manyara Tree Lodge, and then at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge.
Although Mbawane doesn’t find it difficult overall being a woman in the guiding world, she does recall one of her first instances collecting guests, and their shock at seeing her. “They were wondering who was going to carry all the bags. They clearly did not think a woman could be a guide.” While she did encounter resistance from male guides outside the andBeyond team, Mbawane says that her fellow rangers support her.
Charity Cheruiyot was determined to prove that it was possible for women to work as a ranger. Boosted by her father’s firm admonition that he would not accept her coming home in defeat and andBeyond’s belief in her to achieve in a field traditionally dominated by men, she passed her training to become Kenya’s first female guide, opening the door for others.
“Being a female in such a field is very challenging and inspiring,” says Cheruiyot. “Men expect you to do like them; wherever you fail they point fingers and remind you that you are not meant for that job. Many males would not like to see you doing what they think is reserved for them; to them it is a challenge and they will not take it lightly.”
Cheruiyot admits that she has experienced a lot of hassle from male guides, who believe it is their field and do not like women competing with them. “In our African set-up, women are known to stay at home and for a girl to do guiding, you are considered very different from other girls. Women from the society have started to appreciate and accept what we do. It allows them to realize that their girls can achieve more in life if they educate them.”
She adds that guests enjoy being guided by females, who see it as a breakthrough for women to venture, and succeed, in male-oriented jobs. Going on safari is a lifelong dream for many guests, and Cheruiyot sees it as her duty to give them a memorable experience.
A full ocean away, Ratna Singh grew up in a feudal Hindu family that claims no woman had ever worked in its regal, 500-year-old history. Surrounded by animals that included exotics such as leopard cubs and elephants in her family home and severely jealous of the naturalists she encountered in India’s national parks, Singh first studied history and international law, working with Afghan refugees. But the lure of her dream career was too strong to resist, and when she heard Taj Safaris and andBeyond were looking for people interested in wildlife to take part in their groundbreaking jungle lodge initiative, she jumped at the chance.
At the time, Singh wasn’t even aware that there were no women naturalists in India, so she didn’t even know she was doing something radical. Supported by her parents in spite of dissent from the extended family, she became the first female naturalist in India. “People were constantly trying to tell me it was not my place to be. Many [male guides] were patronizing at first, and later a couple of them turned nasty. They didn’t know what to make of me…they were uncomfortable with my presence.”
Although her driving the big 4×4 vehicles into the parks initially caused a stir, the sensation this created has died down now. While she still observes age-old traditions and ways of dress at home, Singh who is also now the Manager of Naturalist Training, is completely confident that her community takes pride in her thoroughly modern career choice. She knew she had “earned her stripes” and the respect of her colleagues when they began addressing her as “Sir.”
“It’s amazing to see African and Indian guides using the same skills among different habitats and animals, with the same success. Our training is definitely what sets the Taj Safaris experience apart and delights our guests,” Singh says. One of her best rewards was when a young women named Sadhvi joined the naturalist training, because of Singh’s example. “Her father approached me and said, ‘I’ve been looking for a strong role model for my daughter, and if you can do this man’s job and still maintain your dignity, I think I’ll allow my daughter to follow suit.’ I could that as one of my better moments in guiding.”
In a true pioneering fashion, these women all defied the norms and succeeded in the face of seemingly overwhelming challenges. Marshall has overcome his reservations and says today, “andBeyond has always been proud of the fact that we encourage, mentor and empower female rangers. We currently have 12 hardworking and talented women that are succeeding and dominating in a field traditionally reserved for men. In addition to these 12 ladies, we also have three female rangers-in-training now enrolled at andBeyond Inkwazi Ranger Training School.”
As for Cheruiyot, one of these pioneering women, she simply says: “The lesson I have learnt is that everything is possible if only we are determined and believe in ourselves. All women who achieved a lot in life did not sit down blaming themselves as women – they rose up and faced the challenges ahead of them with determination and a heart of winning. It’s all possible. It is not about gender, physical strength but about willpower and believing in your mind.”
Safari photos taken by Shelley Seale. Photos of guides and tiger provided by andBeyond.com