When I reflect on my first gorilla trek in Rwanda, I can’t imagine it without my incredible female guide, Jolie Mukiza, and my porter, Odette Uwineza. As Mukiza led the small group through the thick jungle on the slopes of Mount Sabyinyo to see the endangered mountain gorillas, Uwineza’s firm grip on my hand buoyed me up with ease through the gnarly, narrow path. Mukiza’s more than a decade of experience and knowledge of the terrain and wildlife in Volcanoes National Park, coupled with her enthusiasm for her dream job, made the endeavor all the more enriching.
Mukiza grew up watching King Kong and Tarzan and developed a desire to work in conservation. When she was selected to be a guide, she recalls her mom’s encouragement, “It’s really good when you like something and getting an opportunity to do it.”
Many women who start out as guides move onto desk jobs—but not Mukiza, who is one of three female guides currently leading gorilla treks in the park.
“The hiking is a bit challenging, but the more we keep on doing, the better we get,” says the mother of three. During the high season, she hikes five days a week, taking groups to see gorilla families, and she enjoys every moment of it.
For the longest time, women in many wildlife-rich African nations did not work in safari tourism, due to the perception that it’s a “man’s job.” The potential for encounters with wild animals, being away from their families for extended periods of time, and the pressure to stay home and care for children deterred women from seeking employment in the safari sector.
However, that has changed in the past few decades. Women aren’t just breaking barriers, they’re paving the way for others to follow. They’re working as guides, security officers, head chefs and managers, and saying, “anything a man can do, we can do, too.”
Brief History of Women in the Safari Industry
The road for women in the male-dominated safari industry has been long and arduous. Kenyan-born Verity Williams started as a secretary at Ker & Downey in 1962. Twenty years later, she went on to become one of the continent’s first female guides.
Being a guide is assumed to be a man’s job because of its physical responsibilities: navigating muddy roads, changing tires, protecting guests from dangerous wildlife encounters and, in cases like gorilla trekking, coming face to face with imposing animals. Williams and the early female guides proved that not only are women up to the task, but they can provide an equally world-class safari experience as their male counterparts.
In 2004, Botswana’s Chobe Game Lodge spearheaded a campaign to recruit female guides. The guiding team now consists entirely of women who take guests on the all-electric boats and vehicles in Chobe National Park.
Florence Kagiso, Chobe’s first female guide and current team leader, grew up sitting around the campfire with her grandmother, listening to stories about animals and living peacefully among them. Her love for nature inspired her to pursue a career as a guide, which she started doing at age 24. However, she remembers being discouraged by men.
They’d say, “You can’t stand the whole day out driving the big vehicle. You have to change the tires. As a woman, this is actually a difficult thing for you to do,” Kagiso recalls. But this only made her more determined to pursue her chosen path.
Kagiso believes that, for many guests, there are benefits of having a female safari guide. “We kind of are a little softer on how we deal with guests and how we do things,” she says. Plus, she adds, women are often more comfortable being around a female guide when nature calls out in the bush.
Over time, Kagiso says men have come to accept female guides, and most male guides now treat them as equals. If she is on a drive and asks a male guide if he’s seen any wildlife, “he will be openly telling you what he has seen and will ask me if I found something and I tell him. We work as a team now.”
Keeping the Momentum Going
At the time Kagiso started, there were fewer than 10 female guides in all of Botswana. There are now estimated to be approximately 60. Chobe’s initial effort created a ripple effect, leading more companies to enact similar female recruitment strategies.
In 2016, Asilia Africa’s Dunia Camp opened to the public with an all-female staff, the first (and only one) of its kind on the continent. This semi-permanent luxury mobile camp in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park has consistently ranked among Africa’s top safari offerings, proving that a camp where everyone—from the head chef and managers to guides—is female can be a successful recipe for a wonderful safari experience.
For Yasinta Charles Mabula, who worked as an assistant manager at Dunia Camp when it reopened after COVID-19 closure, the appeal was the all-female staff. The group quickly formed bonds and became her second family. This made being away in the middle of the bush for weeks at a time, far away from her loved ones (including her two sons and husband), a bit easier.
Mabula started out as a housekeeper and received training to work her way up to being assistant manager in a short time. She now works at Asilia’s Highlands Lodge, overlooking the crater of Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
“I am so proud, because it’s rare to get such a position, because if you are working in such an industry, it’s too hard to get someone that they can trust to be at this level,” Mabula says.
Working in a safari camp requires fortitude and extremely long hours. Housekeepers have to traverse long paths between tents, carrying bed linens and room service trays. Those on the laundry team engage in loading and unloading heavy loads. Chefs have to transport heavy stockpots. Managers seem to be on call all hours of the day and night, at the ready whenever guests arrive from the airstrip or leave for their early morning game drives.
The work, however, is a calling, and it represents more than a job for the Dunia women, who have traded a traditional life for the bush. It allows them to be independent, support their families (often as the sole breadwinners) and thrive outside of the home.
The self-proclaimed “Dunia Angels” are also in a unique position to inspire others. “The aim of starting this Dunia Camp is to empower women. We used to go to the local village to talk to some ladies. We support those interested from primary school, secondary school and college, and Asilia employs them if possible,” Mabula explains.
Taking on Leadership Roles
In a culture where women are often excluded from leadership positions, when given the opportunity, women like Mabula have quickly moved up in the ranks to become successful managers, head chefs, security officers and more.
Faith Moutloatse, from Botswana, once attended an operations meeting as a personal assistant at one of South Africa’s most famous hotels. She quickly noticed that the line managers—housekeeping, human resources and guest concierge—were all women.
“I couldn’t help noticing that we were the ones who came up with the best ideas that worked. That same day, I was inspired to become one of those women who will break barriers and one day manage a hotel or camp of my own,” she recalls.
Twelve years later, Moutloatse is now the general manager for Wilderness Safaris’ Little Vumbura Camp, located on a beautiful island in the Okavango Delta. She worked at Little DumaTau when it was still under construction in 2020 until recently, and she stayed behind during COVID-19 lockdowns to look after the camp, running day-to-day logistics and learning new skills.
“I am ambitious, though, and when the opportunity came along to manage Little Vumbura Camp, I grabbed it, as it presents a new challenge for me,” she shares, adding she asked her husband (who is also in the safari industry) to let her establish herself and settle in before he joins her there as a guide.
In Kenya, Mercy Nyambura Wanikina hails from a family of police officers. They inspired her to take up a job in security, something that was deemed an unusual career choice for a woman. She’s now assistant head of security at Angama Mara, a luxury safari lodge in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Wanikina’s work now involves ensuring that guests and property are protected, becoming informed about what’s happening in the community, seeing if there are any security threats and filling in for the head of security in their absence. Essentially, she handles firearms and men with firearms.
One of the main challenges she faced when starting out was acceptance. “We are working in the Maasai land. They don’t recognize ladies working,” she shares. But when the company started hiring more women, they got used to it, she says. Now, out of the 28 staff working in security, three are women.
When asked if she recommends security work, she doesn’t miss a beat. “With the current economy, or the way the things are moving, everybody should grab any opportunity that is given to him or her, [including] security work.”
In another East African nation, Clementine Uwamahoro works as a technology and conservation manager at Akagera National Park. Women pursuing careers in tech is nothing new in Rwanda, but Uwamahoro’s job is unusual, as it involves the intersection of technology and conservation and takes her deep into the wilderness.
When she’s not sitting at a desk monitoring animal trackers and their movement or keeping a lookout for security breaches, Uwamahoro is climbing transmission towers in need of repair.
“Sometimes when I do that, some people call me names, telling me that it should be a boy’s job,” Uwamahoro says. However, she finds that part of the job very interesting, as it allows her to show people that women can do this work, too.
Facing Challenges Head On
Integrating women into the safari industry has not been without challenges. Even the best female guide school graduates often return home to care for their families. Some give up their career ambitions upon marriage. Those with families who continue working remain among the few. However, safari companies and the women who work with them are finding ways to retain and empower women looking to enter the industry.
One way they’re doing this is by investing in women through ongoing training that allows them to not only obtain the skills needed for the job, but also move up in their careers. Another effective method is giving women maternity leave, so they don’t have to choose between having children and keeping their jobs.
Moutloatse says Wilderness Safaris has introduced a lot of female camp managers in recent years, and it has become commonplace to see women running camps.
“If anyone had any doubts, slowly their opinions are changing, as they can see that we are capable of doing the job,” Moutloatse says. She mentors aspiring young women whenever she can. “I’ve been able to open their eyes to the possibilities that are out there and they are coming out of their shells and wanting more.”
Mukiza, too, sees a big difference since the early days of women entering the industry. “More women want to become guides now, especially because they see that women like us have been working for 11 years.”
As safari goers, we can help by supporting safari companies (like the ones we partner with on our Nat Hab safari trips) that encourage women to succeed. You’ll have a memorable experience, knowing you’re helping an important cause and participating in the equitable future of the safari industry!
Feature photo: Odette Uwineza (porter), Jolie Mukiza (guide) and Jacqueline Uwamahoro (porter) on a gorilla trek in Rwanda.