Ladies of the Serengeti: Meet the Women Redefining Africa’s Safari Industry

Ladies of the Serengeti: Meet the Women Redefining Africa’s Safari Industry

In the Serengeti’s all-female Dunia Camp, 16 women are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a woman in Africa.

am a woman. My name, Lacy, is one of the more feminine names I
know, even though it was given to me to commemorate a male drummer
in a 70s rock band. (My mother was a child of the 60s, teen of the
70s and a hell-raiser in the 80s.) Although I count myself as a
proud feminist who will rally for equality of the sexes, I am also
immensely proud of the things about me that embody the traditional
– and yes, outdated – view of what it means to be a woman. I like
shoes; they always complete an outfit. I spend an inordinate amount
of time and energy tending to my hair. Skincare is a priority; this
is the only face I’m ever going to get, after all.

Lotions and potions in tow, I board flight number 501 which will
propel me through the sky toward Addis Ababa, the traffic-choked,
coffee-hyped capital of Ethiopia. From there, I hop on a slightly
smaller, slightly more touristy flight to Kilimanjaro where I join
a few hundred other khaki-clad nomads as we disperse among an array
of chartered flights bound for the Serengeti.

It takes me nearly 48 hours to get to the heart of Africa’s most
famous national park, where a team of 16 women operate the
continent’s first and only all-female-run safari lodge. This is
ground zero for girl power in a country that, up until four years
ago, had a minimum female marrying age of 15. To this day, only a
very small percentage of girls have access to education. The women
and I don’t share a landmass, a religion or barely even a language
– but it had gone through my mind as I cut through the clouds en
route that there’s a high probability that all 17 of us would look
at Rosie the Riveter of rolled-sleeve, red-bandana, Second World
War-poster fame with a certain level of fondness. What didn’t go
through my head is that we’d spend the next week bonding over
hairdos, beaded sandals and the morning routine in which I prepare
my skin for being roughly 2,500 miles closer to the equator.

It’s early afternoon when I arrive at Dunia Camp, beyond
jet-lagged – time and date elude me. In fact, I’m sure of only one
thing as my open-air ride bumbles out of the vast
plains and along an increasingly narrow road shaded
by a canopy of acacia trees: the consequences of 48 hours of
sleeping with my neck at a 45-degree angle have officially made
themselves known. Small talk, singing and dancing rank high on my
“not now” list. That is until I round the last corner and am
greeted with the smiling faces of 16 women who are truly redefining
the safari industry – and for the most part, they’re deeply unaware
of doing so. They are singing and dancing for my arrival. I pull my
tangled hair into a loose ponytail and accept the fact that I’m
about to be out-rhythmed. Sometimes you just gotta dance.

There’s Grace, taller than most others with a strong build,
round face and gracious smile. She’s the head chef and, though
outwardly more reserved in her demeanour, I know within hours of
arriving that when she speaks the kitchen listens. Chinese food, I
discover, is one of the weirdest cuisines she’s had to learn to
cook, but one of her favourites to eat. Cinnamon rolls are still a

Angel is the camp manager and “boss lady”, we joke. She has a
short, low-maintenance haircut, a grin that puts the most rigid at
ease and a contagious laugh. She’s also the reason that the
all-female Dunia Camp exists in the way it does. She possesses that
enviable quality of effective authority, being able to relate and
lead in tandem. In speaking with the other ladies as the week wears
on, I learn that a large percentage of them count Angel as their

The hardest part of her job, Angel says, isn’t managing the 15
women who look to her for leadership, or even the thousands of
guests who occupy her eight tented suites. Rather it’s the mad
scramble that takes place after “waking up in the morning and
finding that there is no water in the camp. During the night,” she
continues, “the elephants [drink out of our] water tanks and break
the tubs and pipelines.” Putting all the pieces back together
before the guests wake up isn’t easy.

Samia is a waitress who spends the majority of her time tending
to those in the camp’s communal mess tent. Her almond-shaped eyes
pair well with a jawline that becomes more defined as her smile
broadens. Her hair is gathered together and hangs loosely against a
beige button-up shirt. “My friends and family are very proud of
me,” she giggles when I ask what it’s like to return to her
village. And in a moment that signifies just how progressive, and
how common, women and their plights are around the world, she says
through the most genuinely childlike smirk: “I’ve shown them that
I’m strong and that I can do what a man can do.”

Then there’s Zawadi and her unofficial protégé, Neema, the
camp’s only guide and guide-in-training, respectively. Together
these two have formed a sisterhood not that dissimilar to the
lionesses which we spend our days observing. If one is out hunting,
so to speak, the other is all ears. When Zawadi momentarily gets
stuck with the Toyota Land Cruiser we’re riding, Neema is the first
to offer support from the backseat. With an unparalleled display of
enthusiasm, the two frequently marvel at the way African American
women change their hairstyles and discuss the care of the natural
dreadlocks that cascade down their small frames (both hoist
themselves a bit higher behind the wheel with the assistance of a
seat cushion).

After day two when the newness of the animal kingdom has worn
off, I realise that watching these two ladies interact is more
fascinating than anything I’ll see in the Serengeti. With patience
and prowess, the pair deftly manoeuvre being the Serengeti’s –
perhaps even Africa’s – rare female safari guides. I am a brief
member of this tightly formed pride, and I’m all ears.

Beyond hair, the two share a similar story. Zawadi grew up in
northern Tanzania on the western slope of Lake Victoria. National
parks and game reserves form a circle around her childhood home
before meeting up with the southern border of Uganda. Neema hails
from Arusha, the main launching pad for safari-goers and where the
country’s two main wilderness attractions – Mount Kilimanjaro and
Serengeti National Park – flank to the east and west. Yet neither
of them grew up seeing the wealth of wildlife that surrounded them.
“My family wasn’t interested at all,” notes Zawadi. “People thought
national parks were for foreigners,” Neema echoes.

Though an unlikely match, the two beat the odds – Neema’s
interview to get into the guide trainee program brought out more
than 400 applicants, only 12 of which passed – and having made it
through, they both speak of an initial reluctance from their peers.
“When I first started working, I wasn’t accepted at all. They said,
‘this is a man’s job, how can you do the work that’s dominated by
males?'” Zawadi tells me. “Just wait and see,” she finishes with
defiance. Neema’s family implored: “You’re very young. How can the
guests trust you?” She adds: “I knew that if I worked hard and
focused I could be anything I wanted to be.”

Great strides are left to be made, however. According to the
Human Rights Watch, 40 per cent of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa
marry before age 18, and anywhere from 30 to 51 per cent of those
girls give birth before reaching that age as well. Once this
happens, access to education is greatly diminished. Nevertheless,
Zawadi and Neema agree that life for a female in
is progressing, regardless how slow the pace.
“Previously wives had to stay home and have children,” Neema
explains. “People would think that if you are an educated woman you
won’t respect your husband. But right now, I can say that society
is changing. Life is different.”

Nowadays, it’s the guests, Zawadi points out, that do the most
gawking. “Most of them are mesmerised when they see me,” and she’s
asked for the occasional selfie. To that, I shyly raise my arm and
do the universal gesture that implies, “let’s take a picture
together”. It doesn’t come from a standpoint of observation, but
rather of awe. Here are two ladies who are crafting the Serengeti’s
answer to the so-called “girl boss”. Like me, they rally for
equality of the sexes while embracing the things about them that
embody the traditional view of what it means to be a woman. This, I
think, is the single most incredible thing about being a feminist,
the fact that we can do and be both.

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