Author Diane Mariechild once said, “A woman is full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.” African women are tapping into this power to not only break glass ceilings in Hollywood (see Lupita Nyong’o and Michaela Coel), in media (see Zain Asher and Bozoma Saint John), and in fashion (see Charlene Dunbar and Maria Borges), but also to make great strides in other non-conventional fields such as conservation, tourism and social justice.
Conservation and related fields have generally been male-dominated, due to traditional gender hierarchies that prevail in society. Despite this, according to Fiesta Warinwa, Director of Corporates and Foundation Relations at the African Wildlife Foundation, women are crucial to the conservation plight. “African women are the natural custodians of the environment. They pay the price when it comes to the social and economic effects of factors associated with environment and conservation.” Women also have a hand in the development of tourism and social justice, with female activists making their mark by speaking up and fighting for their rights and rightful representation.
One of the most renowned figures working in conservation today is Dr. Paula Kahumbu, a Kenyan ecologist who is leading the charge in protecting elephants from extinction due to poaching. Having started her conservation career early, becoming a park ranger after leaving school, she became involved in the debate around ivory when she was asked to measure Kenya’s first ivory burn in 1989. Since then, she has become a prominent and outspoken figure in protecting Africa’s natural heritage, particularly in her work since 2007 as CEO of Wildlife Direct, a nonprofit set up in Nairobi to support these efforts – whether attending the landmark ivory burn in the city in April 2016 or working with Kenya’s First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, on the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign. Speaking at the Conservation Lab in 2015, she posed a question summarising her passionate and unafraid stance on conservation: “It’s time to stop being polite. Poaching is a war being waged against Africa. Why aren’t our leaders taking action?”
Another individual who has been asking difficult questions and forging the path for women in conservation for some time is Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka, the founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health, star of BBC documentary Gladys the African Vet and Uganda’s first wildlife veterinary officer. Specialising in biodiversity conservation by instilling a sense of value in tourists and locals, Kalema-Zikusoka comments: “Conservation methods will help strengthen the tourism industry as well as increase awareness on how to take care of certain animals. For example, in Uganda tourists learn not to track mountain gorillas when they are ill as they can easily pass on fatal diseases to them.”
Pioneers like Kahumbu and Kalema-Zikusoka are inspiring a new crop of do-it-yourself, determined African women dedicated to protecting their heritage. And they don’t come any more determined than the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, a 26-strong group of seriously badass, all-female rangers who are putting themselves on the front lines of the conservation battle by patrolling South Africa’s Balule area, a patch of land plagued by rhino and bush-meat poachers, unarmed. Since 2014 they have reduced rhino poaching by 65 per cent and been awarded both the UNEP Champion of the Earth Award and Rhino Conservation Practitioner of the Year.
Crucially, they work with surrounding communities to educate them on the benefits of protecting their natural heritage as part of the belief that “the war on poaching will not be won with guns and bullets, but through local communities and education”. Indeed, the majority of the Black Mambas come from these impoverished communities, giving them a significant voice in overcoming patriarchal dominance and persuading both local men and women to combat the war on poaching without violence.
Winnie, a 22-year-old Mamba, comments, “I am proud to be a Black Mamba. Many people don’t know that a woman can do this job. We will show them that we can do it. When our children grow up, they will know the Big Five and love and respect nature.” Twenty-one-year-old Leitah continues, “The poachers have big guns and we have pepper spray and handcuffs; but we are not afraid. We are fighting for the animals and showing people that women can be beautiful and strong.”
Over in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, Agnes Kilena mirrors the Mambas’ determination to get involved with day-to-day conservation efforts in her role as the first female guide to work in the Mara, as part of the team at Basecamp Explorer. Born in the Amboseli area, Kilena studied hospitality at college before securing an internship at Basecamp, going on to the Koiyaki Guiding School before being hired as a guide.
For Kilena, the opportunity to show other young women in the local community that they can be directly involved in conservation is paramount. “My position right now means a lot to me as I am now a role model to the other women in the Maasai community and I want them to see that women can do just about anything a man can do as well – such as working in wildlife conservation”, she says proudly. Her eventual goal is to progress into wildlife management to further her impact on protecting endangered species.
Ex-radio and television presenter Raabia Hawa turned her back on a glamorous career in media to devote her attention to her true cause: wildlife conservation. The Kenyan director of the Ulinzi Africa Foundation, East Africa’s first non-profit organisation focused on ranger empowerment and welfare, Hawa regularly joins teams in the bush on de-snaring operations and initiated the Walk With Rangers programme to enhance collaboration with the sector. She is also a Kenya Wildlife Services Honorary Warden and was a notable contributor to legislative amendments to Kenya’s historic Wildlife Act.
Like Agnes Kilena, Hawa sees her work with rangers in the field as pivotal to changing perceptions of women in conservation. “On my first day in the field, we did about 23 kilometres, but stopped every one-to-two kilometres for a short break because the rangers felt I needed it”, she recalls. “They were obviously surprised when they found me just as able to withstand the harsh climate and terrain for such a long distance as them. I am happy to say I inspired them to see women as equally capable of being a ranger, and now there are women on a team that would probably never have considered it before.”
On the relationship between conservation and tourism, Hawa has an impassioned plea for the industry: “Conservation organisations are literally breaking our backs to safeguard a resource that tourism industry stakeholders enjoy. We must work together and protect this resource. Conservationists do not make a business of this work, and those that reap the benefits of safe wildlife should really wake up and join hands to make our work a little easier. Tourism authorities should make conservation support mandatory for tourism players, because without keeping the protectors of wildlife afloat, all the related businesses will suffer inevitably.”
The modern definition of conservation encompasses communities as well as wildlife, working with people in less advantaged areas to help them become self-sufficient, with women and girls often at the bedrock of these communities. Providing role models for young women in this arena is something that grassroots movement Rock Girl takes incredibly seriously. Based in Cape Town, the organisation was founded by human rights lawyer India Baird with the aim of inspiring and investing in girl-initiated and girl-focused projects in the private and public sectors.
By empowering girls to stay in school and women to become economically independent, Rock Girl hopes to reduce violence against women in a country with one of the highest incidences of rape and sexual violence on the continent. For its Safe Spaces campaign, for example, Rock Girl is partnering with artists and designers to create both symbolic and real safe spaces around South Africa, with 56 Safe Space benches and a new primary school building in existence today. Additionally, since gang violence flared up two years ago, Rock Girl has taken three Road Trips across South Africa to the Eastern and Northern Capes and to the Northwest and Gauteng to interview other girls, share their stories, explore their own country, and return to advocate for change.
“Social change can only happen if industries unite across disciplines and work together”, says Baird. “Our Rock Girls recognise this, and also recognise that visitors to our country can play an invaluable role in creating social change. We seek not just to educate them, but to engage them in ways to build a safer, more just South Africa and world. We fully expect some of the girls will one day be leaders themselves.”
Taking this concept of safe spaces online, Cameroonian Eliza Anyangwe is the force behind The Nzinga Effect, a digital platform and annual gathering to celebrate African women and tell their stories. She believes that “Our actions as humans are shaped by our beliefs and those beliefs are formed based on what we see, hear and share – the memes that become our norms and culture. As a result, if all one hears about African women is that they are victims, and all one sees is media that reinforces this narrative of victimhood, then the only thing that African women can be, to that person’s mind, are victims. By celebrating the lives of inspiring women we can change the narrative about Africa and its place in the world.”
The Nzinga Effect team travels to various African cities, connecting with women and learning their stories in order to tell them to the world. According to Anyangwe, “The tourism industry has such potential to bring wealth to communities, but that only happens when it is done responsibly. Simply building a lodge in a beautiful village and employing the villagers doesn’t go far enough. African women are the bedrock of their communities and the carriers of culture. Travel that is about exploring communities and discovering culture should therefore be built around African women.”
Whether it’s providing a template for the next generation of female conservationists and social crusaders; crushing stereotypes on the front lines of conservation; or creating spaces for African women to tell and share their stories; these pioneering personalities are ensuring that the future face of African conservation will truly reflect the communities most impacted by its path.