Updated: Oct 28, 2020
In 2018, Umwiza Joanna became the first woman in Rwanda to drive a safari vehicle. Her journey has since inspired more women to join her, including her sister. Even though she did not deliberately choose this line of work in the beginning, she has come to love nature and her job.
After losing her university scholarship halfway through her food science and technology course at the University of Rwanda, Umwiza Joanna, had to look for work.
She started off as a waitress and continued searching until she landed a job as a park liaison officer at Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda.
With her new job, she changed her course to public administration on a weekend programme, and started paying her own tuition.
At Akagera, Umwiza was the link between the park and the community where she taught people living around the park about conservation and the dangers of poaching.
Little did she know that her new job was a gateway to discovering her passion for the wild, and that she would later drive tourists around game parks in the safari vehicles she often saw around the park.
It was dangerous working in the park, as Umwiza told of an encounter with elephants.
One afternoon, as she walked past an unfenced part of the park, suddenly in front of her was an elephant looking at her.
She turned to walk in another direction and a herd of other elephants came out and circled her. Had it not been for a tour guide appearing, it would have been a long day for her.
As a park staffer, Umwiza worked closely with tour guides and she found their work fascinating. So she started learning and following them closely.
From her observations, and the questions she used to ask the tour guides she interacted with, Umwiza learnt a lot about wild animals and she fell in love with nature.
As a park liaison officer, she had to learn how to ride a motorcycle. The ease of movement made her work easier and also gave her time to learn the ropes of life in the park.
"I learned about animal behaviour. We grew up knowing that animals were dangerous, but I learnt that this is not entirely true. When you pay attention to them, you learn how respectful they are.
"We shouldn't just kill animals on site, even snakes. For instance, an elephant alerts you when you are getting close to where it is to avoid any confrontation," Umwiza said.
The wild was constantly calling to her, so she decided to become a tour guide.
Working as a guide deepened her understanding of nature and herself, galvanising her passion for this line of work.
Although she mostly learned about tour guiding on the job, she also attended training sessions that equipped her with skills like nature interpretation.
Riding in the back of those large green safari vehicles with tourists, day in day out, something unsettled Umwiza. Although she had seen other female tour guides, there was no woman driver. So one day she decided to do something about it.
Despite having no previous driving experience, she started learning how to drive the four-wheel drive vehicles with the help of some of the tour drivers she had gotten to know. It did not take her long to learn how to drive, and even to get a drivers' licence.
She was now armed and ready to drive the safari cars, which were at the time exclusively driven by male tour drivers.
But there was one problem; no one would trust her with their safari vehicle.
"I had challenged myself to drive tour cars and at this point I could drive them well, but I was worried that no one would ever trust me enough to give me their car," she said.
However, along came Wilberforce Begumisa, the owner of Gorilla Trek Africa tour company, who trusted her with a trip that proved to everyone that she could do it and do it well.
"Begumisa is Ugandan, but his company does tours in Rwanda. He saw how eager I was, then asked me if I was ready, and I said 'yes'. Then he gave me the car. This one chance made me shine.
"It was this trip that made other tour operators see my capabilities, and from then they have been giving me tours. I even cross over into Uganda, doing Bwindi tours," she said.
Source: East African