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Tipping the scale for gender balance in Tanzania’s tourism sector

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Jessica Erasto, a woman tour guide, is challenging patriarchy through guided tours in Tanzania

Jessica Erasto standing behind a tour van at the gate of Mikumi National Park. Photo/ JANET OTIENO

My family and I are waiting for clearance at the gate of Mikumi National Park which is about 283 kilometres west of Tanzania’s commercial capital of Dar es salaam. 

It is the fourth largest national park in Tanzania lying between Uluguru Mountains and Lumango Range. It boasts a variety of wildlife and borders the Selous Game Reserve and Udzungwa National Park which makes it an adventurous safari circuit.

I notice a charming lady in brown khaki uniform leaning on a tour van. She is smiling at me. I return the smile and move a few inches closer to exchange pleasantries with her. It is when I learn she is one of the few female tour guides in the park. Meet 21-year-old Jessica Erasto who has challenged the gender stereotypes and thrusted herself in the male-dominated field of tour guide.

If there is one job in the tourism sector where cultural norms hold women back in this area, then it is that of the tour guide. Born in Meru in Moshi region of Tanzania, she embarked on her journey of being a tour guide after successfully completing her O-Level education at Kimnyaki Secondary School and then proceeding to study certificate course in tourist guiding at Volcano College in Arusha.

Covid-19 pandemic

What attracted her to join tour guide is when she visited Mikumi National Park and noticed that there were no female guides at that time. She decided to join to level the playing field where cultural norms held women from the local community back. 

According to the UNWTO, women make up the majority of the tourism workforce at 54 per cent, but they are so underrepresented in the department of tour guides. Women feel affected by the economic shock caused by Covid-19 pandemic more acutely and quicker than their male counterparts.

Most of the times, female tour guides work on freelance basis without even basic health cover which is so crucial during this time of global health scare. They depend on the hard work of taking visitors through the park and tips to earn a living.

“At times it gets tough when a particular animal a visitor wants to see is not sighted, this means we have to go again at night for a game drive to try and spot the animal in question,” Erasto says.

Part of her work involves giving directions, familiarizing guests with the locality, sharing information and facts to make visitors’ experiences memorable. She says at times you have to banter with your visitors and share with them relevant experiences.

In as much as she enjoys this work because she gets to meet people from all over the world, there are inevitable challenges, “there are ‘scavengers’ who take most of visitors – they are travel agencies from other regions and mostly consist of men,” she adds that this challenge is being resolved by park officials who always give women tour guides priority. And she hails Tanzanian National Parks Authorities (Tanapa) for always ensuring their safety while at their jobs and laws to safeguard them.

Jessica who is the third born in a family of six says she believes she will break even and soar even higher as a tour guide.

“My parents and siblings are very proud of me and have been my support as I assert my independence in the field of guided tours,” she states. She believes tourist guiding is her answer to economic independence as a woman.

Getting more women in tour guide adventures

She does not want to be among the handful tour guides but wants their numbers to grow. She urges more women to join the workforce so that they tilt the equality scale. “I encourage more girls to go and study tour guiding as a course so that we increase in number,” she urges and calls on more travel companies to employ female guides.

She says cultural expectations and little education opportunities hold women back from tour guide job which requires good communication skills combined with exceptional leadership and business skills.

“I want to be a great example to other younger women that they can do this job and be successful. I hope my courage to do this job will be an inspiration for them to join the world of tour guides and have real connection with nature,” she asserts.

She concludes by saying that while at it she will be levelling the equality path in tourism for women. “Next time you visit the park, choose a female guide to challenge the gender stereotype that this is a job for men and bring down the wall of inequality.”