Women Driver-Guides & Porters – Agatha Bernard

Founder-Owner of ‘Afro Lioness Adventures’

Agatha is a 23 year old driver-guide and founder-owner of Afro Lioness Adventures based in Arusha. Born in Murangi, she is from the Pare ethnic group, who are indigenous to the Pare Mountains in northern Tanzania, part of the Kilimanjaro Region.

A keen and enthusiastic student at both school and college, Agatha’s warm and welcoming personality, vibrant energy and love of wildlife and tribal culture made her destined to follow a career in tourism. She took every opportunity to learn skills that would help her achieve her dream, from becoming fluent in English to being able to drive and repair safari vehicles on the most challenging roads –  being one of only two women in a class of 120 student mechanics made her also appreciate just how unusual and obstacle-ridden her journey would be to become one of Tanzania’s most sought after driver-guides!

Agatha’s first job in tourism (aged 18) was as a freelance porter on Mount Kilimanjaro – the only female on the mountain at that time. She climbed Africa’s and the world’s highest free-standing mountain (5,895 metres) over 20 times during a 7 month period. Day in and day out she would carry climbers equipment (weighing up to 25kg) up and down the mountain, never doubting her ability to keep up with the male porters, confident in the belief that “Women are stronger than men – remember, they are the ones who have to carry a baby for 9 months!” To earn a living as a mountain porter is one of tourism’s toughest jobs and despite her permanent smile, Agatha felt on some days she was crying inside. However, giving up was not in her vocabulary and as Agatha’s hard-working reputation spread, she was soon approached by a local businessman to join his company as a driver-guide and leapt at the opportunity.

Agatha embraced the chance to expand her horizons but also knew that she would have to navigate her way through embedded prejudices of what a woman’s role was in society, to not only to survive but thrive in this job.

With only a handful of female tour guides, TANAPA offers no dedicated accommodation for female guides in the national parks. All tour-guides share the same room, which means at best women have no privacy, and at worst they are sexually propositioned – threats of ‘if you don’t sleep with me you will not get work’ were not uncommon. Fortunately, Agatha’s boss (Spanish by birth) became a father figure during this time and where possible would arrange private accommodation for her at the park lodges. Ever resourceful, when this wasn’t possible, Agatha would retreat to her car for a safe nights sleep until the next morning.

The view that ‘women are not as strong as men’ or that ‘their job is to have children and look after their husbands’ was, and still is, prevalent in society. During one safari tour, news was received at the parks head office that one of the vehicles had overturned, but fortunately, all the passengers were safe thanks to the courage and strength of another guide who came to the rescue. A message of thanks was immediately sent back and the question asked: “What is the name of the man who rescued the tourists?”….”Agatha!” was the reply.

Such stereotypical views of women served only to motivate Agatha and when the company she worked for closed, she decided to start her own business with the help of a number of talented and supportive women. As many clients referred to her as a lioness, and Agatha believes that every woman has the raw powers of such a beautiful creature inside her, she wanted to incorporate such a symbol into her company’s name, hence ‘Afro Lioness Adventures’ was born. Agatha opened her office in 2018 with a women-only workforce made up of three driver-guides and three porters. Today, her work challenges haven’t gone away but have expanded into finding new customers to make sure she can pay her monthly bills and thinking about how best to manage the needs of the women in her business. She knows that all business owners have challenges, but feels that for women, the hurdles are just a bit higher and harder to get over.

What does the future hold for Agatha? She wants to expand her female workforce and grow Afro Lioness Adventures into a company that also provides specialised food packages to safari companies to cater for travellers complex dietary needs. She also wants to set up a traditional crafts centre for women to make and sell their own wares. And most importantly, she wants to help empower woman to shape their own destiny in the hope some will go on to become national park wardens and driver-guides because “women are strong, smart and caring which makes them a perfect fit for this important job!”