A regional entry into the world of birding
Published: The East African Nation magazine 20 April 2019
The fastest growing sector in tourism now is birding. With an estimated eight million American bird watchers looking for new vistas to fly to in search of the feathered kind, East Africa is a top destination. Then there is the rest of the world with a few more million birders.
The Rwandans and Ugandans have tapped into this figure and are investing in training guides including women guides. Both countries have their respective chapters: launched Rwanda Women Birders and Uganda Women Birders in 2013 to draw in the other half of the population.
Following hot on the heels is Kenya with the launch of the Kenya Women Birders on 29 March 2019.
“The reason for launching a chapter for women is because despite having really top-rated women birders in Kenya, when it comes to bird guiding, there are very few,” explained Washington Wachira of Cisticola Tours who joined hands with the Uganda Safari Guides Association (USAGA) to kick-start the Kenyan women birders.
“Cisticola Tours will host the Kenya program to train professional bird guides. The plan is to have an East African group of women birders who can lead birding tour groups and research groups.”
Fleur Ng’weno the widely acclaimed top Kenyan woman birder was at the launch and honoured for her work in birding. At 80 she stills leads the bird walks every third Sunday of the month and the weekly Wednesday morning walks she has done since 1971 – 48 years ago. Almost every bird guide in the country has passed through Fleur’s ‘school of birding’.
“There are many opportunities that arise through birding,” quipped Fleur at the launch. “In Kenya, we now have Site Support Groups in many parts of the country.”
Site Support Groups under the umbrella of Nature Kenya (East African Natural History Society) are a spin-off from the bird walks in Nairobi. The local groups guide visitors and monitor the birds, rare and endemic like the Clarke’s weaver in Kilifi, Papyrus Gonolek along Lake Victoria’s shores and Grey crowned cranes at Lake Ol Bolossat.
“Birders come for many days in search of the birds they want to see,” remarked Herbert Byaruhanga of USAGA. Rare and endemic birds means patience and a stay of more than a night.
In Uganda, women birders now own tour companies, hotels and support community projects. “When you empower a woman, you empower the whole community,” remarked Lilian Kamusiime owner of Kigezi Biota Tours Ltd based in Kabale town which she started in 2013 and is a driver-guide herself. She was once a teacher.
“As a female tourist driver, yes I have encountered difficult moments like when I went to pick up seven clients from Kigali (Rwanda),” continued Kamusiime. “They were not expecting a lady guide – and they were all women from overseas.
“Anyway, it was the best trip ever for the clients. When they flew back, the leader wrote on her facebook for the 2018 International Women’s Day that I was among the best women to celebrate because I did my job as well as any other best male guide.”
But the challenges are there for women. “I’ve had to deal with safari drivers who don’t take women guides seriously,” stated Jennifer Oduori, a protégé of Fleur and amongst the top rated bird guides in Kenya. “But you have to take a stand and show that you know what you are talking about.
“It’s the same in Uganda,” added Kamusiime. “Like most African countries, Uganda is also a male-dominated country and that was a factor why we as women had to unite to form the birders group for professional bird guides.
Research and Policy
As an invited speaker – despite being really bad at identifying the feathered kinds – l love birding. And as a writer passionate about conservation and the environment, birds are indicators of the state of the environment. Policy makers must partner with researchers and use their data to inform the way forward on sustainable development. For when the last vulture vanishes, the crane crashes and the song bird silences, we know we’ve lost our swamps, forests, grasslands and rivers – the very ecosystems that we humans depend on.