Girl power is ascending the international birding scene. No where am I more excited to see women leading the charge than in bird guiding, and in particular, women country nationals entering the lucrative and male-dominated world of nature tourism in the world’s birding hot spots. Today’s post features one such young woman, Judith Mirembe, and the organization Uganda Women Birders she chairs to train other Ugandan women in nature tourism.
Mirembe, 27, is the co-founder with Herbert Byaruhanga (Director of Bird Uganda Safaris) of the Uganda Women Birders Association, formed in May 2013 to remedy the gap of women involved in nature guiding in Uganda. At the time of the club’s founding, Mirembe was a university student and intern for Bird Uganda Safaris, and saw first hand the opportunity for women to enter the field, but also the challenges.
Not only is it difficult financially to enter nature guiding, but traditional stereotypes prevent many women from even starting. “Uganda, just like any other African country, is a male-dominated society where (the) majority of decisions are made by men, leaving women behind. Tourism is not an exception,” says Mirembe on the club’s website. Where marriage is both a societal expectation and a financial necessity, many women leave guiding once they start a family. And for those birding guides who persist and choose not to marry, there is clear prejudice; enough to necessitate the claim on the club’s site: “We would like to participate wholesomely in this drive to make Uganda the most preferred Tourism Destination.”
I learned about Uganda Women Birders on the Facebook group World Girl Birders, the immeasurably helpful resource for female birders founded by Debi Love Shearwater. It quickly became obvious to me that the Uganda Women Birders Association was totally distinct in its existence as a resource to women on the ground supporting female birding and nature guides. I don’t know of such an association even in the US, where I live!
An exciting development earlier this month brought together bird guides from around the world—many of them women—with Mirembe and her Ugandan colleagues. Uganda hosted the Second Annual African Birding Expo, which took place in Entebbe along Lake Victoria December 6 to 8, 2018. Among the international group of birding guides were renowned Americans Sharon Stiteler, the Bird Chick and Megan Crewe of Field Guides Birding Tours Worldwide, and two young Rwandan birding guides, Jeanisse Nsanga and Pamela Giramata Gasana.
While Stiteler and Crewe wowed the young Uganda Women Birders with advice and tips, Mirembe knows her group’s work is in turn changing the scene on the continent. “I am proud to recognize the Uganda Women Birders as the only organization in the world training women in Nature guiding, a male dominated profession. We are currently inspiring other ladies from other countries to start up this initiative in their respective countries,” she said on Facebook accompanying a photo of herself and vice-chair Prossy Nanyombi with their Rwandan colleagues.
In addition to chairing Uganda Women Birders, she is finishing her Masters at Makerere University in Kampala (studying Shoebills and community conservation), is a current EDGE Fellow, and works as a birding guide. She’s traveled to birding expos in Europe and North America as a representative for Ugandan Eco-tourism. And she’s not stopping there, as you’ll read in the interview below, conducted over email and Messenger in November and December, 2018.
How has the Uganda Women Birders Association grown since its founding?
Judith Mirembe: The club started with a few ladies who were already established in the Nature Guiding world and we thought these few would inspire the others to join the club. We started with about 10 women and the membership grew to include 20 other new members and currently (we have) about 50 with 30 active members.
However these numbers are in balance as the number of ladies joining is equal to that of the ladies leaving. Most of the ladies joining as fresh graduates join with a purpose of looking for a job and tend to move immediately (once) they find a job. Most of these (jobs) are not necessarily practical and some are not at all related to guiding.
How do you market your org to students and then to employers?
JM: Often times we visit universities and schools (where) we talk to students about the club, its benefits and how they can join. More marketing is done through social media platforms such as our Facebook page.
We/our members subscribe to different membership organisations like the Uganda Safari Guides Association (USAGA), NatureUganda and these in a way market us. Bird Uganda Safaris has been quite an instrument in marketing the club and it employs some of our members.
Do guides start right out of school or do they come with university or vocational degrees? or both?
JM: Most of the courses taught at universities are theoretical and the graduates would still need to go through hands-on/ practical skills training. Most of the trainees are graduates from the university looking for jobs since there is increasing unemployment rates in the country. However they still need to get the hands-on experience as well as theory in the relevant field such as birds, mammals, culture, geography and others.
What kind of training does the group provide its members?
JM: As of now, we do not have a proper schedule of trainings. There is great power in learning as a group, so we carry out practical skills training at least twice a month where we go out birding as we empower the new ones with skills.
These are later supplemented by formal class setting trainings where we work with other tourism stakeholders such as the Uganda Safari Guides Association and the African institute of Tourism and field guide training as well as UTB. We also allocate the new recruits to some of our already established nature guides who are site based where they are further empowered with field skills.
What kinds of jobs are your members finding?
JM: Many ladies have found success through being members of the group, among which are those who have developed into good nature guides while others have developed into tour managers, reservation officers. Often times we give recommendations to our members to work in other tourism related activities. We place/recommend our trained guides to companies.
What kinds of resources does the club provide its members?
JM: The club was able to attract a donation of 15 pairs of binoculars and some guide books from the Uganda Wildlife Authority and Uganda Tourism Board (UTB). These are borrowed by the ladies who don’t have (their own) to use during their training and practice sessions. This equipment has helped the ladies to further develop their bird identification skills.
Does your organization offer scholarships or do students have to finance their training?
JM: In most cases students finance their own training. However sometimes, we get fully-sponsored trainings by the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Other times we get support from friends and clients of Bird Uganda Safaris which has been our biggest sponsors and appreciate the work we are doing of empowering women. The women birders that are already established such as Harriet Kemigisha sponsor some of the ladies during the trainings. These friends are always willing to support us whenever called upon.
How is your organization accredited for training guides? Is there a national standard for nature guides in Uganda?
JM: The body currently in charge of grading guides is the Uganda Safari Guides Association (USAGA) to which we subscribe.
You're open about the difficulty in being a guide and having a family/being married. Do any of your women guides manage to have a family and work as a guide?
JM: Very few women are married and still carry on guiding as a profession. It takes an understanding husband however for the majority it is hard because most of those that get married stop birding. Like in many of the African traditional societies, a woman is charge of taking care of a home, should care for the children (full time mother) and this therefore limits the mobility and commitment to nature guiding which involves being away in the field for many days. I believe if the ladies are earning decent livelihoods from nature guiding activities, then their husbands will not stop them from carrying on with guiding activities.
The most successful (professional) woman birder in Uganda is Harriet Kemigisha and she has made it with family and yet raising kids is some of our greatest fears as field women. We (the younger women) all look up to her.
What have you experienced in the way of challenges to being a female nature guide?
JM: One of the biggest challenges I have faced is society not believing in us as women. Often times people get surprised seeing us do the jobs ideally “labelled for men”. This in a way reduces the trust and confidence they have in us as women.
Your group recently hosted some prominent women bird guides during the African Bird Expo, how did that go?
Uganda hosted the second African Birding Expo. This was at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center (UWEC)/Zoo (in Entebbe). The event attracted international birders and bloggers who had a 14 days' FAM trip (Press Trip) through the country and preceded the expo.
The birders had a lot to share with the Ugandan birders, for instance, Sharon (Stiteler) taught us how to use our smart phones (digi-scoping/phone scoping) to take photos during our trips. The ladies especially motivated our Ugandan women birders and applauded our commitment. We shared a lot of our challenges with these international women birders and they gave us advice and motivation. We are now stronger than ever and are ready to work hard.
What is your favorite place to take visitors, and what is it they would expect to see?
JM: My favorite place to visit is Mabamba Wetland on the shores of Lake Victoria. Mabamba Wetland is an Important Bird Area with over 300 bird species. This wetland has an organized community of local guides who participate in the conservation of wildlife within the wetland and the local communities are in the best position to carry out conservation since they are the custodians of natural resources.
It is home to the Shoebill, my favorite species and other globally threatened species such as the Papyrus Gonolek and Blue Swallow. At Mabamba Wetland, one is guided by the local guides from the community who earn livelihoods for their families through eco-tourism and in turn protect the wetland.
What is next for you?
JM: I am starting a company; Women Adventures Africa which will provide opportunities for women to work and lead tours. This company will only employ women so as to give them a platform to train and earn a livelihoods for their families. I am working on content for the website. In the mean time for any inquires; firstname.lastname@example.org can be used.
If you would like to sponsor a woman to complete training to become a nature guide through Uganda Women Birder Association, you can contact Judith Mirembe through Facebook. You will change a woman’s life and promote conservation through your sponsorship.