The future of Rwanda: Annie, the country’s first female certified driver-guide – Sustainability Story of the Week
Last September I got the chance to visit Rwanda and met Annie. Who guided me through a portion of the Congo Nile Trail, a hiking and biking trail that runs up and down the hills along the shores of Lake Kivu in Western Rwanda.
Ambitious and forward-looking, Annie is a young Rwandan hungry for change, just like her generation. She is one of the few female certified tourist guides in the country and a member of the Rwanda Safari Guides Association (RWASAGA) , the only guides association in Rwanda.
Guiding has long been considered a strictly male profession and still is for many Rwandans. The Rwanda Safari Guides Association only has two other female guides. Annie therefore represents change and progress, a path her country has been following for the past two decades.
Rwanda is still burdened by its violent past and the horrific events of 1994. The country sadly remains in many minds synonymous with war. Yet, it couldn’t be further away from the reality in the country.
Rwandans know better than most that peace is not a given right nor should it be taken for granted. They know how fragile it is and how easily it can slip through our fingers and open the doors to war and violence. Therefore, they have been working for it every single day since the end of the genocide.
Amahoro, meaning peace in Kinyarwanda, is everywhere. Tour agencies, hotels and even the biggest stadium of the country bear the name Amahoro.
In the past 23 years, Rwanda has transformed into a country turned towards the world and progress. It reduced child mortality rate by two-thirds and achieved near-universal enrolment in primary education. It is also the country with the highest number of women in parliament with 64% of female parliamentarians!
Tourism is a high priority for the country. Home to the mountain gorillas, Rwanda has always been a hot spot for wildlife tourism. However, it is now diversifying its tourism offer in order to encourage a new form of tourism that is more inclusive and benefits the wider population.
As Annie said “Rwanda is now marketed beyond Gorillas and they are putting efforts in other destinations and development of community-based tourism”. A domestic tourism campaign was notably launched called “Tembera U Rwanda” to encourage Rwandans to visit their country.
The Congo Nile Trail was one of the initiatives developed by the Rwandan government to reduce its reliance on gorilla tourism. The trail passes through countless villages and brings much needed revenues to remote areas.
During the trail Annie and I realised, that although we may be from very different parts of the world, we still have a lot in common. We’re both passionate about tourism, we both love nature and we’re both convinced that sustainable tourism is the way forward.
Tourism has become an important part of her life. It is after starting to guide tourists that she realised the opportunities that tourism offered. It is her passion for her country and her desire to share and exchange with others that led her to change her original plan of studying economics to studying tourism at the University of Tourism, Technology and Business Studies in Kigali instead.
Becoming a certified guide however wasn’t straightforward. Culturally, “young women should not spend a night away from their family’s home” and so it was hard for her to gain her family’s support and acceptance of the profession she had chosen. Going against her family’s wish wasn’t easy but she says that things are changing now and “it’s getting better”.
On top of that, men dominate the sector and she says it is sometimes difficult to find companies willing to hire her because it is not yet widely accepted that women can guide just as well as men. On this too she is optimistic and says that more and more companies are now starting to understand and “believe that [she] can guide their clients as well as any other tourist guide or even better”.
Tourism, Annie says, is attracting more and more young people because of the wide range of opportunities it offers. It also empowers more and more women, just like it empowered her. An increasing number of women now work in hotels and restaurants and most of the craft shops are owned by or employ women.
Working as a tourist guide whilst studying has allowed her to support herself and gain in-depth experience that certainly gives her an edge in her studies. Above all, she says, it allows her to meet people from all over the world and learn about new places and cultures.
Ecotourism and community-based tourism she states, are becoming “highly important in Rwanda” and is what she wants to focus on for the rest of her career.
Annie’s story is an example of how tourism can give young people an opportunity for change and a chance to break free from traditional cultural norms. It is also for her a chance to give back and help others by fostering the development of a sustainable tourism industry. She sends a message to other young women in Rwanda that a successful and meaningful career in tourism is now possible.