Living up to her name

Our first female guide in East Africa, Aziza Mbwana, shares her inspiring story of perseverance…

Her name, ‘Aziza’, is a beautiful Swahili word meaning ‘powerful and beloved’ and she most certainly lives up to it. Aziza Mbwana, Assistant Head Ranger at &Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, is affectionately referred to as ‘Mama Tembo’ (tembo being the Swahili word for elephant), not just for her impressive knowledge of the gentle giants, but also for being one of the most respected matriarchs at the helm of &Beyond’s world-renowned herd of expert guides.

‘Aziza’ is also a palindrome, meaning it reads the same, backwards and forwards. Just as her name implies, Aziza means what she says and says what she means and her no-nonsense, can-do attitude has turned her into an admired role model.

Rewind to 2004, when Aziza became the first ever female guide employed by &Beyond in East Africa and the second female guide in all of Tanzania. Now, with 16 years of guiding under her belt, Aziza was recently named the Best Female Safari Guide in the 2020 Tanzania Tour Guide Awards, a truly well-deserved (and long overdue) accolade.

Female power

Growing up in Tanga in northern Tanzania, Aziza always had a fascination with nature and knew by the age of ten that she wanted to become a safari guide. Although Aziza’s father had insisted that she become a doctor or an accountant, her late mother always encouraged Aziza to follow her dreams, and that’s exactly what she did.

When Aziza completed high school, her mother supported her dream further by sending her to a tour guiding school in Arusha. This was the defining catalyst that would determine Aziza’s bright future and soon-to-be role model status.

Sink or swim

Armed with a certificate in tour guiding, Aziza returned to her coastal hometown to work for the cultural tourism office, where she organised snorkelling and river cruises for guests. Ironic, given she wasn’t a strong swimmer, however, Aziza donned a lifejacket and remained dedicated to her ongoing quest for knowledge and personal upskilling.

When Aziza accompanied two American marine biologists to Maziwi Island, they were shocked to discover that she couldn’t swim and insisted on teaching her right then and there. Ever the quick learner, Aziza learned how to swim in a day.

From that day forward, she realised that each time she was faced with an obstacle, she had two choices: she could either sink or swim. This life lesson would prove invaluable in her determined pursuit of becoming a fully qualified guide.

Demolishing stereotypes

Aziza was on a driving course in Arusha when she overheard that &Beyond was looking for new guiding recruits for our Mwewe Ranger Training School at &Beyond Klein’s Camp. “I didn’t have my driver’s license yet,” Aziza recalls, “but I remember thinking, you never know, this could be my chance.”

When Aziza arrived at our Arusha office on recruitment day she was one of 300 possible candidates. Immediately she started receiving untoward comments from fellow recruits, like, “You should be in the office, not the bush,” and “You’ll never make it, this is a man’s job.”

With 300 hopefuls and only a select few openings on the guiding course, Aziza knew she had to step up and prove herself. During the first interview, there were six other females. After the second interview, there were only two. At the driving assessment, Aziza was the only female left, and she passed, securing herself a coveted seat at Mwewe.

The journey to become a guide at &Beyond is no mean feat, especially 16 years ago, as a young female, not only in a male-dominated industry, but also in a traditionally male-dominated culture. “It wasn’t easy starting out in a man’s world,” Aziza explains. “On top of all the oral and written exams, there were mentally and physically challenging activities. We had to walk for 7 hours with 10 kg on our backs, we had to push broken-down vehicles for 3 hours and we had to practice carrying the heaviest trainee on a stretcher for 2 km. It was hard work.”

From those initial 300 hopeful candidates, there were only four successful graduates from Mwewe’s Class of 2004. Proudly and deservedly among those four, Aziza officially became the first female guide to be employed in &Beyond’s East African operations and the second in Tanzania as a whole — a remarkable milestone achievement her mother would have been immensely proud of.

Proving them wrong

Aziza started guiding at &Beyond Lake Manyara Tree Lodge and even though she had graduated on her own merit, she still had to keep proving herself in those early days. “I had to go the extra mile all the time because I am a woman. Not all of the staff supported me back then, many of them said the company had lost direction by hiring me,” Aziza recalls.

“There were only three women at the lodge and there was a lot of animosity when I first arrived. I was often told, ‘This is not your home.’ The men used to place bets that I would get lost in the bush with my guests and they’d often ask me what I’d do if I got a flat tyre. I just told them I would change it, as any other guide would.”

Resilient, resolute and utterly determined, Aziza stood her ground and continually showed not only that she had thick skin, but that she could do anything her male counterparts could do. She quickly earned the respect of her colleagues, the guiding industry and indeed the Tanzanian people.

A positive role model

With hard work and perseverance, Aziza’s dream came true and she has been guiding for nearly two decades. She has guided world-famous A-listers, including Leonardo DiCaprio, but Aziza has actually become a well-known celebrity in her own right.

“One day I was driving to town and I gave a lift to a young schoolgirl.” Aziza recounts. “I recognised her textbooks, so I asked her what she was studying and she told me ‘tour guiding’. I asked why she decided to study that when there aren’t many women doing that job. She said, ‘For your information, there are many women who are doing that job!’”

“I asked the girl if she knew any of these female guides and she responded that she knew Aziza,” Aziza chuckles. “When we got to town I asked her if she really knew Aziza and she said yes. So I told her that the Aziza she was talking about was actually me. I’m very happy and flattered to see that I am a role model for young women in Tanzania.”

Aziza continues to pay it forward not only by mentoring the strong team of expert guides that look up to her, but also by encouraging other women to join the world of guiding. She gets lots of calls from women seeking advice and her inspiring story continues to be shared in Tanzania and abroad.

A balancing act

Life keeps throwing us challenges and Aziza’s greatest obstacle nowadays is the continual balancing act of being a full-time guide and mother of three. As a guide, the six-weeks-on and two-weeks-off cycle means that she had to make the very difficult decision to send her two daughters to boarding school, while her little boy stays at their family home in Arusha with her younger brother and a nanny.

“I want my children to have the best chance at life. People believed in me and I was given a chance and I wish the same for them. I want them to follow their dreams … anything is possible if you are persistent.” Aziza smiles.

A word from her mentors

“Aziza, this is a great achievement for you and an inspiration for so many young women out there who can see that a life in the wilderness is not beyond their reach. And being the mother of two girls must make it that much sweeter! Thank you for flying our flag high out there, I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”

~ Graham Vercueil, &Beyond Group Field Manager

“Aziza, the proverbial mother of the &Beyond Tanzanian guiding family. It is not easy to step up and be assessed in a competition after doing something for so many years. To allow yourself to be vulnerable to judgment is an accomplishment on its own. Thank you for putting our &Beyond guiding values out there to be recognised and rewarded, through your knowledge and understanding of what we do.”

~ Andrew van den Broeck, &Beyond Regional Ranger Trainer for East Africa

Main banner image courtesy of Sadock M, photographer for the Tanzania Tour Guide Awards.

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