Judy Rotiken is the only woman safari guide at Ishara Mara Camp in Kenya. She has been passionate about nature since childhood.
She enjoys her job, but the journey to this point was not easy.
“I like studying nature and looking at the way things are,” Rotiken said during our walk around the camp. “As a child I used to chase away hyenas at night with my cousins.”
As the resident naturalist, she explained that Sodom apple fruits are a good antiseptic for skin wounds but poisonous to eat, and that stems from the Euclea tree are used to make traditional toothbrushes. “It is also fire-resistant and an evergreen tree.”
The Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya’s most famous game sanctuary, was established in 1961. Few Maasai women have worked in its tourism or wildlife sectors.
Rotiken grew up in Narok County near the Mau Forest. After completing primary school, the family could not afford secondary school fees and her father was ready to marry her off.
“Many Maasai girls get engaged young because their fathers will get cows,” said Rotiken. “But I said, never!”
Only through the determined efforts of her mother, a small-scale farmer, did she complete high school.
“My mother would go around looking for bursaries from relatives to support me. She sold everything, including a donkey that used to fetch water.”
Now she advises Maasai girls on the importance of school.
“With education you can work anywhere, you are respected, you make your own decisions.”
Rotiken worked at various Block Hotels before joining the Heritage Group at Samburu Intrepids lodge then Mara Intrepids camp in 2006. Then in 2014, health challenges meant she could not work in hotel shops anymore.
When the manager asked her what else she could do, she said guiding.
In 2017, she attained a bronze level certification from the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association (KPSGA).
Working in a field dominated by men is no bed of roses.
“Sometimes they would not answer my questions. Or I would board the safari vehicle and the guide would not talk to me. They did not understand why I wanted this job.”
Oftentimes, she was the only Maasai woman staying at a lodge.
“The people you are working with have probably discouraged other girls until they dislike tourism,” she said.
Fortunately, some experienced guides supported her ambitions and mentored her on guiding.
Lack of fees
When Rotiken completed secondary school, she was accepted into a teacher’s college, but never enrolled due to lack of fees.
Again her father suggested marriage so she ran away to her uncle’s home. To make some money she started making beaded bracelets to sell while looking for work. She approached a relative working at Keekorok Lodge, which was part of the Block Hotels group.
After several applications, she was offered a job as gift shop attendant in 2002, earning Ksh3,500 ($30).
“I would keep Ksh500 ($0.4) and the rest I sent to my mother for her needs and for my sisters’ school fees,” she said. “My work was not just for me, but for my siblings because I could not see them suffering the way I did.”
Working in tourism has meant long hours away from her family.
“If you have a soft heart you will not make it. But I passed through hardship until I became tough,” she said.
Her next goal is silver level KPSGA certification and getting a driver’s licence. “I don’t want to be driven by other guides anymore.”