In 2018, Umwiza Joanna became one of few women in Rwanda to drive a safari vehicle. Her journey has since inspired more women to join her, including her sister. Even though she did not deliberately choose this line of work in the beginning, she has come to love nature and her job.
After losing her university scholarship halfway through her food science and technology course at the University of Rwanda, Umwiza Joanna, had to look for work.
She started off as a waitress and continued searching until she landed a job as a park liaison officer at Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda.
With her new job, she changed her course to public administration on a weekend programme, and started paying her own tuition.
At Akagera, Umwiza was the link between the park and the community where she taught people living around the park about conservation and the dangers of poaching.
Little did she know that her new job was a gateway to discovering her passion for the wild, and that she would later drive tourists around game parks in the safari vehicles she often saw around the park.
It was dangerous working in the park, as Umwiza told of an encounter with elephants.
One afternoon, as she walked past an unfenced part of the park, suddenly in front of her was an elephant looking at her.
She turned to walk in another direction and a herd of other elephants came out and circled her. Had it not been for a tour guide appearing, it would have been a long day for her.
As a park staffer, Umwiza worked closely with tour guides and she found their work fascinating. So she started learning and following them closely.
From her observations, and the questions she used to ask the tour guides she interacted with, Umwiza learnt a lot about wild animals and she fell in love with nature.
As a park liaison officer, she had to learn how to ride a motorcycle. The ease of movement made her work easier and also gave her time to learn the ropes of life in the park.
“I learned about animal behaviour. We grew up knowing that animals were dangerous, but I learnt that this is not entirely true. When you pay attention to them, you learn how respectful they are.
“We shouldn’t just kill animals on site, even snakes. For instance, an elephant alerts you when you are getting close to where it is to avoid any confrontation,” Umwiza said.
The wild was constantly calling to her, so she decided to become a tour guide.
Working as a guide deepened her understanding of nature and herself, galvanising her passion for this line of work.
Although she mostly learned about tour guiding on the job, she also attended training sessions that equipped her with skills like nature interpretation.
Riding in the back of those large green safari vehicles with tourists, day in day out, something unsettled Umwiza. Although she had seen other female tour guides, there was no woman driver. So one day she decided to do something about it.
Despite having no previous driving experience, she started learning how to drive the four-wheel drive vehicles with the help of some of the tour drivers she had gotten to know. It did not take her long to learn how to drive, and even to get a drivers’ licence.
She was now armed and ready to drive the safari cars, which were at the time exclusively driven by male tour drivers.
But there was one problem; no one would trust her with their safari vehicle.
“I had challenged myself to drive tour cars and at this point I could drive them well, but I was worried that no one would ever trust me enough to give me their car,” she said.
However, along came Wilberforce Begumisa, the owner of Gorilla Trek Africa tour company, who trusted her with a trip that proved to everyone that she could do it and do it well.
“Begumisa is Ugandan, but his company does tours in Rwanda. He saw how eager I was, then asked me if I was ready, and I said ‘yes’. Then he gave me the car. This one chance made me shine.
“It was this trip that made other tour operators see my capabilities, and from then they have been giving me tours. I even cross over into Uganda, doing Bwindi tours,” she said.
Over 100 trips
Since that time, Umwiza has done more than 100 trips in Rwanda and Uganda, and she even inspired her younger sister, Murungi Jovia, who also now drives tour safari vehicles.
Just like other women operating in other male dominated fields, Umwiza has faced prejudices and has had to work hard to demystify stereotypes about women’s abilities.
“I had to consciously and intentionally put in extra effort to work on those areas where as a woman I’m likely to be stereotypically judged. It was a lot of pressure,” she says.
During “rush hour” and “airport drive”, where she had to make sure a client did not miss a flight, she has had to train her mind to be positive that she will make it on time, and it has often worked out.
“Men get away with a lot. They can be weak, lazy and late, and when this happens it’s treated as normal. But if a woman exhibits these traits, it is quickly connected to her femininity, which is unfair,” she says.
Umwiza says she is always greeted with awe, from the tourists she drives to children on the streets, to traffic police, as well as fellow drivers on the road.
Sometimes traffic officers stop her, not to check her credentials but just to make sure that she is indeed the one driving the safari vehicle.
I asked her what her toughest experience as a safari driver has been.
She said it happened while on a Uganda trip, going to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Due to the bad road and the rugged nature of the terrain, the car skidded off the road and stopped on a steep hill. She turned to see the bewildered faces of the guests, after which she asked if everyone was okay: They were.
She made sure not to betray any trace of panic, then she started the engine and engaged a lower gear, which got them out of the dangerous slope safely. Other than that, she hasn’t encountered any serious issues on the road.
“I have received good reviews from many tourists whom I have driven,” she says.
Umwiza is a freelance driver, but since Covid-19 dampened the tourism business she has not been getting jobs. She is optimistic that with operators tapping into local tourism, things will get better.
Since tourism activities resumed in June, she has driven her family and friends twice to Akagera National Park, where they had an exhilarating experience in the wild.
Umwiza says she will continue looking for private tours.
She hopes to have her own tour safari vehicle one day, doing this job that truly gives her joy.
“I have been a waiter, a secretary, a research assistant, but this is the best work so far. It keeps me happy and I feel I am doing something unique,” she said.
Following in her sister's footsteps
Murungi Jovia shares: It started with Umwiza talking about her experiences while on trips with tourists, and how the tourism industry needs more women. At that time she was the only female tour driver.
The way she developed and supported herself as a woman in the industry inspired me. I said to myself, if she can do it why not me?
So I asked her to take me with her on trips as a trainee and she agreed.
I accompanied her on most of her trips, and read some of her books about tour guiding to learn more.
She also sent me for some trainings in Kigali.
After gaining some knowledge about what to do in the field, I travelled to Uganda to look for tour companies I could work with.
After knocking on a few doors, one company took me in. I started guiding, and this is my second year in the industry.
I drive tourists in Rwanda and Uganda, and I hope to cover East Africa after completing my short course in tour guiding and administration.
My sister still inspires me to date.