It’s a sweltering September morning in Nairobi when I make my way into a gas station to grab cold water for the road. My 10-day journey with Intrepid’s first female-only expedition through Kenya has only just begun. I feel a small bead of sweat collect on the back of my neck before it drops down my spine and seemingly evaporates into thin air somewhere along the way. As I step outside, I think to myself, what sweet relief it will be for the engine to turn over on our 20-passenger truck, roll down the windows, and feel the air wash over my face. And that’s when I see it. The truck broke down.
“There’s a small problem with the breaks,” Darlene Adaji, our local Intrepid guide says in a tone that assures our small group that everything will be OK. Though I believe her, it's the woman under the truck fixing the issue who really convinces me things will be just fine: Becky Kieha. She is not only the driver in charge of taking this group all over the nation, but she's also the first female overland driver in all of East Africa.
This new class of expedition from Intrepid truly is all about women, from Kieha at the wheel, to Adaji, our trip leader, to the people we meet at each stop along the way.
We’re here to celebrate the women of Kenya, learn about a few special programs happening around the country, and experience the unspoken common bonds women the world over share with one another.
Kieha quickly gets to work on the car as several men wander over to check out the scene. She ties her hair up using a cheetah-print scarf and slides underneath. Within moments — and without a single finger of aid lifted by the men — she loosens the break, comes out from under the truck, turns on the engine, and we are on our way.
Throughout Kenya we would stop in the city of Nairobi, take a drive to the Samburu National Reserve, up to Lake Naivasha, and over to the Maasi Mara National Reserve, meeting with female leaders, business owners, and other local women making a difference along the way. Those meetings started right in our truck with Kieha, who became the first female overland driver in the region after following her father’s footsteps.
“This love started when I was growing up. My father was a truck driver. That’s where I got my inspiration from,” she says as we drive over the bumpy roads toward the national reserves.
“I would dream and say, ‘One day, I will become a truck driver too.'”
Kieha’s love for her job is infectious. Her smile, her joy, and zest for the journey are all palpable. It’s the little things — warning us all before bumps, ensuring we have enough bathroom breaks, making sure we’re all smiling with her, and explaining every little roadway we ask about — that truly show how much difference and extra care a woman can make when leading the way.
To be clear, things have not always been easy for Kieha. “At the beginning, they were not nice,” she says of the men in her profession. But, she adds, “now that more women are driving trucks, they are coming around. We are almost there.”
However, these aren’t difficult realities that Intrepid tries to hide in some glossed-over version of a national tour.
“It’s really focused on breaking down barriers and fostering genuine discussions and connections, and it’s absolutely a two-way street,” Jenny Gray, global products and operations manager at Intrepid Travel, shares about the female-focused itineraries, which officially kicked off on Women’s Day 2018. “Our local female leaders and suppliers are just as excited to have this unique opportunity to invite female travelers into their lives, and to share their stories.”
One of the biggest takeaways Intrepid hopes travelers take from these trips, Gray says, is the realization that these women are no different than you. They are no different than your girlfriends, your mother, aunts, sisters, or grandmothers. The goal, she adds, is to build a little more love in the world.
“As we say, travel creates connections, builds empathy, and breeds tolerance, which we need more of in the world right now,” she said.
Some of that newly acquired empathy comes from learning just where Kenyan women have come from and where they are at right now.
Though there is most certainly a vibrant and growing women’s movement in the nation, it can still be difficult for women to work and grow any sort of wealth. According to the United Nations, just one percent of women in Kenya own land in their own right. Women also access less than 10 percent of available credit in the country, making it nearly impossible to grow a business.
And, in 2017, for the first time in the nation’s history, women were elected to sit as both governors and senators. Women also ran in record numbers, then holding 172 of the 1,883 elected seats in Kenya, the National Democratic Institute reported.
However, just one year later, male members of parliament blocked a vote that would have guaranteed Kenyan women more seats in parliament, Reuters reported.
“It is unfortunate to see our current leaders defer a priority concern for girls and women in Kenya. It is a dark day for all Kenyans,” Josephine Wambua-Mongare, chairman of the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya, said at the time.
“There are challenges in the African community,” Kieha says during our drive. “Women are never expected to do what men do. Women are expected to stay in the house. But, when men and women see me on the road, they ask, ‘Why are you on the road?’ And I tell them, ‘Life has changed.’”
The push to change the perception of women doesn’t stop with Kieha on this trip.
After a day’s drive, we make it to the Sabache Safari Camp, located on a private wildlife reserve, which is both owned and operated by an indigenous Samburu tribe.
Sabache, which means “a place of beauty and reverence” in the Maa Samburu language, more than lives up to its name.
When the sun comes up over the camp, you get your first glimpse of the expansive African terrain around you. Staying there means being rewarded with both views and the knowledge that your tourism dollars are going toward the direct employment and income of more than 145 families in the area. And that includes supporting a Samburu women’s community just down the road from the camp in the village of Kirish.
The community is made up of women who’ve fled their own villages, were pushed out after their husbands died, or were cast aside for their inability to bear children, some still in their teenage years.
But here, they worry about none of that. Instead, the women focus their collective energy on their newly formed jewelry business. Naomi Lekisaat, a Samburu woman working as a community mobilizer and project coordinator in the Sabache area, visits with our group, translating for one of the women in the community who explains it was easy for the women to decide to go into business together. Once they decided to go for it, they pooled their money into a table investment, all earning back 10 percent interest on what they put in.
However, their business challenges are a bit more unique than most. Rather than having issues with the business, it’s the physical distance that’s getting to them.
“It’s hard for us to get to the market,” one of the women explains while showing off an absolutely stunning beaded piece. “Those are the challenges we are facing right now.”
So, rather than go to market, they let the market come to them, selling their goods inside the Sabache Safari Camp, once again closing this loop on Intrepid’s female-focused mission.
Intrepid further delves into the realities of life for girls and women in Kenya on the last day of the journey, with a visit to Tepesua, a community organization located in the Loita Plains area less than 20 miles outside the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
It is there that we meet with Hellen Nkuraiya, a woman opening her doors to all Intrepid travelers willing to come and learn about a difficult topic: the still very prevalent reality of forced marriage and female genital mutilation in Kenya, despite being outlawed in the nation in 2011.
“Have you ever seen a purple cow?” Nkuraiya asks as she explains a bit more about a school she founded specifically for girls several years ago. Nkuraiya, who can't be more than 5 feet tall, somehow feels larger than life thanks to her enormous grin, bellowing voice, and a fierceness that radiates from within.
As a teacher and principal in the school systems around Kenya, Nkuraiya has seen girls often disappear from academics before they even become teenagers. She explains it’s because many of these girls are sold off into marriages, most of the time in exchange for things as small as a cow. Nkuraiya says she was sold off twice herself by her father in exchange for livestock.
So, rather than sit back and watch, she founded a school for girls and started trading her own cows for pupils. She then decorated the side of the school with a bright purple cow, adding, “I wanted to give my community everlasting cow. Now, the girls milk knowledge instead.”
Beyond supporting the young women at her school, Nkuraiya also founded two community villages for widows in Tepesua. There, the women earn a living by sewing the uniforms for the girls and creating beautiful jewelry and crafts of their own to sell to tourists. On our walk to meet the women, Nkuraiya proves she’s never lost her sense of humor, explaining she tried to convince the women to make beaded dog collars for tourists because “Mzungu (white travelers) love their dogs.”
All this just scratches the surface of what women can experience on these female-led and female-focused trips. From stopping in at coffee shops owned by women, bead factories run by women, restaurants, hotels, and even meeting with female rangers at the Maasi Mara reserve, it goes on and on and on.
This journey with Intrepid wholly redefines the word “vacation.” It’s a journey that firmly plants itself in your heart and one that evokes a smile every time you think of the things you saw, the conversations you had, and the lessons you learned along the way. And there’s no greater gift to be gained from a trip.
In 2020, women all around the world can attest to the fact that we still face issues of oppression. And trips like this not only show us how similar we all are but also provide us the opportunity to listen and help uplift one another by merely being in each other’s company. As Kanui — a young woman now in her second year of college, thanks to Nkuraiya — said before we parted ways from their camp, “All women can make it. They don’t have to feel inferior.”
Book Intrepid’s 10-day women’s trip to Kenya starting at $2,295 per person.
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