On the tranquil shores of Lake Victoria, the bustling town of Entebbe comes alive every Sunday morning as a diverse group of women, armed with binoculars and passion, converges at the botanical gardens. The Uganda Women Birders Club, led by the determined Judith Mirembe, is on a mission to break the gender barriers in the field of birding and secure a rightful place for women in Uganda’s booming tourism industry.
The Quest for “Lifers”
As these women navigate the thin strip of grass that separates the lake from the asphalt, their eyes are set on spotting a “lifer” – a bird on their wishlist. The concept of a lifer varies among enthusiasts, showcasing the diverse and unique experiences each birder seeks. The red-chested cuckoo may be a common sight in Uganda, but for others, like South African visitors, it is a prized lifer. The rich avian diversity of Uganda, home to 50% of Africa’s bird species, provides an ideal backdrop for these passionate birdwatchers.
Empowering Women in Birding
Despite Uganda being hailed as a paradise for birdwatchers, the industry is still grappling with gender disparities. Judith Mirembe, the club’s chair, believes that women are entitled to a share of the tourism earnings, currently estimated at $1.37 billion in 2019. At the International Conference for Women Birders hosted by the club, female enthusiasts worldwide gathered to discuss challenges and strategize ways to bring more financial opportunities to women in the sector.
Challenges Faced by Female Birders
The path for female birders in Uganda is not without hurdles. Birding comes with a price, and many Ugandan women struggle to meet the costs of essential equipment such as binoculars, telescopes, and cameras. Cultural expectations, depicting women as caregivers, add another layer of difficulty, as spouses may be reluctant to allow week-long birdwatching tours. Mirembe emphasizes the need for women to work twice as hard as men to gain equal respect in the industry.
A Supportive Network
The Uganda Women Birders Club, established in 2013, serves as both a training ground and a support network for its 80 members. Meeting every Sunday in Entebbe, these women – some already with careers in tourism and wildlife – share experiences, learn from each other, and collectively strive for recognition and equality in the male-dominated world of birding.
The journey for female birders has not been easy. Harassment, accusations of land theft, and cultural taboos, such as wearing trousers, have been part of their experiences. Yet, women like Judith Mirembe, who paved the way for others, serve as inspirations for the younger generation. The club members recall challenging times when they were subjected to sexual harassment by drivers or placed in shared rooms with men during birdwatching tours.
Promoting Birding as a Viable Career
While some women view birdwatching as a hobby, others aim to turn it into a full-time career. Priscilla Apolot, a birder and safari guide, highlights the unpredictability of nature and the reliability of bird sightings, making it a potentially lucrative career choice. As the Uganda Women Birders Club grows, they aspire to encourage more women to join the field.
As the Uganda Women Birders Club concludes their excursion at the botanical gardens, they carry with them not only the joy of spotting elusive birds but also the determination to break down barriers and pave the way for more women in the world of birding. The legacy of these women, who work against all odds to claim their space in the birdwatching community, serves as a testament to the power of passion, resilience, and collective effort.