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The Feminists On A Mission To Grow Birding In Uganda :: Uganda Radionetwork

The Feminists On A Mission To Grow Birding In Uganda

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Men shaped the culture of birding and still dominate it, but that could soon change. It is a major milestone that Judith Mirembe’s Association has inspired women in Uganda Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania.
17 May 2024 16:39
The women on duty. Uganda now has many more feamle tour guides in birding even with the enormous challenges.
All too often, the world of birds is associated with men. Nevertheless, in Uganda, women birders are defying the odds by claiming their space is this nascent but equally critical section of Uganda’s rich biodiversity. 

Judith Mirembe, the chairperson of Uganda Women Birders Club says they are determined to break the norms and barriers imposed on women not just in birding but Uganda’s tourism industry. 

“We still have such social perceptions that even bird watching and guiding tourists are seen as roles in which women can’t fit,” says Mirembe who had grown close to the family involved in birding but she never took interest until when she joined University.

“At the time we started in 2013, there was only one woman birder. Her name is Harriet Kamugisha. For us who were starting, we did not know where we would end. We said let’s just don it because there was an opportunity,” says Mirembe whose Association now boats of 80 members.

The goal of the Association according to Mirembe is to bolster female participation in nature Guiding, a field traditionally dominated by men.

“We did not have much inspiration. We did not have so many people to look up to because everybody was a man,” says Mirembe.

“We are now working with these guys, probably earning the same money or more. This makes us feel proud of ourselves. And we want to see more women join us,” she narrates further. 

Last December, Uganda Women Birders hosted the inaugural International Conference for Women Birders Expo held in Kampala. The Expo attracted birders from all continents around the world. Local and international speakers outlined the need for Uganda its tourism numbers.

There was a suggestion that the earnings to $700 million or about two trillion shillings by attracting 100,000 birders by 2030. An enormous task for players in the birding industry and of course Judith Mirembe and her association. Is that goal attainable? 

“Yes. If Uganda Tourism Board promotes birding in Uganda like it has promoted the gorillas in the country,” she says. Other payers in Uganda’s tourism sector especially those engaged in birding have shared her view. 

They have argued that the devil is in the figures about bird and birding destinations in Uganda. Bird watching as a Market Segment Bird-based tourism or Avitourism is considered a sub-category or “niche market” of nature-based tourism.

A market analysis of bird-based tourism in the USA found that while historically restricted to the elite, bird watching has “grown into a highly popular pastime for the non-professional. It found that Bird watchers combine bird viewing with other wildlife viewings. 

Luckily, for Uganda, the entire national parks from Kidepo, Queen Elizabeth, and Mghahinga among Bwindi are also top birding destinations.  

“Uganda The Birding Paradise” 

An Ornithologist visiting Uganda recently wrote agreeing with his birding guide Johnnie Kamugisha that Uganda is a birding paradise.   

“Wendy and I ended up seeing 352 species of birds in 11 days of birding, along with a tremendous list of mammals including Mountain Gorilla, Chimpanzees, Lion, Hyenas, Elephant, Giraffes, and on and on,” he said.

In 2019, a report by Nature Uganda “Monitoring Birds for Selected Sites in Uganda to Uganda Wildlife Authority said Uganda has over 1060 bird species mainly because the country is strategically located in the center of central Africa and covers a high diversity of habitats suitable for many species. It said these habitats include among others forests, woodlands, grasslands, agricultural lands, wetlands, and open waters. 

Judith Mirembe has seen most of those birds through the lenses of her binoculars or her naked eyes. A picture of her towering over her binocular tripod stand with her three-year-old daughter standing under it perhaps paints the picture of Mirembe at her best as one of the thriving female birders in Uganda.

Magada Haily Miriam is a women birder/guide and member of the Uganda Women Birds Club. She was a member of the Girl Guides Club while at school. They spent holiday weekends with colleagues in bush camps learning to survive outdoors with little resources.

“Due to the scarcity of entertainment in the bushes, I turned to bird watching,” says. She did not know that those experiences would shape her future career in particularly protecting birds and their habitats. She now creates and leads birding and wildlife tours in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania. 

She had worked at Kibale National Park as a warden of law enforcement and at Queen Elizabeth as a warden in charge of tourism and education under Uganda Wildlife Authority. While carrying out her duties, she sometimes found birders- especially men and their male guides in charge. 

She could not resist joining to watch the beautiful colors of different birds in Uganda’s wilderness. “Because if you go out there and you are a guide about wildlife, it is easier to explain about an elephant but it might not give you a challenge. But looking at birds with different colors and their habitats draws your interest,” says Magada. 

It takes an extra if one wants to venture into guiding birders, she says. “First of all you have to differentiate one bird from the other; you have to know where they are. So have to be keen, and you need to have passion and interest. So when I looked at the wildlife protection that I was doing, I wanted to add something challenging,” says Magada, a licensed tour guide with Uganda Tourism Board. 

She is one of the female birding superstars of Uganda and she has learned the hard way through the journey.

“My fellow birders can testify that if it is the water birds, it is very easy they are there. However, if you go to an area like Budongo forest, you know that you are going to come back with an ache. If you go to Bwindi, you are going down hiking. It is real work. So have to be committed,” shares. “You have to live to the challenge. Am I looking at different colors, looking at different levels, am I looking at the ground, am I looking at my eye level or am I looking into the canopies”

Asked about her favorite bird species, Magada without a blink of an eye says it is the marabou stork commonly known ass or Karoli in Kampala. Why? “The role it plays in the environment. It was my study bird but I am trying to engage my community with waste management. When the marabou storks come around, they are ever chasing them. The community should be told that if you properly dispose of the waste, then they will not be here” 

Individuals under the guise of keeping Kampala city and its environs clean have massacred hundreds of marabou storks. 

Most international tourists to Uganda tend to add the Mabamba wetland to their itinerary. Mabamba is a Ramsar site known for hosting tens of species including the shoebill Stork. 

Prosy Nanyombi has led birders to Mabamba wetlands but she cut her milk teeth in birding at Mpanga forest during her internship. 

“When you are in a forest, only what you hear are the calls from the birds. Before you wake up you hear the calls. I said let me look at these birds. Let me follow one by one,” she says.

Nanyombi did not know that she needed binoculars “I had a bird book for the site. However, you could open from the first to the last page. Without seeing the birds that are singing,” Nanyombi had completed a course in tourism management but she did not see guiding visitors about birds and birding. 

Her interest gradually grew each time she would see a different color of bird and different songs from each in the forest.

“I mastered about 70 species of birds. I would generalize like turacos and manikins. Then Herbert Byarunga gave me a trip of 23 days. It was a bit too hard. Because loved these birds, their colors, the calls of robin chat, thrashes are calling, I felt like I’m attached to them”

The Challenges of Women Birders 

Asked about the biggest challenge ahead for women birders, Maganda mentions the cultural aspect. “People think probably this is a man’s work. They think if women are doing it, probably they are in the wrong offices. In addition, the kind of work we do. Long distances, putting on trousers and even other cultures may not. I remember carrying my baby to Mount Elgon, Judith carried a baby,” she says.

Men shaped the culture of birding and still dominate it, but that could soon change. It is a major milestone that Judith Mirembe’s Association has inspired women in Uganda Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania. They could transform more than just the lives of the women who join them. They could also transform birding itself — and maybe even the world.