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Meet Florence Kagiso, the leader of Africa’s first all-female team of safari guides

When Florence Kagiso became one of Africa’s first female guides in 2004, she paved the way for a new generation to follow in her footsteps. Marking International Women’s Day, we discuss her career and her wild workplace, Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

Published 8 Mar 2021, 11:22 GMT
Senior Guide Florence Kagiso mentors a group of 17 female guides, known affectionately as Chobe’s Angels, at Chobe ...

Senior Guide Florence Kagiso mentors a group of 17 female guides, known affectionately as Chobe’s Angels, at Chobe Game Lodge in northeast Botswana. The group was founded in the mid-2000s, helping to carve out space for women in a traditionally male-dominated industry. 

Photograph by Chobe Game Lodge

Chobe National Park, an expanse of fertile flood plains tucked into Botswana’s northeast corner, is famous for having the highest concentration of elephants in Africa. But its safari offering also stands out for another reason: Chobe Game Lodge, the only permanent lodge within the park’s boundaries, is home to Africa’s first all-female guiding team, established in the mid-2000s.

Senior Guide Florence Kagiso mentors the group, known affectionately as Chobe’s Angels. Travelling by electric safari vehicle and electric boat, they take guests out into the bush to explore the beautiful banks of the Chobe River, where lions, giraffes, buffalos, roan antelopes and, of course, elephants come to drink.

When Florence first entered the industry, she was among the first female guides not only in Botswana, but in all Africa. Guiding was still seen as a male job; spending hours in the bush, changing tyres, driving through rough terrain and leading river cruises were not tasks considered well-suited to women.

As she explains in our interview, gaining acceptance hasn’t always been easy. But Flo, as she’s known, proved determined and tenacious, and her success paved the way for others, proving — in a male-dominated field — the unique contribution women can make to guiding. In 2004, she was the only female guide on staff. Today, Chobe Game Lodge employs 17.

Travelling by electric safari vehicle and electric boat, the Chobe's Angels take guests out into the bush to explore the beautiful banks of the Chobe River.

Photograph by Chobe Game Lodge

What does International Women’s Day mean to you and your colleagues?

Wow, it’s a big day for us. It’s everything to us. It shows that women can contribute, bringing new ideas and perspectives to an industry that used to exclude us. So this day celebrates what we do as a team and where we’re going.

What first sparked your interest in the natural world?

I grew up among wildlife, in the Okavango Delta. My mother (a single mum) and grandmother were farmers. They taught me to live with animals peacefully, and made me want to be like them, teaching people to respect and appreciate nature. I remember learning to stay downwind from elephants, to avoid detection and confrontation.

If you weren’t a guide, what would you be?

I originally studied fashion design. I didn’t know a woman could be a guide. But I realised that guiding would earn me an income sooner, helping me to support my mother.

What obstacles did you face in the early stages of your guiding career?

I started in 2004, when it was a male-dominated industry. There were very few female guides. During training, they said: “Ladies should do something else, women can’t do this!” I was scared that maybe they were right. But once I applied what I learned, I realised that women can do it!

At first, I always had to do better than the men: find more animals, know more facts, change a tyre faster. But now, in our all-female team, we work together: there’s not so much pressure to prove yourself. 

I think we need to see more women in positions of power in the world. Here in the lodge, we have strong women making the decisions and we’re very successful. We need that everywhere.

Florence says: “I think we need to see more women in positions of power in the world. Here in the lodge, we have strong women making the decisions and we’re very successful. We need that everywhere.”

Photograph by Chobe Game Lodge

Do you find guests have preconceived ideas about safari guides?

Some expect guides to be strong, confident men. So when a lady picks them up, they maybe think you’re just a transfer driver!

However, female guests are often really happy to have a guide they can connect with. The smallest things make a difference, for example, when using the ‘bush bathroom’; I can make them feel relaxed and safe! It’s also nice for women to see other women who are empowered. 

The men also love it. As soon as they see you can do your job well, they feel comfortable. It’s important to have confidence in your guide, and for us to have confidence in ourselves.

In Botswana, do women have a different understanding of the natural world to men, and a different approach to guiding?

I would say, as mothers, we’re more connected to the circle of life in the wild.

Also, women are better communicators, more relaxed and understanding. For example, if during a drive a colleague calls on the radio to tell me about an interesting sighting, I don’t just race there. I first talk to my guests, so I can understand what they would like to do.

Women are very good at reading people by their bodies. We know straight away if someone is uncomfortable with something, and then we can adjust.

Chobe National Park, an expanse of fertile flood plains tucked into Botswana’s northeast corner, is famous for having the highest concentration of elephants in Africa.

Photograph by Chobe Game Lodge

In Botswana, do safari companies help women juggle their career and their family responsibilities?

Safari companies are very good vehicles for empowerment. They understand about the need to balance work with time off. When women are empowered and earning, they invest this back into their communities much more than men. There’s no hunger, there’s no struggle.

Has the African safari industry been affected or guided by the recent Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns?

It was amazing to see these because they relate close to home. In rural Botswana, there are problems with gender-based violence. These movements have put a light on this and a lot is being done to help end this.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that’s always treated people fairly. At Chobe Game Lodge, opportunities came to me, even though I’m a woman and black. This never mattered. We’re given equal chances to follow our dreams.

Tell us about your perfect day in the bush. What are the key ingredients?

A nice group of guests. I always want to share my wisdom, have fun, show respect, understand how everything they’re experiencing is affecting them and make sure my time with them stays with them wherever they go.

What’s the nicest compliment you’ve ever received from a guest?

Once, when I was guiding a family from America, at the end of every drive, the father would tell me he wanted to stay longer and just listen to whatever I want to speak about. He said: “Every day you’re with Flo, you have a puzzle to solve. You’re always learning and applying what you learnt the day before. It’s like having a big book in front of you. You want to keep turning the pages!”

This was amazing because it meant I’d done my best job.

Read more interviews with pioneering figures in travel in our Meet the Adventurer series

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