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PAVING THE WAY FROM TRAGEDY TO INDEPENDENCE

Aiysha breaks down barriers as the first female tour guide of Zanzibar

By Ayushi Ramaiya

Swahili English

Five tour guides approached me in the thirty minutes I sat at the Forodhani Gardens in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, a quaint park populated by joggers and tourists alike.

The guides, all male, did not hesitate to advertise their services. But I politely declined them all, as I was already expecting one guide in particular—one very much unlike the others. 

Dressed modestly in a local gown, a red head scarf, and an even brighter smile, Aiysha suddenly appeared in the distance. To an outsider, she looked like a woman enjoying a stroll in the park. But I recognized her for who she is: the first female tour guide in Zanzibar. 

By coincidence, our meeting location was also where Aiysha conducted her first tour almost 10 years ago. The client, a random female tourist, was lost in town and needed help finding her way. “I don’t have any money to pay you,” she confessed to Aiysha. 

But that was no issue to Aiysha at the time. “I said, ‘No problem,’ and introduced myself as a guide,” she recalled. “The next day I took her for a tour and she only had two dollars, [but] said she would teach me new ideas to promote my business.” She added, “We set off in Forodhani Gardens and the tourist offered me food, but I was only hungry and thirsty for knowledge.”

That first tour, however impromptu, was a milestone in Aiysha’s career as a tour guide. The business lessons she learned from her client helped her develop a top-notch marketing strategy and generate clientele, paving the way for a successful career as a tour guide. 

Today, Aiysha no longer wanders on the streets looking for work, unlike many other male guides in Zanzibar. Most of the time, she fields multiple email and social media requests from clients. It didn’t take long for her to realize that there is a huge demand for independent female tour guides.

But make no mistake; the comfortable life and burgeoning career that Aiysha enjoys now are not the product of luck. They were only made possible by her insatiable desire to learn more—a character quality that helped her survive the earlier, more challenging years of her life.

As a child, Aiysha grew up without the defining presence of a mother and father. After her parents divorced when she was three years old, Aiysha learned to navigate the world without them. Her mother abandoned the family, and “my dad passed away when I was in primary school,” she shared. “I saw tougher days staying with my grandma and managing most of the chores by myself.”

During high school, she took it upon herself to become fluent in English—a skill that helped take her mind off her struggles and set the stage for her future career.

Once she decided to pursue a degree in tourism, she set her intent to maximize her potential. By her final year in school, she was the only woman in the program. “My other girlfriends left halfway and joined tour companies, and their job was to only take guests to and from the airport,” she recalled. But Aiysha knew she was meant for bigger and better things. “My mind was trained to do all the hard work and chase my dreams since I was little,” she added.

The path towards her dreams wasn’t linear. Once she graduated, Aiysha spent a few years as a private chef for an Omani family in Zanzibar. They sponsored additional schooling for her, allowing Aiysha to improve her English and computer literacy.

She also married and gave birth to two children, which required her to divide her time between managing a family and her work. During that period, she took time to find and reconnect with her estranged mother as well. 

Unfortunately, neither her mother, nor her husband, approved of her personal ambitions. The conventional stereotypes around females working in the hospitality industry caused a rift in her family, amplified by her husband’s less reliable income.

“Sometimes we ate only porridge the whole day,” she reflected. “I begged to work and earn for the family. Those two years of the marriage were tough.” When the Omani family offered her the opportunity to temporarily work in Muscat, she accepted and discovered the wonders of travel. At that point, “There was…the dilemma of choosing between a difficult marriage and my independence,” she said.

Against her mother’s wishes, she returned to Zanzibar and filed for divorce. The future looked murky, but Aiysha never regretted her decision. Even though she had to rent a small space in a filthy area and frequently skip meals, she was happy. “I felt as if I left the entire burden behind,” she said.

Against the odds, Aisha grew everyday and embraced her independent life. Eventually, she decided to test the waters, following male guides on the streets to observe how they approached tourists. Although she made efforts to engage with tourists, her success rate was zero. She’d meet ten tourists in a day, but only one would hesitantly talk to her. But Aiysha refused to wallow in disappointment. And then, she met her first client on that fateful day.

After that initial tour, word spread and Aiysha was interviewed by a Nigerian blogger. That’s when the tides of her struggle shifted in the opposite direction. “Since then, I have never looked back,” she said, smiling. “I love to make Zanzibar explorations safe and exciting for women and all tourists.”

As part of her promise to never look back, Aiysha is already looking towards new opportunities in the future. She recently started a handloom business to supplement her income, and hopes to employ and inspire local women.

“I don’t want to be a hero for women,” she noted. “But because I faced so many challenges, I would love to guide women, teach them to be independent, and be happy like me.”

Whether she’s guiding tours or guiding other women to recognize their potential, it’s clear that Aiysha was born to lead. And in a fiercely competitive, male-dominated profession, the woman dressed in red was destined to stand out.

About the author

Ayushi Ramaiya

Ayushi Ramaiya:

Hi! I am Ayushi, a journalist based in Dar es Salaam. I am an advocate of social change and positive media. My dream is to own a travel channel.

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