Traditionally, the tourism industry on the island of Zanzibar is male dominated. However, Aiysha Mohammed is a young Muslim woman who is challenging stereotypes as one of only three certified female guides on the island.
Before meeting Aiysha, we had spent the previous seven days exploring Zanzibar’s west coast. We chose to spend our remaining three days in the picturesque beach town of Paje, on the island’s east coast, an area renowned for its white sand beaches, and full orange moons over the Indian ocean.
After our first night staying at Paje’s Hakuna Majiwe, we woke up before dawn to capture the sunrise on the beach. We were enthralled as the ombre blue coloured sky began to awaken with shades of orange, gold, and pink. As we watched Mother Nature’s beautiful orchestra play above us, we noticed the solitary figure of a woman in the distance, bent over sorting through seaweed on the beach.
We were intrigued with her methodical approach and focus. As she came closer, we approached her, but an attempt at conversation was unsuccessful as we didn’t speak any Swahili. However, we knew there was a potential story waiting to be told, but it would take a bit more research to connect with the right person. After breakfast, we discovered that the nearby Paje Seaweed Center offered tours of its facilities, and an immersive seaweed planting experience. It was there that we met Aiysha, our next interviewee for our Women in Travel (WIT) series.
Our taxi pulled up to the sandy beach lodge topped with thatched roofs, surrounded by palms trees. As we walked forward into the welcoming communal area, a woman dressed in a light blue polo with the Seaweed Center insignia on it (who we soon discovered to be Aiysha) energetically welcomed us into a beautifully decorated open-air shop front.
Our noses were quickly filled with an alluring mix of fresh and fragrant scents– which she later described to be ylang ylang, lime, clove, cumin, lemon, and several others. As she took us through the tour, and introduced us to several of the women who worked there, we were struck by Aiysha’s conviction, and passion for her work. Afterwards, she agreed to tell us her story.
Although Aiysha now lives and works on Zanzibar island, she was originally born on Pemba island and raised on Unguja (part of the Zanzibar archipelago). We asked her what it was like growing up there:
I lived with my grandmother because my parents were separated. It was a beautiful place, but it was hard for me to constantly see the beauty because I lived quite a hard life. I was made to take care of the house at an early age. There were other children in the house, and one who was the same age as me, but when my Grandmother got angry, I was the one that faced the brunt of her anger, and so I did all the cooking, cleaning, and washing of clothes. It is actually difficult for me to return to the memories of that time.
Aiysha lives in a society where old traditions are guarded, and as a once divorced (now recently remarried) Muslim woman working in the tourism industry industry, her work ethic is not always looked upon favorably. Aiysha told us more about her challenges she’s faced working in Zanzibar’s tourism industry as a female guide:
Men in my country will sometimes look at me as a woman and think I can’t do anything. It’s actually quite sad. There have been so many times where I’ve been ignored, or a man might think I’m a prostitute just because it’s rare to see female travel guides. They’re just not accustomed to it. My religion [Islam] allows women to work, but the cultural traditions in my country make it difficult for women to do so.
It is a constant battle that Aiysha faces daily. She walks a thin line as a female guide; where Zanzibar’s historical past and religious codes constantly set the tone for daily life. The country has faced economic hardships since the overthrow of the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1964. As the Tanzanian Shilling continues to decline, and 50% of the population lives below the poverty line, the role of women in the workforce has become murky, as more and more are seeking a means to provide extra income for their families. However, even (what could be deemed) the simple act of financial contribution, is not always perceived in that way by the families of the local women...
We asked Aiysha about her thoughts on her family’s support of her decisions:
My mother forced me to get married as a teenager. However, I was not happy at all, and so after five years of living in a unhappy marriage, I decided to do the unthinkable and get divorced. My family was very angry and unsupportive, but I was granted the divorce and began my studies in tourist information, to become a professional tour guide. While I was studying, I met my future husband, and although I faced much stigma from my family and local community, I remarried a year and a half ago. And now for the first time in my life, happiness came to pass after 26 years of challenges and trouble.
Even with the difficulty she has faced for the majority of her life, Aiysha’s love of people and her heart for eco-tourism were clear as told us:
My culture and a love for my country led to my interest in the travel and tourism industry. I love working at the Seaweed Centre, because I feel very strongly about the mission of the Center, and what it’s doing to help women in the community. Plus I love working with all the older women here, because I learn new things everyday!
The Seaweed Center came about as an initiative created by the Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship class of 2010, and the School of Intellectual Capital Management (based in Sweden). The project goal was to create work opportunities for female seaweed farmers, and provide a sustainable infrastructure which would allow them to oversee the process of seaweed harvesting and product creation. Additionally the center provides the women with entrepreneurship education to overall improve Zanzibar’s economic and social welfare.
We asked Aiysha if she’d seen a change in the lives of the women working at the Seaweed Center:
Before the Seaweed Center, women would harvest the seaweed and then try to sell it to different companies. However, this provides an inconsistent income because many companies don’t always need it [seaweed]. Plus it’s a competitive market. As an employee of the Seaweed Center each woman receives a monthly salary regardless of how many products are sold.
What is Aiysha’s advice to women looking to follow her footsteps into sustainable tourism:
I’d tell that woman to be patient and work hard. I’d tell her, that no matter the challenges that come her way, see through the darkness. She can achieve her dreams, but she must be strong. When your time comes, no one can stop you.
Although the majority of female entrepreneurs/business owners in Zanzibar tend to run businesses that serve female only clientele, Aiysha told us that her plans will challenge that norm:
I want to have my own tour company in the next 3-5 years. I’d like to provide more opportunities for Zanzibari women to work in the tourism industry without stigma.
What about Aiysha’s advice for tourists travelling to Zanzibar, and her tips for choosing a guide?
Choose a guide who has a strong knowledge of history. You wouldn’t believe the amount of guides who know absolutely nothing, and constantly lie to tourists.
Although you’ll mostly find male guides, I encourage, and challenge travellers to choose a certified female guide like myself. If a woman chooses to work as a certified guide in an Islamic country it’s probably because she values and enjoys the work she’s doing, and it helps provide for her family.
This one is very important. Choose a certified guide who has a very good appearance for your own security. Unfortunately, there are some guides who are drug dealers, and their only focus is to get your money. Make sure they have a personal presence on social media. Look at their photos, and make sure they’re posting photos they’ve taken with their clients on tours.
After a highly informative tour, we ended our time at the Seaweed Centre promising to stay in touch. We’ve all made good on the promise, as we’ve referred several tourists to Aiysha for their questions regarding exploring Zanzibar, and Aiysha constantly keeps in touch with exciting updates on her work in Zanzibar.
As our taxi drove down the sandy road, towards the welcoming palm trees and serenity of our resort, we experienced the sobering reality that all is not as it seems in Zanzibar. Behind the pictures of white sands, jewel toned waters, and whispering palms, there are stories of incredible hardship.
Zanzibar is a place where cultural codes and religious norms are at odds with the modern day needs of its people. Aiysha’s parting words of “uende salama” (go with peace) now held so much more meaning as we struggled to piece together our contrasting visual impressions with the real, ‘non-cliche’ experiences of women like Aiysha; struggling to redefine the role of women working in the tourism industry in Zanzibar.
HDYTI Tip: If you’re travelling to Zanzibar, we highly encourage you to hire a certified guide to help you discover the real beauty of the island. Not all guides are certified, so make sure to properly vet your potential guide. MAP (My African Passport) has a comprehensive guide database here.
Update: Aiysha has launched her business as a full time, professional guide, and no longer works at the Seaweed Center.
.For more info about the Seaweed Center, please visit their facebook page, and call +255 688 805 597 for information regarding tours.
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