Mercy Chari, positions her diminutive frame on the driver’s seat of the massive Toyota Landcruiser. She loves big machines. At first glance, it can be tempting to dismiss her driving and guiding skills. Many have. As the only female driver and guide in the country, she has had to go the extra mile in defending her skills in what is termed as a male-dominated field.
True, there are other female drivers in the safari industry, but such ones are mainly stationed in tourist camps and lodges, never venturing out into the public roads for long-distance transfers.
I met Chari Tuesday morning at the gate of Nairobi National Park. Our paths had crossed earlier in Amboseli during the East African Safari Rally Classic where she was in the midst of a safari.
She kept her promise of taking me around the park within the city. In a career that began in 2019, Chari has become a master of her craft.
Five minutes into the drive, a mother and baby rhino emerged from a thicket, eager to get to a nearby waterhole. Rhinos are the battle tanks of the wild. They have an intimidating horn and a short fuse. They have few enemies in the wild. Provoke them at your own risk.
“What happens if she comes our way?” I ask Chari, trying not to betray concealed dread.
“Then you will experience my vehicle reversing skills.” I did not need to. Both rhino and human intruders kept a respectable distance.
One afternoon in 2018, Chari took a stroll around Nairobi’s City Market where scores of tour vans are normally parked. A small banter with the drivers would completely change her life.
“I told them that I wanted to be a tour driver,” she says. “They laughed. One held my hand and looked at my manicured nails. They laughed some more.”
One driver mockingly gave her the car keys and told her to manoeuvre the vehicle out of the parking lot, drive around and park it again. She could not. But one driver hardly said a word.
“His silence spoke volumes,” recalls Chari. Several days later, her urge to eat fish took her to the market again, and the man who had been quiet beckoned her. “Are you serious that you want this job?” he asked her. “Go study in Utalii College and come back.”
All she wanted was to drive the tour vans across the country and not go to some school. Yet, her only affinity with the industry was her near-additive viewing of television wildlife documentaries. At his advice though, she took on the two-month course in 2019. And then the search for work began.
Company after company felt uncomfortable with a young lady driving tourists across the country. Many offered her ‘softer’ tasks such as guest booking assignments. But she knew what she wanted and politely declined the offers.
Her first trip with guests was in Amboseli. They did not know it was her maiden trip, and she did not tell them either. “On the road, they kept asking me, ‘how long have you done this?’— another way of trying to find out if they were safe with me.”
She got positive feedback from the trip. Many more followed, including long drives from Masai Mara to Malindi with a night’s stopover in Nairobi. She was on a roll.
We pause briefly at a nearby dam to watch a bachelor herd of impalas, their eyes trained on the water. At the edge of the dam, a juvenile crocodile basked with his mouth wide open. He can keep his position for hours.
No need to second-guess his intentions. A grey heron scanned the waters on the opposite edge, waiting for a drifting frog, as did a fish eagle perched on a drying acacia.
Scouring the ground nearby was a crown plover, and with his stilt-like legs, he looked like an avian creature on steroids. A hippo grunted from below the waters, announcing to all that he was the undisputed king here. Then it was all calm.
“What about the men?” I ask Chari. “What men?” She knew what I was asking about. In an industry where men hold sway, it is not easy for the 35-year-old mother of two to hold her own.
“Many have approached me through their ‘usual’ lines. I kindly let them know that I am in the industry to work. Women must be accorded equal opportunities by merit and not through sexual favours. Of course, being the only such female driver around, many are so helpful, for instance when I get stuck in the mud, or during any other mechanical failure.”
But dealing with unwanted advances is just one of her many challenges. Driver accommodation facilities in many hotels, lodges, or tented camps were designed with male drivers in mind. Some facilities are more like dormitories where men are lumped together for the night.
“Some camp or hotel operators are surprised when they see me dropping guests because they do not know what to do with me. They spend hours, long after my guests have retired for the evening, wondering where to put me. Sometimes I have ended up in staff quarters. That needs fixing if more female drivers are to take up this profession,” she says.
With two young children and days away on the road, Chari knows too well the societal expectation of women like her. Her dad was uncomfortable with her travelling all over the place with strangers.
She has friends who would love to join her, but their husbands tell them to choose between family and the jungle. She has worked hard to ward off such fears. Her house help, and occasionally, her mother, are the perfect shields when on duty.
A troop of baboons with babies riding on mothers’ backs escort us towards the main gate. We reminisce on her discipline and passion, keys to survival in the industry. “It is not about the money. You must love what you do.” The wild called, and she answered.