Julie Samal briskly instructs her passengers to wear their life-saving jackets before issuing safety tips should the boat encounter rough waters or capsize midstream.
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After a few minutes, the boat roars to life ready to start its voyage through the waters of Lake Turkana to Central Island for a fishing expedition.
This is a daily routine for Ms Samal and her partner, Ajudo Achia, who five years ago became the first female coxswains in Turkana County.
The two women literally rule the waters of the world’s largest desert lake, steering and navigating their boat with ease.
The duo, who are in their late 20s, went against the grain to train as coxswains, despite strong cultural beliefs that the job of operating a boat was the preserve of men.
“I remember when my community learnt that I was headed to Mombasa to train as a coxswain and in marine rescue, they vehemently objected. Some people even reminded me I should not attempt to be like a man,” Samal recalls.
She said they were even warned that they would not get husbands because they had chosen to venture into a male-dominated field.
“It was not an easy task for us because we had to go through rigorous training with men. But our resilience and determination to make a difference in our community kept us going until we successfully finished the training,” says Samal, who has three children.
The former student of the African Institute of Studies in Nakuru was employed by the Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA) in 2013.
She was later taken to the Kenya Ports Authority to pursue a three-month coxswain training programme after showing interest in the career.
The two women trained in marine rescue, tidal effects, boat safety and diving, among other courses.
When The Standard recently visited Kalakol town on the shores of Lake Turkana, the women were testing the stability of a new boat.
Their job, they said, involves taking passengers to various destinations around the lake, as well as transporting fishermen and tourists to the lake’s three islands.
Working under KVDA, they are responsible for leading rescue teams in River Turkwel, making them the first female crew to take on the task.
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“We also conduct rescue operations in the lake, besides training fishermen on boat operations and safety,” says Ms Achia, a mother of one.
“It is important for those using boats to protect themselves by putting on safety gear in case the boat capsizes in the middle of the lake. This is not our rule, but an obvious precautionary measure the world over.”
Routine checks, Achia says, normally involve inspecting the boat before explaining to passengers the importance of wearing protective gear while on the lake.
The two women say they are able to comfortably fend for their families and do not regret taking the marine courses.
“We have since got married contrary to the belief that if we broke cultural norms men would shy away from us. We want to further our education in marine studies and also advocate for other women to venture into courses that are male dominated,” Achia says.
But residents also recall the first time the women took to the water and the ensuing ‘spectacle’.
They remember trooping to the lake’s shores to witness how the women navigated the boats, and admit that passengers and fishermen initially dreaded boarding the boats ‘captained’ by the women.
“Since we had been socialised to believe that women cannot navigate boats, we gathered at the shore to witness how the duo would man the boats. No passenger got on board for fear that the boats would capsize. But we cheered them when they returned to shore after an hour in the waters,” says Patrick Ekiru, a fisherman.
Mr Ekiru says he has used the boats navigated by the women on several occasions.
Samal reveals that it took time for them to gain the residents’ confidence.
“Since our mission was primarily to rescue and offer safety awareness to lake users, whenever we would navigate a boat, many passengers kept away. But over time they have fully accepted us and we are now preferred by many.”
They say that some of their passengers have included Turkana Governor Josphat Nanok, a number of MPs, members of the county executive and other leaders.
Mr Nanok says since the lake is heavily used by fishermen, tourists and travellers shuttling between Turkana and neighbouring Marsabit County, the coxswains have come in handy.
“Safety measures have been enhanced by my county government, which has increased the utilisation of the lake for more economic gains for the local community. Besides the two coxswains, the county has trained more personnel in marine courses,” he adds.
The women, however, say they are constrained by a lack of sufficient fuel, life jackets and modern boats that can withstand the heavy waves and powerful winds usually experienced in the lake.
They would also prefer operating a boat with a cabin to protect them from the searing heat in the region.
But despite the challenges, the women have surprised the menfolk and elders by standing firmly behind what they believe in, and even competing with men for the few available jobs on the lake.
“They have demonstrated expertise in their work and have even outshone men in the lake. We are proud of them despite the community initially objecting to their ambitions. The community is slowly but steadily empowering women,” says James Ekwan, an elder from Kalakol.
He adds that Samal and Achila’s decision is an indication that the wheels of change are moving fast in the region.
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