It’s easy to caught up in the front end glamour of going on a luxury safari: the cooling scented facecloths upon arrival, the sparkling drink we find in our hand as we step down from our chauffeured vehicle, the 5 course meal of exotic ingredients paired with the perfect wines.
But we have more of a conscience than our fellow travellers a few decades ago. Most of us do not want luxury at the expense of our fellow man.
We want to know that the safari staff are treated well.
- How does it work, the ‘back end’ of a safari camp?
- How can the safari staff members have their needs met in the middle of the bush?
- Can it be ethical?
- Can it be an enjoyable profession where there’s a real chance of progressing?
The short answer to these questions is yes, when it’s a reputable company with good values. Of which, happily, there are many!
Safari Staff: What are the Issues?
Safari staff in Africa: how to get to work
Safari lodges are usually deep in the bush, making it impossible to get home at night. This means that the lodge will provide accommodation for staff. In order for staff to feel part of a family whilst at work, most lodges build staff villages which have a life of their own. Safari operators pay varying degrees of attention to their staff villages, but conditions have improved considerably across the board since the ‘old’ days.
Take Rhulani in Madikwe, where the staff village offers a private room per staff member, of international standards (proper bed, electricity etc), and running water in the clean and spacious bathrooms.
Safari staff in Africa: how to work enough hours
Because of the remoteness of lodges, it is impossible to work the usual 9-5, 5 days per week. The working week becomes more like a working month, just like seasonal workers in the mountains, fields or on the high seas. 21 days on means a week off to go home and see the family. It’s tough being at work for so long, but it’s great having a week off to fully recuperate!
Safari staff in Africa: how to be a mother
The long time spent away from home can be a problem for mothers of little ones, and many mothers end up relying on family to bring up their children in their absence. However, times are changing and Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana is at pioneering this change.
Chobe Game Lodge has its own crèche for young children in the staff village. If you request to look behind the scenes and venture to the village, you’ll find a happy shared space where the mums are out to work at various points in the day and back to the village in their breaks. It’s so safe that no one has the appointed job of watching the kids in the mums’ absence, rather the kids are shared by the whole ‘family’ and enjoy growing up in nature. And it also happens that at this lodge – almost uniquely – the women form the guiding team.
Safari staff in Africa: how to keep healthy
Doctor Birkenstock has successfully implemented a comprehensive health plan for workers in the depths of the bush. Doc B, in his faded shorts and sturdy boots, flies himself into the Okavango Delta regularly to run a staff wellness program with a three-pronged approach: mental, physical and spiritual (aided by a pastor). All paid for by the employers, not the employees.
The effects of this proactive strategy? Doc B no longer has to deal with the catastrophic after-effects of inadequate first aid training. Many diseases which were a death sentence for staff are now treated. Unlike in 2002 when Doc B started, he no longer diagnoses any new patients with HIV.
His biggest issue now is overcoming his nemesis: local traditional medicine. When a man is bitten by a non-poisonous snake and his friend tells him to take muti (traditional natural medicine) even when his chest starts hurting, and he continues to take muti because the poison must not be out yet, there is very little that Doc B can do to stop the man bleeding to death due to prolonged use of this muti.
Safari staff in Africa: how to progress
For local staff, often with limited education behind them, what are the possibilities for career progression? Particularly when so many of the top positions are filled by those who have been internationally or privately educated. Is there a glass ceiling?
The answer is, yes, there is a glass ceiling. Looking around at many lodges you see and hear people from around the world who take the lodge management and marketing positions, whilst it is locals who will be in housekeeping and pot-cleaning.
But this is changing.
Porini Camps show that you can smash the glass ceiling with their co-owned safari operation in Kenya. Locals are landowners as well as staff in camps and have no barriers to rising in their camps. They have also developed a guide-training school for teenagers who can have a career in their conservancy, or wherever they wish to go.
Tassia and Il N’gwesi are owned and run by local Maasai, who lead excellent safaris and bird-watching in Northern Kenya. And so many more operations are actively educating their staff so that international standards can be delivered to guests without international staff taking the key positions.
Knowing some of the issues that staff in remote safari lodges face makes it easier to choose those organisations which invest in their staff, when planning a safari. There is no place for the safari lodge of old where a waitress must present herself in a pressed white shirt whilst living in a dome tent with little water and no lighting; or where a night guard must work for such little pay that he ends up forgoing his time off and seldom returns to his family.
If you want to know whether a safari lodge is ethical or not, whether it’s committed to staff welfare, get in touch and we’ll share our knowledge!