Bella Africa: Yes, She Can

Bella Sylvia and some of the Bella Africa staff, headquarters, Kampala, Uganda

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you that females can’t be safari guides, they certainly can’t be drivers of those big SUVs, the LandCruisers and the Range Rovers?”

“Ah, so many! Many, many people told me that,” says Bella Sylvia.

But she ignored them. All of them. And today she is the director and owner of Bella Africa, the first all-female safari driver-guide tour company in Uganda, maybe in all of Africa.

Much to her father’s dismay, Bella left home at 18 to pursue her dream of being a safari guide. She got off to a promising start as a dishwasher at a backpackers hostel run by an Australian fellow, then built on that success by getting promoted to potato slicer. Needless to say, the smart money, and her dad, were not betting on Bella’s success. Indeed, as her dad watched her depart for the big city of Kampala, he thought the very worst.

“He opposed city life,” Bella recalls. “He said, ‘You will become nasty, a prostitute.’”

“But that’s not what I was into,” she says.

When she told one date that her dream was to be a safari guide, he said, “If I have a wife with such ambitions, she will forget them fast. My wife will stay home where she belongs!”

“That’s exactly why I’ll never be your wife,” Bella quipped.

The life of women, and of everyone in Uganda, has improved markedly in the last 30 years or so, since the fall of Idi Amin. There are still many improvements needed, but things are much better than they were in the bad old days.

The lot of women is still a tough one, though they are the backbone, the heart, and the soul of the nation, as most men would agree. They are also genetically entrepreneurial as no one can deny. When people ask me to describe the Ugandan women I’ve known over the years (I’ve lived here since 2009), I tell them they have two abiding qualities: They are authentically sweet and genuinely tough. They are also gorgeous to a one; on the market days in the village where I lived the first 3 years I was here it was like being surrounded by Vogue models, as I walked the market, it was if I was swimming through a school of exquisitely dressed and coiffed tropical fish, albeit human ones.

Uganda itself is a land of staggering and singular beauty with landscapes and wild animals that are both majestic and dramatic. Its people, according to no less an expert source than the BBC, and seconded by me, are the friendliest on earth. They are also very funny. They also love to talk. They are also brave, kind and loyal. Otherwise, they have nothing to recommend them.

Because of Bella’s energy, her intellect, her high spirits and her determination, when meeting her one is reminded of her precursors, everyone from Mary Kingsley to Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. Women of courage who didn’t listen to those who didn’t believe in them. Wild and beautiful themselves, they, like Bella, went deep into wild and beautiful places. They were drawn to them, pulled by the magnetism of adventure, seduced by the landscape, the animals, the possibilities.

As tourism goes, Uganda is still something of a secret. Amin, Gorillas, Ebola is what most Americans and Europeans know about the land-locked, Oregon-size country that is surrounded by the Democratic Republic of Congo (which is in fact where the Ebola River is located), Rwanda, Kenya, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. There is one quote from decades ago by one famous person — Winston Churchill — that gets trotted out repeatedly (apparently no other westerner ever said anything complimentary about the country): “The kingdom of Uganda is a fairy-tale. You climb up … and at the end there is a wonderful new world. The scenery is different, the vegetation is different, the climate is different, and, most of all, the people are different from anything elsewhere to be seen in the whole range of Africa … I say: ‘Concentrate on Uganda’. For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly the pearl of Africa.”

Churchill was exactly right, of course. Over the years the British, and later the Ugandan government, had the good sense to establish national parks throughout this country, tens-of-thousands of acres of exquisite terrain and gorgeous animals, all set aside for looking at, camping in, photographing. And a knowledgeable local guide only enriches the experience.

The landscape varies significantly in altitude, flora and fauna. There are snow-capped peaks and glaciers (The Rwenzoris in the west are the second highest mountains in Africa; only Kilimanjaro is higher), desert, dry savannah with acacia trees and euphorbia candelabra, giant succulents and tree ferns just below the snowline, and knee-deep mosses. There are fish eagles everywhere you look (they closely resemble the American Eagle) giant otherworldly-looking marabou storks sulking on buildings throughout the cities, and jillions of other exotic birds (this small nation has more native bird species than all of North America, in excess of 1000). And there is no shortage of humans and other primates.

There are about 36 million people, 80 percent of which are 15 or younger; it’s a country of children, and children raising children. There are 52 tribes, or clans as they are usually called, with more than 50 languages. I speak a smattering of Luganda and Lhukonzo, the languages spoken by the Buganda and Bukonzo, and a few words of Swahili. The official language is English, though Swahili is also widely spoken and one also often comes across French, Dutch and German speakers, as well as Indians and Chinese speakers. Culture and tradition is a polychrome tapestry ranging from ancient rituals to hip hop and rap.

Bella and her sisters expertly navigate it all while finding leopards and lions, elephants, hippos and anything else that flies, walks, slithers or swims. They answer their clients many questions and concerns, and all but tuck them in for the night at the end of another lovely tropical day. A visit to the office of Bella Africa finds two of the women practicing their German by reading aloud to one another, and others formulating itineraries, checking with guides in the field, confirming reservations, overseeing car washing and doing the many other tasks large and small that are required to keep things running smoothly in the field and in the office. Meanwhile, Bella is stuck at the bank trying to arrange a short term loan because a couple clients failed to meet a payment deadline. It’s a regimen that would do-in a lesser soul, but she juggles all the challenges with good humored resolve.

Bella Sylvia, Founder, Bella Africa Safari Tours

Bella’s first trip as a driver-guide was a 17 day drive through Murchison Falls National Park and the Congo’s Virunga National Park, one of the three places in the world to see Mountain Gorillas up close. The business was “getting real crazy,” she recalls. “I was doing everything, including raising a four year old boy (now 7).” She knew she needed “more girls who can drive and guide.” First, she turned to her sister-in-law. “Can you please come help; we will work together. I can’t pay you.” Who could down such an offer?

Bella’s sister-in-law, Juliet, unlike so many, believed in her and joined the company; she is still a key staff member. Girl safari guides were not well received at first, and they still get a lot of raised eyebrows, but Bella and her sister-in-law kept pushing, kept booking tours, kept doing what everyone said couldn’t be done. “It was was really hard when I started, so hard, but giving up was not in my vocabulary. Still, in many parks, I’m the only female guide.”

Back when Bella was still slicing potatoes for a paycheck, she asked her boss, the Aussie bloke, to make her a safari guide. He laughed, said, “What can you do?”

“Anything,” Bella said.

“Go home and grow up,” he replied.

So she did. She went home the next weekend, then came back on Monday. “OK,” she told him. “I grew up.”

“OK, fine,” he laughed. And he started training her as a safari guide.

I guess one could use words like spunk and precocious to describe Bella, but that would be condescending and inaccurate. Sure, Bella had plenty of those two qualities, but what made the difference was her vision, stubbornness, hard work, and fearlessness. Not to mention a business sense that would be the envy of any Harvard MBA. Luck? Sure, she had that too. You can’t get along without it in business, definitely not if the business is in Africa.

“I worked for the Australian as a guide until 2009,” Bella tells me. “I learned all about guiding. Learning birds was the most difficult, because there are so many. Then I also learned about mammals, butterflies, moths, vegetation.”

Bella says she feels a responsibility to find animals when she takes out clients. On one recent trip she spent 14 days with a British photographer looking for a leopard. They saw 9 lions, but no leopard. All the park personnel knew she was looking for a leopard so her client could get his photos. Finally she got the call from a ranger near one of the park gates. “I’m looking at a leopard in the tree!” the ranger said. Bella drove like the wind and they got there while the leopard was still lounging on the branch. The photographer took more than 300 photos.

“What does your dad think of all this?”

“I’m now his favorite! He includes me in all family meetings; I’m a role model for my siblings,” he tells me. “What I see in girls now,” Bella tells me, “is that they are waiting for a rich man instead of doing it themselves. That’s not right.”

While Bella Africa excels at delivering the classic safari experience, it also seeks to give clients unique trips that expose them to the culture, the indigenous clans, and the extraordinary and varied lives of Ugandan tribes-people. One of the most unique, and unfortunately disenfranchised, tribal groups is the Batwa pygmies who live in the southwest near Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and in the west near Semliki National Park. Bella tells me about her first visit with the Batwa elders when they sang her “a deep, sad song” about the star-crossed history of the tribe that’s been pushed out of its ancestral homelands and forced to take up farming instead of the hunter-gatherer life they’ve lived for centuries.

“They know the government and media have not treated them right,” Bella says, “but they are amazing people.”

The far north of the country is an area Bella wants to see more foreigners visiting. Its fiercely independent Karamoja tribe is gifted with a fascinating culture and she feels that acknowledging it will help the tribe survive. “I love love love them, my favorites.” Might she find something in their extremely independent spirit that resonate with her own? Might. She wouldn’t be so unoriginal as to suggest it, but I have no shame.

“I’m shocked how much people don’t know about Uganda,” she tells me. “There is so much good here and all the media reports on is the bad.”

“Yes, I call it tragedy porn,” I say. “You know there’s a tired old saying in the media business, the news. Unfortunately, it’s true: ‘If it bleeds it leads.’ The news folks have found that by sensationalizing sorrow and tragedy they can sell more papers or ads on their web sites, TV and radio. I agree with you. There is so much good going on here and in most of Africa, but you’d never know it from western media.”

“That’s why we call the company Bella Africa, Beautiful Africa. That’s the place you see when we plan your trip,” says Bella.

“Speaking of sensationalism, tell me the scariest experience you’ve ever had as a guide.”

“It still scares me when I remember it,” she says. “We were in a boat near Murchison Falls. We’d gone over near the bank to see a particularly large female Nile crocodile. She was maybe 6–7 feet.” (Males can be as much as 14 feet and 1200 pounds, but 7 feet is indeed large for a female.) The bank was steep, the croc was uphill from us, it’s mouth open, gazing down at us. She could easily have run and jumped in the boat. The guy driving the boat got too close. The croc just stared at us; some of the clients were crying in fear. I told the boatman to get us out of there. Then the croc started moving closer, increased its speed, jumped in the water and swam right under our boat. It could have flipped the boat, but I guess it had already had lunch. That was my scariest experience. I love animals, but you must keep your distance.”

If you’ve seen a croc in action on one of the nature TV shows, you can imagine what a sobering experience it was. They are killing machines, fast, efficient. Their M.O. is to grab their prey and pull them under water, then spin with them in a deadly and disorienting move that cannot be resisted. They pull people from boats with regularity.

“And your dream trip,” I ask, “what would that be — if time and money were not an issue, and who would you take along?”

“I want to visit every country,” Bella tells me. “Mostly, I want to get completely out of my comfort zone. I hate the cold, so a very cold place would really challenge me: Antarctica! I want to see penguins swimming. And I’d like to take a loved one with me. That way, when it gets cold, I’ll have arms to wrap myself in.”

Yes, Bella clearly sees travel, whether in her own country, which she loves fiercely, or elsewhere, as a sensual pursuit, like falling in love. Beautiful places and warm people attract her. “And I want to go to places where people look beyond my skin color,” she tells me. “Ugandans are very friendly, and I want to visit places where I’m seen for who I am.”

“And what of the future? Where do you see Bella Africa in 5 years?”

“We are bound by culture here, but when I started the company, I said, ‘Why can’t I do this? What’s being a girl have to do with it? And now the clients of other companies see us in the field and say, ‘Why can’t we have a woman guide?’ This work gives me a special feeling. The work itself, but also to be able to help other women move up in this non-traditional career.”

“Five years? We want to grow the company, bring more women into this field. We will expand with more trips outside Uganda — Rwanda, Tanzania, Congo; there’s no limit. We want to reach every Asian household. There are many foreigners living in and visiting this country, also Europeans, Americans, everyone. We want them to see all of this amazing country. I believe we will excel, and we will do so while maintaining a personal touch. I think that women have a different perspective, a different way of guiding, they see differently.”

“Is it better?” I ask.

“It’s different, more inclusive.” She looks up at the map of Africa on her wall, pauses, thinks. “You know,” she tells me, at the start male guides would see me in the field and say, ‘You are bound to fail. This is a man’s world.’ I’d say, ‘Oh, really?’”

Bella Tours online: http://www.bellaafricasafaris.com/

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