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Kelly Lyee Chigumbura was 20 years old when she was recruited as a wildlife ranger to protect and patrol the nearby Phundundu Wildlife Park in Zimbabwe. The park itself is a 115 square mile former trophy hunting region that contains around 11,000 elephants. After an intense three day-long military try out, she was invited to become part of a force with 16 other women, many of whom like Chigumbura had come from abusive familial, social and sexual backgrounds. They named themselves Akashinga (“Brave Ones” in the Shona language).
Now, Chigumbura has dedicated all her time to protecting African wildlife. When asked how she felt about her work, she remarked ‘When I manage to stop poachers, I feel accomplished […] I want to spend my whole life here on this job, arresting poachers and protecting animals’. Chigumbura also said that the Akashinga has given the women a sense of confidence and autonomy necessary to overcome a difficult past.
WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT THE AKASHINGA?
Incredibly, Phundundu is the first nature reserve in the world that is completely managed and protected by an all-female unit. Damien Mander, the founder of the program, also argued that all-female units tend to have far lower rates of violence – “There’s a saying in Africa, ‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation”. The women, whilst armed, aim to play to their strengths by dedicating time to community-building and education.
CRITICISMS AND FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS
By 2030, it is hoped that the Akashinga model will be expanded and adopted by others to eventually employ 4,500 female rangers to survey over 96,500 square miles of former hunting blocks across the continent. However, reaching this goal will likely be difficult. Some critics have questioned the sensibility of arming women and sending them into the bush on patrols, and some have even accused the project of simply being a media stunt. Despite this, Akashinga’s model appears to be working against all odds. Women have often been seen as Africa’s largest untapped-resource, and as they begin to mobilise themselves in wildlife protection there has been an improvement in female empowerment, violent conflict, and poaching rates.