Namibia: Peddling empowerment

Namibia: Peddling empowerment

Date: May 12, 2013
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Anna Mafwila (middle) tour guide and founder of Katutours accompanies these tourists to the Soweto Market in Katutura, Namibia. Photo:Dorcas MhunguKatutura, 7 May: Feeling discontent and constrained, Anna Mafwila left home at age 15 to make a life for herself. At age 30, despite pebbles in her path, she peddled to success and is now the owner of a unique bicycle tours business. She opened the business in 2011 and it is fast amassing mileage amongst tourists visiting Namibia.

Mafwila realised that the majority of tour operators do not take visitors to the grassroots of the country where they can rub shoulders with locals, engage in conversation, taste traditional cuisine and get in touch with Namibian lifestyle. She began to see that high tour buses and vehicle windows create a barrier between tourists and locals, hindering any chance of meaningful interaction. It was this realisation and her innovation that propelled Mafwila to gear up Katutours.

“I was born in exile and the first time I came to my country I felt like a tourist. Tourism is not only about nature and the wild; it’s also about the people, the diverse culture behind all the ethnic groups living in Namibia. There was nothing in the tourism sector selling the cultural market. I wanted to bridge that gap…the bicycle tours would allow the visitor to see the social vibrancy of Katutura,” explains Mafwila.

Being one of the first beneficiaries of an Innovations Fund, she received a loan from the Development Bank of Namibia (DBN). Mafwila used the loan to buy the first set of tour bicycles and registered her business. Ever since, with her good business sense, support from friends, tourists and word of mouth Katutours has proved financially sustainable.

Katutours takes tourists on a three-and-a-half hour tour of the suburb offering them a historical and cultural journey, to get a taste of Namibia’s rich culture. They visit local craft hubs like the Soweto Market, as well as various initiatives such as Penduka Women’s Project and the King Daughters project.

Mafwila’s drive is not only about business and a gap in the market, but a strong desire to uplift women in the local community. Her tours help contribute to local business, where many women craft jewellery, pottery, painted fabrics, gourds and other memorabilia to make a living.

“One tourist can spend at least N$500 and I have seen the women’s stalls improving. They now have chairs for their customers to sit on as they conduct the sales; they now sell mineral water and fruit juice to the tourists and for me that is gratifying and empowering.”

Mafwila has brought many tourists to the Penduka Women’s project on the outskirts of the suburb, which trains deaf women to make jewellery out of glass and old bicycle tyres. This exposure has really helped market the initiative and improved business.

“I am trying to make Katutura develop using our own individual initiatives to empower ourselves without looking up to government. This kind of empowering and motivation is very necessary and is critical,” Mafwila says with a conviction.

However, her path to success was not an easy one. Being a woman in a male dominated economic sphere, Mafwila encountered a number of hurdles. Many men tried to use their financial and executive power to manipulate and intimidate her, but she did not fall prey.

With tears in her eyes, Mafwila explains how men offering to help finance her projects have sexually harassed her. “Being a woman has challenges…they ask for personal physical favours for me to be helped and these kind of demands made me discouraged and frustrated and turned me away from institutions led my men because I have encountered discrimination. They know I cannot stand on my own and those who can help have made me feel degraded in that for a woman to get help you need to open your legs to succeed.”

Mafwila expressed the need to change this mentality, by educating men and emphasising the rights of women, humanity and respect, especially in a country with a high rate of gender based violence and heinous “passion killings.”

Mafwila is not only disappointed with the behaviour of men, but also disheartened by the mentality of women in Namibia. All her tour guides are male and no women have accepted job offers because they believe women should not be seen cycling. “This mind-set is retrogressive…I am trying to change that mind-set and convince them that there is no job for a man or a woman. We need to eradicate this kind of mentality.”

Despite these challenges, Mafwila explains that being a female entrepreneur has changed her life, giving her independence and self-confidence, “It shapes you to enrich your life and that of others around you. I feel good as a woman knowing that I am not in a man’s pocket. I see a lot of our women here who are so dependent on their husbands for bread and butter and this contributes a lot to infringements of women’s rights in the sense that the men will decide how the women should live their lives, how they spend money and how they feel as a person in society.”

This entrepreneur has peddled on, not only empowering herself but also other women in the community because for Mafwila, independence and financial freedom is the greatest freedom one can ever have.

Dorcas Mhungu is a freelance journalist in Namibia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

0 thoughts on “Namibia: Peddling empowerment”

Sheena Magenya says:

Thanks for sharing this Dorcas. Women like Mafwila that blaze the trail and pave the way for other women to follow on the (often rough and challenging) road towards empowerment should be celebrated always. I enjoyed this.

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