He said he’d never worked with a woman before. No, he didn’t mean he’d never worked with a female raft guide — just in general, he said. He told me that seeing a woman “working hard” made him feel uncomfortable. Guilty, was the word he used.
I’d been working with Alfred for 10 days when we had this conversation. During that time it was probably three times each day that he had run up to take a pump from me when I was in the middle of using it or jumped to help me to lift a raft.
Any woman who works in the outdoor industry has encountered a man who needs to prove his strength or assumes he’s better than her at a job they’ve both been hired to do. This was different. This was an unfamiliar combination of gentlemanly instincts, overt sexism and honest disbelief that I not only was capable of doing the “heavy lifting” but also wanted to.
For me, things were just as confusing. Hired to be a raft guide, I came at the job like I had at every other company I’ve worked for, ready to do every aspect of the work from pumping the rafts up and loading them on to the trailer in the morning to navigating them down the river and carrying them up to the van at the end of the day. When I encountered the guys I worked with trying to help me more than they helped each other and assuming there were parts of the job I couldn’t do, I didn’t know how to react. Should I barge forward and insist on doing everything? Should I take a step back and stick to counting out and loading up the lifejackets and helmets while they lifted the rafts? I was, after all, on their turf. This was their job, their country, their culture.
I didn’t feel defensive, because they weren’t being demeaning. They were cheery and encouraging and I could tell they had positive intentions, it was just clear that they had never learned that women should be treated equally to men and expected to work as hard. It wasn’t on their radar. And it wasn’t my job to teach them. I’m no feminist, and I wasn’t here to prove anything for myself or my gender. Anyway, there was no sense denying that they could pump up a raft faster than I could. And sometimes the hardest part of finding a balance was knowing that if I did insist on doing a job I might slow things down.
That said, I also didn’t feel comfortable being paid to do the same job as someone else and not working as hard.
Luckily, the guides’ expectations of my capabilities didn’t extend to the on-water portion of the job where experienced guides can see that strength plays second fiddle to ability. But the clients — men and women alike — carried the same perception that guiding a raft was a man’s job. When I introduced myself as their guide they often seemed surprised. During the many portages around dams (in which the guides lug the boats around on their own while the guests walk) the men on my boat were constantly offering to help me and were openly surprised when I turned them down and was then able to do the job without their help.
Of course, this isn’t new. I’ve had clients in the U.S. who don’t take my commands seriously and I can assume it’s because I’m a girl. Here, I don’t have to assume. They tell me outright.
I decided that actions speak louder than words. I let the clients see that I can get them down the river just as smoothly as the men. Sometimes I insist on pumping up the rafts and refuse to slow down even when I’m exhausted so the guides can see I can do it on my own.
One day when I walked up to Tabs — a fellow guide — to help him carry a raft to the trailer, he didn’t turn to try to get one of the guys to help but he did assume that we would carry it low instead of bringing it to our heads the way the rafts are typically carried for long distances. I knew it was because he didn’t think I could lift it to my head. When I told him I could carry it just as they normally do he seemed skeptical but agreed to give it a go. I was relieved when I didn’t fumble as I lifted it to my head and carryed it to the van. After we tossed it onto the trailer he turned to look at me.
“I’m so surprised, I didn’t know you could do that.”
Through a combination of showing and explaining to them that I can do it, I was beginning to accrue more and more of the tougher jobs.
Fortune, the trip leader and head guide at Clarens Xtreme, and I were preparing to haul rafts to the river when I told him I could bring boats to the put-it on my own.
The put-in to the Ash River includes dragging the boats through some grassy hills, pulling them up onto a knoll and then pushing them off the embankment so that they land by the river below. (Side note, this drag through the hills every day, plus three other crazy portages where we drag the boats over rocks explains why all the rafts have leaks and have to be pumped up constantly throughout the day). After pushing the boat off the embankment the guide jumps down behind it and meet the guests who have walked down a separate trail to the water.
The boat Fortune and I were about to take through the hills is the largest at Clarens Xtreme, but it is still smaller than the boats I’m used to back home. Fortune told me it was too heavy for me to take myself. I grabbed the handle, thrust all my weight into it and began to pull it full speed to the cliff.
When Fortune ran to catch up with me I told him, “You know, the guys in the U.S. don’t go easy on me. Back home I have to pump boats and carry rafts just as much as all of the men do.”
He laughed. But he wasn’t laughing at me. He laughed at the idea of men making the women work as hard as them, as if this concept showed the men I worked with back home were inconsiderate.
“That’s not how we do it in Africa,” he said.
I realized there was pride in his voice. Was that sexism?
* * *
In any case, regardless of how things are done in Africa, from that day on, he never tried to help me take rafts to the river. Now that they let me do all the pumping and lifting alongside them they seem almost proud. Impressed.
And sometimes at the end of the day, when I’m completely exhausted from constantly pumping up continuously deflating rafts with air mattress pumps, I wonder why I didn’t just stick to counting lifejackets and helmets.