Growing up in the rural areas, in the 1970s every little girl then aspired to be a teacher, nurse or just being a full time housewife. With no mentor to look up to for advice on which career to pursue, opportunities were even more diminished for rural girls, who could not dream beyond the boundaries of their owncommunities.
That was the same predicament that Mrs Doris Tom found herself in soon after completing her Ordinary Levels in 1978.
Luckily for her, an advertisement that she stumbled on in one of the newspapers charted her career as a female ranger – a profession that no one knew anything about in her home area of Matopo.
Her decision to apply for the challenging and gruesome profession, despite her father’s reluctance, was the turning point in her life.
She might not have earned recognition within her own community then, but Mrs Tom carved her own piece of history by becoming the first female black ranger in Zimbabwe.
“I ventured into unknown territory, with little or no information of what being a ranger entailed, but I rose above the occasion.
“The time I spent in this field bears testimony to my undying passion for the profession that has shaped my life and values,” said Mrs Tom in an interview recently.
Mrs Tom is the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority head Management Services, and has been with the organisation for 34 years from the time she joined the institution in 1982, as a ranger.
She is among the few people who have been strategically involved in its several transformational stages and was also instrumental in some of the changes that the National Parks boasts of today.
Some of the changes included the designing of the shoulder titles for the authority and ensuring that the institution would have four regions from the previous three as part of the organisation’s efforts to effectively manage its operations.
“I have grown with the organisation and it’s quite gratifying to note that conditions of services particularly for female rangers continue to improve from the time that I joined the wildlife authority” she reminisced.
Reliving memories of her first five years as a ranger which was predominantly a male terrain, Mrs Tom said life was indeed tough.
Apart from the gruelling physical tasks, which were part of her training, she had to deal with gender stereotyping from male colleagues and in some instances racial slur from some of her supervisors, who were white.
“During training, the majority of men were not keen to work alongside the two of us – myself and a white female ranger – and would often pass unsavoury comments meant to discourage us,” she said.
She recalled one incident soon after completing her two-year diploma programme when the Range Rover that she was using broke down.
She called the office for assistance, but one of her white supervisors, stopped a male colleague from assisting her, arguing that the training she had received was sufficient enough to enable her to repair the truck’s gearbox.
Luckily for her, having grasped all the concepts taught during her training, Mrs Tom managed to fix the gearbox. However despite her feat, she still needed assistance to put the gear box back.
“I encountered several such situations, but I could not afford to quit. I had come a long way with my course, I just could not abandon everything,” she revealed.
Her situation did not get better when she got pregnant with her first child, because she still had to execute her task, including going on patrol.
Rather than discouraging her, all the challenges she faced reaffirmed Mrs Tom’s resolute to soldier on in a domain where men had proven their supremacy.
“I could not suddenly back down and admit that I had failed. My two-year training, which was both practical and theoretical, had taught me what to expect in terms of the gruelling tasks that lay ahead,” she said.
Having covered modules on mechanics, weaponry, map reading, drilling, identification of animals and plumbing, Mrs Tom was mentally prepared, although she had hoped for support from her male colleagues.
However, her determination to leave a mark where no female had traded was not without rewards and job satisfaction. It also deepened her understanding and appreciation of the animal kingdom and conservation tourism.
“I know each and every one of the 47 stations owned by Parks and I have headed all the four regions in Zimbabwe, including working in the Zambezi Valley, which is notorious with poachers and also houses Zimbabwe’s big five.
“I can safely say, I have been there and done this and that,” she said with a chuckle.
Looking back, Mrs Tom believes she made the right choice and the wildlife authority has since rewarded her for her perseverance, determination and endurance in an area that had not been chartered before by black females.
In addition, Parks now have several female rangers whose numbers continue to grow as more women than before embrace the profession.
At 58, with the better part of her life having been spent in the jungle, Mrs Tom would one day want to retire, a decision she would take with grace.
“One day I will retire and go home, knowing that I accomplished my task and would relish the idea of having more women, walk in my shoes,” said Mrs Tom, a widow with four children.
When she is not on the internet researching on animals or on global anti-poaching initiatives, Mrs Tom is a hopeless romantic, who gets the thrills in going through Barbara Cartland’s collection of novels.