Swahili sisters

The elephant in the room

Sisters Daniela and Marina Blaettler left claustrophobic Switzerland for the wide open spaces of Africa. They’ve found what they’ve been looking for thanks to fishermen in Kenya and Masai women in Tanzania. 

“I couldn’t live there anymore. I felt too much under control,” says 52-year-old Lugano native Daniela Blaettler – who now lives on the Kenyan island of Lamu in the north of the country. 

Her father was from Airolo in canton Ticino and her mother from Pontresina in canton Graubünden. When she was 19, she left her loving family and home in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland for France’s sunny St Tropez. Despite coming from a close-knit family of three sisters and a brother, the urge to escape her native country was too strong. 

“Switzerland is very beautiful but I needed something more than just beauty,” she says. “I was looking for challenges as life was too easy for a young person in the country.” 

But even glamorous St Tropez couldn’t satisfy Daniela. After seven years on the French Riviera working in a friend’s shop and selling houses, she started getting itchy feet. An appointment at the hairdresser ended up becoming life-changing. While browsing the Paris Match Voyage travel magazine, her eye was drawn to a photo of people riding African elephants. 

“I always dreamed of having an elephant in my garden instead of a dog,” she told swissinfo.ch. “When I saw the picture it reignited my dream again. I was tired of St Tropez and ready for a change.” 

She did some research and found out that the photo was taken at an elephant rehabilitation centre in Botswana. She promptly wrote a letter to the owner, who got back to her after a year and invited her to work with elephants at the camp. Thus began another adventure in a peripatetic existence. 

“We were making movies, advertisements and leading elephant safaris,” she says. “The project was about saving problem elephants in zoos around the world and releasing them into the wild in Africa.” 

Big sister was watching 

Several years later, Daniela’s sister, Marina Oliver Blaettler, was also dreaming of escaping Switzerland. However, unlike her sister Daniela, her dreams were not a teenager’s quest for new horizons. She was 34 at the time, working for a software company and living a comfortable life. 

“I woke up one morning and decided it was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” says the 56-year-old. “I felt tied down and Switzerland was too small for me.” 

Marina wanted to travel the world. Her plan was to stop in Africa first to see Daniela and then continue on. 

“We are very similar, my sister and I,” says Daniela. “We have the same heart.” 

In the beginning, the sisters’ decisions to leave Europe for Africa came as a shock to the family. But they were very supportive. 

“My parents never gave me money, but they told me that I would always have their love and a room in our house if I ever came back. That gave me the strength to leave,” says Daniela. 

“My mother probably would have done the same thing if she had belonged to our generation. My father was very Swiss, but he understood our need to explore the world,” says Marina. 

Daniela and Marina’s siblings were not as adventurous. Their only brother moved to Spain but their oldest sister remained in Lugano and is quite content there. 

“She lives 200 metres from my mother’s house in Lugano,” says Daniela. “She has a husband, three children and a dog. Not everyone has to leave home.”

Living life to the full on the Kenyan coast

Leaving Switzerland at the age of 19 wasn’t a difficult decision for Daniela. She now calls Kenya’s coastline home, and her four adopted children are her family unit. (Images: Georgina Goodwin)

African reality 

When Marina flew down to Botswana to visit Daniela, she was hooked. 

“As soon as I set foot on African soil, the perfume of the earth or something just told me that I wanted to stay here for longer,” she says. 

While Daniela was busy working with elephants, Marina was offered a job running the camp. It was an opportunity she felt she couldn’t refuse. 

“I went back to Switzerland and sold my house, car and everything and returned to Botswana,” she says. 

Camp work kept both sisters occupied but their joint Botswana sojourn would not last forever. 

On a reconnaissance trip to Cairo to plan the transport of two elephants by road, Marina was struck by the abject poverty she encountered en route. 

“Seeing so many people by the roadside made me feel that I couldn’t justify raising so much money for elephants when there were other priorities for the continent,” she says. 

Daniela also had her moment of disillusionment a few years later when a beloved elephant was put in chains. 

“I told them I would only come back when they released my elephant into the wild. Two years later I went back to see him being released in the wild. I followed him for three months to make sure he was fine and then went back to Kenya where I started my new life,” she says. 

Starting over 

Daniela fell in love with an English marine biologist whom she met in Nairobi. But it was not to be. 

“He’s a wonderful man. I still have a broken heart,” she says. 

In order to recover from the emotional trauma she took up an assignment to photograph fishermen on the Kenyan island of Lamu. She was enchanted by the place and its fishing community. 

“Lamu is the most beautiful place on earth. There are no cars, discos, casinos. It’s still pristine,” she says. “Here I am always in love.” 

But for local fishermen life was not a bed of roses. Competition from fishing trawlers and dangerous seas during the rainy season meant that making a living was difficult. One of them, Ali Lamu, approached Daniela for a job. She thought about how she could help and came up with a creative idea. 

“I was intrigued by the material used for the sails in their boats,” says Daniela. “I drew a big heart on one of them and added the phrase ‘Love Again Whatever Forever’ and framed it.” 

She then asked a friend to display it in her shop. Barely one hour later it sold for €180 (CHF193). With the help of fishermen, Daniela made several more, and soon she was successful enough to start a business making artwork and bags out of recycled fishing boat sails. 

She named the brand Alilamu, after the fisherman. Today the business employs 30 full-time staff, including Ali Lamu, who is now the director. 

“Ali Lamu is my pillar, friend, brother and biggest supporter,” says Daniela. 

Lamu’s life has also changed since he first approached Daniela for a job. 

“Now I have built a small house for my family and can send my children to school,” he told swissinfo.ch. “When I was a fisherman I used to rent one room and struggled to pay the rent.” 

Finding fulfillment among the Tanzanian Masai

Marina wanted to escape the rat race but she didn’t really have a plan. After tasting adventure and disillusionment in Africa, she finally found a patch of earth and a calling that gives her great satisfaction. (Images: Georgina Goodwin)

Art of Tanzania 

Like her sister, Marina was also finding her feet after leaving the elephant camp in Botswana. She ended up in Tanzania on a holiday trip and didn’t want to leave. 

“What I like about the country is the diversity with its mountains, savannahs, forests. Botswana was beautiful but completely flat,” she says. 

She fell in love with and married old Africa hand Paul Oliver, and she ran his successful safari camp near Arusha in the north of the country. However, her heart was not in her job and opportunity knocked in the form of an exciting offer by a friend, who ran an NGO in Milan. 

“She asked if I was interested in working for a project that helped provide an income for Masai women by marketing their beadwork jewellery. I accepted the job on the condition that the project would become self-sustaining one day.” 

Two years later the project became an independent company called Tanzania Maasai Women Art with 200 Masai women working for it. The women keep aside 10% of their group’s earning for development work, like repairing a hut. 

“Around 99% of the women are illiterate and live in poverty,” says Marina. “I cannot make radical changes in their hard lives but at least the money from the beadwork improves their confidence and self-esteem,” says Marina. 

They do have tough lives. The Masai women have to collect wood and water to cook for the family and then look after the livestock. Their views generally aren’t considered in community decisions, and they often suffer physical abuse. 

It took a year for Marina to win their trust. She hopes that one day, the Masai women will run the business on their own, and that she can step away and start her next project – a centre offering equestrian therapy to disabled children. 

“Marina is a person with a strong character. She loves what she is doing and is very encouraging. The women are very happy when they get new orders,” says Masai Margaret Gabriel, who was responsible for shop sales before quitting in April 2016. 

Switzerland? Too many rules 

Switzerland is far from the sisters’ minds, though they do visit the motherland once a year. 

“When I’m in Switzerland, I feel like I am in a holiday resort. Everything is so clean and organised,” says Daniela. 

She spends her holiday eating Swiss food, walking in the mountains and shopping at the nationwide supermarket chain Migros. 

“I feel more Swahili than Swiss,” says Daniela. “I like when people arrive on time, but if they don’t it’s not a big deal.” 

Daniela has integrated into the local community in Lamu and has adopted four local children ranging from three to 18 years of age. She has even been given the local name of Khalila. 

“Lamu is very beautiful and peaceful and is hence very good for your health, heart and soul,” she says. “I wake up, walk to the beach to see the sunrise and also catch the sunset. But at the same time, I can also take a train and go to a busy place if I want to do business.” 

Despite missing Swiss chocolates, Daniela says she could not live in Switzerland again because she feels too much under control there. 

“There are so many signboards telling you what to do or not do,” she says. “In Lamu we are so free despite all the dangers around us.” 

An ever-present threat is the militant group Al Shabab, which has carried out several attacks in the region near Lamu. Somalia is not far away. 

“There are no al-Shabab attacks on the islands but you’ll see security forces on roads, beaches and big hotels since a threat was issued a few months ago,” says her business partner and friend Ali Lamu. 

Lamu is also worried about the responsibilities Daniela has, such as taking four local children under her wing. 

“She has a big heart. But sometimes she’s alone and needs someone to help, like when her adopted daughter was sick,” he says. 

Hut life and open spaces 

Her sister Marina’s life is also a world away from a typical Swiss existence. She lives in a Mongolian-style tent on a friend’s farm – along with a horse, two dogs and a donkey. 

“Switzerland is claustrophobic. I love the open spaces here: the mountains, forests and savannahs,” she says. 

Marina’s day seldom follows a set timetable as her work – and Tanzanian life in general – regularly throws up unexpected surprises. But she does like to fit in a few activities when things are not so chaotic. 

“I start my day with a horse ride and then go to the shop and office in Arusha. I return home in the evening and go for a long walk with my dog, watch the sun set, and sometimes have drinks or dinner with my friends,” she says. 

Unlike Botswana, there are no dangerous wildlife like lions or leopards around – only smaller predators like hyenas and jackals. Marina can walk around freely. Besides the animals, the area is also home to the Masai people whose huts or bomas dot the surrounding countryside. On weekends, she takes her bicycle and rides up to the Masai villages and chats with people about income-generating opportunities. 

But it is not all picture postcard Africa. 

“A lot of people envy me because I live in Africa but things can be difficult,” she says. “Things break down and there is a lot of bureaucracy and corruption.” 

She is also separated from her husband, and pretty much on her own, apart from a few friends. However, she doesn’t think she could return to Switzerland at this point. 

“Switzerland is a little island and this is reflected in the way people think. It stops at the borders,” she says. 

She does miss the snow and skiing, as well as the Swiss sense of organisation. 

“It is very difficult to make products for the first world in third world conditions. The slow pace of Tanzanians can be frustrating at times,” she says. 

A fragile future? 

Her former colleague Margaret Gabriel is anxious for her. She says Marina works too hard and does too much. Gabriel is worried about the future of the enterprise that Marina has invested so much into.

“She has to think of the next generation as some of the women are getting old and can’t see well enough to do beadwork. She has to start projects with young girls to ensure the future of the company,” she says.

In spite of the heavy workload and the responsibility of 200 Masai women on her shoulders, Marina has no regrets.

“I am living my dream. I have everything I need even if I don’t have a lot of money. I am truly at peace, which was my goal in my life.” 

Her sister Daniela has some advice for her fellow Swiss dreaming of getting away some day. 

“My friends call me courageous but I don’t understand. It is more courageous to stay in Switzerland for the rest of your life. Follow your heart, don’t be afraid or worry about money, everything is possible if you have an open heart.”