‘These women never gave up on their dreams’

Elisabeth Thorens and Carin Salerno are childhood friends from Switzerland behind the "World of Women" travel book series.​​​​​​​ Giuseppe Salerno


On their trips around the world, two longtime friends found something missing from travel guides: women. So, the Swiss duo wrote a different kind of travel book featuring ground-breaking females in places like Tanzania, Myanmar and Switzerland. 

Christina Stucky, swissinfo.ch

When Carin Salerno and Elisabeth Thorens launched "The World of Women" travel book series, they wanted to tell readers more than just where to stay and what to eat. Salerno, who has worked all over the world for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), contributed volumes on Tanzania and Myanmar, while Thorens, a vocational teacher and author in Lausanne, drew on her experiences to help with the book on Tanzania and author an edition about Swiss women. 

Each book does include information for travellers on customs and traditions, lodging and dining. But at the heart of the series are local women's stories, such as the three that follow.

As diverse as the women featured in the books are, they share a common trait, says Salerno. They never gave up on their dreams, even when faced with obstacles in their professional or personal lives. Through interviewing those women, Salerno says she discovered "the life realities of ethnic minorities, artists, entrepreneurs, mothers, politicians, and activists”. 

“These personal exchanges have given me insights into, more awareness and sensitivity for the realities in the countries in which I work and live for a few years."

‘Once women are empowered, they can perform miracles’

Asia Kimaryo, barista and social entrepreneur, Moshi, Tanzania

The Aroma Coffee House has become a fixture in the northern Tanzanian city of Moshi. Women in Action Worldwide via Facebook

Asia Kimaryo greets her customers with a mix of Kiswahili, English and Italian: "Karibu, what would you like? Cappuccino, latte macchiato, espresso?" The opening of the Aroma Coffee House marks the achievement of two of her goals: to become a top-notch barista and promote coffee drinking in her hometown. Here, on this busy street in Moshi, in northern Tanzania's coffee-growing region, she is converting her tea-loving countrymen and -women to the fine art of coffee drinking. 

She developed the idea for the coffee shop together with her husband, who works for the Tanzanian Coffee Board and holds an MBA. He coached her on managing a business, but she researched how to make a cappuccino or an espresso at an internet café in Moshi, did a six-month course in Arusha and participated in a contest in Dar es Salaam. 

"I think all women have a lot of potential," she says. "They work hard and once they have been empowered, they can perform miracles." 

Asia Kimaryo in her shop user @kimaryoasia via Instagram

Thanks to support from various family members, she can manage both the business and her four children. "What matters to me is that I can give my children a good education, the girls the same as the boys." 

It is mostly women who work on coffee plantations in Tanzania, often under harsh conditions and for little pay. Women own just 15% of the country’s land, and ownership is much less likely for rural women, Kimaryo explains. 

Many of the women employed at Aroma Coffee House had to quit school at a young age after their parents died or because they could not afford the school fees. Some were ostracised from their families and communities when they became pregnant. 

"I gave them a second chance. With this business I try to help others, that's my duty to society,” Kimaryo says. 

Salerno met Kimaryo through a contact at the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, of which the coffee shop owner is a member. The Alliance’s goal is to empower women in the coffee business by training them, offering them a platform to exchange information and by giving them visibility in the Tanzanian coffee industry. 

“I was impressed by how this young mother and dynamic social entrepreneur runs her coffee shop with a natural and warm leadership style and shares her success with her team,” says Salerno, noting Kimaryo’s sensitivity to the hardships faced by single mothers in a place where the teen pregnancy rate stands at 27% and continues to rise. 

Salerno notes that Kimaryo’s husband demonstrates how successful women can be when their husbands support them, their work and business ideas. 

“It's a win-win situation for the entire family,” the author says. “The fact that she successfully balances her personal, family and business life in a Muslim community is also an example for other women in Tanzania and beyond.”  

‘Being a mountain guide is about more than having strong arms’

Esther Wiget, mountain guide and teacher, St. Jean, Valais 

There are about 1,500 active mountain guides in Switzerland, who help tourists and hikers navigate the Alps. Of those, less than 5% are women. Keystone

"In the mountains, I find that there is something special, a singular vibration that animates me, that fascinates me. I find part of my oxygen there. I am a guide, of course, but above all, I am a mountain woman at heart." 

So says Esther Wiget, one of the few women in what is still considered a man's profession in Switzerland. 

"I was asked if I saw myself as a woman or a guide," she recalls. Male mountain guides would likely balk at being asked to choose between being a man or a guide. Her answer is as straightforward as she is: "First I am Esther, then I am a woman, then a mountain woman, and finally a guide." 

Reactions to female guides remain mixed. "Both male and female clients are fascinated and also ask themselves if a female guide is strong enough." She believes appreciation for women guides is growing, as people come to realise that mountain guiding is not just about "having strong arms". 

Ester Wiget in the mountains Elisabeth Thorens

The youngest of four in a family of keen hikers, Wiget quite literally followed in her brother Florentin's footsteps to become a mountain guide. Since a serious climbing accident, he has been in a coma. 

"For a long time, I was haunted by the thought that a mountain robbed me of the person who is most dear to me," says Wiget. But she couldn't ignore "the call of the mountain”. 

“In Tanzania, women face economic hardships, [but] in the case of the Swiss women, it was the "Superwoman" question: how do they manage to be successful at work, have a great love life, be a wonderful mother – if they have kids – and find time for themselves?” says Thorens, who interviewed Wiget. “I wanted to find out from other women in Switzerland how they balance all this while I travelled through the country I call home.” 

The Swiss edition of “The World of Women” is structured along the inescapable Swiss themes of mountains, chocolate and banks. Thorens knew she wanted to interview a young, female mountain guide but soon found it was difficult to find one. She finally found Widget through a hotel owner whose portrait is also in the book. 

“In the two years it took to compile these interviews, I discovered that all the women follow their intuition and listen to their hearts,” Thorens says. “All of them struggle to balance life, love, family, work and each of them concluded that trying to be ‘Superwoman’ is a pipe dream.”

‘I wanted to become a pioneer’

Khin Thida, ruby trader and shop owner, Yangon, Myanmar

In Myanmar's ruby markets, many women sell the gems but very few negotiate prices or buy them. Keystone

In Bogyoke Market, Yangon's busiest tourist market, Khin Thida owns and runs shop number 49, selling precious stones and fine jewellery. She is herself a rarity: a female ruby trader. Myanmar is one of the world's best sources of high-quality rubies and the gem business is firmly in the hands of men. 

She learned the trade from her uncle in Hong Kong, where she was sent by her mother when the student uprisings erupted in Burma in 1988. When she returned in 1992, Myanmar, as Burma is now called, was opening up. She launched the business to earn money and "to escape from my first marriage proposal". 

"Tradition dictates that when a boy comes to ask for your hand, you must agree," Khin Thida says. He wanted to take her to the United States, but she wanted to stay in Myanmar. "After all, I had developed a passion for gems and wanted to become a pioneer." 

She has gained a foothold in this business where she says everyone from the gem traders to the stonecutters, goldsmiths and customers believes that women "are not capable". 

She did eventually marry, but her husband accused her of cheating on him, suspicious of her daily dealings with men in her work. 

"The first ten years of my business were very tough. I was so keen to have my own job that I had to sacrifice everything," says the now-single mother of three. She lost money, property, and even her jewellery in her divorce, although she could prove that her husband had been violent towards her. "The rules for women in Myanmar are good only on paper," she says. "In the Buddhist religion in Myanmar, women are regarded as inferior to men. And I am still trying to be at their level." 

Khin Thida is one of few women in Myanmar involved in the ruby trade. Giuseppe Salerno

Carin Salerno met Khin Thida through a neighbour while living in Yangon. She wanted to buy good quality rubies from someone who would not try to sell her a fake gem, as she says can happen in Myanmar. At Khin Thida’s shop, Salerno says she couldn’t take her eyes off all the precious stones. As she chatted with the store owner, she realised that Khin Thida could be a good person to profile for “The World of Women Myanmar”.

“The story that emerged was fascinating and, at the same time, shares many features with those of other women in Myanmar,” Salerno says. 

The famous Myanmar rubies come mostly from the mythical place of Mogok. Many women sell the gems but very few select them, negotiate prices, buy the gems or create the jewellery. Salerno calls Khin Thida an “ambassador for rubies” who had to overcome many challenges, both personal and professional, to get to where she is. 

“I was impressed by her courage to break stereotypes about what women are and are not allowed to do in Myanmar society, like sitting in tea shops with men and negotiating the price of gems.” 

There are three World of Women volumes so far, with two more possibly in the works. Christina Stucky

Exploring the “World of Women”

Friends since their first day in kindergarten, Salerno and Thorens started the “World of Women” book series in 2013 by spending two weeks interviewing women from Kilimanjaro to Zanzibar.  When Salerno later moved to Myanmar to work at the Swiss Embassy, she wrote “The World of Women Myanmar,” while Thorens worked on "The World of Women Switzerland" from her base in Lausanne. 

Thorens and Salerno founded the non-governmental organisation Women in Action Worldwide to raise the funds for book production. Further books in the series are the works; Salerno wants to publish a "The World of Women Mekong" book, while Thorens is thinking about one about women in Morocco. 

The books are available at Payot in Lausanne or online. The Tanzania and Myanmar books are also sold in shops in those countries, with editions available in English and French. "Le Monde des Femmes Suisse" (“World of Women Switzerland”) is currently available in French only. 

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