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The Kazakh Women Nomads of Mongolia are the Leaders We Need

“I’d like to organize a nomadic migration, led by women,” I told my Mongolian tour agency partner.

“Women? We usually have men lead them,” he asserted.

Osprey Ambassador Marinel de Jesus. Founder of Brown Gal Trekker and Equity Global Treks. Image via Anna Brannon

It was 2018 and I’d already left my career as a lawyer to live globally as a mountain nomad while running my trekking enterprise, Equity Global Treks(Opens in a new window), and media platform, Brown Gal Trekker(Opens in a new window). After many years of trekking globally and by virtue of having a trekking company, I’d learned that, although women are on the rise as travelers and make up the majority of the tourism workforce, they’re generally limited to non-leadership positions.

It was clear that I was an outlier as a female CEO and founder in this space. It gave me the incentive to consciously elevate the roles of women in the tourism industry, especially when it comes to adventure and outdoor-focused tourism programs. Creating equity and inclusion for women in the tourism and outdoor industries is long overdue.

Osprey Ambassador Marinel de Jesus. Image via Anna Brannon

Weeks passed before I heard again from my agency partner in Mongolia, but he came with good news. We found a community of Kazakh nomads that was interested in having the women in their village lead a migration in March, 2020. The community began to buy into the idea of women leading the nomadic migration, a role that has been traditionally delegated to men.

In the Kazakh nomadic culture, migrating from one pasture to another has been an ancient practice to sustain their way of life. They migrate at least twice a year in search of green pastures for their herds of camels, yaks, cows, sheep and goats. Kazakh nomads make up the biggest ethnic minority in Mongolia. Through migrating, the Kazakh nomads came to Mongolia from China, Kazakhstan and other nearby regions bordering Mongolia.

A women-led Kazakh nomad migration

While the local agency partner worked with the village members on the details and logistics of the migration, I recruited women from the U.S. to join the first women-led migration. We set the migration to coincide with Women’s History Month and promote the roles of nomadic women as leaders. Although my local agency partner was cautious and skeptical about this idea, I knew it was brilliant, if a bit risky.

In February, with half a dozen women from the U.S. signed up to join our migration, I flew to Mongolia to finalize the logistics. Of course, by the time I landed, the pandemic had forced the country to begin its quarantine measures. Within a week or so, the first local COVID-19 case was reported, prompting the Mongolian government to immediately shut down all its borders.

“I’m stuck,” I said to myself upon realizing that my original three-week stay in Western Mongolia had morphed into an indefinite one. I quickly canceled the trip with the women from the U.S., advising them not to fly. After doing so, I still had to figure out how to work with the nomadic Kazakh women who had been anticipating the arrival of foreigners and the migration. My fear-induced inclination was to cancel the migration completely, but somehow a voice in my head said, “No.” If, indeed, I’d be stuck in Mongolia for an indefinite period, I might as well join these women on a migration. I had nothing more to lose.

In a few days, I was on a Jeep driving to meet the female nomads. I arrived at a remote village in Western Mongolia to meet our all-women group. Along with five women from the village, we were joined by our guide, Banu, and cook, Alma. The youngest member of our team, 10-year-old Aimoldir Dayanbek, happened to be an award-winning eagle huntress in the region. In total, there were nine of us walking with a herd of sheep, goats, cows and horses in the Altai mountains.

A women-led Kazakh nomad migration

The women’s husbands were there initially, supporting the women while engaging in a friendly debate about the women’s abilities to pack our ger (Mongolian yurt) and group gear on the back of the camels. In the end, the women won the debate as as they demonstrated their ability to successfully pack the camels. It was then that I learned that women had been migration leaders in the past, especially when the men left their villages to fight wars. However, due to the arrival of Islam in the community, gender roles changed completely. Women’s roles became domesticated with a focus on chores inside the home while men worked outside. To the women in our group, the chance to reclaim their knowledge was empowering. It was a way to reclaim a part of their nomadic identity that they’d lost over the years.

This experience in Mongolia solidified my belief that women are born to lead, no matter where they are in the world. Women leaders are here for good. - Marinel de Jesus, Osprey Ambassador

As expected, the nomadic migration was a success, from packing the camels to setting and breaking down gers, and herding the animals. The women were ecstatic, completing the migration over a period of two days. Although we’d planned to migrate for at least three days, Mongolia’s COVID-19 restrictions forced us to shorten our trip. Nonetheless, the experience was impactful for the women. They conversed amongst themselves about how powerful it was to lead the migration.

All of them look forward to joining another one in the future with a welcome invite to foreigners to be part of it. We captured the migration journey via the documentary film, We Are Nomads: A True Story of an All-Women Migration in Altai.(Opens in a new window)

To Ask Women to Lead is to Ask for Social Change

As for me, the migration trip changed my views of women in adventure travel. Had I not asked for women to take the roles as leaders, this migration trip would have been led by men like always.

And it isn’t just the nomadic society that has forgotten the relevance of women as leaders. The rest of the world has also forgotten, dismissing and overlooking the leadership roles that women play, then and now. The migration taught me that women have always been leaders within our communities, be it in their homes or elsewhere.

Marinel de Jesus along a women-led Kazakh nomad migration

The forgetfulness that has permeated our society has merely excluded women from being seen as leaders. I’m convinced that women leaders are threatening to men because, when women lead, the impact reaches a greater depth and distance that renders a long-lasting effect on our communities as a whole.

By the time summer rolled in, I had traveled to several parts of the country and met female leaders along the way. In Ulaanbaatar, several held high-level leadership positions in public and private sectors. In various mountain communities in the west, north and south of the country, I met female entrepreneurs like myself. One woman I had the privilege of meeting, Gangaamaa Badamgarav, not only owns her own mountain climbing and travel company, she happens to be the first Mongolian to complete the Seven Summits. In July, I joined her group of Mongolian climbers to climb Khuiten, Mongolia’s highest peak.

Marinel de Jesus and Gangaamaa on a trek

Creating Synergy with Women Leaders of Sagsai’s Eagle Hunting Community

When fall arrived, I decided to return to Western Mongolia to watch Aimoldir compete at the annual eagle hunting festivals. Of all the women I witnessed that year as leaders, Aimoldir left the greatest influence on me as a woman. At the age of 10, she’d already earned awards and recognition as one of the best eagle-hunting competitors in the region. Eagle hunting competitions have been dominated by men, but in recent years about a dozen young Kazakh girls have taken interest in competing. Aimoldir is currently the youngest eagle-hunting competitor in Mongolia, if not the world. She started training at the age of six with her father, Mana Dayanbek, who is a prominent eagle hunter in their village of Sagsai. That year I witnessed her win first place at the Sagsai Eagle Hunting Festival, defeating 60 or more adult male competitors.

Eagle huntress Aimoldir

As a young female leader, Aimoldir impressed upon me the importance of going for something that you want, regardless of what the world thinks of you or who you have to go against. You do it not to prove yourself, but because you have the love and the passion for it, and by doing so, you attain the freedom to be true to yourself. This is the essence of female empowerment.

Eagle huntress Aimoldir

After the competition, I attended a celebration party at Aimoldir’s home in Sagsai. We conversed about how her summer was going and how life had been for her family since the time we did the migration trip. That’s when I learned that she was interested in learning English and that, in the upcoming school year, she was going to start having English classes at her school. I was thrilled to learn this because English speakers in the 5,000-person village of Sagsai were rare. If Aimolder learns English, she’ll have the ability to share her community’s history and culture with the world directly, rather than relying on outside tour agencies as a middle person. By being a direct link between the outside world and her community, she can be the leader, ambassador and storyteller of the eagle-hunting community of Sagsai.

Come October, Mongolia’s borders remained closed. With no definite plan, I decided to spend that time teaching English to the kids in Sagsai. That’s when I met Bakhitgul Altay, a teacher in Sagsai, who became my host. I was assigned to teach about a dozen kids, including Aimoldir, every day. My students were at various levels of English, many of whom were far from being fluent. I learned that the school has a total of 1,000 students, with only four English teachers on its staff who require further English training themselves. Hence, being a fluent English speaker and a foreigner, Bakhitgul and the community deemed my endeavor of teaching as a huge advantage for their young English students.

A teacher leading an English lesson

Outside of teaching, I spent time getting to know the community through conversations with the kids, Bakhitgul and other community members. There were many nights when Bakhitgul and I sat around her kitchen table drinking milk tea as she told me stories about her grandpa, a highly respected eagle hunter and leader of the community, and all the other prominent and influential eagle hunters in her village, including Aimoldir.

She shared with me her concerns about the impact of modern technology on the young generation of nomads and how that has prompted many of them to leave the village and seek education and job opportunities in Ulaanbaatar and overseas. Bakhitgul was particularly concerned about the growing disinterest among the young generation when it comes to practicing and preserving nomadic traditions including eagle hunting. At the same time, as an English teacher, Bakhitgul believes learning English can open doors to opportunities as it did for her.

Bakhitgul Altay, a teacher in Sagsai. Marinel's host during her stay.

Besides teaching, Bakhitgul also works as a tour guide in the tourism industry. She is the only English-speaking tour guide in Sagsai. While she believes strongly in the importance of preserving eagle hunting and nomadic traditions, she is also convinced that bringing English learning to her village would help many nomadic families gain financial stability.

Students in an English class. Image via Hattie Watson

From my viewpoint as a tourism professional, although the eagle hunting festival attracts a significant number of foreigners to come and see the eagle hunters every year, the experience is rather contrived and superficial at best. The festival, which is held for only a few hours over a two-day period, encourages tourists to snap photos and take videos without making a conscious effort to engage in meaningful conversations and interactions with the eagle hunters. Engaging is a challenge, in and of itself, due to language barriers; hence, tourists must rely heavily on outside tour agencies for translation, minimizing the authenticity of the interaction.

The festival also poses other questions, like where do the bulk of profits go and how does it benefit the eagle-hunting community, financially or otherwise? Other than the award money given to the competition winners, it is unclear how else this event benefits the community. Showcasing the eagle hunters in their traditional costumes and flaunting their eagles lends itself to the commodification of their culture and people for the sole amusement of tourists—and the benefit of tour agencies. This creates doubt as to whether the annual festival is helping preserve eagle hunting or is more of a hindrance. Does it truly create a more authentic and immersive cultural exchange between the nomads and their guests?

While Bakhitgul didn’t state her concerns about the eagle hunting festival the way I did, she alluded to the fact that the festival is far from being an accurate depiction of the eagle hunting tradition. She often sends out invites to foreigners to come to Sagsai during the winter season to see eagle hunting because, in reality, it’s the only time in the year that eagles hunt. Bakhitgul and I clearly agree that the eagle-hunting community has been routinely left out of the conversation within the tourism industry. We both want to see changes in the industry that will elevate the voices and roles of the nomads and eagle hunters in her village.

A group of hunters at an eagle-hunting festival

The Birth of Khusvegi English and Nomadic Culture Camp and What Lies Ahead for Women

I eventually left Mongolia on December 17, 2020, on a charter flight bound for the U.S. During my time in Sagsai, I experienced the generosity and kindness of the local community, particularly as a solo traveler stuck in Mongolia during a pandemic.

To me, Bakhitgul exemplified a quiet form of leadership. In my view, an official title isn’t required to deem her a leader. I was impressed by how Bakhitgul centered the needs of her community in her vision for the future. She welcomed a total stranger into her home because of that vision and, by doing so, she acted as an ambassador and storyteller for her village. Her aspirations as a mother to her children, a teacher to her students and a leader in her community became instrumental in my decision to design a 30-day cultural immersion tourism program with the eagle hunters and the nomadic community of Sagsai.

Image via Hattie Watson

In 2021, Bakhitgul and I co-founded the community-led tourism program, Khusvegi English and Nomadic Culture Camp(Opens in a new window), which was named the winner of the Launch Track at the 2021 Social Entrepreneurship in Tourism Competition hosted by the U.N. World Tourism Organization.

Khusvegi Camp was born out of my experience living in Sagsai—an outsider listening to the voices of the nomads. It’s driven by the vision of the Sagsai community as told by Bakhitgul: “The preservation of nomadic and eagle-hunting culture while providing the young generation access to English learning in order to expand their economic opportunities while fostering a generation of storytellers.”

Khusvegi Camp utilizes the English language as a way to narrate their culture and traditions to the outside world, which renders them relevant in a time when storytelling via social media is deemed the best way of connecting people.

Image via Hattie Watson

Living in a remote village like Sagsai, local people are prone to feeling left out and disconnected from the rest of the world. Khusvegi Camp is a way for the Kazakh nomads to experience the best of both worlds—celebrating and preserving ancient nomadic cultures while connecting with the rest of the world and becoming a part of the global community.

For the women of Sagsai like Bakhitgul, our all-women staff, and Aimoldir, Khusvegi Camp represents the synergy that women can create to become leaders and a force for good. The story of Khusvegi Camp originated from a simple ask: can we have females leading the migration?

No matter how the story started, the ending is what matters most. This experience in Mongolia solidified my belief that women are born to lead, no matter where they are in the world. Women leaders are here for good. Therefore, it is up to us to make sure that women are seen, heard and—most importantly—celebrated as leaders.

As for Mongolia and the women in this story, the ending speaks for itself. We are no longer asking. We are doing.

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