Agata Passoni ~ The Safari Sisters
This is me. I was born in Mombasa, Kenya. Grew up in Lilongwe, Malawi. I spent most of my childhood going to Liwonde, Nyika, Kasungu, Luwawa. Or crossing the border to visit the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia during my family holidays. I studied oriental languages in university, after a very brief attempt studying physics, where I lasted a year at Trieste. While studying in Venice, I worked in the hospitality and luxury sector. After returning to Africa, I worked in Malawi first – at Mvuu Lodge in Liwonde National Park. Then in 2016, I returned to my home away from home, Kaingo (which means leopard in the Nyanja language). My passion and love for Shenton Safaris have enabled me to grow from a hostess into my current roles in sales, marketing and management, and onto my position on the board of Project Luangwa. That’s the brief summary.
I’ve had a very fortunate life. The most important aspect is the woman my father raised me to be. My father is someone I will always place on a pedestal. He was an incredible businessman, intellect and had an insatiable curiosity to know more. He loved walking us through old ruins of civilisations past, as much as going to the bush and being on safari. He loved working, being busy, leading others. I was invited to his table, allowed to speak, and was told I belonged. I always felt I belonged, up there, on the top. Losing him was life-altering, my universe changed, my centre of gravity was gone. When you lose someone important to you, grief becomes a part of who you are. It’s a road that we all walk down, but the journey will be different for everyone. Becoming the woman he aspired for me to be has led me to be who I am now.
1. What is the best and worst decision you’ve ever made?
Quitting my job in Italy. Whilst studying in Venice, I started working a lot of odd jobs in hospitality. Housekeeper, kitchen porter, waiter, room attendant, receptionist, anything I could get. I eventually landed the role of “commessa” for a summer season in Jesolo, which then allowed me to get a part-time job for a couple of high-end designer brands. I lived in that world for about 5 years and was absorbed by it. Don’t get me wrong, I love fashion, design, and it’s a big part of who I am. But some of the negative experiences I had — that showed how it can be an empty and vain world — made my soul feel like it was crumbling away.
I wish I could say that quitting my job came out of my own strength because I had planned what I wanted to do with myself. It did not! I had a bad break up with the man I was living with for four years, engaged to in fact. I wanted out, of all of it. Everything. That world represented me settling to fit in for him. I quit my job, with nothing else lined up, no future plans, and no idea of what to do next. How did I get to the safari world? My sister. For whom I’m forever grateful. Eternally attempting to be both a sister and a mother to me. She sat me down. “You need to figure out what you want to do!” I had no idea. So she listed all the things I loved, and as she went through them I got more and more upset. I think I might have wailed. I don’t remember clearly; I just remember saying that I wanted to go home. I needed to be in Africa, to be myself again. “Ok, so you want to go home? Why don’t you go to the bush? Get a seasonal job, you’ve always loved being there.” So that’s how it all started. Thank you, Gus. A few words from one sister, trying to uplift and guide another.
I can never think of the worst. I feel like I’ve always learnt a lot from all the bad things in my life. Every negative experience created by a decision you made teaches you something about yourself, and about the world. I’ve made A LOT of bad choices, but none that I can think of as the worst, as they’ve all lead me to where I am right now. I can tell you the story I’m most ashamed of. It’s bizarre. When I was a child, I was a complete teachers’ pet. I loved going to school. I’m talking about pre-16 years (after that it’s a different story!). I was in standard three, I’m not sure what this converts to in your country, but eight years old roughly. In the first lesson of the day with my favourite teacher. She was cool, beautiful, intelligent. I was one of her favourites. She had forgotten to take her lunch to the teacher’s lounge and put it in the fridge. So she quickly gave it to me with instructions. I clearly wasn’t listening, and somehow “put this in the fridge” became “feed this to the fish”. So that’s what I did. I walked to the school pond and emptied her lunch into it. When I got back to the classroom with the empty lunchbox, her confused face told me I had done something wrong. “You told me to feed it to the fish?” I asked. Hands down, the most embarrassing experience of my life.
2. What was your dream job as a kid and why?
I had many, so many. As a child, there is so much pressure to know what you want to do with yourself. No one does. Or better yet, there are very few people that are born with a distinct calling. When you are, you tend to excel in those subjects and it’s clear that you’re on the right path. When you’re an all-rounded student, with many interests and skills, it’s not so easy. I liked the idea of many things, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I loved animals, so I liked the idea of being a vet. Or maybe a wildlife researcher? I loved literature; how about a poet, or a writer? I loved science; what about a physicist? I wanted to break apart atoms at CERN. I loved football; why not a professional athlete? I don’t know how many future careers I had. At 16, our school had a career guidance counsellor come through. We all took a test and he gave us a list of our possible careers. Mine: an architect, veterinarian, physicist, teacher. Suffice to say, I didn’t feel guided at all!
3. What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
I think there are two that equally take up this role of being the most significant barrier.
- Ourselves. You’ve probably been brought up in an environment where many women in power are described as one of the following: selfish, opportunistic, vain, temperamental, bossy. Or on the other side of the spectrum: inept, scatty, excitable, indecisive. So if you want to lead, you’re going to be one of the above. This is so ingrained in everything you read, listen to, or watch. Female leaders are either bossy or useless. That’s it, that’s the outcome you’ve been taught from day one. When someone can’t be classified in these two roles, then let’s call her either a prude or (let’s not put the profanity in here, but you know what I mean). When you’ve been taught all your life that there’s no winning, even when you’ve won. Then the biggest obstacle is correcting this fiction the world has taught you. That’s something you have to work on, inside yourself.
- Everyone else. It’s not about being a man or a woman. It’s everyone. We’ve all been taught this narrative in everything we do. Yes, things are changing now. Once you’ve overcome this narrative within yourself, you need to know that you’ll be faced with it every single day by everyone around you. It’ll be in the gentle words of comfort from a colleague, or in the reprimands of your superior. The world is still ticking along with women in leadership only being in these two categories. Autocratic or unsuitable. Any women in leadership must face them daily. Put them aside. And get on with their jobs.
4. What woman inspires you and why?
So many women inspire me. I always wonder if there was one in particular that I admired as a child. Princess Diana? Rita Levi-Montalcini? Jane Goodall? Amelia Earhart? Rosa Parks? These majestic beings that broke societies’ confinements, and just were themselves. I loved their stories as a child, revelled in them as if they were fairy tales. Now, it’s the everyday women that inspire me. The hard-working mother with five children to feed. The vegetable grower that sells her goods at the market. The women that live in a world that is so much more unjust to them but still are content with life.
5. What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
Falling for false, veiled equality.
New generations need to be redefining words. There’s so much power in words. So much power in the stories that are told. This will be the biggest challenge. Redefining what a woman in leadership is. Compounding new definitions. Ergo being a feminist is being pro-female empowerment, which is being pro-gender equality. Stepping away from the narrative that men must be belittled for women to get ahead. There’s space for both of us at the top. It is so important for all men to be feminists too. There needs to be a global movement where both women and men are taught and truly understand the importance of gender equality. Where being equal is understood as giving equal voices to each individual. And respecting them as your equal, whoever you are. Understanding one another’s stories and having the empathy to hear that person beyond their position in the world. You’ll see the greatest individuals that have ever lived, both men and women, have always spoken to others with respect, as their equals. We need to get there.