Kelly Lyee Chigumbura was 17 years old when, she says, she was raped near her family’s home in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi Valley. After realising she was pregnant with her rapist’s child, Chigumbura dropped out of school and put aside her dream of becoming a nurse. “My goals had been shattered,” she says. “It was like I couldn’t do anything more with my life.”
Chigumbura was jobless, with no skills and no prospects. Cultural norms among the Shona dictate that, should a mother lack the resources to take care of her child, it’s given to the father’s parents. So against Chigumbura’s wishes, the rapist’s mother took the baby – a little girl Chigumbura named Yearn Cleopatra – to raise as her own. Chigumbura was not even permitted to visit her daughter. When she came by, the grandmother would spin stories to shoo her away, telling her that her baby was in Mozambique, for example.
“Everything was misery,” Chigumbura says with a sigh.
It went on like this for three years, until one day, when Chigumbura was 20, the village head pulled her aside. An Australian named Damien Mander was looking for female recruits to become wildlife rangers, and the village head thought Chigumbura was an excellent candidate. If selected, she would be responsible for patrolling and protecting the nearby Phundundu Wildlife Park: a 115 square mile former trophy hunting area that is part of a larger ecosystem home to some 11,000 elephants.