The guiding women challenging tradition in Lombok

Photo of Bonita Grima

A team of intrepid female tour guides is leading the way to a brighter future in a village in northern Lombok. 

High on the slopes near the border of Lombok’s Mt Rinjani National Park, Katni Wati is leading the way, in more ways than one. 

The 37-year-old mother-of-four has just shown us her village of Senaru and introduced us to the Sasak people who still live and work in the traditional manner.

As she guides us along the trail, past tobacco and coffee plantations, she tells us about her daughter’s hopes to one day go to university. Her daughter is 18 years old, the same age as my own. Her words take me back to the beginning of the year, to the anxious days waiting on exam results and the excitement of the news that my daughter had gained a place at her preferred university. There are just a few years difference in age between Katni and I, and I feel a bond, even though I know our lives are worlds apart.

Receiving a complete education and being financially independent is not common for women in these parts, with most Sasak women only completing junior high school before either marrying or helping the family through weaving or working in the plantations.

Katni is passionate about empowering the girls and women of her village and surrounding areas through her work as a guide. The first female mountain guide to take visitors to the summit of Mt Rinjani in 1995, Katni now leads a team of female guides and has trained up to 50 women. Her company, Rinjani Women Adventure, provides trekking tours of Mt Rinjani as well as the panorama walk we are now doing through the foothills to the Sendang Gile Waterfall.

Earlier, at the village, we were welcomed by a troupe of boys and young men who performed an impressive traditional folk dance. We were then taken to see some of the houses made of mud brick, bamboo and thatched rattan roofing. A young woman named Sari showed us inside and told us the houses were occupied by an average of two families of about 15 people at one time. As my eyes adjusted to the limited light, I tried to imagine what it must be like to live with so many others in such a small space with no dividing walls.

When someone asked why there were no windows to let light in, we were surprised to learn the reason for their absence was for the prevention of kidnapping of girls for marriage, which we were told was a regular occurrence. We then found out that this “kidnapping” is really what we would call the elopement of a young couple. After the couple run away together, the daughter’s family is forced to accept the marriage or risk being shamed in the village.

Back out in the sunshine, we walked through the village and watched as people attended their daily chores. Goats and chickens wandered freely and children gathered to play games under thatched shade. We watched a man pounding rice and a woman roasting coffee beans over a fire, who offered us some to shell and taste. Then a treat — pieces of fudge-like raw palm sugar, which I was reluctant to try at first but which turned out to be delicious. Before leaving the village, we were taken to the local primary school to hear the children sing for us. Some were able to speak some English, and once again Katni stressed the importance of education for the young girls of the village.

On the trail, I ask Katni how she learned to speak English so well. “My father was the cultural leader of the village and we used to have a lot of foreign visitors staying with us,” she says. “I learned to speak English by talking to them. Then I began taking them on tours. This is how I then became a guide.”

I wonder if she has encountered any opposition from the community to her work as a guide and her efforts to implement change. “Yes, of course,” she tells me. “They ask me why I want to go against the men. But I say to them that I don’t want to go against them. I want to help them. By doing what I’m doing and by being financially independent, I’m not only helping my husband to support our family, but I’m also helping the village too. I tell them it’s a good thing”’ As a guide, Katni says, she can earn six times what she would on the plantations, the average farming wage being 25,000 rupiah a day (about $2.50).

When we finally reach the cooling waters of the waterfall, I take the time to sit and relax as I watch mischievous monkeys try to steal snacks from tourists and our group of female guides laugh and joke together. It is refreshing to see these young women making a difference.

Our next stop is a local restaurant with amazing views over the waterfall reserve and rice paddies. We enjoy a lunch of simple but tasty local food and even though I enjoy the experience a great deal I can’t help feeling guilty. It is Ramadan and I’m aware the people serving us have not been able to eat or drink anything all day in the hot weather. I am also aware that the food we are eating is probably reserved mostly for tourists and of superior freshness and quality to what they have themselves most days.

As we say goodbye, I feel nothing but respect for these young guides of Senaru, who have welcomed us into their world and shared not only their home but also their hopes and dreams. And I feel optimistic for them and their ability to provide a path for a brighter future.

Fact File


Bonita Grima visited Lombok as a guest of Star Clippers.


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