“Access for All” is a blog series welcoming diverse perspectives that create an inclusive modern outdoors for everyone. Whitewater rafting guide Blessed Ndlovu opens up about how rafting changed his life and why the river became a place to recharge.
I grew up in the village in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. We raised livestock and grew our own food. I’d say our life was semi-primitive—no power, we went miles to get water from wells and boreholes. As a boy, I herded my grandparent’s livestock. I spent most of my childhood outside and even the stories we shared with others were about wild animals and other outdoor things we did. I was always comfortable with being outside. We lived near the town of Victoria Falls, and I went to high school in town, so I always had the balance between village life and life of electricity and running water.
ENTERING THE WATER WORLD
I had an accounting job that didn’t work out so great. I quit after two years of it. I didn’t really have a clue what I was going to do next, so I started doing random things. My uncle was a rafting guide, so I knew a lot of rafting people. One day, I heard about one of the rafting companies having a raft guide course so I signed up. My uncle was rafting in Norway at the time, so when he came back he chewed me up a little bit because he thought it was dangerous. I promised him that I’ll be careful and I’ll make him proud. I’d like to believe that I did.
The Terra Fi 5 sandal’s quick drying webbing and ultra-grippy outsole is ready for life’s detours.
My first time rafting was during a training on the Zambezi River—the biggest river to do whitewater rafting commercially anywhere in the world. I couldn’t swim. I had never been in such powerful water. It was the scariest thing I had ever done. It was a strange feeling because I was so terrified, but at the same time I couldn’t believe how beautiful the water and the gorge were. It seemed like it was a separate ecosystem from the rest of Victoria Falls town, and I couldn’t believe that it had been there all my life and I didn’t know.
I have been rafting for almost 14 years now. It has been my full time job until I started engineering school here in America, then it became a summer job. I love rafting because of what it did for me and what it continues to do for me. I started rafting at a time when things were not going great in my life. I had lost hope for the future. In my first year guiding, I started to have hope again and look forward to the future. I could see myself actually doing something with my life.
I met a lot of people and I started to get really curious about where they came from. Having rafted in one of the biggest rivers in the world meant that I could work as a rafting guide anywhere in the world. Through rafting, I was able to travel to other African countries, Europe and now America.
Blessed wears the all-terrain Hurricane XLT2 sandals in Sesame.
I first got a pair of Teva sandals as a gift from a client the day I finished my raft guide school. They were still fairly new and the first thing I remember about them compared to another pair of river shoes I had was how comfortable they were. I [wore] them for two more seasons and passed them on to someone else after I got another pair as a “guide tip.”
The best moment was when we were performing a rescue situation and my colleague’s sandal broke. I remember feeling confident that the same will not happen to my Teva sandals. That’s what I look for in a river shoe: comfort and durability.
One time while rafting in Norway, the water was freezing and it was just a cold day. We had been on the water for three hours but I was having such a good time that I forgot about how cold it was. Even my sense of time changed. Three hours felt like 30 minutes. That was the first time I realized that being in whitewater was my element. I felt recharged.
I still want to travel to a lot more places around the world, maybe this time with my son. I also think I wouldn’t have been able to start college and become a chemical engineer in the US if it wasn’t for rafting. Rafting has become my place of recharging mentally. I feel like I can always let go of everything and be one with Mother Nature.
RAFTING WHILE BLACK
Because I started rafting where the majority of the guides were Black, I was more aware of the differences when I went to other countries. I went to other African countries where most of the guides were white and because of the social divide that already existed between Black and white, I could also see it in raft guiding. I always felt like I had to prove that Black guides were as good as white guides. It felt like if I somehow messed up, then I’d affect the next Black guide who came after me.
Guiding in the U.S. was a little different. Guides and employers made an effort to create an all inclusive environment. Private rafting was slightly different though. Even though it’s rare, there have been moments I’ve felt like I needed to prove that I was as good, or that I actually knew what I was doing.
My advice [for anyone who wants to be an outdoor guide] is that rafting culture slightly resembles the culture in the community around. So chances are, whatever you’re facing in your community, you’ll face on the river. Raft guides are generally open-minded people and are always accommodating.
Don’t let being Black deter you from going into rafting. We actually need more Black guides in America. Also, you don’t have to prove anything to anyone. You have as much right to do it.
A lot of times on rafting trips you’ll be the only Black person, it really helps to get super comfortable in your own skin.
The summers in Oregon [where I live now] are similar [to Zimbabwe]. It’s really hot. But Oregon gets really cold too. And it rains a lot. The summers and the outdoors of the Pacific NW keeps me connected to home. There’s a lot more differences that make me really miss home. So, I always try to make food from home and I always try to tell people stories from home: how I grew up, my hunting stories and how things are now. I feel like my successes and the good things I do this side honors and celebrates where I come from.
Enoch wears the Hurricane XLT2 for toddlers.
My son Enoch enjoys going hiking. He goes hiking a lot more with his mom but I try to get him out whenever I can. I’m really looking forward to him being old enough to kayak. He really likes playing in the water.
Other than whitewater being my favorite thing, I want him to have options, especially ones that are good for him, instead of staying inside and playing video games and TV.
I would like him to enjoy whitewater as I do, however I’d like him to learn what rafting did for me and how important it is to find something that he loves and enjoys. Rafting has been good for my mental and emotional health, I made most of my friends through rafting and rafting created opportunities for me.
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