Visitors to the Kuti Community Wildlife Park in Malawi, Africa, may well be surprised to find that their guide was trained by an American, not to mention a woman. But Hillary Strasser, a 2010 graduate of Washington and Lee, was not only the first American guide in Malawi and the second woman guide in the country, but she is now training the other guides that are leading the guests through the park.
Hillary is teaching the guides about mammal behavior, bird identification by sight and sound, ecology, zoology, and the importance of wetlands.
A double major in environmental studies and Russian area studies at W&L, Hillary has taken a few unusual twists and turns on her path from Lexington to Malawi.
She spent the summer and fall after her graduation as a deckhand, or Ordinary Seaman, on the reconstructed Flagship Niagara, a reproduction of the relief flagship of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in a major naval battle of the War of 1812. After sailing and educating tourists about maritime history and seamanship that summer, she stayed with the crew during the fall when it down-rigged the ship for the winter months.
Next was a stint with Teach for Myanmar in Yangon, Myanmar, where she taught earth sciences, social studies and English at small community organizations and schools.
From there she headed to South Africa to participate in EcoTraining as a professional field guide. She had internships both in South Africa and Malawi. She learned how to conduct bush walks safely, which includes being able to use a .375 bolt action rifle, perform first aid in the wilderness and drive 4×4 vehicles. In addition, she learned about the local biology, astronomy, geology and animal behavior and how to identify South African mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. She did an internships at Jock Safari Lodge in Kruger National Park, of South Africa, shadowing guides and learning how the hospitality industry works in Africa and then became a guide at Mvuu Camp & Wilderness Lodge in Liwonde National Park.
All that prepared Hillary for her current post in Kuti Community Wildlife Park, a wildlife reserve an hour and a half from Malawi's capital city. The park features all kinds of wildlife, from big mammals like giraffe, zebra, sable and impala to hundreds of species of birds.
Among Hillary's current projects is creating a bird identification booklet, which she intends to be a self-guide (she's drawing all the pictures herself). In addition, she's mapping the reserve with a handheld GPS, working on anti-poaching solutions, and creating a proposal to manage the wetland at Kuti and create an aquaculture project.