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< Stories That Inspire Us

Embracing My Culture Through the Outdoors

There’s a diversity problem in the outdoor industry – for too long, it hasn’t reflected the breadth of people and voices in the outdoors. In recognition of Black History Month, L.L.Bean Ambassador and children’s book author Dineo Dowd wrote this essay about the lack of diversity she saw in outdoor spaces, and how the life and legacy of singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba helped Dineo find her own place in the outdoors.

While there are incredible women of color in U.S. history, it’s important to recognize the work done by Black women around the world. Miriam Makeba was a South African singer who spoke out against apartheid for decades. Her story has inspired me to come out of my shell, follow my heart and passion, be brave, and embrace my culture through the outdoors.

When I began my hiking journey 7 years ago, I was young and had no hint of what to expect when I got on the trails alone. My Black community started to question my intentions, and white people were staring at me repeatedly on the trails because I was a Black woman – and even worse, I had an accent. I wasn’t wearing hiking gear because the girls in the outdoor magazines were all white, skinny and tall with long hair. As time passed on, it crossed my mind that I was doing “white people things,” as my family described me. I wore pink lipstick to look beautiful while hiking. I thought I had to.

But Miriam Makeba wore no makeup, and refused to straighten her hair for shows. Her self-presentation has been characterized by scholars as a rejection of the predominantly white standards of beauty that women in the U.S. were held to, which allowed Makeba to partially escape the sexualization directed at women performers during that period. She called for unity between Black people of African descent across the world. Her story encouraged me to get outside every day, speak up, stand up for what I believe in, and write hiking books for children of color from different cultures, to motivate them to get outside and explore – but how could I inspire them when they didn’t see people like them on the outdoor magazines?

I changed “the man in the mirror.” I introduced my daughter to the outdoors when she was born. I introduced her to diversity right away. I wanted to be a good role model for my daughter. Miriam Makeba reminded me that I come from a country that is rich in diversity. Makeba was an amazing and inspiring woman, way ahead of her time – and that’s who I want to be.

The outdoors became my best friend. I found myself hiking solo in the mountains in Utah with no fear of human beings, just wild animals. I couldn’t sit at home anymore and stare at the mountains from a distance. The trails became my personal life. I found joy and peace while hiking. Miriam once said, “Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile.” No matter where you go, there are times when people show you kindness and love, and there are times when they make you know that you are with them but not of them. That's when it hurts. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you've ever known, and that was my life when I came to the United States. I had no friends; it was just me and the mountains.

I’m reminded every day that nature never closes and nature heals. I told myself I have to keep hiking, find my tribe, make global friends, be the badass outside mom, and document my journey.

Dineo Dowdis a full-time mom and writer who was born in South Africa but now lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and daughter. She creates books with diverse characters to encourage children of all backgrounds to discover the joys of the outdoors, including Sunset Hike, Adventure Day, Spring Hike, The Dowd’s Adventures: Summer Camping, and Christmas from Both Worlds! Learn more or follow Dineo on Facebook and Instagram.

< Stories That Inspire Us