Maureen Kahiu, the youngest golf course superintendent in East Africa, oversees Veterinary Laboratory Sports Club in Nairobi. Photo by Mercy Cherotich
Women are a decided minority in the field of golf course management. A recent survey cited by Syngenta Growing Golf found that only 1.5% of golf course superintendents in the United States are women, but in all of East Africa, only two women are golf course superintendents.
By all of those standards, one of those women, Maureen Kahiu — the youngest superintendent in East Africa — is indeed a rarity.
Since January 2018, Kahiu has been superintendent at the Veterinary Laboratory Sports Club, commonly known as Vet Lab Sports Club, in Nairobi, Kenya. The club was established in 1923 to provide recreational facilities for Scottish researchers working for the Kenya Department of Veterinary Services. The original golf course had nine holes, with nine greens and fairways and 18 tees — to provide variety on the back nine, according to the club’s website — but the course gained an additional 85 acres and nine more holes in 2007.
Some superintendents are born into the game of golf, and others come upon it unexpectedly. Kahiu is one of the latter. Her first exposure to the sport took place when she attended Tigoni Primary School in Limuru and sometimes took swimming lessons at neighboring Limuru Country Club.
Golf did not reappear in Kahiu’s life until she pursued an undergraduate degree in environmental horticulture and landscaping technology at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, about 20 miles northeast of Nairobi. She took only one turfgrass class, because, “Horticulture is very big in Kenya, unlike golf, hence there is more emphasis on it,” Kahiu says. “I still haven’t come across turfgrass being taught as an independent program.”
As a university student, Kahiu was a superintendent intern at Vet Lab for two months, and the following school year, she researched the monetary value of trees at Nairobi’s Muthaiga Golf Club. Post-graduation, Kahiu’s career continued to lean toward golf, as her job at a landscaping firm included some golf course construction. Her next step, a three-month graduate traineeship at Vet Lab Sports Club, led to a job as assistant golf course superintendent at the club, and from there she quickly rose to superintendent.
In February, Kahiu traveled more than 9,600 miles to the Golf Industry Show in San Diego to share her unique experience during the Ladies Leading Turf event, sponsored by Syngenta. After describing her background, Kahiu passionately outlined the obstacles faced by a young woman who holds what is considered by many to be a man’s job.
Kahiu says the primary barriers she sees for women in golf course management in Kenya are male chauvinism, ageism and the culture. The three factors are hard to separate, because they feed each other. Men are seen as the natural leaders, Kahiu says, which means that women, no matter their qualifications, are generally not seen as eligible for leadership positions. These views are supported by a culture in which male chauvinism is endemic, she says. Ageism is also a problem: A young woman is even less likely to be seen as a candidate for a job that requires high-level skills and the ability to supervise a number of employees.
In a culture and a profession traditionally dominated by men, Kahiu is used to what she refers to as “keeping it cool.”
“‘Keep it cool’ is what I do in my daily life,” Kahiu says. “I never overreact to whatever situation I’m in. I translate this to work. Even when there are huge breakdowns in the irrigation system and the temperatures are blazing, I keep calm.
“I have two very able gentlemen — John and Vincent — who assist me in this job, since they’ve got lots of experience in it. They are my assistants who help in the supervisory work. My greenkeeping team and mechanics are also very able, and I thank them for the effort they put in, especially when we have competitions.
“Other than keeping it cool,” Kahiu says, “encouragement to others and to self goes a long way to helping us hack day-to-day challenges.”
Kahiu works six days a week, taking off Sundays unless a tournament is scheduled. She says she is still single because “looking at the hours superintendents put in sometimes, it would be absolutely difficult for a mother and/or a wife.” And like so many women — and men — she thanks her mother, who “supported me fully and continues to do this up to today.”
Teresa Carson is GCM’s science editor.