‘Beautiful women feeling fearless and free’ – How Black Girls Hike is making the great outdoors inclusive

Early last year, Rhiane Fatinikun was on a train hurtling through the Peak District. Marvelling at the rolling hills outside the window, she vowed to take a walk and explore the area near her Bolton home. Fatinikun had never hiked a day in her life, and she knew she was not alone. Three days later, she set up an Instagram page called Black Girls Hike and invited black women to join her on her first trail walk.

“I wanted to take up hiking to do something more productive with my free time, but also to improve my well-being,” she says. “I set up the group because of that, but also to create a space so that other people felt comfortable going outdoors. The outdoors is not necessarily somewhere where you would think is inviting and so I wanted to create a safe space so that we could explore together.”

Fatinikun had no experience of starting a project like this from scratch. She has learnt through volunteer work over the years though, that if something you want does not exist, you make it happen yourself. Her mission was to change perceptions, and prove that she and other black women could find a sense of belonging in the outdoors.

With the majority of black communities concentrated in city areas, she says the countryside has never been as accessible to them. But geography is not the only issue. A recent report also exposed the chequered history of some of the UK’s most beautiful countryside dwellings, as a third of protected National Trust sites were found to have had links with colonialism and slavery.

“You live in the UK and people talk like we’re in a post-racial society, but most people will experience racism all the time,” Fatinikun says. “When you think about really multicultural places like London, and then think of the countryside, those are areas that don’t have that much exposure to black people, so as a black person you get the impression that it might not be that welcoming.”

That impression comes from the lived experiences of racism many of the women in her group have had upon venturing outdoors. It is no wonder they had been apprehensive about doing so previously: “Someone in the group wrote to me recently, and she said, ‘The last time I went camping to enjoy the outdoors, it was in Staffordshire and, as a black woman, all I got was racially abused. My tent was physically attacked, so I don’t leave London to the countryside unless it’s Ghana’.”

Fatinikun’s brainwave to begin BGH has changed the experiences of those who have come along though: “The same woman said the Black Girls Hike walk she attended since then was ‘an amazing hike with beautiful women feeling fearless and free’. I think ‘fearless and free’ was a really good testimony to the benefits of the group and how people see it.”

The group’s first outing was at the beginning of last year at Hollingworth Lake in Rochdale, which 14 people showed up to and where Fatinikun worried she would get the group lost. Since then, their community has grown steadily and Fatinikun’s map-reading skills have much improved. They have sponsors, over 7,000 followers on Instagram, 600 members of their Facebook group and three separate chapters across the country: one in the North West, one in the Midlands and now in London too. They are also expanding beyond just hiking, leading caving and gorge-walking expeditions too. Such is the group’s success, Fatinikun “took a leap of faith” and gave up her day job to run things full-time.

Their first hike in London in August was a moment that showed her the impact she and her fellow leaders were having. “It was just so overwhelming,” she says of that day. “When I walked out of the tube station, and saw everybody I almost started crying – we had over 100 people turn up, we were almost going back for a mile walking through Epping Forest. “Everyone was just staring at us, I think they thought it was a protest,” she laughs, “no one could believe it seeing so many black people in this forest. It was just so powerful. I’m so proud of the community we’ve built. Because so many people showed up, it just goes to show that so many people need it.”

And during the past few months, people have needed it more than ever. While organised hikes by BGH have been harder to do with Covid-19 restrictions, members on their Whatsapp and Facebook groups have been sharing the outings they have been organising individually or with their households, in a testament to the lasting impression Fatinikun’s work has left. Alongside the skewed impact the pandemic has had on those from ethnic minority backgrounds, the Black Lives Matter movement has added to the stresses mounting on the black community, and Fatinikun is hoping to organise “healing retreats” to counter some of the difficulties of the last few months.

“It’s a really important time to focus on people’s well-being,” she says. “When you get something like Black Lives Matter, it can be very, very triggering. I feel like it triggered a lot of PTSD in people because all of a sudden you’re recalling all of the racist events that have happened to you. What I want to do is a weekend with trained counsellors, doing resilience building workshops and outdoor activities like forest bathing.

“We could just switch off, enjoy ourselves as women – not black women. Sometimes I just want to be a hiker. I don’t want be a ‘black hiker’. Why do I have to be identified as that first?”

One thing that will not change though is that the group remains exclusively for black women. Fatinikun says it is essential to reserve this safe space for those it was intended for, and she balks at trolls who have accused her of segregation online.

“A white woman said to me, ‘Can you imagine being discriminated against based on your race?’ and I’m like, ‘Do you realise you’re talking to a black person here?’ What a joke,” she says laughing. “We get trolled, we get people saying that it’s promoting segregation, and what I would say is, we are in fact inclusive, because we’re finally including black people in the narrative of the outdoors.”

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