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Breaking tradition from the skies

By - Lina Benyawa | Dec 16th 2012 | 4 min read

Ruweidha Mohammed, 33, from the minority Bajuni community in Lamu, was told as a little girl that her that place was in the kitchen, but her dream was bigger. She stretched her wings and became a seasoned pilot. She spoke to Lina Benyawa

In this day and age of women empowerment, to be a woman pilot may not be such a big deal. But among the Bajuni — one of the smallest and most marginalised ethnic communities in Kenya — it is something to write home about.

Captain Ruweidha Mohammed, 33, is probably the only woman pilot in her community and, more so, in Lamu County.

To reach the skies (literally), Ruweidha had to shatter negative cultural beliefs, crippling poverty, ignorance and stigma.

She shares her journey: “This is a dream come true for me. I have always loved to fly a plane. But I feared I may never realise my dream because I come from a poor family.”

Coming from a community where women are seen and not heard, Ruweidha beat several obstacles to achieve her dream.

How it all began

She recalls her fascination with planes while she was in Standard Two at Ng’ombeni Primary School, Lamu.

Every time she spotted an airplane,  she would run after it, until it disappeared in the skies.

“One day, I saw an airplane passing and I told my grandmother that I would  fly one! Knowing the odds I would have to overcome to achieve that dream, my grandma just dismissed me,” she remembers.

Ruweidha recalls another incident that stirred her passion:

“In the early 1990s, I went to see off my aunt at Moi International Airport and spotted something interesting. I remember seeing a Kenyan pilot and I was impressed. I asked my aunt if there were many of such and that I wanted to be like him. I thought that all pilots were white. He was a source of inspiration and I told myself that one day I would work hard to become one.”

That is how her passion for flying was reignited.

Ups and downs

In 1997, after completing her studies at Coast Girls Secondary School in Mombasa, Ruweidha’s dreams of becoming a pilot started to fade.

“My parents had struggled to pay my fees and after I was done with high school, there was no hope of pursuing higher education. So I enrolled for computer classes and also did accounting courses. But I was not happy with this,” the pilot says.

Her stepfather came to her rescue when he offered to pay for an aviation course though it was expensive. 

She enrolled for private piloting at Coast Aviation College in Mombasa.

But her dreams were shuttered when the college was closed.

“My colleagues were well off and after the closure, majority of them went to study in the United States. But for me, I was devastated,” she says.

While at the college, she had learned how to fly a Piper Cherokee (a two-seater aircraft).

Lady luck smiled again and her stepfather once again offered to pay her fee at the  Kenya School of Flying in Nairobi where she trained as a commercial pilot.

Due to financial constraints, it took her five years to complete her studies instead of the required two years.

Financial constraints

“I  was on and off class. I would attend classes for a few months then drop out to do business so that I could get extra money for my fees, which was expensive.

“One captain John Ririani from the college noticed my plight and struck a good deal with me. He told me that the college would allow me to take classes but would retain my  license until I had cleared the fee balance later on,” she remembers.

After completing her studies, she joined Kijipwa Aviation, where she gained experience while working as an apprentice pilot and technician. She would fly both Cessna 150 and Piper Colt.

With her first salary, she went and cleared her fee balance at the Kenya School of Flying and in 2005 she was issued with her commercial pilot licence.

Armed with this, she got an opportunity at Mombasa Air where she started as a co-pilot.

Due to her hard work and prowess, Ruweidha was promoted to a captain in 2008. Now she is a renowned pilot and shuttles between Moi International Airport to Masai Mara and Lamu. She has also flown to Southern Sudan, Pemba and Uganda.

Ruweidha also flies tourists and other leisure enthusiasts five to six days a week to the beautiful Masai Mara.

She speaks highly of her job: “My longest flight was when I flew from Kenya to Pemba in Mozambique for about four hours by myself. It was thrilling.”

Being a woman in a male-dominated career must come with its fair share of challenges.

“Some of my male colleagues sometime look down upon me but that does not deter me from flying even higher,” she says with determination.

Her religious background has also posed a setback.

“Many Muslim women shy away from male dominated careers. Many women in my community discouraged me and said my work did not go well with Islamic teaching since the nature of the work forced me to dress in trousers and expose my hands. But I told them we need more Muslim women in aviation to bring change,” she says.?

So what inspires her to fly higher?

“I love flying over the Mara. It gives me a wonderful view of wildlife. I never get tired of this natural beauty,” she marvels.



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