Esther Mbabazi was eight when her father died in a plane crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This could have deterred her childhood dream of being a pilot. It didn’t and Mbabazi found comfort in the skies.
“We don’t stop driving because loved ones die in car crashes, why stop now? However it just made me realize the value of lives I have on board, so safety is definitely a big deal to me as a pilot.”
Safety is important in most passengers’ minds when turbulence hits. Usually there is a reassuring announcement made by a mature male. Many passengers are surprised when they hear a female voice saying: “Ladies and gentlemen this is your captain speaking. We are experiencing a bit of turbulence on our descent. Just sit back we’ll be landing shortly.”
In 2013, Mbabazi became Rwanda’s first female commercial pilot. It was a dream that began at the age of four where she would see planes take off from Bujumbura airport, close to her home in Burundi. At the age of seven, she took her first flight on a family trip to the Unites States (US). It was love at first flight.
“I didn’t get to go into the cockpit but I knew this is where I belonged, back then they’d give kids back packs and I was just an excited child on the Virgin Atlantic.”
After high school, Mbabazi started training at Soroti Flight School, also known as East Africa Civil Aviation Academy, in Uganda where only two women made it through. She secured a scholarship from RwandAir to continue her commercial license training in the US.
“At Flight Safety Academy in the US, the number [of female students] was bigger. There were up to 20 female students from all over the world including the first female Saudi Arabian pilot, Hanadi Hindi among others from Asia, Europe and South America. There were about 10 female instructors and the chief pilot, Nancy Ritter, was a female too. But as many as we were we didn’t even make up 5 percent of the academy.”
Two and a half years later, Mbabazi made it.
“Making history was not my goal, achieving my goals is what I delight in, like I said, do what you love and people may appreciate it. After getting my commercial license I didn’t celebrate, I was looking forward to the next cockpit I’ll get into. This, for me, is my way of celebrating, flying!”
Mbabazi believes she is in the minority because of the belief that flying is a man’s job. She is delighted that she has paved the way for many dreamers in proving the critics wrong.
“I like to view my challenges as the reasons to celebrate having reached my goal. As a woman in a male dominated field, no doubt, you have to prove yourself, but hard work always pays off.”
Mbabazi is among many women in Rwanda who are the backbone of the country. Rwanda is going through great lengths to rebuild itself from the 1994 genocide, which left a dominant female population of an estimated 51%.
Laws have been set in place to provide more gender equality in the country. Women are allowed to own land and take more initiative in business and in politics. Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament in the world and was the first country to have more than 50 female members of parliament.
And now there is a woman in the air.