When in August, Captain Irene Koki Mutungi, a pilot with Kenya’s national carrier Kenya Airways, flew into Nairobi the airline’s fourth Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Boeing’s assembly site in South Carolina, United States, it did not make much news.
The fact that she is Africa’s first black female Boeing 787 Dreamliner certified Captain did not make headlines either. The story was the plane.
Mutungi was raised in what she describes an aviator’s home. Her father was a pilot with Kenya Airways.
“My most memorable moment was when I flew with him on a flight he was commanding to London. I was about five years old. From that day, I promised myself I would one day become a Captain,” she reminisces.
She says she’s fortunate to be born into a family where excellence and integrity were all-important. She has become more conscious of the real world and is motivated by the fact that women, especially African women, can excel in everything. Has she ever encountered discrimination as a woman?
“Unfortunately, such is life. Anytime it has happened it has increased my resolve to keep aiming high. In my early years in aviation, a passenger disembarked because he said he wasn’t a guinea pig. That can tell you what I’ve been through sometimes.”
In many parts of the world and especially Africa, it’s still a man’s world. The stereotype of the working woman is rarely attractive with popular culture portraying successful women as consumed by their careers.
“As for stereotypes, this one too is far from reality. There are countless women successful in their careers and dedicated to their families and communities at large.”
Mutungi cites Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former Malawi President Joyce Banda and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the Africa Union Chairperson.
“Just like those African leaders and other women who are anchors of their households and communities, I too am a dedicated person who always strives towards excellence while remaining committed to what matters. I do that by being a model mother, model daughter and a role model to my African sisters.”
Mutungi describes her journey to the top in a male-dominated industry as one filled with commitment, sacrifice and support from friends and family.
Fear is at the root of so many barriers women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fair of failure. How does Mutungi handle fear?
“I don’t know what fear means. Yes, sometimes I may ask myself questions, but every situation is handled in a way that leaves me in control.”
She says she rarely has sleepless nights. “If I stay awake at night, it’s not usually anything of concern. I think of how great an aircraft the B787 Dreamliner is. Boeing has delivered a masterpiece.”
Mutungi wants to be remembered as an African mother who tried her best to change the narrative of the African continent.