When Maria Hiwilepo was seven years old, she would walk barefoot six kilometers to school. In those hot days, meandering between bush, trees and mud, she would look up to the sky and see a different world. Airplanes, with their engines roaring high above her, were a rare sight in the bush village of Ohainengena, in northern Nambia, far from technology and the modern world. For Hiwilepo, the sky and the world beyond her small village held inspiration.
“It was a childhood dream. I always wanted to fly. I grew up with a curiosity. How did they work? How did they stay up there? Why up there? Where I grew up, it was very prestigious to be a teacher or a pastor or a nurse. I would see helicopters, I would see things flying and hear their sounds,” says Hiwilepo.
This is the remarkable story that took Hiwilepo out of the Namibian countryside and into the world of fashion and flight. She turned her dream into reality and became an international commercial pilot, flying the planes she saw as a child. That’s not all.
“It was a different world, of what I know the world to be now… It would be perfect to live in a world where I could fly my own aircraft, land it, go to a shoot, and then fly home again,” she says.
Hiwilepo’s village was so small she could tell who had gone to school by their footprints in the sand.
“It was always just hot. I remember the heat because I remember always been so thirsty walking home from school,” she says.
“I really loved school. I remember refusing to get out of bed to help clean the house, but if my dad woke me to go to school it didn’t matter. Up ‘til today I love to learn.”
When Hiwilepo finished school, she was 15 years old. She had a scholarship waiting, and was on the cusp of reaching her dream. Then they told her she had to be 18 years old to become a pilot. Hiwilepo went off to the University of Namibia to study computer science and economics instead.
It was here that modeling, which she had been doing since she was 10 years old, paid off, when she won the Miss University of Namibia pageant, which gave her a year’s free tuition. Walking down the runway turned into her second dream. From there, she stepped into the international limelight as a finalist in the 2008 Face of Africa.
“African families think modeling is more of a hobby than a career. It’s important to go to school and get the paper that says you can work as this and in the meantime you can model. My parents believed this was a hobby.”
Around Cape Town, Hiwilepo uses her model name Amira Eli. She is now the up-and-coming fashion model who has walked the catwalks for designers like David Tlale.
“[Tlale’s shows are] always an entrance. The choreography is always so wow. He has that energy. I remember a show I did with him and the pair of shoes I was to wear went missing. [Tlale] grabbed a pair of size three, and I’m a five, and shoved them on. I was in pain the whole away down to the run way. When I was on the runway, I couldn’t feel the pain, I forgot all about it.”
It’s an even tougher life flying planes from Windhoek to Frankfurt, but Hiwilepo does it in style, with a pair of the trendiest aviators on hand. She is also one of the rare few female pilots that can fly an Airbus A330 and a helicopter.
“I’ve done flights, where the entire cabin crew is girls. I’ve also done flights and I’m the only girl. Back then it was worse, but it is a male-dominated industry. The stereotype is: people prefer older pilots over younger pilots; men over females; and white skin over black. It’s there, it will always be there. But if you choose to let the stereotype consume you, then you are a victim. I wasn’t raised like that.”
And how does Hiwilepo juggle her two very different lives?
In between shifts, Hiwilepo flies down to the boardwalks of Cape Town to pursue her budding model career. It is the reason why FORBES WOMAN AFRICA is able to meet up with her off the runway and in a coffee shop at Greenpoint, in Cape Town. She dressed up for the occasion – her helicopter jumper suit was in a handbag next to her, just in case, she says.
“In my mind I have already landed before I have even taken off. I’m at my best when I am prepared. Am I well rested? Am I fit physically? That’s me preparing for my flight. With modeling, the preparation is different. I have to look my best, I have to take care of my life and I have to look my best.”
Of all the places, Hiwilepo rates Cape Town as the most beautiful. She may not get as much time here as she likes; by the next day, Hiwilepo was piloting an Airbus to Frankfurt; living her dreams over the skies and on the catwalks of Africa.