To locals, she’s known as ‘Mama Overland’, but her real name is Becky Kieha. For the last six years, Becky’s day job has been to sit behind the wheel of a custom-built overland safari truck, driving the dusty back highways of East Africa, from the Masai Mara to the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater.
In fact, Becky’s a little special: she’s the first female overland truck driver in East Africa. Ever.
“I longed to be a truck driver since I was a young girl,” Becky says. “My dad was a truck driver. Now I love my job. I drive travellers and my guests to national parks to see the wildlife.”
The locals know her as Mama Overland. She pulls the truck over and turns to the small group in the back seats. “Okay my guests! In front of us we have a group of rhinos.” The crew immediately flocks to the port side of the bus, cameras out. The rhinos chew grass in long lazy circles, unimpressed.
To really understand Becky’s story, you need to know a little about working conditions in East Africa, especially for women. The latest estimates from the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap index think it’ll take 135 years to close the gender pay gap in sub-Saharan Africa (North Africa is even bleaker, with projections currently siting at 153 years). The small percentage of women that do find employment usually work in agriculture, often as self-employed labourers or family workers, two forms of vulnerable employment. Female farmers produce over 80 per cent of all the food grown in Africa, but still have very few land rights or positions of influence in the industry.
Becky is one of the women fighting to change these statistics, but she says it hasn’t been easy.
“I have been driving trucks for Intrepid for six years. At first men used to give me a hard time. I used to be very bullied. Every place we go to, the men would react. Sometimes they scream, ‘Becky, you’re not supposed to be driving a truck! Can’t you go back and do something better, take care of your family?’ Anything to make me feel like I’m not supposed to do this.”
This discrimination is, sadly, nothing new, but Becky says she’s learned to cope better. And conditions are improving. As more East African women enter male-dominated workplaces, the associated stigma is beginning to break down. Countries like Burundi and Rwanda are beginning to lead the way, having closed more than 80 per cent of their participation and opportunity gender gaps. Dinah Musindarwezo, the executive director of African Women’s Development and Communication Network, has even floated the idea of copying Iceland and legislating to ban compensation disparities based on gender.
For countries like Uganda and Ethiopia, as well as Kenya and Tanzania (where Becky drives) that reality is still a way off, but Intrepid’s East Africa overland truck Workshop Manager, George Njau, says that women like Becky are inspiring a new generation of African women.
“Becky is very famous,” he says. “The police know her, even the border patrols – they see her and they’re like “Bring it!”. She’s part of our family and we’re really proud of her. My daughter, she loves Becky so much because she is driving trucks. She calls her Aunty Becky. She says, ‘One day I’d like to drive like Aunty Becky.’ I say you can drive if you want to, just have the courage, determination, and you’ll make it through. She has made a lot of companies think about employing female drivers now. We’re looking forward to having a second lady driver, all because of Becky. She encourages a lot of women now. A lot of women are looking to get into driving.”
The attitudes of men in the region is changing as well. Male drivers and Becky’s workshop colleagues are much more positive about sharing the road with women, and she’s finally getting the moral support she deserves.
Intrepid’s African Overland team are already looking to hire their second female driver. In fact, we’re working hard around the world to improve the gender split among our leaders and support staff, starting with countries like India and Turkey, where female employment in tourism has traditionally been quite low.
Becky switches off the engine, and the big truck purrs and clicks as it winds down in the African shade. Outside there’s a marmalade sunset, and the cool evening breezes are already beginning to roll over the Mara. Becky knows every inch of this machine. Intrepid drivers aren’t just drivers: they’re mechanics, tyre changers, cleaners and service repair experts. If this truck breaks down in the middle of Serengeti National Park, Becky is expected to hop down and fix it, just like any of the guys on the team. She says it’s all part of the job.
“Nakoudini amini,” she smiles. “Nakoudini amini is believe in yourself. I told my mum once, ‘Mum, do you know that I am a truck driver?’ Oh my goodness! So she looks up and says, ‘I wish your Dad can see you.’”
“Every day you say to yourself, ‘I’m a go-getter.’ You’ll get it. You’ll get whatever you want.”
All images by Damien Raggatt.