Women on the lake: The story of Uganda’s female mariners

Saturday September 25 2021
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By Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi
By Phionah Nassanga

At 10:38am, Friday, the MV Nakiwogo docked after a 13-minute journey, about 60 passengers and vehicles were onboard but the four women, who disembarked first, were not passengers.

They are crew members—called able seafarers—whose job is to ensure safe loading and offloading; and docking of the water vessel.

When the vessel docked, its deck touching the shores of Lake Victoria, these women rushed to tether it with heavy-duty ropes against two strong metallic posts on either side of the ferry—known as mooring bollards.

“That is the first thing we do when docking, so that the ferry does not move,” says Mercy Rukundo, one of only eight women in Uganda, who joined this career, widely dominated by men.

After mooring, Rukundo and the other women have to place logs between the tip of the deck and the murram road, to allow vehicles and passengers to disembark safely.

That was its fourth trip of the day, but the women repeat the routine for all the seven trips every day of the week.

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The gender gap in the maritime industry is wider than any ocean, or longer than the Nile; women constitute only two per cent of the world’s 1.25 million seafarers, according to the International Maritime Organisation.

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Female seafarers inspecting the deck before they permit offloading. PHOTO/Phiona Nassanga

From land to sea

While at Valley College, Bushenyi, Adella Komugisha, 25, had a dream to pursue civil engineering at Kyambogo University. But she missed out on government sponsorship and her father, who was a teacher, could not pay her university tuition. She ended up at Uganda Technical College in Bushenyi, where she earned a diploma in civil engineering.

She first worked as a porter on construction sites earning peanuts; then as a storekeeper, on another site in Lugogo, where her boss assigned her to supervise all the finishing works in his absence.

When Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) embarked on scouting for women to work on the lake in 2018, her college recommended her.

Military training

Immaculate Tekit, 28, was an electrical engineer from Uganda Technical College Lira, when her lecturer connected her to the ferry job in UNRA.

She, like her colleagues, thanks the tough ‘military’ training that prepared them for tough life on the water.

“That one-month training at Kyankwanzi was hectic, military kind of,” she says. “We could run for about 21 kilometres, wearing wet uniforms.”

They also learnt Kiswahili, swimming, self-defence, responding to emergency situations such as fire outbreaks.

For Hudah Namugombe, it was even worse. “It was during Ramathan fasting, I was very weak and many thought I couldn’t make it. And the gun shooting was not easy,” she says.  “But it helped us to build resilience towards hard conditions, otherwise who could have worked under the rough weather?

 Safety is paramount

A seafarer is always on the deck, watching. While loading, vehicles such as cars, lorries, trucks go in first, followed by passengers and motorbikes, which occupy the corridor.

While offloading, passengers go out first, followed by motorbikes and cars come last.

When I stood in a space between two cars in the same column, Rachel Mugide told me no one occupies that space. The logic in those patterns is to avoid collisions and accidents. 

They should maintain communication, via the public address system with crew members and passengers about loading and offloading; preparing for emergencies; avoiding erratic behaviour such as drug abuse, arguments, sitting in onboard vehicles, among others. 

Emergencies

MV Nakiwogo has no standard weighing system but the seafarers and captain must keep an eye on the loadline, one on the side of the ferry, which indicates proper loading.

A maximum of eight cars, or trucks, are allowed on board, but the seafarers have the discretion to stop any vehicle according to circumstances.

In case an ambulance, police or army vehicle comes in when the ferry is full, an ordinary vehicle is asked to surrender its place to the emergency vehicle.

“Ambulances and army cars do not wait, ‘’ Rukundo says. “The moment they come, everything stops and we have to deliver it as soon as possible.”

Sometimes tourists rushing to catch the next plane are also given preferential treatment.

Rotational policy

All the four women at Buwaya were recruited in 2018 and beyond. Ismail Kyazze, the manager ferry operations, says the availability of women passengers necessitated women and in 2018, the Directorate of Road Infrastructure Protection at UNRA made a deliberate decision to scout for potential female seafarers from technical institutes.

“Everyone is surprised by the girls’ abilities and passion. They are quick learners,” Kyazze says.

The women are rotated to different sites to give them experience of different environments.

After training, Tekit worked for a year at Panyimur-Wanseko (Nebbi-Buliisa district) along Albert Nile, before joining Komugisha at Mbulamuti in Isimba across the Nile, from where they were relocated to Buwaya-Nakiwogo. 

Namugombe, an electric engineer, worked at Buwaya-Nakiwogo. Now she navigates Lake Bisina on the Agule-Okokorio ferry. 

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Above: Mugide and Rukundo carry a log immediately after the ferry docks. Below: Komugisha in the cockpit, Rukundo during the interview and Mberumye on duty. PHOTO/Phiona Nassanga

Bridging the gender gap

As a 2003 landmark study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), assessing every aspect of a woman seafarer’s life from employment rights to maternity rights, cited discrimination, sexual harassment and deep skepticism over women’s strengths and capabilities as the main reasons few women took on maritime jobs.

The study revealed that besides general challenges such weather, hard work and rough seas, women seafarers face serious discrimination, sexual harassment and parental disapproval.

Kyazze agrees, adding that there is an obvious lack of knowledge about the availability of maritime jobs for women.

“People still think marine jobs are only for men,” he says.

“And schools and careers advisors are also either not aware of such opportunities for women or are just not interested in sharing the information with students and parents.”

He adds that it is more challenging for a woman working at sea, several hours or days away from her family.

Flexible working environment

So to make the maritime industry more gender-inclusive, authorities are adopting a flexible working environment.

Nowadays, the first Buwaya-Nakiwogo trip is at 8am but before Covid-19 ravaged the country, the last trip came at 6pm, the first at 6:30am, meaning the women had to report to the station earlier, in the morning, yet some live across the lake.

“We had to adjust to allow women to report a bit later because it is risky for them to move alone in the dark,” Kazibwe, the acting captain, says.

This being a full-time job that requires one to work Monday to Monday, dawn to dusk, is challenging. But everyone is entitled to a 30-day annual leave, sick leave and some days off in case of any emergencies.

While female seafarers in other countries surrender their maternity rights, Ruth Mberumye, 27, who plies the Kiyinde-Buvuma route, is currently on maternity leave and all are entitled to one.

In the ILO study, some women reported adopting masculine looks, such as shaving off their hair to stave off sexual harassment.

But apart from the safety boots, there is nothing masculine about the four women at Buwaya: two wore feminine dreadlocks, one braids and another a cap pending a hairdo. Three wore feminine pants, while one was in a red dress.

Work in progress

Women in the maritime industry were often relegated to low-paying jobs such as taking care of the kitchens and restrooms, with limited opportunities for promotion, according to the study. But Kyazze says in women and men in Uganda stand equal chances to scale greater heights in the industry, no wonder, Komugisha is nursing ambitions of becoming a captain.

Buwaya landing site is still a work in progress and Kyazze says opportunities await those with civil engineering skills in future construction projects.

Some trainers came from Dar es Salaam Maritime Institute and women might go there for further training.

Godfrey Kazibwe, the acting ferry captain, says they have not received sexual harassment cases, but in case one emerges, there is a senior female seafarer, based at UNRA head offices, to whom they should report every day.

Challenges vs. achievements

The Friday we spent at Buwaya, the lake was calm. But on any other day, irrespective of the weather forecast, harsh weather conditions such as heavy winds, rains, sunshine can set in and make life hard on the sea, especially on an open ferry like MV Nakiwogo.

One such moment happened in 2019. It was early morning and the vessel was carrying school children to Nakiwogo. But midway, fog engulfed the lake, and the anchor could not see beyond the vessel. 

“Everyone started panicking,” Komugisha recalls, “Madam, are we safe?’ children started asking” but we had to assure them we were in control.”

Fortunately, the team at the landing site sensed the danger and put on motor vehicle lights, which guided the captain to the shores.

Sometimes passengers are unruly. “Some do not want to abide by the rules and can insult us, but we are trained and used not to argue with them.

“Some just undermine us because we are women, others think we do this dirty work because we lack education,” Rukundo shares a complaint echoed by all.

Sometimes that provocation is too much. “I slapped a drunkard passenger, who was giving me bad touches and he fought back,” one confessed.

Some wanted to quit because of the language barrier in remote communities. Rukundo says the work is hectic. But not more hectic than the six-hour and 30-minute trip from Watega-Bumalenge in Namayingo, which Sarah Tino, 26, navigates.

But there is a silver lining to this cloud of obstacles. To some, these women’s dedication, tenacity and precision inspires many.

“When some see us operating the vessel, they get inspired and some confess to interest their daughters in trying out such rare careers,” says Namugombe, who currently works at Lake Bisina in Kumi District.

Tenacity

Tekit’s first time operating the ferry was terrifying, “I felt tense. The winds and tides were too strong. The passengers were in fear. Then the vessel got complications along the way, but thank God the captain saved the day.

It took her a week to recover from the trauma. “But nowadays, the way she operates it is unbelievable,” her superiors told us.

Most of the food consumed in Nakiwogo markets comes from Buwaya, while people cross from Buwaya for better schools and hospitals.

Canoes, the equivalent of boda-bodas, are faster than the ferry, but charge Shs3,000 per head. The ferry services are free. And Komugisha and her colleagues are also happy to be part of the team that helps communities grow.

As a civil engineer, Rukundo worked as a surveying assistant for three private companies on construction road projects. But the spirit of teamwork makes her feel at home.

Against all odds

Women in the maritime industry were often relegated to low-paying jobs such as taking care of the kitchens and restrooms, with limited opportunities for promotion, according to the study. But Kyazze says in women and men in Uganda stand equal chances to scale greater heights in the industry, no wonder, Komugisha is nursing ambitions of becoming a captain.

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