Sumayiya Mbabazi on succeeding in a masculine job

Sumayiya Mbabazi on the wheels. Her work has taken her through Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South
Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. PHOTOS/ANDREW KAGGWA

What you need to know:

  • Mbabazi, who works with Hima Cement Limited, drives a long haul flat bed truck
  • Within two hours since setting off from Buloba, we arrive at Namanve Industrial Park.
  • Mbabazi exits the car and placed the wooden wedges behind the tyres.

In 2004, Sumayiya Mbabazi challenged the notion that only men can drive long-haul trailers. She has never looked back. Andrew Kaggwa and Gillian Nantume caught up with her in Buloba, Wakiso district for a chat on breaking glass ceilings to create her niche.

As she exits the cabin backward, her feet stepping gingerly on the steps, her open flat shoes peep out from under her ankle-length black skirt.

You would expect boots and cargo pants from a long-haul trailer driver. But, Sumayiya Mbabazi aka Maama Hima, spots a different style.

The crepe pink scarf on her head – on which sunglasses are perched – complements her black outfit and manicured fingernails. Her jewelry is gold coated – hoop earrings, ring and watch.

We meet her at a petrol station in Buloba, a town along the Mityana Highway, where she is taking a break.

“I left Kasese district yesterday at 6 pm, drove slowly because the road is not smooth, and reached Mubende district at 11 pm. That is where I spent the night. I left Mubende at 6am and here I am taking another break,” she says as she sips milk tea.

Mbabazi, who works with Hima Cement Limited, drives a long haul flat bed truck. The company’s safety rules stipulate that a driver must have a twenty-minute break every four hours. And by 11pm, he or she should park where they are and sleep.

“You have to make a journey plan so that by the time it gets to 11 pm, you are in a safe place – a safe place for the car and yourself. You can even stop at 8 pm because we are advised to sleep for eight hours,” she says. 

While on the road, Mbabazi cannot exceed 80kmph and she is not allowed to listen to music or answer the phone.

“When you drive, your entire body is working. Your eyes are on the road, your nose is looking out for the smell of rubber, your hands are on the steering wheel and the gear lever and feet are working the pedals. If the music is on, you might enjoy the song and lift your hands from the steering wheel. That is why the cabins have cameras. Also, the main cause of accidents among trailer drivers is the mobile phone,” she says.

Sumayiya Mbabazi

After her break, she does a systematic check on the trailer, adding water to the radiator from a white five-litter jerry can. Then, she walks around the trailer, tapping every tyre with a wheel wrench.

After, she removes the wheel wedges and climbs into the heavily loaded trailer. Soon, we are on our way, heading to the Northern Bypass.

Humble beginnings

Born in Mbarara district to a Munyankore father and Rwandan mother, Mbabazi says she was a tomboy in her childhood and youth.

“I grew up with my mother and we lived in Rwanda. As the fifth girl in a family of seven, my mother scolded me for loving ‘men’s things.’ Unfortunately, I stopped in Senior Two due to lack of school fees,” she says.

Mbabazi, who at the time spoke only French and Kinyarwanda, moved to Uganda. In 2004, when she was 24, she met a French woman who interested her in truck driving.

“She would park her fuel tanker at a parking lot near my home. As we interacted I asked her to teach me how to drive. She agreed, but unfortunately, she returned to her country before she got the chance.”

However, Mbabazi’s love for driving the big cars didn’t die. Within a few months, another driver took over the French woman’s tanker. Mbabazi approached him, telling him she wanted to learn how to drive.

“I asked him to teach me how to drive. Instead, he confessed his love for me and asked me to marry him. I laughed it off. But then, later I told him if he wanted me to be his wife, my condition was that he teaches me how to drive. He asked if I was serious. I told him I was dead serious,” she says.

Thus began a lifelong friendship. After delivering his cargo of fuel, the man returned and began teaching her how to drive his tanker. Within two months, she was driving her own fuel tanker.

“He was working for Fuelex Uganda Limited and when he introduced me to the owner of the company, he (the latter) loved me so much that he employed me on the spot. He gave me a chance to choose the tanker I wanted to drive, and I began transporting fuel from Kenya to Rwanda,” Mbabazi says. 

Eventually, Mbabazi and the man who taught her how to drive got married and they now have two children – a son who completed Senior Six last year and a daughter in Primary Three.

Mbabazi says at the time, she was the only woman driving a fuel tanker.

“I faced many challenges. First, my legs used to hurt a lot and I had a constant backache from sitting for hours. Men – both casual workers and drivers – disturbed me so much. And at the time, I was a young and beautiful woman. But, I loved the job and I had dreams to pursue. So, I pressed on.”

Truck driving is a male-dominated industry and women find it hard to break into it. However, studies have shown that women drivers are more compliant to traffic laws, are cautious and take fewer risks. This saves the companies that employ them on the costs of repairs for wear and tear and accidents.

Joining Hima Cement

Eight years of driving long distances and spending nights out of home took their toll of Mbabazi’s marriage.

“It got to a point where my husband would be in Kabala while I would be in Mombasa. A man only trusts you when you are with him. He was not happy to see me interacting with other truck drivers. Besides, I was tired of driving a fuel tanker. So, in 2012, I quit the job, walked out of my marriage and applied for a job with a bus company,” she says.

She had admired female bus drivers from a distance as she drove her fuel tanker. However, after about four years, she abandoned bus driving and applied for a job as a trailer driver at Hima Cement in 2016.

Mbabazi says in those early years, she was the only female driver at the company but later, more women drivers were recruited, mostly Kenyans who had a lot of experience driving taxis and trucks.

One of the perks of the job is that she has received safety training from the company. She can do emergency repairs on the road such as changing tyres and bolt nuts and connecting the radiator. For more complex challenges, she contacts the company’s safety team.

Ploughing on in a man’s job

Her work has taken her through Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Being a professional long-haul driver has unique challenges, though.

“The main challenges I face are the bad roads. Sometimes, you have to deliver cement to a place with a slippery road. The situation becomes worse when it rains. Here you have to drive slowly, and sometimes park and wait until the road dries up.”

In 2012, Mbabazi was involved in a nasty accident near Malaba Border Post.

“I was driving a trailer belonging to World Food Programme. A Kenyan driver left his lane and came directly at me. I saw a head-on collision in the making. I tried to dodge him but my trailer was heavily loaded and he was driving at a high speed. I managed to turn my cabin and he knocked the corner of the trailer,” she says.

The Kenyan driver died on the spot. Mbabazi’s trailer fell on the driver’s side, and skidded for a few metres along the road before coming to a halt.  

“The accident happened at 9am, but I was pulled out of the cabin at 5pm. They had to bring a special breakdown truck. Surprisingly, when I got out, I had a small wound on my leg. I tore up a rag in the car and tied my leg with it. A few minutes later, another trailer the organisation had sent arrived. We transferred the cargo, and I drove it to Kampala,” she says.

At a hospital in Kampala, only a small bandage was placed on her leg.

“At that point, my mother asked what had happened to her child. ‘Have you now become a man?’ she asked. I told her I just loved the job, and I am glad that today, she respects my profession,”

Even with the challenges, Mbabazi encourages young women to join the profession.

“Wherever I go, people respect me because of this job. Women should not fear driving trailers because there is no easy job. Even if you are a housewife, a trader or a farmer – nothing is easy. You just have to be courageous and have determination to succeed,” she says.

Besides earning respect, the driver says she has managed to build a home and she can take care of her children and her parents.

“My husband eventually returned to me and we try to keep a happy family. Since both of us are long distance drivers, we manage the situation. When I get time off, I travel to wherever he is for quality time. When he gets time off, he also does the same. Someone takes care of the children when we are away from home.”

When we ask how she deals with the loneliness on the road, Mbabazi laughs.

“Loneliness? I am used to it. Besides we have frequent stops, so I get to talk to other people. Even though I work with many men, I made a decision not to be promiscuous. I am faithful to my husband,” she says. 

At 44, Mbabazi is content that she broke a glass ceiling and continued shining. Her dream is to quit the profession in two years, to concentrate on raising her daughter.

“My son takes up most of my salary. Once he completes university, I will set up a small business to cater to my daughter. Yes, we do these heavy jobs, but at the end of the day, a woman must remain a woman and fulfill her roles of taking care of and nurturing her children.”

Her son has already expressed interest in becoming a long-distance trailer driver. However, she insists that he should first complete his education.

The last word

Within two hours of setting off from Buloba, we arrive at Namanve Industrial Park. Mbabazi exited the car and placed the wooden wedges behind the tyres.

Mbabazi thanked Hima Cement for the opportunity to achieve her dreams, and the government for placing emphasis on women’s rights, a policy that enabled her to take on the profession without fear.