Tales of women drivers chasing dreams in taxis

Ms Hajara Birabwa, taxi driver and chairperson of female taxi drivers in Uganda. PHOTOS/KARIM MUYOBO

What you need to know:

  • Taxi business is mainly dominated by men, with women who attempt the business facing many challenges such as intimidation and sexual harassment. The women are, however, braving the storm to make ends meet.

A young woman behind the wheel of a commuter taxi is a rare sight and marvel among both passengers and drivers. And is it with Ldyia Nabawesa, 25, a taxi driver and breastfeeding mother. 
Ms Nabawesa, who plies the Namirembe–Namugoona route, some 4.5 kilometres off Kampala, has defied the odds. 

Unlike most women who run restaurants, salons, and work as guides in tours and travels, Ms Nabawesa has thrived in a male-dominated hustle of taxi drivers, conductors, and touts. For this, Ms Nabawesa amazes many. 
She is easily recognisable on her shifts through Namirembe, Nakulabye, Kasubi, and Namungoona on the outskirts of Kampala. 

Ms Christine Tina is a taxi driver and guide in Kisenyi Taxi Park in Kampala. PHOTOS/KARIM MUYOBO

On Thursday afternoon, as I waited impatiently for Nabawesa for an interview in the scorching heat, a tout quickly assured me. 
“The taxi is arriving anytime with the woman driving; so be patient,” he says. 
Donning a red-black short dress, Ms Nabawesa arrives after 23 minutes of lunch break. She roars into the busy Old Taxi Park, hoots, and eases her taxi into a parking space. She then hands the key to another driver, who has been waiting at the park. 
“My dream from childhood was to drive a taxi. I came into the taxi business with a determination that moves mountains, and I’ve succeeded. I learnt the hard way,” she says. 

Driving her passion
“After my Senior Four (S4), I was taken to the salon, but I ran away.  My mother even used the stick to discourage me, but I knew my opportunity was in the taxi business,” Ms Nabawesa says. 
“I started out as a tout and conductor for two years but faced challenges.  After work, the male drivers would pressure me to sleep with them, but I exercised decisions over my body. For this, they frequently fired me and I ended up working with many drivers across several taxi stages. Whenever they would ask for sex, I would leave,” she says. 

Ms Ldyia Nabawesa is a taxi driver and a breastfeeding mother. She plies the Namirembe–Namugoona route, some 4.5 kilometres off Kampala. PHOTOS/KARIM MUYOBO

“My mother had warned me it’s not good for a woman to be rudely touched by men. I used to report them to the taxi stage chairman and one of them was arrested and the rest learnt a lesson,” Ms Nabawesa says. 
She says she only settled down at the Nansana taxi stage when an old man offered to train her how to drive. Still she faced hurdles as other drivers and commuters at the stage snubbed her. 
“Sometimes even passengers would murmur when they see a woman driving and I had to sweet-talk them,” she says. 

Male dominance
The 2020 data from KCCA estimates the total number of taxis in the country at 400,000, with 15,000 of them in the Kampala metropolitan area. 
Ms Jenifer Ssentongo, the administrative secretary in charge of children and Women Affairs at the Federation of Transport Operators, says it’s now common to spot women in the taxi park working as drivers, conductors and guides. 
She says before Covid-19, they had more than 300 women operating in the taxi sector, but the number has gone down as most of the women got other responsibilities. 

“The organisation has more than 300 women, with 100 of them conductors and five working as guides,” Ms Ssentongo says. 
“It’s a good job but it’s mainly dominated by men. But we sacrifice as women to come and join them because of passion,” she adds. 
“But these women go through a lot of challenges and are also harassed sexually. But we now have a disciplinary office and we always encourage them to report such inappropriate acts.” 

Carving out own space
Ms Hajara Birabwa, another woman taxi driver, 42, and mother of four children, plies the Kibuye route in the city. 
She says after losing her cooking kits to KCCA, she resorted to becoming a taxi driver. “My sister’s husband had a minibus and needed a conductor and I asked her for a job as a conductor and she taught me how to drive.” 

“In the taxis sector, men will always tease because that is their nature. They punch you, and you punch back. If you’re the conductor, they will address you as the driver’s wife.” Ms Birabwa says she started off in 2019, but her dream is to own a car and set own rules. 
The 33-year-old mother says every morning; she takes her children to school, and then walks to the taxi park to work. 

Ms Fatuma Nakalenza, a former female driver and administrator, says she started out with her husband in 2013 as a conductor and retired in 2019 as a senior driver. 
Ms Nakalenza says, “Most girls left the Middle East as drivers after Covid-19. But the men dominate the jobs here and have fought off these girls as they didn’t want to see them at the stages.” 

Ruined careers
Ms Nakalenza says the men in the taxi industry have also impregnated most of the female drivers and do not want them to return to their driving jobs. 
“We have tried to teach them how to save, and have requested the government to provide a daycare centre where these breastfeeding mothers could leave their children as they work,” she says. 
Ms Grace Namuyomba, a mother of two children, who works at the New Taxi Park in Kampala, joined the taxi industry in 2012, but stopped work last year. 
She says, “I used to admire women who drove big trucks and taxis.”  Through the trade, she has managed to educate her two children, with one in Senior Five (S5) and another at university. 

Ms Grace Namuyomba is a taxi driver and guide in New Taxi Park, Kampala. 

Ms Namuyomba first worked as a conductor for two years on the Mengo-Rubaga route and as an administrator and traffic controller at the New Taxi Park. 
She says while she worked as a conductor, the passengers preferred her taxi and often gave her tips. 
Ms Annet Nabukenya, at Namirembe Park, is a mother, conductor and taxi driver who operates on the Nansana route. She says she started as a conductor in 2018 and was forced to stop breastfeeding her baby because of waking up early. 

“I wake up at 5am and leave work very late because we are paid when we work.” 
Ms Nabukenya urges the current generation of women to work rather than sit home waiting for men to work for them. “Women who are at home should join us to get paid everyday, not as an office job where one waits for monthly pay. I am paid daily allowances, lunch and supper, and transport is free.” 
Ms Christine, who is fondly called Tina, 30, is also a mother and a taxi operator. She attended vocational school, but tragedy struck when her man was arrested. 

Ms Annet Nabukenya is a mother, conductor and taxi driver who operates on the Nansana route. 

“I cancelled my education and joined the taxi industry in 2014,” she says. 
She says one of her worst nightmares was when she suffered an accident on the job. Nonetheless, Tina dreams of owning a taxi and becoming her own boss. 

“At this taxi stage, some men fear competition from women, yet we also want to work and carry some groceries back home,” she says. 
Ms Annet Namiiro, 27 years, who started as a conductor, says her day starts at 5am.  She says men who always harass, dominate the space. But she also blames her womenfolk, whom she says, sometimes draw the men to them.