Female transit trucker on navigating gender hurdles


Irene Naliaka poses for a photo on March 04, 2024 at Nation Centre building in Nairobi. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

Industries traditionally dominated by men are making meaningful efforts to attract more women to their workforces. But just how do they get the balance right?

It’s a concern Irene Naliaka, now in her tenth year as a professional driver working with Sahara Motors, wrestles with.

They transport imported vehicles from the Mombasa Port to Kampala, Uganda.

Her interest in driving led her to seek a job in the field.

"I was desperate for a job and I had to question myself as to what I could do comfortably. I had tried my hand on a lot of things, but then driving earned it."

Women can assume roles in male-dominated areas. But the reality of being a woman only hit Ms Naliaka when she started working.

"Driving for me is a hobby, so it never seemed strange when I took up the work offer. However, I was the only woman on the team but they made it easy for me to blend in."

Ms Naliaka says she has become better at the work with time.

"I am looking forward to driving even harder machines, such as the top loader operators,'' she says.

Her first trip was not easy. ''It was a decision that I had made and I knew that I wanted to drive, but I was not ready for it to be honest. I remember when one of my sisters asked me if I was normal and that I should look for a different job,'' she says.

As a mother of four with a nine-month-old baby, it was hard for her.

"On my first assignment, I turned up with my baby, I had my son's bag and my bag. My employer thought it was a joke that I was travelling with a little baby, but then I didn't have anyone to look after him and I needed to get the job done," she says

Ms Naliaka's first trip to Kampala took more than 24 hours, whereas drivers are expected to reach Kampala in 16 hours. Many working mothers struggle with the challenges of getting ahead in their careers and the guilt of not being home all the time.

How will I manage to be part of my children's life? Will my absence be worth it? How will I explain to them that I have to be away? These were the questions that stalked Ms Naliaka.

She talks of restraining her duties as a mother and trying to find balance. Mostly, Ms Naliaka would be on the road for four days and get three days to be home and vice versa if the cycle changed.

Before her travel, she says, "I have to make sure I sleep well because our highways can be very terrible. I wake up as early as 5 am so that I talk to my little boys and see them off for school by 6 am."

"I then prepare and leave the house at 8 am because I need to be at the car pickup point by 10 am to manage the clearance process and be ready to leave at around 3 pm. We leave Mombasa in a convoy, which means we have to journey as a team to Kampala,’’ she adds

According to Ms Naliaka, the power of choosing to be a working mom cannot be underestimated. She has to deal with being a fatigued parent though it gets better with time.

How did she find her voice?

"At the beginning of 2013, my husband was involved in a serious car accident, he lost two spinal discs, the L5 and thorax 7 and that left him immobilised. Two years after the accident, I had to find something to do as his medication took most of my savings. So I had to put food on the table and make sure he got his medication. My husband had his reservations at first, but these were his words, 'I know you are a strong woman, you can do it, but this is too hard'," Ms Naliaka says.

She continues, " It was not easy, we had fights in between because of the long absence, but in the end, it worked after he saw that I could do it. At the moment he is slowly regaining his mobility."

Her husband is a maths teacher.

Does she have moments when she feels like she should take a seat back from the industry?

"Yes. When I started, the migration process was a thorn in the flesh situation. I used to waste hours to be cleared and that interfered with my travel back home. But I came to make terms with the slow clearance," she says.

It also meant pacing herself because work and mothering need to be done.


Irene Naliaka poses for a photo on March 04, 2024 at Nation Centre building in Nairobi. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG


"The roads are never the same, the weather keeps changing every time," she says.

"In the Rift Valley, we sometimes get hailstorms just out of nowhere. That's when professionalism comes in, you slow down, use the lights to indicate because you've got to manage your space, use the heater to heat the car and the windscreen to clear the precipitation. There was a time when I couldn't do it because it was too intense, so I'd just pulled over to the roadside and wait for the storm to clear,’’ she adds.

She has also encountered her fair share of ruthless truck drivers.

''Women are naturally wired to be soft, in some cases, you might be driving and enjoying your moment and a truck honks carelessly and it might frighten you to lose track.''

Ms Naliaka also recounts how unfair the male-dominated industry might be for women.

"Men feel we are fighting for their position. From my experience and the type of work I do, men don't want women on the roads. There was a time when a boss told a short lady that she could not drive, but there are short men on the job too," she points out.

As women continue to break through the glass ceiling and navigate their way in the workplace, Ms Naliaka is proud to have had only one accident in 10 years.

"You have to be brave, be yourself, be bold, don't be afraid to speak up because that will always get you through. If it's a 'no, stand firm, if you can't manage it, just speak up. It's always good to ask," she says.

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