They say that a woman’s hair is her crown. Well, Flora Wakolo Kitao’s crown is a bold white mane that belies the subtlety in which she walks into a room and speaks. She is the chief air traffic controller in charge of operations in the Kenyan airspace. She oversees operations at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Mombasa, Eldoret, Kisumu, Wilson, Malindi, Wajir and Lokichoggio airports. She knows the vessels that go up and down at any time. Well, generally speaking. Qualified in 1985, her duties include managing a safe and efficient civil aviation system in Kenya.
She met JACKSON BIKO at Sankara Hotel, Nairobi.
When were you last very fearful?
(Laughs) Fearful? (Pause) When I was getting my first baby 25 years ago. I had heard stories, so I was a bit fearful. Moreso, because my gynaecologist thought I had twins. It turned out it was not twins. I have two children now, a 25-year-old and a 21-year-old.
I like your white hair. Do people talk to you softly and with respect when they meet you because of the hair?
(Laughs) It opens doors for me. It really does.
I bet people see you and imagine you are very important and very wise.
(Laughs) Yes, somehow. I get respect because of it. I thank God that I decided to leave it the way it is. This is genetics from my mom's side. They all have grey hair very early in life. I think I started having it in primary school. Of course, that time I didn’t want it, so I tried dyeing it and then I got fed up. (Chuckles) So I've had it this way for a very long time and I've inspired other colleagues who are older than me to also keep theirs.
What do you find most challenging as a chief air traffic controller?
One is to maintain the tempo because I've grown up in the system. I've achieved quite a number of things including making sure that women are able to move up the ladder. But the most challenging thing right now is dealing with younger supervisors who tend to try and sideline you, or lock you out.
Why do you they try lock you out?
Because they look at me as an older person with old ideas. Someone who has been overtaken by events. They don’t appreciate that ideas are founded on experience of 32 years. It’s a bit of a problem when younger people stop listening to their elder peers and I would hope that it changes.
Do you have to know how to fly to do this?
(Pause) You don't need to but you need to have the experience. It's added value because you'll not ask the pilot to do some impossible things. I was privileged to fly during our training at Wilson Airport. Flying is not part of the training now but we are trying to see how to get it back.
What's the most difficult thing you've asked a pilot to do?
I once denied a pilot coming in from Kisumu permission to land at JKIA. I sent him to Wilson in his Forker 27 because he wanted a short-cut into JKIA.
If you are given a choice to be fair or to be firm, which one would you take?
In aviation, it depends. Sometimes you've got to be very firm. In life? You've got to be fair.
What’s on your bucket List?
One is to see my children through their education, to have their dreams accomplished. Another is to have a nice retirement home, which we are just finishing up. Also to have some savings for some of my siblings who are not able to support themselves fully because they have children.
Do you think you've had a good life?
Yes. I thank God for that. I've never lacked. My children have not been dramatic. (Laughs) They've not caused us stress. I have a husband who understands me, having been in aviation too. I believe that played a very big role.
What have you failed in, in life?
(Pause) I have failed to get to the top of my career, or my field and organisation.
Why is getting to the top so important to you?
(Pause) I wouldn’t say it’s been a failure, more like a strategy. When I realised that rising to the top was not going to be easy, I decided to go regional. Most of my work has been on a regional level, to improve the systems in the region. But of course my wish would have been to either get to the top most level or perhaps get into the United Nations.
How do you think getting to the top would have changed your life? Would it have been a financial or an ego thing?
No, it’s about impact. I think I would create a bigger impact in the industry in terms of improving the systems. For example, if I were to work with International Civil Aviation Organisation today, whatever systems I'm trying to put in place would have a more global impact. I don’t look at the money element because I earn decent money and money is not everything. At the end of it, you don't need 10 or five houses.
Odd question; do you think earning more than your husband would upset the apple cart? Of course, this is not in reference to your husband, but in general.
It shouldn't be a problem and I urge fellow women who are earning more than their husbands not to make it a problem.
How would they make it a problem?
(Laughs) Running a home is an effort of both the man and the woman but if I earn more, I should be able to take on more. It makes sense that way. The reverse is true. The thing is when men earn more and they take care of most things, they never quite make a big deal about it because they are meant to. Money is about trust. Marriage isn’t a contract, it’s a commitment because contracts end. When you enter a marriage you're giving it your all, you rise together because you have one common goal.
What have you enjoyed most in marriage?
Family. It gives me great joy; eating together, sitting together. We have had those normal quarrels between a husband and a wife but we manage them. I remember one time (Laughing) my husband telling me, you know if you feel tired, you're free to go and I told him “I’m going nowhere.” I realised that maybe he was going through mid-life crisis. (Laughs)