Rwanda’s first female pilot takes to the skies at 24

Esther Mbabazi trained to fly Rwandair regional jets despite her father being killed in a plane crash when she was eight

By Jenny Clover

Esther Mbabazi was eight years old when her father was killed in a crash as the plane he was flying in overshot the runway landing in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

So when, a few years later she announced her intention to train as a pilot, the planwas not well received by some of her family. But at the age of 24, Mbabazi has made history as the first female Rwandan pilot – although as a woman she says she doesn’t make flight announcements because it scares the passengers.

"Some people questioned why I wanted to do it, they thought I wanted to be a pilot to find out what happened to my dad, but that didn’t have anything to do with it," Mbabazi said.

"Being a pilot really was my childhood dream, I don’t think anything was going to stop it. It started when I travelled with my family and we would get the free things for kids, like the backpacks. I really liked that and I just liked to travel. The whole intrigue of this big bird in the sky, I was amazed. That and the free backpacks planted the seed."

Mbabazi, who is fluent in five languages, trained at the Soroti flight school in Uganda before being sponsored to continue her training in Florida by national carrier Rwandair. She now flies the company’s CRJ-900 regional jets across Africa.

The death of her father has influenced the way she flies. “It has moulded my character as a pilot, and I think what happened to my dad makes me a little more safe. It could have stopped me, but an accident is an accident. If someone is knocked over in a car you don’t stop driving. As a pastor’s child I know that you have to let stuff go.”

One person who never questioned Mbabazi’s plans was her mother, Ruth. A strong farmer and businesswoman, she wasn’t fazed to see her daughter take to the air after what the death of her husband, who was a Pentecostal pastor before his death.

"I didn’t get any resistance from my mum," Mbabazi said. "In her time she was the only girl in her electricity class, so she doesn’t have any issues with what I do. She has five children and whether we want to do fashion or aviation, as long as we’re doing something we’re interested in, she’s happy."

Mbabazi was born in Burundi, where her family had moved beforeRwanda's genocide in 1994. The family moved back to Rwanda in 1996.

While not without its critics, particularly on human rights issues, Rwanda is now a secure and rapidly developing country. GDP grew by 7.7% last year and the government claims to have lifted one million people out of poverty in five years. Particular progress has been made towards gender equality. Women make up more than half of MPs.

"Things are changing in Rwanda," says Mbabazi. "Before you wouldn’t find women driving taxis here, and now you see it. There are men who cook now in Rwanda, when, in an African culture, women have to cook. So I think eventually things change. If you really work hard and you prove that you can do something well, I don’t think there’s a question of you being a woman, it doesn’t come into the equation.

"There are not so many male Rwandan pilots either. So even though I am the first female, my colleagues are the first male Rwandan pilots to be flying commercial planes. So I think it’s a big change for all of us Rwandans and something that should be celebrated."

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