She is clad in a blue and green service jacket with white stripes. Her eyes pry around like a hyena on the hunt for its next prey. Within a moment she is engaged in a hearty chat with an elderly man before he jumps on her taxi-moto and they ride away. Later, I learn that she is the darling of people who use taxi-motto services at Huye Complex Car Park in Huye District. Tharcissia Mutesi Nyirampeta has defied stereotypes and is giving men a run for their money- in a predominantly male dominated business of taxi-moto. She is the only female taxi-moto rider in Huye.
Many people use ‘taxi-motos’ (motorcycles used for commercial purposes) in Rwanda. In fact, spotting someone signalling one to stop is a common sight.
In Huye District in the Southern Province, Nyirampeta has refused to bow to the belief that riding a motorcycle is a man’s reserve.
“With determination, every woman can do what men do. A job, regardless of what it is, makes you independent. Women shouldn’t let stereotypes of any kind discourage them from work,” she says.
Nyirampeta, the only female motorcyclist operating amid an estimated 700 males in Huye District, says that this doesn’t discourage her as she gets to earn a living and take care of her two children.
While riding taxi-motos is considered male work, for Nyirampeta, it is simply another job to do.
“Though many women shy away from this kind of work, I don’t. Instead, I focus on how it will make a difference in my life. Being a commercial ‘taxi-moto’ rider inspires me to do even other things that women are told they can’t do,” she says.
From street vending to public transport
Born in Sagahungu Village, Gisagara District in the Southern Province, Nyirampeta lost her father Camille Ukomejegusenga in 1997, leaving her mother with 10 children to cater for singlehandedly.
Nyirampeta attended Sagahungu Primary School but later had to drop out of school due to financial constraints. Her mother, Josephine Bampire, tried to make ends meet by cultivating the piece of land that her husband had left but it was hardly enough to meet the needs of a family of 10.
She helped her mother on the farm for a couple of years and from the crops they sold, her mother gave her some money to start a business of selling second-hand clothes on the streets.
While vending, Nyirampeta met the father of her children whom she stayed with for a while. Sadly, he walked out on her shortly after the birth of their second child.
Nyirampeta says the challenges only heightened as street vending was harder than she imagined. However, she persevered for three years and in 2012, she had saved Rwf 200,000.
With this money, Nyirampeta joined the Youth Driving School in the district and learnt how to ride motorbikes. She qualified and got her driving license in 2015.
In August 2016, Nyirampeta was hired by one Jean Pierre Muvunyi to ride his motorcycle. Regardless of the amount she made, all Muvunyi wanted was for Nyirampeta to remit Rwf 3000 every day and take the rest.
“ Vending clothes was tough, sometimes I wouldn’t even earn Rwf500. It was hard but I hang in there and went as far as I could to sell clothes. I knew I needed to find some other business to do, but I needed money for that and that is why I endured,” she says.
A message to fellow women
Nyirampeta urges women to take on any job regardless of what society makes it out to be because that is the only way they will be empowered.
“A woman who takes on what is deemed a man’s role is respected because she is not limited to home activities. She is exemplary to others,” she says.
She adds: “I know some people poke fun at me but that is not an issue for me. Instead, I focus on my work and how it builds my family and this inspires me to keep going.”
Nyirampeta believes that some girls and women shy away from male-dominated work, no matter how good they might be at it, because they are afraid of what society will say.
She says that if women are encouraged more to try out all fields, the country will achieve its development goals easily.
“I was dependent on my husband until he walked out on me when I was still selling clothes, so I had to cater for my kids and myself singlehandedly. I guess it also pushed me to find another line of work to provide for my children. I did and it’s the best decision I made because even though we are not living in luxury, we eat, and have a roof over our heads,” she says.
Her first born daughter goes to school while the second is yet to join and stays with Nyirampeta’s mother while she’s working.
Challenges and hope for the future
Like it is with other jobs, she faces a number of challenges.
“I am a woman and a mother, so I can’t work the whole night like the men do. It’s not safe and of course, I have children who need me. I do my best to get the agreed amount to give to my boss. But making more money is difficult because I can’t work long hours like others,” she says.
She adds that she dreams of buying her own motorbike someday, and that she is saving for it.
Nyirampeta hopes to secure a loan to help her buy the bike though she says it is hard to get loan security as she didn’t get any inheritance from her father.
What her male co-workers say
Speaking to some of her co-workers, they said that the scarcity of women in male dominated fields, such as taxi moto business, is a hindrance to development.
They talk about Nyirampeta with fondness and refer to her as an inspiration to not just women, but men too.
Alphonse Sekamana, nicknamed Kibamba, is a motorcyclist operating in Huye District, and Nyirampeta’s colleague. When she joined their circle last year, they were pleased, he says.
“It pleased us to see a female motorcyclist. She is a good example to other women, who fear to do male-dominated work. She is also very dedicated to her work,” he says.
Jean Paul Umwizerwa, another colleague, adds that many women or girls reject this kind of work because they are more concerned about what people will say. They also believe in old beliefs that men have a special kind of work and so do women.
“In Huye District, Nyirampeta is the second female motorcyclist after Maman Fatuma who left the business last year. She is a hardworking woman and women should be inspired by her,” he says.