Driving cargo trucks in Zimbabwe is dangerous and difficult...this woman is doing it anyway.

Sheila Mpala, a truck driver, checks the engine before she embarks on a trip. Photo Credit: Evidence Chenjerai, Global Press Zimbabwe

Sheila Mpala never imagined driving a haulage truck growing up. She wanted to be a nurse or a mortician. But her husband, whom she married when she was 23, shot down her dreams. Nursing paid too little, and he earned enough for the family, she recalls him saying. He didn’t want her to be a mortician either.

“He didn’t like the idea of me touching the children with hands that would have spent the day touching dead people,” the mother of two says.

But her husband couldn’t pay for their basic needs, so she pushed him to let her work. She suggested truck driving. Surprisingly, he agreed.

Now, Mpala, 32, is one of the few women in Zimbabwe in this male-dominated field. While there is no data available for how many women work as truck drivers in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Haulage Truck Drivers Union estimates that about 5% of their more than 1,500 members are women.

With the decline of the National Railways of Zimbabwe, cargo trucking has surged, presenting an economic opportunity. But women who take on this dangerous and difficult job face a barrage of social and professional challenges, from access to training to sexual harassment and a lack of gender-specific bathrooms at truck stops and international border crossings.

These challenges, Mpala says, have not made her quit. Instead she wants to challenge the system to cater to more women in the profession by building separate bathroom amenities for men and women at truck stops and border crossings, and push for regulations that cater to everyone in the industry.

The long journey to a job

Mpala got her truck-driving license in 2017, but she couldn’t get hired because she lacked experience. “How am I supposed to gain experience when no one employs you?” Mpala says. “Experience comes through working.”

There were courses, but she couldn’t afford them. So, from 2018 to 2021, she worked part time as a hairdresser, despite having her license.

Mpala’s experience is common, says Sarudzai Mukungunurwa, 43, an executive member of the ZHTDU’s Women’s Committee. The refresher course trainings cost 560 United States dollars per week, she says. A new driver needs about four weeks of training, which few women can afford.

Companies used to hire new drivers and pair them with experienced ones, but now they can’t afford to pay two drivers for one truck, says Mukungunurwa, who has been a truck driver for 14 years. Instead new drivers tag along with employed drivers on their routes. Mukungunurwa says it’s easier for men to get experience this way than it is for women.

“For women, it’s difficult to travel with a man for many kilometers and days sleeping in the same truck,” she says. Plus, she adds, the trips are unpaid, making them less acceptable to spouses. To attract more women truck drivers, ZHTDU has partnered with trucking companies and provided discounted trainings and more trucks to use.

Mpala spent years thinking expensive courses were her only option. In 2022, she began taking unpaid training trips to and from the border. She would go on days when she didn’t work as a hairdresser. Her children would stay with her husband or a maid.

Once confident she could drive alone, she looked for a job. It took a few months.

“Some people do not trust a woman can navigate a haulage truck,” she says. “With my small body, I think they thought, ‘She can’t handle the pressures associated with the job.’”

She finally found a position after a friend sent her a posting he’d seen in a truck drivers’ WhatsApp group. Mpala enjoyed her new job, but a few months in, she came home and found her husband’s bags packed.

“I always think him agreeing to the truck-driving job might have been his way out of our marriage. I don’t think he genuinely supported my career choice,” she says.

He left her and their children. Heartbroken, she was determined to make her new career a success so she could provide for them.

The drive to succeed

Mpala left her children in the care of maids, but neighbors told her they were being neglected. The kids started doing poorly in school. She had to change maids four times.

In 2023, she sent her children to live with her sister in Hwange, a town in the northwest, where she grew up. She’s relieved they are with her sister but doesn’t like how far away they are. Hwange is 776 kilometers (482 miles) from Harare where she lives. She went nearly a year without seeing them because of the distance and her tight work schedule. Her usual routes are from Zimbabwe to Beira, Mozambique, and Lusaka, Zambia — a journey of over 1,000 kilometers (621 miles).

But her children are her motivation. “The long drives, sleepless nights, unbearable temperatures and at times delays at the border can be too much. But then I remember why I am doing this and it makes sense,” she says.

Driving a truck requires skill and patience, Mpala says. She’s had to learn how to change a tire, refuel, and check and add oil, along with other mechanical skills.

Personal hygiene while on the road is a huge challenge, she says, especially when she’s menstruating or it’s hot and she needs to bathe frequently. There are no bathrooms or toilets for women at border crossings and truck stops, Mpala says, so she uses the men’s. She has to ask other truckers to stand guard.

Border crossings are difficult because drivers can wait days to cross. Some crossings, like the Chirundu border post to Zambia, give women drivers preference so they can proceed to places with proper facilities. At others, women wait in the queue like everyone else.

“Some men understand and allow women to go in front of the queue, but some will block you and say, ‘You chose this job, so wait like everyone else,’” she says.

Steve Chivhu, a regional truck driver for eight years, met Mpala on the road in 2022. He says the women drivers he knows have proven better at executing their work. Mpala is no exception. “We call Mpala one of the boys as there is nothing that the boys do she cannot do,” Chivhu says. “She is focused and doesn’t take nonsense from anyone.”

Mpala drives alone. She knows drivers who’ve been robbed and feels more at risk as a woman. She’s had her truck’s load tampered with, but nothing was stolen. She locks her doors and windows and avoids traveling in the dark. When she goes out, she says, she only goes with colleagues she trusts because she’s heard of other women drivers being sexually assaulted and having their drinks spiked.

“You have to think of your safety first,” she says. “In a foreign land, you cannot just trust anyone, even fellow drivers.”

Sometimes, male drivers insult her and call her names at truck stops. They think she is soliciting sex.

ZHTDU educates drivers about sexual harassment, Mukungunurwa says, and it’s caused a noticeable change in behavior. The union is also campaigning to make women truck drivers more accepted by society and for amenities like gender-specific toilets.

“Male drivers are slowly accepting women drivers and treating them with respect,” she says. “We still have a long way to go though, as any change takes a while.”

A model for others

At 5:00 a.m., the sun casts a glow over a parking lot. Mpala’s truck is parked in a zone for women drivers only. She checks her tire pressure, then ensures her load is secure and that she has enough engine oil, coolant and fuel. She disembarks from the cabin, stretching her petite frame as she climbs down.

Mpala says she hopes more women follow in her footsteps. She thinks it is a great job at a time when work is hard to come by in Zimbabwe, and she hopes her example encourages other women to overcome the stereotype that has kept women from joining.

“I feel my success will pave the way for other female drivers,” she says.

Satisfied that she is ready for the road, Mpala quickly bathes at the truck stop, in the men’s bathroom. She then heads for the Mozambican border.

This story was originally published by Global Press

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