To Infinity and Beyond: African Women Who Are Leading the Way In Aviation and Space Travel

Here's a list of African women who are transforming the fields of space travel and aviation.

Whether it was upon learning about Amelia Earhart in elementary school, your first transformative viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the inevitable magnetic pull of a penchant for otherworldly beings like David Bowie, we’ve always had a collective fascination with what awaits us above the clouds. While this is a universal interest, men have always been at the forefront of space travel and aviation—save for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien franchise—despite women harboring lofty curiosities of their own.

That is, until now. Take the bestselling biography-turned-Winter blockbuster biopic Hidden Figures, for example. This film shares the story of colleagues Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who worked in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center and are responsible for the calculations that helped John Glenn become the first American astronaut to make a complete orbit around the Earth. The celebratory response to this film offers their achievements some shine that's been a long time coming.

Actually, women have been making strides in the skies as of late too. And a lot of them happen to be African. From Lusaka to Harare, young women are proving, to any skeptical onlookers, that the sky is certainly not the limit. The following are members of the vanguard directing Africa’s line of vision upward and pushing it past the clouds.

Besa Mumba: Zambia’s Youngest Pilot In History

Besa Mumba is the youngest pilot on airline, Proflight Zambia’s fleet. In fact, at 19 years-old, she’s Zambia’s youngest commercial pilot ever. In an advertisement for Proflight, she describes her decision to take up flying after high school. She mentions that she was initially content with the idea of having a cabin crew position, but her curiosities about aircrafts led her to ultimately want to “ the one behind the controls.” Yet, the reality that women in aviation are still a rare sight to behold is not lost on the Lusaka-born pilot. Towards the end of the advertisement, Mumba says, “I am living proof that women can fly aircrafts. So if you’ve been doubting that women can fly, I’m here and I fly.” A declaration like that can only be followed by the instant desire to fly the friendly skies with a one, Besa Mumba as captain. She hopes to be promoted to captain after a few more years as a co-pilot and it seems there’s really nothing stopping her from moving onward and upward.

Sizakele Mzimela: The First Black Woman To Own an Airline

South Africa’s Fly Blue Crane was the first domestic airline founded by a Black woman, and last May, it made its first international trip. CEO, Sizakele Mzimela is full of firsts. Not only is she the first Black woman owner of an airline, but she’s also the first Black executive Vice President of South African Airways, and she’s the first woman to make it on the Board of the International Air Transport Association.

In an interview with Runway Girl Network, Mzimela explains that her main objective in starting a new airline was to create jobs. She says, “If I was a white male, I’m sure I’d have people flooding me with money because they wanted to support me. But I’m fortunate because I have my own network, one that is interacting with people who want to connect with me.” With over 20 years of experience in the industry, and even more years under her belt as a woman, Mzimela is well aware that a Black woman’s journey is not without bumps in the road. And sometimes, it means paving a road of one’s own altogether. To aspiring women aviators, she advises, “Just understand that we just have to work mentally prepared that climbing that mountain will be different, but I’m prepared to climb to the top.” Mzimela continues to reach new heights and inspires other women to do the same every day.

Update: Blue Crane Airlines is unfortunately undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, but this is only a minor setback in Sizakele Mzimela’s overall aerial legacy.

#FlyBlueCrane ground team ready to offer customers a fresh approach to air travel!

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Captains Chipo M. Matimba and Elizabeth Simbi Petros: #PaintingtheSkyPink in Zimbabwe

Last year, Air Zimbabwe made an unprecedented trip when a flight crew solely powered by women flew from Harare to Victoria Falls. You might remember the trending hashtag #PaintingTheSkyPink, which was started by Captains Chipo M. Matimba and Elizabeth Simbi Petros who expressed their excitement over the accomplishment on social media: “History has been made! First all female flight deck crew on the Air Zimbabwe Boeing 737! Two CAPTAINS!! Absolute pleasure Captain Elizabeth Simbi Petros! #FLYBABES. #PaintingTheSkyPink!”

This was an exhilarating step in the right direction for Zimbabwe, but it also serves as a reminder that although they are few, there are women making groundbreaking achievements for the world of aviation everyday. Condé Nast Traveler states that “women only make up about five percent of the Air Line Pilots Association, an organization for registered pilots in the United States and Canada.” But the way things are going, that number will surely grow in the coming years.

Captain Amsale Gualu and Co-pilot Selam Tesfaye: Flew Ethiopia’s First Completely Women-Operated Flight

Just days after Air Zimbabwe celebrated its first all-female flight deck, Ethiopian Airlines made headlines for doing the very same when it sent its first women-powered air crew on flights between Addis Ababa and Bangkok. In response to this historical moment for Ethiopian Airlines, Tewolde GebreMariam, the group CEO said, “Women are the continent’s greatest untapped resources” and referred to this event as something young African girls could aspire to as well as begin to recognize that a career in aviation is more than possible for women.

The staff of Ethiopian Airlines is made up of roughly 30% women, according to their site and the airline proudly promotes “women empowerment for a sustainable growth.” It seems like a no-brainer that women should be uplifted in this way all the time, but such is not the case so it’s crucial that other airlines and companies in general take note of Ethiopian Airlines’ aim to support and reinforce the power of women.

Brittany Bull and Sesam Mngqengqiswa: The Cape Town Teens Spearheading Africa’s First Private Satellite Launch

It was recently announced that a group of African girls are designing Africa’s first private satellite. As highlighted in Teen Vogue, the Cape Town students (including 17-year-old Brittany Bull and 16-year-old Sesam Mngqengqiswa) will be launching the satellite May 2017 and it will orbit Africa’s surface in the hopes of gathering useful agricultural data. With the help of the satellite, they “can try to determine and predict problems Africa will be facing in the future.” Space travel is uncharted territory for the continent of Africa and for young women to be leading the way is at once thrilling and unsurprising. Women have always been capable of achieving greatness in all fields, they just haven’t always had the opportunity.

This satellite launch in South Africa is a result of Cape Peninsula University of Technology attempting to encourage more African women to go into STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics), particularly in the field of Astronomy. At the moment, only 14% of women—globally—work in STEM fields so this team of young women is impressive for any continent.

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko

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