CAPTAIN ANN MOKUA
Kenya Airways, Captain [Four bars]
The four-bar captain is waiting in the café, back against a glass wall. Her white shirt is under her half-sweater. Her bars/ stripes tucked out of sight. The stripes attract too much attention, she says. And she doesn’t want that. So when you see her seated there, slight in size, you wouldn’t know she flies a 42,000 kilogram contraption that carries 200 people over vast water bodies and forests. You wouldn’t know she’s in charge. That the buck stops with her. That she can come out of a cabin and tell an unruly passenger, “hey, hey, look at me, I’m the captain now.”
In 2003, after I had graduated from university (B-comm), we only had one handset in our house and it belonged to my mom. Which meant that if you had to reach me, for a job, a date, whatever, you had to call my mom’s phone. One time, I’m scrolling through my mom’s phone and I see a number that had tried to call her a million times four days before. I recognized the number. I think it was a 64-20-00 or something. I knew this number. I tell Mum, “Mum, someone tried to call me for a job!” She’s standing at the sink, washing vegetables. I call the number back and say, “Hi, this is Ann, I’m sorry I missed your call.” They say, “Ann, this is Kenya Airways. We have been looking for you! ” I can’t tell them I share a handset with my mother and she normally lets it ring in her handbag. “You have an interview tomorrow at 8 AM,” they say.
The next day I dress up in a proper skirt suit and go for the interviews. They are done in a big room at the Air Force. They’re just psychomotor, aptitude tests. I pass those. Then I have to wear another dress suit for another set of interviews. Passed those as well. Then we have to do medicals, they take your medical history: do you have epilepsy? Does anyone in your family? What about diabetes? That kind of thing. You do physical exams. They listen to your lungs. You open your mouth wide and say “aarrghh,” and someone shines a torch down your soul. They do an audiogram and a visual acuity test. Maybe I did an ECG/EKG, I don’t recall, but I definitely peed in a cup. Someone might have asked, ‘have you done drugs before? Do you do drugs now? Do you intend to do drugs in the future? Because you can’t if you want to fly a plane.” Someone else asks me to open my mouth wide and say “aarrgh,” and I say, ‘I already said Argh.” I pass all these tests and they say, ‘’great, go get your passport.’’ I blink rapidly because we have a problem. I don’t have a passport! Never had.
Did I tell you a funny story about my mother and her relationship with my father that went south and in her moment of anger she scratched the dude’s name off our birth certificates? Yeah. Anyway, you need a birth certificate to get a passport. And you can’t present a defaced certificate to get a passport because someone will ask, ‘who is your father and why was someone trying to scratch his name from this document?’ In short, we had a problem. Since it’s my mom’s fault and that was her man’s name she tried to scratch off the passport, she has to help me sort this problem. We go to immigration and the man behind the desk takes one look at the birth certificate, looks at my mom, looks at me, looks at the birth certificate again and says, ‘Yeah, get another birth certificate.’ So we have to go all the way to Kiambu to get one. My stepdad had a car so he offered to drive us. My stepdad was a known figure in Thika where I was born and where we lived but even his influence couldn’t get us the passport in record time. We were in Kiambu for a whole day; from 8 to, I think, 5.30, waiting for somebody to type for us a birth certificate from the record.
My mom divorced my dad when I was four years old and raised us by herself. She was a primary school teacher and she had me and my two brothers very young. I’m the firstborn, in case it doesn’t show. At some point, she fell in love with this other person who helped her do life. And he was good to us and we knew him as our dad. So there’s biological dad and then there’s stepdad. I’m not going to go into the stepdad story a lot because it’s a bit controversial in terms of he was a public figure in Thika, like I mentioned earlier, and there’s always the family dynamic which is not too great. All I will say is that we were not the wanted family. So he did what he did for us – educated us – and it was good for us and here we are, we made it.
Anyway, back to Kiambu. We get the certificate and then we take it back to the guy at immigration and he looks at it, looks at my mom and myself and then reads out my father’s name out loud. Maybe to see if the name would surprise us. We get our passport at 6 pm, it’s still warm from the printers, the ink is still wet. A passport is a beautiful document; solid, promising. I get the student visa next and then I’m off to the KQ flying program, which was all the way in Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Most of us in the training school had never been near a plane, so we all started from the bottom. We were called cadets. SA was new; a new country, a new culture, a new way of doing things. There was unrelenting homesickness. But we are Kenyans, we work hard. I was there for a year and a half. KQ footed the bill and we paid back half of it when we started working. Did I want to become a pilot? I wouldn’t say it was a burning dream at the beginning, but when you score A- minus in KCPE, what can’t you do?
Whenever people meet me they ask, “so are you a captain, like a captain captain? Like a real captain?” I say yes. There are no fake captains. Then they look puzzled a bit because I guess I don’t look like a captain captain. But I am. I have 8,900 hours if anyone is asking, but I could have had more had I not gone on maternity leave twice. My colleagues are in their 11,000 bracket now. Is it tough to be a woman pilot? No, why would it be? If it’s tough then it’s tough on everybody. A hard day in the office is a hard day in the office for a dude or for a chic. In fact, I think at times it can be easier for us because we are used to balancing many things as women. However, it’s a mindset. The rules of aviation are for everybody. So there’s no softer rules for me and tougher rules for men or vice versa. It’s the same rule. But I understand why people would wonder if I’m a real captain because it’s always been for men. I’m glad I am where I am, there is a reason why I’m here and if I don’t make an impact by being where I am, it’s going to waste.
Am I curious about my biological father? What a curious question, Biko. Am I? [Pause, brow creases]. He passed on, actually, both him and my stepdad are late. I don’t remember much about my biological dad. Once, when I was a child, we had to go for a confirmation somewhere, God knows Kerugoya or Kirinyaga, somewhere, I just know we had to go far and we ate a lot of macadamias. He was there and it was awkward and disconnected because we were not a family unit. I think my mum was just doing it out of duty. Am I curious about him? I don’t think so. But I remember that when he was leaving he left with the gas cooker. This was in 1981 or so and I imagine being a primary school teacher with a gas cooker was a big deal. He came and carried it away and I think it must have stung my mom. I remember going to visit my grandmother and finding our stuff there and thinking, this is strange, what’s our gas cooker doing here? Thankfully, mom has had other gas cookers in her life. She’s since retired and lives in Thika, in the house we grew up in Kimathi estate, tending to her chicken or visiting her grandkids here and there.
My mother was the fifth wife to my stepdad. She wasn’t liked much by the other side because she was seen as an intruder. We were seen as people who were there to spoil a good thing. I can’t say anything negative about my stepdad, he was nice to us. He taught me how to drive. Because of these family dynamics, we didn’t have that family dynamic of mom, dad, and children going out on a nice Sunday family outing. He was there at home, though, asking about school and all but at some point he always had to leave because this was one of the homes he had to be at. You know what I’m saying? I wonder how it was for him, though. How did that inform how I related to men and my relationships? That’s an interesting question. [Another pause] It made me realise that nothing is guaranteed. Mum getting into marriage with great hope and expectations and it ending after three years? She didn’t see that happening. Nothing is guaranteed.
[ I tell her, ‘But you haven’t answered my other question. She says, ‘I know, I’m ignoring you and your question.” Ha-ha-ha. Instead, she tells me about the bloody Congo Forest.]
The world is such a beautiful place. When you are flying, when you are airborne, you will experience the magic of the sun rising or the sun setting or the moon hanging so big outside the window. The Congo, my God. You’ve never seen anything so massive, so expansive. You are flying over this thing for an hour and a half, cutting across Kisangani to Bangui up there. Just trees upon trees. It’s a wonder.
My last born is 10, my firstborn is 21. The middle one is 12. I’m a wife. My kids are important, my family is important. There is nothing like balance, you just do what you can do when you can do it.
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