Joyce Mbugua drives her matatu as if it’s a plane and she’s its captain. It’s clear that she picked up a lot from Kenya Airways (KQ) after working there for six years.
“I joined KQ in 2006 as a customer service agent,” says Joyce, a 37-year-old mother of one. KQ afforded Joyce and her family a lavish lifestyle. “Life was good! We were very comfortable. We travelled out of the country a lot.”
However, in September 2012, Joyce was retrenched from her job. She was a check-in controller at the time. Neither she nor her 454 colleagues saw the retrenchment coming.
“It felt like a bad dream,” says Joyce in a barely audible voice.
“I had just taken a mortgage for the three-bedroomed flat where we lived. I had also joined the University of Nairobi for my undergraduate degree in international studies. Shawn, my now eight-year-old son, was in a good private school,” Joyce pauses. “It took me more than a month at home to realise I actually didn’t have a job. It was scary.”
As if the retrenchment wasn’t enough, her marriage of six years fell apart that November. “I was depressed,” says Joyce. She bundled up her son and moved out of the place they called home. Being a single mum without a job meant that she had to think fast and toughen up – there was no room for her to cry over the cards life had dealt her.
“I moved to a smaller place. But after a few months, I couldn’t afford the rent and still keep my son in school. My savings were running out quickly.”
Joyce considered other options: she considered applying for a nursing scholarship to Australia; she considered waiting for the Industrial Court to rule in their favour so they could be re-instated back to their jobs; she considered farming in Kirinyaga with her mother; she even considered seeking asylum in Finland … She finally decided to move to a cheaper town.
Joyce sold off her household electronics so she could get enough money to relocate. In late 2013, she packed what remained into her Toyota Allion and drove out of the city, heading to Nakuru to start a new life. It wasn’t easy for her. “I got a small place then opened a beauty shop. I also turned my beloved Toyota into a taxi. I wanted to be the driver but I was told it wasn’t safe for a woman, so I got someone to do it.” Business picked up slowly. “The taxi gave me Sh30, 000 a month, so I was able to take care of things at home. The beauty shop wasn’t making much, though.”
The taxi business went on well for a year until March 2015, when the car got into an accident and it was written off.
“Insurance paid me and I invested everything into the beauty shop. But it still wasn’t making enough money to sustain us. I was getting frustrated.”
In December, Joyce approached Prestige Shuttles – a tours and travels company that operates in 10 towns in the country – for any work. “They gave me the job of a driver and I gladly took it,” says Joyce. “There are 70 drivers at Prestige, I am the only woman. I drive the Nairobi-Nakuru route.”
I take a round trip to Nakuru with Joyce for this interview. Prestige shuttles are boarded in Nairobi’s downtown. On the day of my trip, Joyce is upbeat as she waits for the shuttle to fill up.
She hangs around her male colleagues, laughing and talking with them. It’s 10am. In the shuttle, I overhear two passengers behind me talking.
“Do you know that it’s a woman who drives this matatu?” one lady says to her friend, a gentleman, in the seat next to hers. He’s wowed. “Really?” he answers, “Which means we’ll take a long time on the road; we’ll probably get to Nakuru after lunch.” The lady shakes her head, “I like her. I’ve ridden with her many times before. She’s a good driver, very careful. I especially like her customer service.”
When all 11 seats in the shuttle are filled, Joyce stands at the open door to address us. Her voice is crisp. “Habari zenu? I will be your driver for today. My name is Joyce. Thank you for choosing Prestige, we are glad to have you on board. Please fasten your seatbelts. It’s not for the police, but for your own safety. If you need to disembark …” It really feels like Joyce is the captain and we’re passengers flying an international route.
Then she leads us in prayer. “Dear Lord,” she says with conviction, “We thank you for this bright and sunny morning… Despite my competence, I pray that you will help me make sober decisions along the busy highway.”
It’s a comfortable and smooth ride to Nakuru. Joyce and I talk along the way. She tells me she loves her job and her colleagues. She loves the reactions she gets when people see her behind the wheel. She loves that she can still be as feminine as she wants – what with her make-up and her red nail polish and her light jewellery. She loves that she’s driven all her passengers safely. She loves living in Nakuru. Mostly, she loves that her son and her mother are proud of her.
Joyce can do up to four trips a day. The fatigue at the end of each day is one of her biggest challenges. “It’s something I’m still getting used to. But I’m also doing office work now. I volunteered to train our staff on customer service: You know, things like grooming and etiquette.”
“My dream is to own two shuttles,” Joyce says on our way back to the city that afternoon. “I’d also like to drive President Uhuru Kenyatta. I want him to experience our Prestige service.”