Captain Chipo Matimba #Zimbabwe Pilot #ZimBabes
Mandishona Donson Matimba and Anne Chipoyera of Harare raised nine children, the five girls were treated equally with boys as roles in the household were not allocated according to gender.
Then, girls would ride roughshod over bikes and were allowed the adventures now mostly attributable to boys in our highly conservative society, to the extent that even venturing up trees with four of her brothers never constituted an issue .
Resultantly, one of the five girls grew up confident that she could do anything that boys could, even with more zeal and dexterity.
Today Chipo Matimba is a pilot with Air Zimbabwe.
“Soon after High School, I saw an advert for Air Force of Zimbabwe trainee pilots and I applied. l went through the recruitment formalities in 1994. The military training was gruesome but certainly not insurmountable. Being pioneers in this male dominated environment was a challenge, as many logistical changes had to be summounted in order to accommodate female cadets,” she said.
“The first six months was militarily training and the next six was ground school which comprises theory in aviation studies. The 12 months that followed covered flying lessons in general, handling instruments, navigation, formation and aerobatic flying.”
Growing up as a bright little girl from Belvedere Primary School and Harare Girls High, Captain Matimba was, besides that, just an ordinary young woman. Today she commands respect as one of six of Zimbabwe’s female pilots, others being captain Emilia Njovani, Merna Moore, Chipo Gatsi, Elizabeth Chikumba and Sithandekile Dube.
She talks of her first experience with the plane.
“Being in control of an aeroplane was an exhilarating experience, and ironically something almost beyond sensationalism. The first aircraft I ever flew was the Siai Marchetti SF260, also known as the Genet. It was a familiarisation flight where I was given control of the plane just to get a feel of the aircraft.
Matimba epitomises women who know what they want and have vigorously pursued it without making patriarchy a scapegoat for goal attainment.
Today marks the International Women’s Day, a day being celebrated across the globe under the theme: Inspiring Change. Its main thrust is challenging the masculine status quo and guarantee equality among all of God’s creation.
“The society in general, and my male counterparts in particular, accepted my venturing into military aviation, a career once only stereotyped for men and I feel very much at home in the aviation fraternity. From my experience as both a military and an airline pilot, I believe any woman with focus and determination can take up the challenge. All that’s needed is a lot of hard work and dedication,” she said.
“In the past, women were marginalised in many professions. With the advent of gender equality any woman can tackle any field successfully without fear of chauvinism. Lets stand up fellow ladies and be both seen and heard.”
Boarding an Air Zimbabwe flight one day, a boy tugged at his father, pointed at the pilot, and said: “Look, dad, it’s a chick!”
Captain Chipo Matimba, a veteran pilot with 22 years of flight experience, shot back with a smile: “Ah, it’s a pilot”.
It was a good humoured exchange, but one that painted an important picture. Capt Matimba is a pioneer; the first female pilot in the Air Force, and now one of the most experienced pilots for Air Zimbabwe.
In total, she has been flying for 22 years, and remains as enthusiastic about flying as she was when she made her first solo flight all those years ago.
How has the ride been for her?
“It has been great. I have been privileged to have flown on both sides of the aviation fence. I’ve flown military and I am flying civilian now,” she says.
But was it an easy switch? The difference between flying in the military and piloting civilian aircraft must be big. Not too much, says Capt Matimba.
“Flying is flying. It’s just that as I moved to Air Zimbabwe, the plane I started on was more complex than the one I was flying. But I had enough experience to quickly grasp it. I’ve been a Captain for six years now.”
Then there is the question that keeps many pilots across the world quarrelling long into the night in their lobbies; Airbus or Boeing?
“That’s always a war between pilots! What I can say is that I am honoured to have flown on both platforms and I like them both!”
Then there is that question she has had to face so many times. Do pilots ever settle down?
She quips, “I am single but I am married to the aeroplanes!” Is it because some men feel intimidated by career women, especially here in Africa?
“These days many women tend to emphasise on their careers first. The right partner, or the right plane, will come, the order is not really important.”
As the first female pilot in the Air Force, she knows she has many young girls looking up to her. It is a responsibility she takes much delight in. She frequently speaks in schools and at seminars, urging girls to spread their wings and fly, in whatever direction their chosen career paths take them.
“I do mentor girls,” she says, “It makes the mentoring more meaningful when they interact with me face to face.”
Society remains patriarchal, and it must not be unusual to come across some who look at female pilots with a doubting eye.
“Prejudice does exist”, Capt Matimba says. However, frequent flyers now think nothing of the gender of Air Zim’s crew. They have come to trust all pilots, regardless of who they are. “The Zimbabwean regular fliers now know us,” Capt Matimba says.
But how did this all begin? At what point did she decide to become a pilot, a career path that must have been unusual for young girls at the time.
“I made the decision in 1993. The Air Force advertised for trainee pilot cadets. I checked to see if they accepted women too. The advert didn’t specify anything on gender. They had never trained any women. Surprisingly for them, that particular interview had several female applicants. I was interviewed, and I passed.”
So, armed with her acceptance letter, how did she break the news to her family?
“They were like, ‘No. You want to be a solider for what?’ Besides flying, there was the army aspect. They were like, ‘what are you doing?’”
Hers was a big family. She is the sixth of nine children, five of which are girls. Obviously, her mother was not letting her little girl run off to join the military with no questions asked. She was totally opposed to her daughter taking up the post.
It is a problem many girls face today, when they want to branch out into career paths that are seen as not traditionally for women. This is a view Capt Matimba is working really hard to change.
“The prejudices are still there. Parents do not understand the military. So as pilots, we have gone on a PR drive for career guidance. Aviation is still a mystery; it’s not really talked about in schools. Flying is seen as a preserve for other people, it is as if it is not for the girl next door.”
Growing up, Capt Matimba loved the sciences. However, careers guidance was rare then. It is a burden she is now taking upon herself, hoping to ensure girls get the best advice they need to break barriers.
“People do not really believe that a girl can become a soldier and military officer . Dedication and focus is required to break barriers and glass ceilings in any field” she said.
The experience in the Air Force has taught her to be a leader. “I was a squadron commander in charge of Cessna 337s, air to ground attack aircraft. A squadron commander leads from the front and I have just changed from one side of the runway, which is the military side to the civilian side,” Capt Matimba says.
So, did her mom ever get to accept her daughter’s career choice?
“When I started flying, my mum wouldn’t watch any movie involving war, it’s now history. I’ve flown her many times, and she is ok.” Just like that little boy who pointed at the “chick” in the cockpit, Capt Matimba’s mom no longer sees her as just a girl, but as a pilot.
Duties of Captain typically include:
• Carrying out pre-flight checks of instruments, engines and fuel.
• Making sure that all safety systems are working properly.
• Working out the best route based on weather reports and other information from air traffic control.
• Following airport approach and landing instructions from air traffic control.
• Checking flight data and making adjustments to suit weather changes.
• Keeping passengers and crew informed about journey progress.
• Writing flight reports after landing, including about any aircraft or flight path problems on small planes helping to load and unload luggage or cargo.
The sky is not the limit for Captain Chipo, it’s her home! #PaintingTheSkyPink.