Captain in the air, Mama on the ground

AT a time when Neema Swai used to visit her mom’s pharmacy located at the airport, she was clueless whether the activity would later dictate her career.

When she was there with her mother, she got an opportunity to see both local and international flights flying and landing at the airport as well ogling at cabin crew members, including female pilots with their uniforms as they walked majestically.

“From there, I started dreaming of becoming a pilot. So being a pilot was my dream,” says Captain Swai, who flew Tanzania’s first-ever cargo plane from the United States of America to Julius Nyerere International Airport (JNIA) in Dar es Salaam. All the time smiling, charming with little jokes, the wife and a mother of one says her dream has been realised, thanks to support from her parents who supported her financially and morally until when she completed her studies in South Africa aged 19.

Despite the backing from her beloved parents, it wasn’t a simple task to translate her dream into reality in the field dominated by men and white people.

So, she had another task of breaking the two deadlocks; gender and race for her to become one of the eleven female pilots employed by Air Tanzania Company (ATCL).

“In the training, we were only two blacks and I was the only female student in 2009. They were looking at me, a young girl by then, and doubted whether I would manage to complete the course.

“To prove them wrong, I had to study even harder than my male counterparts. Later some became proud of me…others still doubt how I managed,” says the female pilot with 14-year experience under her belt.

She says flying the ATCL’s cargo plane has even added a credit to her since her fellow graduates have not got such a precious opportunity, the reason why she emphasises: “l am privileged.”

President Samia Suluhu Hassan poses for a souvenir photo with Captain Neema Swai (left), among pilots who flew a newly purchased cargo plane (Boeing 767-300F) to #Tanzania.
The inauguration ceremony took place at Julius Nyerere International Airport (JNIA) in Dar es Salaam.

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Flying Boeing 767-300F to JNIA

When the lady realised that she was in the list of crew members tasked to fly the newly acquired 54-tonne-cargo plane to Tanzania, the captain felt honoured. To her, this would not be erased in her memory.

“As I said earlier, this aircraft is one of its own in Africa and I was among six people trusted to fly it to Tanzania. It’s historic and purely proves beyond any reasonable doubt that women can do it!” she says with a smile.

She thanks ATCL management for giving female employees opportunities to scale up their careers in the aviation industry.

VIDEO: Captain Neema Swai Interview in Kiswahili language 

Work, family

Despite flying the modern ATCL flights within and outside the continent, Captain Swai, as other African women, plays other pivotal roles in her family to ensure her loved ones remain happy.

“When I am at work, I am a captain, but when I’m at home, I become Mama Nana, I’m thankful because the two coexist and move forward,” she says.

She says her timetable is friendly enough to balance between work and family affairs.

To her they miss her only when she is flying the plane but when she touches the home soil, her family becomes a top priority.

A word to girls

“In this world, society should understand that there are no jobs entitled for men and others for women. Anyone can do any job. Most important is to love it, value it,” says the decorated captain as she encourages female students to work hard to realise their dreams.

With the theory harbored by many that people eligible to study aviation are those who took science subjects, Neema says even those who studied arts and other subjects can take the course.

“It is not true that to become a pilot you must take science subjects, there are good pilots whom I know who took arts subjects although it’s easier for those who take science to study pilot courses.

Those who take Physics, Geography and Mathematics are more flexible to venture into piloting,” she says. While in high school in Uganda, Neema studied Physics, Economics, Geography and Mathematics which altogether simplified her academic path to study pilot in South Africa.

Although she reminds students who are taking subjects other than science can, too, study the pilot course if they have financial support.

In five years to come, Neema sees herself becoming a trainer who will guide others to realise their dreams in the aviation industry.

Parent’s support

To Neema Swai, support from parents plays a crucial role in helping students in realising their dreams.

She says that if it was not her parents who motivated, encouraged and supported her financially, she wouldn’t be where she is right now.

She offers a piece of advice to parents or guardians to support girls to develop their career because anyone would like to do “what they love”.

The writer, Sauli Giliard, is a Daily News digital journalist in Tanzania. He can be reached through +255 714 082 648 or


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