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Once upon a time, there was a girl who soared and swooped through the sky. Her name is Thokozile Muwamba. In 2017, at age 24, Thokozile Muwamba broke barriers by becoming Zambia’s first female fighter pilot. Today, she continues to soar through the sky and is also an outspoken advocate against cyberbullying.
Refilwe Ledwaba is a social entrepreneur, an advocate of girl’s education especially Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics (STEAM) education. She spent 10 years in the South African Police Services (SAPS) as a Helicopter Pilot, the first black woman to do so. She is also a qualified fixed-wing Pilot and Flight instructor ,a qualified Drone Pilot and currently training as a Drone Pilot instructor. She is passionate about youth development in Africa, particularly the empowerment of girls. She is the founder of Girls fly programme in Africa (GFPA) foundation, an information and educational STEAM programme for primary, high school and Post-school learners with a focus on aviation and space. The programme includes the use of design thinking, technology, and innovation to shape, empower, enable, and support the next generation of makers and problem solvers in the aviation and space industry in Africa while entrenching the spirit of Ubuntu.
|Once upon a time, there was a girl who soared and swooped through the sky. Her name was Thokozile.
Thokozile grew up in Zambia’s capital city of Lusaka. In this big city, trees lined the dusty streets. Cars roared and honked their way from one end to the other. And the dark silhouettes of birds flitted across the bright afternoon sky.
Thokozile’s parents told her that if she studied hard and went to university, she could do almost anything. But still, she wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to do with her life.
Thokozile’s strong-willed aunt, Tiza Mumbi, told her to aim high—and higher.
Tiza was an airline pilot. Even in the late 1990s, when Thokozile was growing up, there weren’t many women pilots flying commercial planes.
Thokozile admired her aunt. She imagined Tiza piloting huge metal beasts through fluffy clouds and thunderstorms, their wings sparkling in the bright sunlight.
And Thokozile wondered what it would feel like to hold the control wheel, to move the aircraft with a single touch and feel the plane shift up or bank from left to right.
When Thokozile fell asleep, she dreamed of soaring.
I’m __________. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Thokozile Muwamba. The first female fighter pilot in the Zambian Air Force, and an outspoken advocate against cyberbullying.
<END THEME MUSIC>
|AN UNCLEAR PATH
As Thokozile got older, her path ahead still seemed unclear. While other kids dreamed of being firefighters, teachers, doctors, or farmers, Thokozile’s vision remained cloudy.
Her father was a banker, and in school, Thokozile was a wiz at math. So, sometimes, Thokozile wondered if she should go to university and become a banker, too.
But Thokozile’s heart wasn’t in it. So, instead, when she got older, she decided to study mathematics. Maybe she could become a math professor, she thought. It sounded like a good job, and Thokozile liked the idea of being a role model.
Thokozile’s parents were excited about her new plan, and she wanted to make them proud.
Yet, in Thokozile’s heart, she knew she wasn’t passionate about becoming a professor. She wasn’t even really passionate about mathematics. She was good at it, and sometimes it was fun … but still, something was missing.
At university, Thokozile studied every day and every night, hoping that one day her calling might become clearer.
|A CHALLENGING CHOICE
As Thokozile scribbled out answers to mathematics problems, her dreams of soaring through the air sometimes came back to her.
Then, one day, she saw an advertisement for the Zambian Air Force. Written across the ad were the words “Join a challenging career.”
Thokozile liked a challenge. And she wanted to serve her country. In her ears, she heard the roar of jets.
The thought came to her suddenly: I want to be a pilot.
She thought about her aunt’s stories, and the big metal beasts in the sky. She saw herself helmeted and in a cockpit, strapped in, zooming through the clouds.
Her heart filled with excitement.
But when Thokozile told her parents, they were not as excited as she was. They told her she needed to finish her degree. To wait.
Yet, Thokozile finally knew what she wanted.
So, she filled out an application to join the Zambian Air Force.
|WORKING AND FIGHTING
Thokozile did not just want to be any pilot, though. She wanted to be a fighter pilot.
But though women had flown in the Zambian military since 1993, no woman had ever become a fighter pilot.
By the 2010s, though, the Zambian Air Force wanted to change that. They recognized the inequalities between men and women in the military—for example, the fact that there were so many more male pilots than female ones. So, the Zambian military launched a new program to encourage women to join the Air Force—and train to fly planes.
Still, at that time, a Zambian woman becoming a fighter pilot was unheard of. In fact, it almost seemed impossible!
But Thokozile believed that you have to fight for what you want. And she was prepared to do the hard work—and to fight for her new dream.
After submitting her application, Thokozile took tests and had interviews.
At one recruitment interview, Thokozile sat across from a man in a cleanly pressed Air Force uniform. Her nervousness felt like lightning shooting through her body.
“Are you aware of what it takes to be a fighter pilot?” the interviewer asked Thokozile in a grave voice. “It is not an easy task—but one that is supersonic.”
Thokozile took a deep breath and answered in a clear and steady voice.
“All I want is to be a fighter pilot and fly a fighter aircraft one day,” she said.
At that, the interviewer nodded and jotted down some notes.
After that, Thokozile went home and waited and waited. Even though she felt like the interview had gone well, she was afraid her application would be rejected—and her new dream lost forever.
Then, one day, she finally received the good news: She had been selected as an officer candidate for the Zambian Air Force, or ZAF!
|DREAM COMING TRUE
So, in 2012, Thokozile joined the ZAF. She went to basic training like all the other military members. She had to train her body and mind to be strong, quick, and work with others as a team.
Then, she went to flying training school. She learned every detail about the military’s planes. She studied flying techniques and aerobatics. She learned so much from her instructors.
As the day approached for her first flight, her heart raced, and her palms were sweaty.
Thokozile zipped on her green pilot’s uniform, making sure every detail was exactly right. She put on her helmet, got in the plane, and strapped herself in.
As she taxied on the runway, her heartbeat steadied. She had studied and learned and trained for this moment every day since joining the Air Force. She knew exactly what she was doing.
Her plane picked up speed as it tore down the runway’s dark surface. Thokozile was pushed back against her seat, and then, as she pulled on the control stick, her plane swooped above the ground and shot into the sky.
This time, the swoop in Thokozile’s belly was one of joy. And her racing heart wasn’t from nerves—but excitement.
Thokozile’s plane parted the clouds as she soared through the air. And as she turned the plane, sunbeams glittered on its wings.
When she finally landed, Thokozile was smiling from ear to ear.
|FIRST FIGHTER PILOT
Eventually, Thokozile was named the best pilot student in the flying category at her school. And on these and other merits, she was selected to fly fighter aircraft alongside her male counterparts.
After years of training, in 2017, Thokozile Muwamba was awarded the rank of Lieutenant and became Zambia’s first female fighter pilot.
Zambian newspapers celebrated her achievement, and the news of her success spread like wildfire across social media.
Thokozile knew her accomplishment was a big deal, but she told reporters that the airplane doesn’t care if she’s a woman or a man.
“[W]hen I am in the aeroplane,” Thokozile said, “The aircraft knows no sex as it depends on my input even if I am a woman. I can also give it the right steering for it to respond correctly.”
The only place Thokozile said she felt different because of her gender was when she got off the plane—and went to the women’s restroom!
“Men are not a competition but counterparts that one should work with,” she continued, “and hence women should begin to participate and realize their abilities.”
|THE PRICE OF FAME
Thokozile’s name was plastered across headlines. She was cheered in blog posts and interviewed for news shows.
But fame had a price.
Although many people said nice things about her, sometimes Thokozile saw nasty comments online. Some people said women shouldn’t be pilots. Others made fun of her or commented on her looks. And still others said she could never have achieved her accomplishments on her own—that she must have had special treatment.
These comments made Thokozile both sad and mad. But she knew she wasn’t alone. She often saw negative comments online whenever a woman achieved something great. And Thokozile was fed up.
So, she decided to do something about it.
Thokozile became an ambassador for Cyber Hygiene Zambia, a nonprofit organization that works to end cyberbullying.
Thokozile spoke out about her negative experiences online, and she encouraged Zambians to treat each other with kindness and respect—both in person and on social media.
It was a message Thokozile longed for the whole world to hear. So, one day, her organization came up with a plan: Thokozile and nine colleagues would have a walkathon to raise awareness about this important issue.
They made plans and charted routes. And then, they announced the challenge that these ten people would undertake: In early 2021, they would walk from Lusaka all the way to Livingstone.
That’s 300 miles!
Thokozile loved a good challenge, though, so there was no doubt in her mind that she and her colleagues would succeed.
|FROM LUSAKA TO LIVINGSTONE
Thokozile and her team started their walk by ambling along Lusaka’s busy streets, dodging cars and passing huge apartment buildings.
Then, they walked through Zambia’s countryside. Trees and fields lined the road, and small villages welcomed the travelers with open arms.
The ground crunched beneath the team’s feet as they walked. Sweat dripped from Thokozile’s temples as the sun shone down on them. But still, Thokozile and her team encouraged each other and kept moving.
One day, in the middle of their journey, Thokozile’s cell phone rang. It was a number she didn’t recognize.
When she held the phone to her ear, she got the biggest surprise of her life!
It was the Zambian president!
He told her he was proud of her. “I think you’re inspirational,” he said.
And while he couldn’t join their walk, he promised to send them food, water, and other supplies to show his support.
When Thokozile hung up, she squealed with delight.
It was just the encouragement she needed to keep going!
Finally, after about two weeks of walking, Thokozile and her friends arrived in Livingstone to cheering crowds. There, they spoke out about cyberbullying and encouraged other Zambians—and especially young people—to do the same.
After the walk, Thokozile even got to meet the president!
Thokozile’s body was tired, but her heart was so full.
Thokozile Muwamba broke barriers by becoming Zambia’s first female fighter pilot.
Today, Captain Muwamba dreams of a future where more women will have the courage—and support—to become fighter pilots—just like her. And when that happens, she hopes to be a role model for them—and maybe even help train them!
And on the way to that goal, Thokozile might just achieve a new dream—to become the first female Zambian Air Force commander!
What about you, rebels? Do your dreams sometimes seem so pie-in-the-sky that they might be impossible?
If so, whenever you get discouraged, think of Thokozile’s words: “If you’re passionate about something, don’t hesitate,” she said. “Impossibilities can be made possible as long as one [is] determined to attain one’s goal.”