KAMPALA, UGANDA – Susan Muwonge walks steadily up the stairway to her office at St. Francis Junior School Buddo in Kampala, Uganda’s capital and largest city. Her footsteps are loud and strong, signaling great energetic thumps. She opens her office door to a waiting reporter.
“You are welcome,” she says in a soft voice.
Muwonge started out as a fan of motor sports. Because there were only two professional female rally drivers in 2005, she decided to join the sport.
“I wanted to increase the number of ladies in motor sport,” she says. ]
In a short sprint that year, Muwonge finished second among the ladies and 15th overall in a field of 40. The first race she won was a beginners rally in 2007. An accident prevented her from completing another rally that year, but it didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for the sport.
A sprint is a short, high-speed race around a track. Rallies are much longer road races over 20 to 30 kilometers (12 to 18 miles). In most motor sports here, men and women compete together.
In 2011, Muwonge became the first woman to win the National Rally Championship, a series of six coed motor rallies spread throughout the year. The following season, Muwonge earned enough points to grab the eighth position on the International Rally Drivers Association’s Women World Rally Ranking, ahead of drivers from Turkey, Australia,
Great Britain, Russia and Switzerland.
And she’s moving up. As of December 2014, Muwonge was ranked sixth in Uganda in the World Rally Drivers Ranking. She is the only woman on the list.
In December, she came in ninth in a field of 30 at the FIA African Rally Championship.
In her 10-year stint as a competitive driver, Muwonge has won more than 40 awards and medals in motor sprints and rallies, she says. Her fans call her Super Lady.
Motor sports have long been the province of rich men in Uganda. But in the last two decades, women have joined the men on the tracks and roads, sometimes beating them at their own game.
Uganda is celebrating more than 100 years of motor sports. As part of that commemoration, the Federation of Motorsport Clubs of Uganda, FMU, will honor 60 people at an awards ceremony March 13, according to Reynold Kibira, the secretary general of the federation.
Muwonge will be among the five women to be honored for their outstanding performance in the sport.
British colonialists introduced motor sports to Uganda more than a century ago, says Jack Wavamuno, FMU president. Former Ugandan President Idi Amin, a rally driver and sponsor, popularized the sport during his reign, from 1971 to 1979.
Uganda has about 100 licenced motor sport drivers, 10 of whom are women who joined the sport in the last 20 years, Wavamuno says. The women, mostly in their 30s, are in different economic classes. Some are housewives; some run family businesses or work in the corporate world.
Media attention to the sport is inspiring more women to take it up, Wavamuno says. Internationally renowned female rally drivers like French ace Michèle Mouton help other women become aware of their potential, he says.
The federation now organizes three sprints and three rallies every year. Each event attracts 20,0000 to 30,0000 fans.
In Uganda, only football is more popular than motor sports, he says.
Outside her garage, Leila Blick Mayanja walks up to her car, adjusts the side mirrors and gets behind the wheel. Her 5-year-old son takes the co-pilot role in the passenger seat.
Mayanja adjusts her seat backwards, switches on the ignition and drives off at 50 kilometers (31 miles) per hour through the streets of Kampala.
Her family introduced her to motor sports, Mayanja says.
“My father was a rally driver, my uncle was part of the sport, and my husband was a rally driver,” she says. “I just used to go and support them. My husband trained me to navigate for him, and in that same year I started doing sprints.”
Mayanja started driving sprints in 2004. Inspired by Muwonge’s achievements, she began competing in motor rallies in 2008.
In 2014, she emerged 15th in a field of more than 40 drivers at the Pearl of Africa Rally championship. She is also the champion of the 2014 two-wheel rally, a race of front-wheel-drive cars that drew a field of five.
Her happiest moment was when, as winner of a women’s sprint circuit in 2004, she got to drive Sylvia Nagginda, the Nna-bagereka, or queen, of the historic kingdom of
Buganda around the circuit. The queen congratulated her on her win.
At the beginning of most careers in motor sport, drivers rely on their families for funds. As they progress, they aim to win corporate sponsors.
In the beginning, Mayanja relied on her comparatively wealthy family for funds. However, she now has two solid sponsors.
Bidco Uganda Limited, which manufactures soaps and vegetable oils, has sponsored Mayanja since 2009. The company provides fuel, accommodations and meals for Mayanja and her team.
Jomayi, a real estate company in Uganda, has also sponsored her since 2011.
Mayanja says her sponsors usually cover her racing expenses and needs, except for the cost of a car. Her husband often buys her car, she says.
The cost of a race car in Uganda ranges depending on size. The smaller two wheel cars cost 18 million shillings ($6,230), Mayanja says. Wavamuno says the bigger stronger vehicles cost about 300 million shillings ($100,000).
Muwonge says men and women are equally able to land sponsors. Sponsors fund a driver they consider promising, whether male or female.
Kobil, a petroleum company, has sponsored Muwonge since 2012. Kobil provides her with fuel and 15 million shillings ($26,000), which she uses for a variety of expenses, including car services, her uniform and additional fuel, she says.
Muwonge and Manyanja have inspired local women to love motorsport.
“I like those women,” says Joy Nakandi, a Kampala housewife and an aspiring motor sport driver. “I am encouraged by Susan Muwonge so much, I would like to become one of them someday.”
To join the sport, she’ll need to overcome her fear of speed and get hold of some money.
“I have to learn to drive fast without fear and get sponsors so that I can join the motor rallies,” she says.
Her husband might allow her to participate in the sport, but other family members would disapprove, she says.
Most race car drivers are wealthy businessmen, Wavamuno says. One of the reknowned Ugandan rally drivers, Karim Hirji, is said to be worth $100 million.
Some men feel motor sports are not for women.
Moses Mubiru Musana, a 42-year-old wholesale trader in Kampala’s Kikuubo market, says only men should compete in motor sprints and rallies.
“Its not good for women to be in motor rallies,” Musana says. “I don’t think women in motor sport still have a heart of a woman. A woman should be soft and kind, not driving aggressively the way they drive.”
Musana says he would never marry a woman who races cars, nor would he advise a friend to do so.
But rally driver Ronald Ssebuguzi disagrees.
A 15-year veteran of the sport and the reigning national rally champion, Ssebuguzi says women have every right to take him on. Women face the same challenges in motor sports as male drivers, he says.
“Women are human beings like us,” he says. “They can pick interest in any sport. They drive cars, so they can also compete in motor sport.”
Some Ugandan women have excelled at motor sports, occasionally besting men. For example, Muwonge beat Ssebuguzi in the 2011 National Rally Championship.
Wavamuno, the president of the federation of racing clubs, agrees women can excel in the sport. Women who have joined the sport are doing well, and Muwonge’s 2011 win is proof they have what it takes to master it, he says.
Women are still a small minority in motor sports because they tend to choose family over their passions, he says.
“When women start a family, they have different pressures, they juggle many roles,” he says.
In addition, the cost of participating in motor sports is prohibitive to most women, says David Katende, the assistant secretary general of Uganda’s National Council of Sports.
On average, a sprint circuit participant would need at least 6 million shillings ($2,000) to join a race, excluding the cost of the car. She would also need about 3 million shillings ($1,000) for fuel, vehicle service, and meals and lodging for the entire team, he says.
In Uganda, the average monthly income is 303,500 shillings ($105), according to a Uganda 2009-2010 report from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics.
Women earn about half of what men in comparable occupations receive, according to a 2011 policy paper by the Economic Policy Research Center of Uganda. Forty-two percent of women in the labor force are unpaid family workers, the paper says.
In 2012, about 76 percent of Ugandan adult women were in the workforce, according to the United Nations.
Five years ago, the sports council persuaded the government to waive taxes for vehicles and other machines imported for motor sports.
More people are now able to join the sport, Katende says.
The council also encourages sports federations to name women to their management teams, he says. In such positions, they will be able to attract more female competitors to all sports, including motor sports.
In addition, the council is lobbying corporations to fund motor rallies.
Muwonge hopes to secure sponsorship to participate in 2015 motor sports events, the school director and former teacher says, sitting in her office at St. Francis Junior School
Buddo in Kampala. Medals in various shapes and colors are neatly arranged on a shelf in the corner by her chair.
“I want to race outside Uganda, if I get a good sponsor,” Muwonge says.
This year, she hopes to win the annual FIA African Rally Championship, which begins in March in Ivory Coast.
Muwonge hopes more corporations will invest in female athletes.
“More women would join the sport if they were funded,” she says.
Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ, translated one interview from Luganda.