Meet the train driver

It is common legend, within the NRZ shunting yard in Bulawayo, that when one notices an “over-speeding” train, it has to be Mabel Tendai Kaunda (pictured above and below) “behind the wheel”.

The woman is rumoured to usually throw caution through the window once she gets onto the monstrous-looking DE10 locomotive, which she sees as your everyday manual transmission 4×4.

“These guys exaggerate issues,” she laughs off the suggestion that she is “notorious” for speeding when on the rail track.

“At any given time there are speed limits that we have to adhere to on these tracks but you find these guys saying I over-speed. But when I check on my controls, I will be within set-limits.”

The 40-year-old mother-of-two does not see herself as a woman when she jumps onto any locomotive, her favourite being the heavy-duty DE10 locos that do the Bulawayo-Chicualacuala route.

“I am at home on the long distances, the longer the distance the better the ride. Shunting I do, from time to time, but I enjoy the 1 200-kilometre round trip more,” she said as we sat down for a chat, a few minutes after arriving from the gruelling Chicualacuala journey.

With passenger trains’ top speed capped at 90km per hour and cross-trippers at 60, she dismissed outright the assertion that she is a speed monster.

A cross-tripper is a train that hauls a combination of goods and passengers.

Being one of only five female train drivers within the National Railways of Zimbabwe, Mabel, as she prefers to be called, says being among men has never been a problem for her.

“I was with the police service, with the PPU, for some 10 years and if I remember well I was the only woman in my section. So working with men has never been a problem for me.”

After leaving the police force in 2004, she joined the NRZ by some stroke of luck in 2007.

“I didn’t even know what shunting was when I joined. The day I went to the recruitment centre, they were taking some recruits for the railways, and as my father once worked for the company, I just said what the heck and I joined.”

She started off as a shunt engine-woman, being trained to move trains within the yard, before graduating to a mainline engine-woman. Then in 2011, she became a senior engine-woman.

One would expect a job on the rail-tracks, especially for a rail system that is yearning for a complete overhaul, to be replete with a number of challenges.

“There are really no challenges. For instance, one does not move from one block to the next without clearance, without a go-ahead. That way you are assured of safely navigating your block once you have been cleared.

“Then the route I drive passes through a nature reserve, so one has to be on the look-out for animals, just like you do when you drive to Victoria Falls.”

When not on the track, given her fame for speeding, would it be wrong to assume that she finds comfort in some adrenalin-sapping pastimes?

“I don’t do all that fun stuff. For my spare time I go to my plot and tend to my crops and cattle. I love nature and my plot, just outside Bulawayo, gives me that peace of mind.”

Mabel is married to Ken Kaunda, and the couple is blessed with two girls.

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