MASERU — Dawn normally finds ‘Machala Mathunya already packing her lunch box in her kitchen.
She usually crawls out of her bed at 4 am.
After a quick shower she grabs her spectacles and car keys, ready to start the day’s work.
By 6am she is reversing her car out of her Thetsane home.
It’s not a normal car that Mathunya is driving.
Mathunya’s is a “4+1”, the colloquial name given to the yellow-bellied taxis that drone about Maseru.
Twenty minutes later she will be tussling it out for passengers at Pitso Ground taxi station.
Mathunya is one of only two women who drive taxis in the capital.
And the only reason people are not surprised at seeing her behind the wheel of a “4+1” is because many have become used to her.
She has been in this male-dominated taxi business for the past 10 years and she says she isn’t stopping until her twin girls are done with their schooling at the National University of Lesotho.
“What drives me to wake up and do this job six days a week is the desire to educate my children,” the soft-spoken Mathunya tells the Sunday Express.
“It’s a struggle but I have never felt intimidated by my male colleagues.”
Ten years ago Mathunya was one of those sweet-looking secretaries.
She had worked at Mabathoana High School for 14 years.
“The job was okay but I had only done my COSC so it was not paying that much,” she says.
“I saw no future.
“When I looked at my three kids and two younger sisters and little brother I realised that I was not going to manage to pay for their education if I continued in this job.
“The money was little.”
What to do to make more money was the problem, she says.
But she was not going to start from nowhere.
While working as a secretary she had employed two boys to sell ear-rings in town.
“That business was not bringing much but at least I could save a little bit every month,” she recalls.
She had also started a small poultry business to supplement her miserable earnings.
But instead of consolidating these businesses, as many would do, Mathunya decided to venture into an uncharted territory.
She pulled her savings together and bought a Toyota Cressida which she would convert into a taxi.
She says that was a bold move because the risks were quite high in that business.
She broke new ground when one morning she drove to the rank and started calling for passengers going to Khubetsoana, on the outskirts of Maseru.
“Almost all the taxi drivers were shocked to see me,” Mathunya recalls.
“Some said I was not going to last two days while others gave me two weeks.”
Well, they were wrong because a decade later Mathunya is still going strong.
“Many men have come and gone but I am still around,” she says.
Yet it has not been all smooth sailing.
Taxi driving has its grave dangers and Mathunya has experienced some nasty encounters.
One day, in 2000, Mathunya was hired by three men who claimed to be going to Ha-Foso, a village on the periphery of the capital.
It was around 10 at night.
“They looked genuine so I decided to take them,” Mathunya recalls.
When they were about to get to Ha-Foso one of the men pulled out a gun and demanded that Mathunya stops the car and surrender her day’s takings.
“Suddenly the seemingly friendly men had become robbers,” she recalls.
“They wanted my car and money.
“They had a gun stuck to my head.”
Mathunya says she panicked but did not lose control.
“I was frightened but I knew I had to fight,” she says.
And fight she did.
She recalls opening the door and jumping out of the car to leave the three robbers in the moving car.
They disappeared with the car, leaving her writhing in pain after her leg was broken.
Her body was bruised too.
“It was painful but at least I was alive,” she says.
She spent the next three months broke and with her leg in plaster.
She had lost her car, her only source of livelihood.
When she recovered she started looking for her car.
After months of searching she recovered the car in Roma, 37km from Maseru, but instead of giving up she went back on the road.
“I decided this was the job I wanted to do, robbers or no robbers,” she says.
Mathunya says the incident taught her one thing: “To be vigilant and not drive after hours.”
These days she parks her car at dusk.
“In winter I finish at 5pm and in summer I am home by 6pm.”
Yet the danger of being robbed is not the only reason why she retires home early from the road.
“There are some crazy drivers on the streets at night,” she says.
The “crazy drivers” have also scared her off the city centre route.
“I like the Khubetsoana route because I can get out of the road, park properly and pick up passengers properly,” she says.
“The city centre has chaos.”
Mathunya says she is appalled by her fellow drivers.
“Some of these people who are driving taxis are too young and some of them drink too much,” she says.
“I have tried to talk sense into my male colleagues,” she adds.
“I see some of them have heeded my call as they are now courteous around me.
“But some are still driving recklessly.”
Hard work is not a new experience to Mathunya.
She grew up in a family of eight in Hara-Mabanta, a poor village in rural Maseru.
Mathunya says it was there where she learnt the basic skills of life.
“We were taught that nothing comes easy,” she recalls.
She would wake up at around 4am to go to the field.
“After that we would go fetch water and start preparing the food,” she says.
“We had to prepare everything before we went to school. It was tough.”
She also scaled mountains in search of firewood.
The taxi that she owns and drives, an old model Toyota Cressida, has helped her educate her three children. Her son is a computer technician in town.
The challenge now is to ensure her two girls finish their degrees at university, she says.
Mathunya has also built her own house in Thetsane, a middle-class suburb by Lesotho standards.
She has achieved all these things without her husband from whom she separated before she even started the taxi business.
“Women who want to venture into this or any other business must not feel intimidated,” says Mathunya.
“If you have your taxi you should drive it if you can because the margins in this business are very small.
“Also, some of these drivers will end up pocketing all the profits.”
On a good day she takes home M300.
Mathunya says she is a devoted Catholic and likes gardening.
Papa and chicken stew is what she calls a “brilliant meal”.