Features, Health & Society Editor
When it comes to transporting the dead, especially from South Africa to Zimbabwe, most people think of a male driven car.
Ferrying loved ones to their final resting place, the long emotional journey from across the border is usually done by men, who society has confidence in as they are naturally, but mistakenly deemed the only ones strong and fit for the job.
Yet, two Zimbabwean women Susan Mlaza (46) and Chipo Norah Simbanegavi (35), both drivers at Zororo-Phumulani, a Zimbabwean funeral and repatriation service provider based in South Africa, have travelled between the two countries to safely deliver bodies to loved ones.
March is women's month and today, The Herald on Saturday celebrates Mlaza and Simbanegavi, who have made a niche in this male dominated process.
Born in Kadoma into a family of eight, Mlaza went to Daramombe High School for her secondary education.
A widow, and mother of two, a boy and girl, Mlaza's relocated to South Africa in the year 2000 where, before delivering the dead home, she also worked behind the steering wheel of the most "vicious" trucks, having a stint with cross border haulage trucks and travelling to as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
"I started driving in 2011," she said. "I drove haulage trucks doing cross-border routines, going as far as DRC. I am currently based in Durban and have been working as a driver for Zororo-Phumulani for three years now."
Being the link between families and their dead relatives during the final journey home, Mlazi has carried out her job with precision and whole heartedly.
The job is both emotionally draining, yet interesting, as she travels to Zimbabwe an average once a week.
"As a woman first, it was a challenge driving dead bodies to Zimbabwe, but the passion of assisting grieving families makes me strong," she said. "l want to send a message out there that as women we can also do jobs that are normally done by men. Also to prove that we are also strong as men."
Mlazi said she travels an average of 1 600 kilometres to Harare per trip.
"It normally takes me 26 hours one away," she said. "It's a challenge, but like I said I am someone who always wants to take challenges in life and can tell you that I am now used to the job."
Mlazi chose the industry because of her passion for helping people.
"If I drive a grieving family, to me it's an opportunity to play a part in comforting people who are grieving," she said. "When my husband passed away, I was now the bread winner, so I decided to work hard so that I can put food on the table.
"To young women, do not look down upon yourself, take challenges. We can do jobs that are normally associated with men, we are all equal, what men can do we can do it better."
Just like any other profession, being a female driver has its own challenging moments as often some clients complain.
Mlazi explained that when she repatriates bodies, relatives sit in the minibus she will be driving while the body will be in a trailer attached to it.
"There are low moments in my journey as a woman driver," she said. "Several times I hear people looking down upon me. Some say 'Zororo-Phumulani, why have you given us a female driver, when will we arrive in Zimbabwe?' I have always proved all of them wrong."
Mlazi said in the end, most shower her with praises after realising that she is stronger than some male drivers.
"So, don't allow negative comments to destroy your dream," she said.
Repatriating a body is never easy and Mlazi has seen it all.
"Driving more than 1 600km is not easy, you will always be under pressure from the family, especially those in Zimbabwe. After every two hours, they call to ask how far away I will be."
The journey and experience with family members differs.
"It is different with families, some will sing and dance on the way, but others will be in a very serious mood," said Mlazi.
With a long exhausting journey ahead, Mlazi said she always makes sure that she gets enough rest to prepare herself.
"I have to be in the right state of mind. I need to be prepared mentally and physically. I normally take a good rest and ensure that my kids have all the necessary things at home so that once I start my journey, I will be thinking of the job at hand and not distracted by thoughts of what is happening back home."
Many factors keep Mlazi going.
"As a widow, I am like both the father and the mother at home so I have to be strong, Also, after every journey I always receive messages from families who will be appreciating my service. Just to know I put a smile on a grieving family, and knowing that I am playing a part in the community makes me happy."
The other female driver at Zororo-Phumulani, Simbanegavi, has been in the trade for two years.
"l drive bodies from Cape Town to Johannesburg inabout 12 to 15 hours. In Johannesburg, I pass on the body to another driver who will bring it to Zimbabwe."
Sometimes she also repatriates bodies from Johannesburg to Zimbabwe, driving an average of 12 to 15 hours to the final destination.
"As a woman, l feel the pain of bringing the dead to Zimbabwe," said Simbanegavi. "l feel sorry for the family because it is not easy to lose the ones they love."
She said she grew up as an orphan and this made her choose to work in the funeral industry.
"l know the pain you feel when you lose your loved one," said Simbanegavi. "l have a heart to comfort those families, giving them courageous words of comfort. Remember, l am a mother too."
Simbanegavi says she is a strong woman.
"l feel a genius to be a lady driver challenging other male drivers at our company for a valid reason, which is 'don't look down upon women.' I am a very strong woman," she said.