Our Perspectives

"There is nothing a woman cannot do," says UN Somalia’s top female driver

Tess and Philippe Lazzarini, UN Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Resident and Humanitarian Representative for the UN in Somalia.

Have you met Tess Rono, senior driver at the UN in Somalia? She was the first woman to be employed as a driver in the UN in Somalia, and today is one of the highest ranked drivers in the system.

“She is a fearless woman!” says Philippe Lazzarini, Deputy Special Representative to the Secretary General, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator of the UN in Somalia. Tess is his official driver when he is in Nairobi.

Tess has worked with Resident Coordinators and Representatives since 1994 – her previous supervisors read like a ‘who’s who’ at the UN in Somalia, including Walid Musa, Erlin Dessau, Dominic Laggenbacher, Randolph Kent, Maxwell Gaylard, Eric Laroche, and Mark Bowden. Tess aspires to work more on the actual programmes through which the UN delivers humanitarian and development assistance.  

Before joining United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Somalia, Tess trained as a driver and studied elementary Mechanical Engineering at Kenya National Youth Service training facility.  When she started working for UNDP in 1994 there were very few women drivers around in Kenya. Thanks to her focus and tenacity she rose through the ranks to reach the demanding position she occupies today.

Tess has to be very flexible, as her work schedule mirrors Philippe’s agenda. As the second highest ranking official at the UN in Somalia, he is often on the move. Depending on Philippe’s schedule, some days Tess can be on the go from 4am until late at night. After work Tess likes to spend time with her husband and five children and work on her farm.

Tess’s favorite part of her job is meeting new and interesting people. “I like driving high ranking dignitaries – I once drove former UN Secretary Generals Kofi Annan and Boutros Boutros-Ghali when they paid a visit to UN Somalia!” she says. “I like helping people, there was a time I rescued the Greek Ambassador to Kenya when he was involved in an accident, I took him to his residence and reported the matter to the Diplomatic Police.”

Tess says that being a woman in a predominantly male environment is not as difficult as it used to be. “The only downside can be when I have a puncture and I need to change a tire, I am not as agile as I was 10 years ago,” she says with a smile.

Gender stereotypes which lead to segregation of jobs for men and women persist in many corners of the world today, particularly in developing countries where traditional gender roles still largely prevail. Tess’ story can hopefully encourage more young women to follow their hearts in choosing a career and to never stop dreaming.

“I will tell women to go for it, they will surprise even themselves on what they can accomplish,” says Tess. “There is nothing a woman cannot do in today’s world.  There is no job that is specifically set for a particular gender. A good example will be the current UNDP Administrator Helen Clark and OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] Under Secretary General Valerie Amos, they are at the helm of big organizations despite their gender.”

Tess says she has been lucky with the male colleagues - they respect her, treat her as one of their own, and even consult her on technical and logistical matters. However, she admits that being one of the few women among drivers in the UN system in Nairobi can sometimes be lonely. She would love more women to join the profession. “What a man can do, a woman can do better!”

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