On Becoming a Civil Engineer


 I will be honest and admit that I do anticipate, and have come to like the shock that I see registering on people's faces when they realize that a petite and young woman like me is a civil engineer by profession. It almost always comes as a surprise as the engineering world is predominantly a male dominated field. Like last Friday, on the way home after a long day of work, crammed in a Probox with other counterparts ( the damn thing was overloaded because we work in a hardship area - there are practically no Nissan matatus or buses, the roads are terrible and the Toyota Probox means of transport is a sorry state that needs to be addressed) when the driver asked me - who among these ones is an engineer, and I told him - they are, and I also am. And he had to look at me twice to confirm I was not joking, and then he proceeded to ask some questions about a road under construction and I answered him patiently, and the two villagers seated next to me were just gawking at me; impressed and in shock. So yes, being a female engineer is still a thing to be gawked at and I relish every minute of it even though there are more of us now that there were in previous decades. 


So how did it come to be that a lady interested in literature and the arts is waist deep in a technical field? I could lie and say that I knew I wanted be an engineer since I was 5 but that would be far from the truth. When teachers asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I mostly said a doctor, and that is what I would have applied to study had it not been that my father, who pushed me to excel, who believed in me, who danced and danced with the music system at full volume in late March when he and my mother threw me  a small party for getting an A of 81 points, perished in a road accident one Sunday afternoon, a month before the selection period. The trauma of seeing him stitched back after an autopsy at the morgue, a cold room with shelves and shelves of steel holding the chill of death, made me rethink how much I wanted to accompany and stay with people when their bodies are ailing and failing them, when they are one step close to the grave, when even I cannot stand the sight of blood and needles and dis-ease. The trauma stayed with me so much so that when I walked into University of Nairobi in October 2010, my mind was already set under the consultation and guidance of my newly widowed mother that I would try this thing called civil engineering, and that she would support me through it all. We figured an additional year from to the normal 4 university years is such a small time sacrifice for a sure career.


The other loose idea that I had, that I swept under the rug during the selection period and that would later become a nag, was that since I had started being interested in literature in high school, and by the time my mother came to help me carry my things home - mattress, suitcase and all other high school paraphernalia - was that maybe I could study literature for my undergraduate. That did not come to pass. Instead, we made a wild gamble that has paid off in ways we could never have imagined. 


What we also did not imagine when we were filled with excitement when I received my letter of admission to Jkuat was what the next years in campus held in store for me. I had always been a present student - I did my school work and adhered to school rules with ease. However, the unexpected exposure (on my end) to different mindsets, cultures, religions and ways of life did a number on me. Up until then my education was primarily Catholic - born in a Catholic home, always went to a Catholic Church (still do), had Catholic friends, went to Catholic schools. That kind of exposure was useful for me, and also harmful. Harmful in that combined with the grief I was carrying around like a shadow, combined with questions of existential meaning ( at that point I was riddled with the Question- why live, if after all you will die?), and trying to find a footing in my young adult life - still girl, not yet woman - it became a potent combination that spiraled me into an identity crisis. It is from this period of my life that my 10 piece poem series "Hours" sprung up. The interesting thing is that on the outside, I appeared to be doing well, while on the inside, I was barely holding up.


I dwelt so much on the meaning of my life, on the fact that I felt I was betraying my innate literature oriented abilities by studying engineering while there were others to whom engineering came naturally. (An engineering class is full of competing number-one kids and top-five-in-class kids by the way, and no matter how much you led the pack in primary and high-school, there are some who flawlessly outperform you academically with minimal effort).  By the time I hit 21, my identity crisis was full blown and I was having such intense and continuous bouts of depression that I could not bring myself to attend all classes, and I missed them sporadically. I remember once I could not leave the bed no matter how I tried. Another time we had a Soil Mechanics CAT the next day, and no matter how much I read, nothing was registering. I read and reread a page severally, and by the time I got to the bottom, I had forgotten all I had read before. It was as frustrating as it was bewildering. I had a colossal (very private) meltdown, and that evening, I called my mother and said - I am quitting this thing. And she listened to me, and encouraged me to stay put, to keep on, to rest if I must, but to go on.


Go on and keep on I did. And I am glad I did. It was also about that time that I met friends who stayed with me, as I was, and accepted me for who I am and who really were very instrumental in helping me regain my sense of self, my happiness, my reason for being. For someone who had not known colossal failure before, whose sense of self was quite largely pegged on performance, I was happy to see that I could be loved by others without being the excellent one. (This is a perspective that has stayed with me, so much so, that I am first and foremost myself before I am anything else. So that if I was to lose my career, or my other interests, I would still be me and content, with the mere fact that my "I", my person still has an intrinsic and infinite value no matter what.)


I was also happy for the poetry community that other comrades like Sanya (Mechatronix Engineering), Annette (Financial Engineering), The Okelo (Electrical Engineering) and Irauka (Financial Engineering) and I and others had created to quell our creative side while in a technical school. We were successful in our own small project that we had the chance to meet people like Dorphan Mutuma, Dante, Ngartia etc. And as it turns out, I did not lose my creative side after all. I still write, and the compounded experience of getting into life and living hands on has added flavor to my life and to my writing.

As I look back, I am very grateful for the 6 months period between my 4th year and 5th year that I worked for an NGO that deals with vocational training. Prior to that, it had not occurred to me with full gravity that there are some for whom KCPE or KCSE was the end of their education. I was aware of the fact, but not acutely concerned. Working for that NGO, seeing how youth my age or younger were struggling to get placements in vocational institutes (that deal with mechanics training, electricians, plumbers, welders, cooks, hairdressers) and struggling to get work for meager pay made me appreciate the chances I have gotten in life. Even the mere fact that I can comprehend calculus calculations while there are some to whom LCM and GCD is a problem at that stage of their life ignited my appreciation for life, for my course at uni so much so that when I resumed school for my fifth year, I was so eager to learn and to collaborate with other students. I will forever be grateful for the that period of my life.


In late 2016, I graduated with the class that I joined in fifth year, the one that came after us because that's how life is. You plan, but life shows you another path. But by then I was happier, more gratuitous for the chances life has given me, for the friendships that sustained me, more empathetic and understanding to others because of the existential pain I had endured and the failure I had experienced and bounced back from that prior to uni had been a foreign concept. Graduation felt less about the papers and more about coming to.


It is now more than an year since I cleared uni and graduated, and I must admit, that these months have been full of challenges. I even shared some of the lessons I learnt 7 months after I cleared. My first job, which I got the week prior to Graduation in the construction of a Gated Community in Lower Runda ended abruptly after 8 months for almost everyone in the company when the company went under. And those Business lessons from High School about the lack of work security in the private sector finally sank in. I am currently on my second one in Nakuru County for the controversial Itare Dam Project. I have had to move thrice since graduation, I have had to become penny wise as now I sort out all my bills, and have come to terms that the engineering life is nomadic and one has to be psychologically adept to relocation. I am now living in a small town that I had never even dreamt of visiting. 


Now that I am on the corporate side of the career, a young graduate working her way up, I would like to tell you that engineering as a career has been fulfilling to me. I cannot imagine what other career I would fit my character so well. I love the technical field visits, it is interesting to see a project start as an idea and improve people’s lives – and since my current job has less fieldwork and more paper work, I am constantly learning on what makes or breaks companies in the construction sector.


I am still very young in my career, and I have a lot to learn and unlearn. However, I am sharing my story to inspire anyone who could be stuck in a rut in uni, going through the motions, doubtful of the career choice they took, bewildered at the magnitude and intensity of their existential/identity crisis. Maybe like me someone is in engineering school, wondering whether they will get to the finish line. Trust me, it gets better, and you will get through it because you are stronger than you think. I am living proof of that. Hang in there, and fight for sunnier days. Brighter days are coming. 


I am writing this to tell my peers stuck in a department doing a job they do not like what Alfredo Scarfone, former manager of HP Italia, told us when he came to Kenya a few years ago and gave me and some friends a career talk.  He said every job you take is like a pearl you add to your necklace, and the more pearls you have on your necklace, the more beautiful it is when you wear it and any skill or technical know how you gain is useful for your career in the long run. I know of many of my peers who have not gotten jobs up to now while some got jobs even before we finished the coursework. Some are being paid handsomely, while others not so much. And what I am picking from this tree called life is that everybody’s life is uniquely different.


 I would like to finish by saying that the engineering career is not as glamourous as people imagine it to be – it takes hard work to go through uni and to graduate, and even more work to climb up the corporate ladder. The start is not so smooth, and the pay could be better, but as someone who has gotten an easy start compared to many others who are in the unemployment circle, and who has fallen in love with a career that she took a wild swing at, I would say keep on. You are doing great.