Throughout her primary and secondary school years, Architect Catherine Sani’s eyes were set on becoming a medical doctor.
While in Form Three at UWCSA Waterford Kamhlaba in Mbabane Swaziland, she dropped art when the time came for subject choices although she was good at it, just to make her dream a reality.
Recalls Cathy: “My Art teacher tried to convince me otherwise, asking me to consider a career in the Arts due to my strengths. I did not listen and went on to pursue physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics; and wrote my international general certificate of secondary education (IGCSE) examinations with medicine in mind. I then commenced the International Baccalaureate (IB) still hoping to pursue medicine.”
Her ‘Aha’ moment came when one day, as she chatted with her friends about life’s dreams, she mentioned how she would love to one day design a building. One of her friends suggested that she considers architecture as a career.
Until then, she never realised that she could have a career in a scientific, arts-based field, and she began reading about architecture and the study of architecture.
“I quickly learned that I needed to have been pursuing art and would require a portfolio to apply to most of the foreign universities I was already looking at. I sheepishly went back to my old art teacher and asked if he would give me lessons on the side and help me establish a portfolio. He said ‘I told you so’, but agreed to help,” she explains.
At this point she had already submitted her applications to some universities in the United Kingdom (UK); so she simultaneously checked which of the six that she had applied to offered architecture.
“I made a deal with myself that whichever [university] accepted for me to change my application to architecture and then accept me, I would take it as a sign. Of all six universities I had applied to, two offered architecture, and from the two, only the University of Liverpool allowed me to change my application from medicine to architecture,” says the first born of two children in her family.
However, she admits that becoming an architect is a tedious process.
“It is one of those fields that one can study architecture, but still not be an Architect,” says Cathy.
Often, architecture is a minimum seven-year sandwich course of university and work in practice under an architect.
She pursued her first degree for three-years, and as a requirement, she had to spend a year in practice.
Explains Cathy: “I did my first year in practice in the United States of America. Following that, I returned to university for a two-year post graduate programme which included a dissertation and a thesis and got my second degree.
“Again, graduates are expected to work for a minimum further one year under an architect. I did my second period in practice in Lilongwe, at Norman+Dawbarn under the tutelage of the late Architect Spencer Mwandemange.”
Following two years of work in practice, Catherine entered the Professional Practice Training and Examination through the Board of Architects and Quantity Surveyors under the Malawi Institute of Architects (MIA), sitting her final examinations in 2009, and finally being able to call herself an Architect.
About 11 years on, the 42-year-old has now been crowned president of the MIA—a role she feels is a challenging one with a broad scope of work and numerous issues to be tackled. Nonetheless, she feels humbled and grateful to be elevated to such a position.
Catherine feels that architecture as a profession has seemingly lost its relevance and value, as it has been relegated to a luxury for the rich, and architects being considered as professionals that society can do without.
As such, she says that accepting this nomination is a means to play her part in demonstrating the value of the profession.
She says: “I believe in the quote that it is not the critic that counts, but the man (or woman) in the arena. A great foundation has been laid by past councils thus far. And so, to my fellow MIA members, I make a call to action. Let us be relevant and demonstrate our value.
“We all have something to contribute — a God given gift, a purpose, an idea. Let us act. Let us do. Let us move from sitting on the side-lines and get in the arena. The time is now.”
Currently, there are approximately only 50 women in architecture in various categories from graduates to architects in the country.
And the world over, the field is dominated by men. Is this because women are not capable? Sani completely disagrees and calls on younger girls interested in joining the profession to understand that the field is a tough field for both men and women.
“The course of study is long and tedious. In university, studio hours are long. In practice, hours are long, and remuneration is not always commensurate. These all sound like negatives, but architecture is a rare field where those who love art and science can find a home.
“Architecture is so broad that one can pursue all areas or some areas in disciplines such as estates, urban design, interiors, health care, education, writing, academia, film, set production and the list is endless,” Catherine explains.
She believes that architecture is one of the highest forms of art, and that the skills one gets in architecture school opens one to a world of endless possibilities.
Catherine and her only brother Jonas were born from the late Ben and Ethiopian mother Mulu Sani.
As her father was a civil servant in the Malawi diplomatic service, she was born in Germany and grew up in the UK, Malawi, Kenya, Mozambique, and Swaziland.
She did her high school at the UWCSA Waterford Kamhlaba in Swaziland before obtaining her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Architecture and a post-graduate degree in Architecture—both from the University of Liverpool.
Besides being an architect, she is also an entrepreneur, running the business her parents established.
She explains: “My parents founded Good Shepherd International School (GSIS) in 1995. In my late teens, the late Sani’s ensured that we their children were an integral part of the administration of the school, and we all spent our school holidays working there, in addition to working one year there prior to going to university.”
Unfortunately, the parents died in a car accident in 2003, which compelled the siblings to return to Malawi to ensure continuity of the school.
“I have been education director at GSIS for almost 18 years now. In addition, there are other smaller ventures that I have taken on over the years, including most recently founding a skin and hair products line called Naturally,” the young architect explains.
Catherine describes herself as a global citizen who feels strongly about Pan-Africanism. Her leisure activities are interrelated with supplementing and feeding her career interests.
She is also partial to anthropological, socio-political, and urban themed documentaries.
Additionally, she also enjoys writing, literature and pursuing photography as a hobby; and loves travelling, visiting museums and historical sites.