Programmes manager for NEPAD e-Africa Programme, Towela Jere, who holds a Bsc and PhD in electrical engineering, speaks on being among the first crop of female engineering studentsÃ‚Â at the Polytechnic of Malawi, dealing with negative perceptions of females trying to rise up the ranks in a male-dominated industry and refusing to acknowledge the negativity of people who would like to pull her down.
What do you remember most about growing up?
There were five children in the family; two boys and three girls. I am the middle child and the oldest of the girls. I spent a lot of time playing with my brothers and sisters. We learned to do fun things such as making wire cars, playing soccer and riding skateboards. When neither my brothers nor my sisters wanted to play with me, I would escape to my books.
I loved reading and I read anything and everything from story books to comic books, newspapers, health books and encyclopedias. Each one of us had chores because my mother was insistent that all of us (boys and girls alike) learn basic household tasks.Ã‚Â My father was very insistent on the value of a good education and I remember vividly the long lectures we would get about how important it was to do well in school.
He would always stress that we were never to derive our sense of self from what he had accomplished but rather we should seek to excel and establish ourselves in our own right. At the time, those lectures were not fun and the words sounded really harsh but in hindsight I know that he was doing the best he could to instill values and discipline that would see us through life.
As children, we all have dreams; what were yours?
My biggest ambition as I was growing up was to be a lawyer. This came from my love for reading. I enjoyed Agatha Christie and Perry Mason and other detective books and somehow I associated the unravelling of facts and solving of mysteries with the life of a lawyer.
I also enjoyed arguing and debating and would always take the opposing view. This all changed when I was in my final years of secondary school and decided that I wanted to study computers.
What initiated this change?
My mother worked with Usaid when I was in secondary school and I loved visiting her at the office. One day, she let me sit at her desk and use her computer (word processor at that time) and I was so intrigued by the technology; I decided right there that I wanted to understand how they worked.
When I was in Form Four and had to decide on a field of study, I told my mother I wanted to study computers. She found out what courses I could take that would match this ambition. My mother went to great lengths phoning the University Office, Chancellor College and the Polytechnic to get the correct information.
In the end, we narrowed it down to two options: computer science and electrical engineering. Finally, I settled on electrical engineering because it would be easier to incorporate programming if I wanted to than the other way around. When filling out my choices, I put engineering in the first two options because I wanted to make sure that whoever read that form understood what I wanted. I filled in business studies for the third choice; not because I wanted to study that, but I thought it might just be too cheeky to fill all three spaces with engineering.
I was cautioned that no females had ever been admitted to engineering programme and that made me even more determined. As it turned out, four of us became the first females admitted to the engineering programme in 1987.
The next five years were both challenging and interesting. The engineering lecturers who had never had female students before didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t quite know what to make of us; some treated us kindly and with Ã¢â‚¬Å“softÃ¢â‚¬Â gloves; others went to the other extreme of subjecting us to undue stress because we had Ã¢â‚¬Å“daredÃ¢â‚¬Â to enter a male-dominated field. Our fellow students were for the most part alright and treated us just the same as everyone else.
How did you deal with such treatment?
With a combination of diplomacy, mutual respect, focused determination and being thick-skinned. There were a lot of obstacles and challenges but there were also a lot of opportunities.
How did you climb up the communication and technologyÃ‚Â ladders?
The problems I faced in university surfaced when I started working, when I went for my post-graduate studies and even now. I think that being a female in a male-dominated industry, you have to go out of your way to show that you have earned the right to be where you are and that you are not looking for any special favours from anyone.
This can be difficult, especially when the balance of power is not in your favour and one needs to have high integrity and sense of self and self-worth. You cannot afford to allow anyone to undermine you or make you feel that you have not earned your place in the sun.
What were the challenges you faced at the beginning of your career?
When we started out, we were not taken seriously; there was a feeling that we were only enrolled in engineering to Ã¢â‚¬Å“prove a pointÃ¢â‚¬Â and that we were not serious about careers in engineering. After graduation, working with male counterparts posed some challenges because I had to get used to a different way of communicating. I had to navigate the fine line between being friendly, maintaining respect and not falling into unhealthy relationships with co-workers.
Some co-workers and bosses would go out of their way to make life miserable just to prove the misconception that Ã¢â‚¬Å“engineering is not for femalesÃ¢â‚¬Â. Clients also had problems accepting that a female engineer would be able to resolve their problems.
Currently you are in RSA, what are you doing? Are you ever going to come back home?
I am working with the Nepad Planning and Coordinating Agency in the e-Africa Programme. My work involves conceptualising new programmes and projects in the field of ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) and associated applications. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s an exciting job and an exciting time as I feel that Africa is on the verge of a big breakthrough in terms of utilising ICTs for socio-economic development.
I have been here for almost two years now and my long term plans are to come back to work in Malawi. I love Malawi; there is so much potential in Malawi and in Malawians and I want to be a part of unlocking that potential.
You once served as the acting managing director of ICT Networks Limited where among others you managed the technical department…
Yes and that job was challenging not because I am a woman but simply because it was tough. You see, I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am a female engineer.Ã¢â‚¬Â I just know that I have a job to do and that I am just as qualified as the next person to do that job.
So, at ICT Networks, I approached my job as I do anything in life. I worked with dedication, worked to earn the respect of my colleagues and clients and did not let my gender get in the way of business.
I am sure there were some who looked down on you given the fact that you are a woman. How did you deal with such critics?
I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t derive my sense of self from what others say or think about me because there will always be detractors and they come in various forms. There are those who are downright hostile and whose only mission in life is to put you down; then there are those who pretend to like you yet harbour some deep-seated resentment.
So, the way that I deal with critics is that I refuse to acknowledge them; people will only tear you down if you give them the permission to do so. I know what I want from this life and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what I focus on.
What sacrifices did you make for the sake of self-development?
When I went for my graduate studies, I was newly married so it was a difficult time to leave home. However, my husband was able to join me after a while so I had his support.
During the last two years of my PhD, I was alone with my then three-year old daughter and that was a very difficult time. It was also a time when I was just getting over the passing away of my father and I got to a point where I just wanted to quit and come home.
However, the memory of my dad and how he was always so proud of my accomplishments and how he was so proud of me for having gotten that far made it even more imperative that I complete my studies.
As one good friend of mine likes to say, you have to Ã¢â‚¬Å“Keep your eye on the prizeÃ¢â‚¬Â and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what I did.
LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s talk about your hubby and the support he gave you…
My husband was very supportive; he understood that pursuing my studies meant there was less time to devote to him and to take care of our family.
He helped around the house by doing things such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of the baby. He would always encourage me when I felt that things were not going well and when I felt like I was undertaking Ã¢â‚¬Å“mission impossibleÃ¢â‚¬Â.Ã‚Â Sadly, he passed on in 2007.
What would you want fellow women to learn from you?
I want them to understand that as women, we can have it all, we just canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have it all at once. I think that sometimes we go wrong when we get sucked into the whole gender equality debate to the extent that we forget what our values and virtues are as women.
I always say that thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a reason why God made man and then woman and we need to respect that. Having said that, being a woman does not and should not make me in any way inferior to a man. Women need to love themselves for who and what they are.
They need to be proud of their accomplishments and achievements without making others feel small and inferior. We need to celebrate our successes; help each other overcome our short-comings and value the roles that we have to play in our families and in society.
For the younger women and men, I think that if anything, life has taught me that without a vision and without a plan to realise that vision, all your efforts will come to nothing. I had a vision that I would get my PhD by the time I was 30 and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what I did. However, I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have a clear vision of what I would do thereafter and this has been a big learning point for me now because I spent a lot of time after the PhD trying to Ã¢â‚¬Å“findÃ¢â‚¬ÂÃ‚Â myself and think through what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
As a woman, what do you take joy in?
Watching my two children-Tapiwa (14) and Themba (7) Ã¢â‚¬â€œ grow is a source of great pleasure for me. I also enjoy hearing about the successes of other women. I read somewhere that happiness is a journey not a destination and so I treasure every day and all the little moments that give me cause to smile or laugh.
What traits have enabled you to succeed in life?
Being focused, being true to myself, believing in myself, not being afraid to ask for help, advice or guidance, knowing my limitations and choosing my friends and friendships carefully. All this of course must be understood within the context of a deep-seated belief in God and knowledge that it is He alone who enables me to enjoy the successes that I have.