Empowering Girls through Engineering
My name is Pamela Ntombiyemfundo Mukwenha. I was born and raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and am currently residing in South Africa, studying Chemical Engineering. I am a ‘life’ enthusiast with a keen interest in Africa, education and innovation through any possible medium, particularly through engineering.
Betty Makoni, founder of Girl Child Network and a lady I admire, asked me why I chose to study Chemical Engineering and what I think can be done to inspire girls out there to take an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. A daunting task I thought, especially the latter, and I wouldn’t call myself an expert. The only way I could possibly answer the second question is to answer the first…and share my personal journey.
I was born with cancer, an acute case of nephroblastoma that is highly treatable today but due to late diagnosis and a myriad of circumstances, I was then told that I only had a 20% chance of making it to my 2nd birthday. Yet, here I am…and from the second I was able to understand such a miracle in my life, that single fact forced me to adopt a never say never attitude in all my goals and aspirations. It has shaped me to be the person I am today.
I come from a very big, modest and very supportive family. I grew up in a society that like most societies around the world reveres academics. My second name is ‘Ntombiyemfundo’ which means ‘young lady of education’. One could say that it was ingrained in me via ‘environmental diffusion’ from an early age that education was very vital to success! My earliest recollections for pursuing academia revolve around that philosophy. I was very blessed to be born into a family and society that was bent on nurturing any potential I had and affording me opportunities. Education was one such distinct area.
Soon after high school an uncle and engineer pointed out to me how much immense potential we have in Africa pertaining natural resources when he spoke of bacteria whose by-products in a local river could be harnessed into fuel but no one was looking into it. I did some research and made up my mind that I was going to study Chemical Engineering and help champion the ‘Chemical Engineering Silicone Valley’ of Africa. Not just focusing on the raw materials, exporting them and dooming ourselves as Africans to be consumers but to focus on the products side as well and being on the ‘winning side of the equation as Africans’ as put by Ory Okolloh (Director of Investments at Omidyar Network and ‘girl power enthusiast’) at the Engineering Africa event hosted by South African Women Engineers (SAWomEng).
I never set out to consider engineering from an early age as a profession. In fact, I would say ‘I stumbled across it while pursuing my passions’ all thanks to people such as my uncle who took the time out to educate me on the existence of its vital opportunities. I’m deliriously passionate about development and about Africa! In my eyes, education (in all forms) and engineering innovations are mere tools, vital tools, I’ve picked up along the way that I believe I can use to help develop Africa.
“As for the future, your task is not to foresee it but to enable it.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
What do we need, as young girls and women, to enable our future in engineering?
I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a ‘self-made person’. A dream/vision may come to a single person but its fulfillment is never singular. In Ndebele/Zulu there is a saying that says “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” meaning a person is a person because of people. I am by far the product of combined human effort and experiences but also of the people who have believed and supported me…and in some instances even those who have not. Young girls and women need support in all forms from individuals in the community to institutions with broad influence.
Some of the most eye-opening moments in my life occurred as a teenager when my father dragged my sister and I through high density shop markets in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe highlighting the ‘opportunities’ that lay dormant in people and places that were not obvious at first (or even second) glance. I joined community initiatives in my local town of Bulawayo, got involved in initiatives that allowed me to travel to meet SADC Heads of State in South Africa and represent the youth of Zimbabwe in Japan and in the UK as a Global Changemaker - mind-blowing and inspiring events which awakened dreams within me I never even knew I had. And when I didn’t have the opportunity to travel physically to gain exposure, it was but as simple as picking up a book. You need to catch the opportunities that come your way and, when necessary, not wait for opportunities but create them for yourself.
At the end of 2013 I was privileged to be chosen as a an emerging young leader and partake in Vital Voices Global Mentoring Walk in South Africa, an initiative for aspiring young ladies and established women. This is an example of a brilliant initiative that is enabling young women to reach their full potential in any field. My mentor, Chantelle McKenzie’s million dollar question to me was ‘What do I care about?’ And ultimately I believe that’s what any dream and goal we choose should lead to and probably one of the most important lessons I believe anyone has taught me in a while.
My own personal step to exploring relevant opportunities in engineering (particularly those that can benefit Africa) was to start a blog (www.explochemeng.weebly.com)...Hopefully, through this small effort, I will be able to help one (or many) future female engineers.