I volunteered first to prove my potential
For years, men have dominated the field of sciences. Women who could opt for sciences would be discouraged by the community as most people imagined that some jobs are for a specific sex.
However, Uganda is making strides in breaking this societal stigma through promotion and enrollment of girls in these previously male dominated fields.
Sharifa Nantongo, 24, is one such girl who despite the manual nature of the job, believes any determined woman can make a good civil engineer. My first encounter with her was at a construction site in Buloba, and one could hardly differentiate her from the group of men she was working with.
Dressed in jeans, gumboots and a reflector, Nantongo was busy laying a foundation for a building with the rest of her colleagues.
“There is nothing limited to men; anything that men can do women, too, can do,” she says.
Born in 1994 to Sulait Ssali and Yudaya Ssali in Kyankwanzi District, Nantongo says she grew up admiring engineers.
She thus concentrated on Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics in order to achieve her dreams.
When she completed A-Level at St Josephs Senior Secondary School in Kigando, she looked for someone to mentor her in engineering.
“There was a civil engineer in my neighbourhood. I went to his residence and asked him to guide me. He was impressed by my aggressiveness and offered to become my mentor,” she recalls.
Nantongo’s mentor whom she later reveals as Robert Musisi advised her to first enroll in a technical institute so as to get initial training.
She adhered to the advice and enrolled for a Diploma in civil Engineering at Uganda Technical College, Kyema which she completed in 2016. Currently, she is at Kyambogo University in second year pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering.
The working student
Nantongo is a working student. She explains that she opted to study during the weekend so as to get ample time to practice. “In my field, practical work is important, although theory is also necessary,” she explains.
She has been able to prove her potential through her willingness to learn, and working hard with the rest of the team at her workplace.
Nantongo says for all the time she has been practicing, she does not use the fact that she is a woman as an excuse but as a person who is knowledgeable and is able to do work assigned to her.
“I can work until late in the night with my colleagues. I do not present myself as a weaker sex by only doing supervisory work despite being a technician. I always team up with the casual labourers where necessary and offer a hand,” she says.
Though Nantongo is resilient and is registering improvement each day that passes, she acknowledges the fact that stereotyping is still a problem in Uganda.
Breaking the stigma
She observes that many employers are not very comfortable having a woman on the team.
“Although I had accomplished my Diploma in Civil Engineering with all the necessary skills, people were skeptical about employing me. Some would openly tell me they cannot have a girl construct their buildings. I had to first volunteer at a construction site to show the employer that I can even do much better than men and indeed my abilities were realised. After just two weeks, I was offered a job after the boss noticed that I had all it took to work,” she explains.
Nantongo currently works with KENA International Limited as one of the site instructors and she says she is working hard to be one of the most sought after civil engineers in Uganda a few years from now.
According to Robert Musisi, girls need to aggressively challenge the prejudice that women cannot handle certain jobs. He says, though, girls are slowly embracing these previously male dominated jobs, their numbers are still limited.
He believes girls can actually do even better as civil engineers since they are focused and determined. “When a construction site has a woman on board, it is rare to experience issues of shoddy work. Women are usually honest people who will do work as expected,” he says.
Advice to girls
Sharifa Nantongo says in order for a girl to succeed in this field, they need to be hardworking, willing to take on difficult tasks and always eager to learn new things. She says it is also important that while on a construction site, they keep their work strictly professional.
“Do not undermine the rest of the team just because you are learned. Some girls always want to act superior but in this field, it is important to be down to earth. This will help you learn a lot more from those whose status differs from yours,” she says.