Chilala and I connected through LinkedIn after her name appeared on my timeline through mutual connections. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:
Hello Chilala, thank you for joining us today.
Hello Winnie, it is my pleasure.
Please give us a brief introduction about yourself
My name is Chilala Nokokure Kakoma-Bowa from Zambia. I am an engineer by profession but am currently a Lecturer at Copperbelt University (CBU).
Okay. Please walk us through your STEM journey; how did you become an engineer?
I was born in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia, and attended Kabulonga Girls’ High School, still in Lusaka. I once watched a documentary on Telecel (now called MTN) and was fascinated by a female Engineer who was the head of the section. This ignited the desire I had to become an Engineer. My dad played a bigger role in my decision of becoming an Electrical Engineer. I knew only two types of engineering then; Electrical and Telecommunication engineering from those two people.
My father was a PABX Technician for a Telecommunication company and later joined the private sector in a Security Company. Each time he went to work, he would come back tired and complaining that they were overworked yet it was the big engineers getting recognition and credit for work done by people like my dad. This was my major inspiration and I recall confessing to my dad that, “Dad I am going to be an engineer and be your boss someday”. His response was that I couldn’t be an engineer because I didn’t know how to do any hard manual work. Once he confirmed my passion, he started giving me tasks that required the use of physical energy. There were boys in the house but he used to ask me to trim the flowers, paint the fence and gate, etc! Remember we stayed in Kabwata, Kalonga street – which is a very busy street in Lusaka – so people would pass by and wonder what a girl was doing up on a fence, haha. There is no way I could hide what I was doing from anyone! There was this time he asked me to paint the gate black and that became my description; “which Chilala? The girl from the black gate that she painted”, haha. I later realised that my dad was just training me and instilling in me the ability to do hard work that would be required from an Engineer.
When I was still in high school, I remember performing worst in my science class. I had 7% in Additional Mathematics, 70% in Ordinary Mathematics, and the rest of the subjects were just averagely performed. I remember these 2 because they were a turning point for me. I had to indirectly explain to my mother about my results on our way to pick my end-of-term report. She didn’t respond so I assumed she hadn’t heard what I had said, but she repeated my words after receiving my report card from the teacher. My teacher was surprised that I could call myself uncreative. Her explanation was that if I was ever able to make a thread go through a needle then I was very creative and that description has never left my mind. On our way back home, my mother advised me to drop Mathematics because there was no way I was going to make it while getting 7%. At the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to do engineering, and that required me being in a science class, with a Mathematics component.
At the beginning of the following term, I started sneaking in and out of the house with the Additional Mathematics textbooks and also got a sister in the neighbourhood, called Charity Kachana –who is now an engineer too – to give me some tutorials. She was two years ahead of me. My parents didn’t know anything about this. Sometimes you have to stay focused in order to achieve your dream – in this case, I kept a little secret. When I joined grade 11, we wrote our end-of-year examinations and I was the best student in both Additional and Ordinary Mathematics. My mom didn’t really look at the report until we reached home and she asked if that was truly my report card, haha. This time she presented the report to my dad who asked who I had copied from, haha. My dad had to give me side assignments to make sure those were my marks, haha…. Oh my God! Haha.
I was finally blessed to meet the Engineer from Telecel (Chali-Tumelo). She encouraged my passion and told me about her story. My final year at secondary school was so promising that the tables changed. My results were still the best for the whole grade 12s at the school. I ended up receiving an award from my school as the best student in Additional and Pure Mathematics. I invited my Telecel mentor and my mother to the ceremony; seeing their smiles and joy summed up everything.
I then joined the University of Zambia on a full scholarship. I, unfortunately, lost my father in my first year of university. I was torn between doing the examinations right away and deferring them to allow me time to grieve the loss of my father. I am grateful for the people in my life then who encouraged me to do the examinations right away, because of what I was targeting – joining the school of engineering. Deferring them meant a not-so-pleasant mark on my transcript. I had to commute from the funeral house to the examination room. I only did it because I knew that’s what my father would want for me. I surprisingly did better than I had imagined. That’s how I joined the school of engineering.
Second-year, I joined the general engineering class. Come my third year, I had to select a specific area of engineering. I was interested in electrical engineering but heavy-duty current – that is in power systems. I wrote my name but the head of the department deleted it and put me in telecommunication, haha. I had to write back to the school and assure them that I wanted to do power systems – high voltage equipment. They kept on addressing me as Mr because it was unheard of, having a woman in power systems. We were 7 students and I was the only female.
I got married immediately after graduation. Now you can imagine the pressure from my family; they assumed that was the end of my dream but it wasn’t! I am married to a very understanding husband; he accepted that I could continue with my career aspirations as long as I left him with a child. That wasn’t going to be a problem for me. We had our first child a year later and I resumed graduate school at Kathmandu University in Nepal, a sandwich program with the Norwegian Institute of Technology (NTNU) in 2012. I left when our son was 7 months old. Those are some of the things we get to face as career women; there are certain sacrifices we have to make, so do our families.
I returned in 2013 and started lecturing at CBU because it was giving me more time with family. As you know, in academia you promote yourself, as opposed to the other system where you have to wait for the system itself to promote you. My target was to have a Ph.D. at latest 35 years of age. I was admitted for a Ph.D. at Johannesburg University and applied for study leave from CBU. This time around I had to go with my children. Again the second born was 7 months, haha. It was a tough time doing registrations and accommodating my children in the new environment. I had to teach myself how to be a single mother in school, with a son having challenges in school.
Apart from lecturing, what else do you do?
Because of my hard work, dedication, and competence, I am one of the few engineers who have started a campaign to improve literacy levels in the country. My son’s academic challenge – which was resolved by him mastering sight words, leading to reading – pushed me to think of how I could help other children back home. That’s how Zambian Spelling Bee was birthed. We mentor children on how to use their cognitive and critical thinking skills. We have introduced spelling bee competitions across the country in 2018 and later on, in 2019 started a campaign of inclusive education for both deaf and blind youths and women. The competitions are a platform to mentor, improve and instill confidence in the learners, improve writing skills as well as cognitive skills. The program aims at improving the education sector from primary to tertiary with the learners being motivated to “BEE-LIVE IN YOURSELF” regardless of their abilities.
It was in South Africa that I realised how much STEM was emphasised as compared to where I was coming from. I realised that the girls are more exposed to what they can find in the STEM field out there as early as primary school. Whereas there is not enough exposure here and we leave to when they are in high school. Our girls only have options of medicine or nursing. This is where we need to come in as mentors and show the girls what other careers exist in STEM. To show them that yes, I wear overalls but I can still wear a suit, lecture you and go back underground. This is what pushed us to start the Zambian chapter for the Organization for Women in Science in Developing countries (OWSD) and I am the current Vice-Chairperson, with Wezi Nyimbili as the Chairperson.
What challenges have you faced as a female engineer?
The lack of acceptability that women can equally perform as men or even better.
How do you balance work/family demands?
Family and work balance has never been an easy road and no one has the right formula yet. However, mutual understanding of parties involved and communication has played a key role. Simple principles such as the “D” Rule – Desire, Dedication, Discipline, and Determination work for me. If it’s within my four square plan then it’s worth balancing and going an extra mile for. The family will always take center stage; after God, they come second.
What can women do to adapt to the engineering environment, which is mostly male-dominated?
Bee-Live in Yourself. This has been our slogan even in Zambia Spelling Bee because we believe that once you believe in yourself, you can do exploits. Many times an opportunity comes our way and we think we can’t do it because we don’t believe in ourselves. I will give you an example of my lecturing times, there are sessions with older people from the engineering industry who look at us wondering what we can possibly teach them. But the moment you believe in yourself and start teaching, they later come back to you with compliments about a concept you perfectly explained during class.
Women also need to embrace each gender for what they can learn at that time and how they can impact another person along this journey called life. There is no room for competition really! Once I believe in myself and what I can deliver, all I have to do is pull another person’s hand so that we can achieve the greater good together. Collaboration is always key, plus knowing the synergy you need to put into your work.
What are some of your future aspirations?
My aspiration is to become an engineer without borders, an advocate of the girl child and women, one who can make a difference regardless of their background. An Engineer in the world who can provide solutions to the education sector and engineering fraternity. I also aim at participating in outreach STEM campaigns and empowering women with skills to uplift them, especially in rural areas.
What is your favourite quote?
“If you believe in yourself, anything is possible” ~ Miley Cyrus.
I also want to encourage young girls that when they fall, it’s not the last thing! It is rather an avenue of learning what you have been doing wrong and correcting to do it right so that you can excel. In short, when you fall, don’t give up. You can still pull up and even do better.
Thank you, Chilala! It has been an amazing and learning time for me. Thank you for sparing time to speak with me. I look forward to more interactions.