There is enough space for everyone on the STEM stage! Murungi is a Civil Engineer focusing on sustainable transportation for all cities. Here is how she incorporates her engineering skills into policy analysis;
Hi Murungi, how are you doing? Thank you for joining us today; we are happy to have you
Hi Winnie, I am excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
I know we have e-met before in the various Girls for Girls (G4G) rounds but our audience would like to know who our guest is
My name is Murungi Elizabeth Mwebesa Bah from Uganda. I am currently completing my Ph.D. in Civil Engineering with a focus on regional planning and transportation engineering. I am very much into research and policy analysis.
You mentioned something that resonates with me; some people do traditional subjects and eventually don’t end up taking traditional STEM career paths as we know them in Africa. How is that?
Yes, I did Civil Engineering and started working in the road infrastructure sector. Since my passion has always been transportation, my mentor always pushed me towards road designs and things in that line. But for some reason, I was never really content with design, haha. I could design and do all the work required there but something wasn’t adding up. It was until I did graduate studies that I felt like I had found my place in life.
If we have two extreme points on a scale; one is arts and the other is sciences, I am the middle person. I am a scientist who loves art subjects. My favourite subjects in high school were; Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, History, Geography, and Literature. So you can imagine that “katogo” but those are things I loved.
For a long time, I struggled with finding my footing in the “traditional civil engineering” world. I knew I loved transportation but, what exactly in transportation! It wasn’t just about designs and road supervision, I felt something was missing. Looking at things from an African setting, we don’t have a variety of career paths to look at. So when I got the MEXT scholarship to come to Japan, I decided to choose something that was of interest to me. I chose a lab that did “social engineering” – I define it as using transportation to solve people’s social problems. I felt like I had done enough Mathematics. That’s why I am now into policy, strategy, and of course research at Osaka University.
At the Doi-ken lab I felt I had finally found a home because the previous research revolved around things like how to adjust a bus route so that students, the elderly, and working people are taken care of! How to revitalise a city or community through transportation! What services can be added to a transportation system to cater for different people in need! These are the kinds of things that vibe with me, but we, unfortunately, don’t have these back home in Uganda.
So, those are things I have been involved in. I do road safety, but not ordinary road safety, haha. My research is more about promoting bottom-up approaches as opposed to the traditional methods i.e. “how do we get different stakeholders, especially the community, involved in the road safety decision-making process?”.
I like the fact that STEM allows everyone to contribute to what they love on different levels. We all don’t have to be the brains into designing technical things, but our contributions matter
With where the world is going – the pandemic and everything else – we need to find intersections in our abilities. For me, I love talking and listening to people, reading, and watching movies. I always find ways of using these abilities to contribute to STEM. I run a podcast called BGlocal (because we are #Black #Global and #Local – YouTube) where I use my people-interaction skills to make an impact on Africa. We should encourage all the young girls to tap into their passion and use that to contribute to STEM. If you love baking and STEM, bake us a bridge, the Statue of Liberty, a chemical component, you know! Use your skills to bring awareness in a way.
I like your school of thought about STEM, but to take it a little personal; how did you end up in civil engineering?
I knew that I wanted to serve humanity from a very young age, but it was how to choose what to do that confused me. Becoming a Medical Doctor would be the obvious option, right? But no, I feared the sight of blood. Through elimination, I finally decided to do civil engineering, specifically transportation, which I pursued at Kyambogo University for my first degree.
I had other passions along the way because I remember being involved in drama and essay writing competitions in primary school. These activities strengthened my understanding of the need to serve humanity. We used to recite poems about the desperate situations people faced to raise awareness.
I joined a competitive secondary school – Mt. St. Mary’s College Namagunga – with many brilliant girls. This gave me more confidence in what girls could do and what we were capable of. We were always encouraged to work hard and excel at everything we do. That’s when my engineering dream was truly watered.
I purposely chose Kyambogo University because naturally I am a “let’s see what’s on the opposite direction” kind of person. As everyone was choosing Makerere, I went with Kyambogo, haha. While at university, I intentionally looked out for opportunities that would put me in the road-infrastructure space.
Upon graduation, I was accepted into the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) graduate program and my first job was working on a feasibility study of Hoima-Butyaba-Wanseko road. From there I joined another big project; the Hoima-Kaiso-Tonya road construction and supervision. This period is what formed the biggest foundation of my career. I did contract management, supervision of works, and represented the consultant on the social and environmental team.
As you can see, I am trained as a civil engineer but I somehow always end up in other departments that have “people affairs”, haha. I then joined a private consultancy, Newplan Limited, where I quickly rose to the post of Division Manager and was in charge of project management, business acquisition, and running day-to-day activities of the division. This is one of the most challenging and fulfilling jobs I have done.
For graduate studies, this is something I knew I wanted to do outside Uganda because I felt that there must be a different way of doing things out there! Again, as many of my friends and colleagues were going to UK, US, Europe, I chose to come to Japan, haha. I did my master’s for 2 years then continued with Ph.D., which I will be completing soon.
As a woman who has walked a non-ordinary STEM journey, what are some of the challenges you have faced?
Harassment! working in male-dominated territories; harassment is to be expected. “Lucky” enough for me it was not sexual harassment, but it was still harassment! I know women who have not been hired just because they refused to respond to advances the way they were expected to! I once went to a bank to withdraw money and this male teller reacted very inappropriately to my work card. According to his knowledge about my company, there was no way someone like me would be hired as a civil engineer. In his own words, “you look like a receptionist!”, haha… You can imagine!
And he wasn’t the first person to make such comments. I must clarify that there is nothing wrong with being a receptionist but some men don’t expect women to “roll with the men.”As a woman in STEM, men will treat you unfairly every day! If it’s not sexual, then it’s the degrading comments, non-acknowledgment of our work, or other things along the line.
I need to point out that there are very good men in these fields that are helping women rise. All the mentors and bosses I have had are men who have believed in me, nurtured me, and encouraged me on this journey! Since it’s traditionally a man’s job, we needed men to support us if we are to excel in this field. And, yes, many are helping us join the team and ensuring that we are comfortable there.
What has helped you to not give up when faced with these challenges?
My family and some friends’ faith and belief in me keep me going. Every time I am faced with a challenge and I want to give up, my inner person reminds me that my people believe in me. That’s enough to keep me going. I think about all the sacrifices my parents have made for me and can’t put that to waste.
I am also my mother’s first child; this means that all my siblings (cousins included) are looking up to me. I can’t let them down! I recently shared my challenges of studying in Japan with the G4G Bookclub. Every time I felt like giving up, I would ask myself, “Is this the story I want to tell my siblings? That when I was faced with a challenge, I simply gave up without a fight!”. That alone would give me the motivation to push on.
One of the things that used to inspire me to work hard while growing up was to prove a point to some people. I had relatives telling my dad that it was pointless to educate a girl. I had to prove them wrong, haha. But that was before, now things are different; I have already made my point. Just to brag a little bit, haha, by 2022, my family will have 6 degrees and 5 of those are from us the two girls. Such achievements make me aim for bigger things in my life.
My other inspiration is the dream I have for my life and the legacy I want to leave behind me. I have a vision for my life that I want to see come to life. Yes, sometimes I call “time out” when things are tight but I get back in line.
My other strong point is God; he has been with me through it all. If I made it through a given challenge, I know I can overcome the current situation based on my experience.
Let’s talk about some of your prestigious moments in life
Successfully starting and completing road infrastructure projects have been some of my proudest moments. I was managing a very big project (over 200 people) that I was worried about completing! I was new in the company, new in that type of work, but I was able to pull it off. That made me very proud. And when I see the works being implemented, I feel very proud because I made a tangible contribution toward our people and my country.
I have also published 3 peer-reviewed journal papers and 1 conference peer-reviewed paper. My other passion is writing; I had started blogging but opted for podcasting instead because of time. I am also proud of having launched the website podcast; it’s not yet where I want it to be but its existence makes me very proud. I feel that in a way I am giving back to Africa through sharing “our experiences”.
I also won some speech contests; one in English and the other in Japanese in 2017. I took second place in the Japanese one and first place in the English one.
You have talked about the podcast; what else do you do outside work?
I love engaging with people; I have been invited to speak on the same platform as high-profile people on different occasions in Japan. Most of these have been about “how to move Africa forward.” As you already know, I love moderating and coordinating events. I also love spending time with family, I love traveling and when I travel, it’s for food and experience. I have to try street food from different countries. Watching movies and reading are other things that I enjoy.
What’s your favourite quote?
I honestly don’t have a specific one but there’s this statement my sister, Lenah, made that I use in my email signatures. “There’s always a way, and we always have a choice” ~ Mwebesa Lenah Kugonza.
Any encouragement for a young girl in STEM?
As women, we have everything we need to succeed in life naturally built within us. The learning and school are just a bonus! Learning helps us to grow but everything starts from the inside. I would like to encourage a young girl out there to find an anchor to hold onto when challenges arise. It could be religion, family, friends, a quote,…anything you choose.
We also need to define our values and boundaries. Like I mentioned before, there’s a lot of harassment going on in this field. You need to know how far you are willing to go to achieve your goals. In this rapidly changing world, you need to stand for something or you will fall for anything.
Get yourself a support circle and try to be a well-rounded person. Learn how to balance your life. I know we can’t have it all 100% but try to have every aspect of your life checked; emotions, finances, spiritual life, intellectual character, physical being, and many more.
Thank you very much, Murungi, for sparing some time for us. This has been a very educative session. Thank you once again and hope to interact more.