Thiry-one-year-old Tiwonge Nyirenda never thought of doing electrical engineering. She never even had career choices and little did she know about tertiary education.
From little known Jeremiah Nyirenda Village in Traditonal Authority (T/A) Mzikubola in Mzimba, she emerged one of the best four Form Four students at her school in her year, but had given up hope of going further with her education.
At the age of three, she lost her mother and her father died when she was seven years old. She was raised by her grandmother and uncle.
“I grew up in an extended family. We were about 25 of us. My grandma kept a lot of her grandchildren and other relations from the other side of the family.
“Of the five children, my grandparents had, three died. This put us all under the parentship of our grandmother,” she said.
Her grandmother cultivated a small garden and her uncle was a small farmer.
“They were hard workers and we all worked in the field,” adds Tiwonge.
They had enough to eat, but school basics were a struggle. Tiwonge started her educational journey at Kamatowo Full Primary School in Mzimba.
Later, she went to boarding school from 2001 to 2004 at Luwinga Secondary School in Mzuzu. However her grandparents could not afford her education.
She would walk with her little bag, laden with roasted maize from Mzuzu town to Luwinga Nkholongo, a distance of about an hour to get to school.
“Going to school without bathing soap and sugar was all normal for me. Roasted maize and groundnuts were enough,” she says.
There were times when her teachers could buy her notebooks.
In her final year in 2004, Gill Hunter who ran a trust supported her and when she took over, she had to settle a great deal of outstanding balances.
Today, an electrical engineering instructor at Don Bosco Youth Technical Institute and Tevet ambassador, Tiwonge has motivated over 500 girls to take on engineering and sciences.
Tiwonge narrates how she was able to reach that far even though the prospects of further education appeared grim.
After the Form Four results, she had no information about tertiary educatio, and had given up hope of any other future.
However as advised by her sponsor, after staying home more than two years, Tiwonge started a course in electrical installation at the sponsor’s small training centre at Namizu in Mzuzu where she obtained a National Trade Test Grade One Certificate in 2007.
The class had thee students, including one girl who left to do teaching and a boy who dropped out. They had one instructor educated under the trust.
She became the only student and the school never got any other students.
In January 2008, she began an internship with Yankho Solar and Electrical Contractors. The same year, September, Yankho sent her for a three week training in renewable energy technologies at Mzuzu University which organised by Esami.
During the training, lack smiled upon her as she met Mr. Jailos (one of the training participants) of Lilongwe Technical College [LTC) who offered her a sponsorship to study Electrical and Electronic Engineering of the City and Guilds of London at LTC.
She became one of the two girls in a class of 35.
Tiwonge obtained an advanced diploma in electrical and electronic engineering in December 2009 and started working with Don Bosco Youth Technical Institute as an instructor in January 2010.
In 2014, she enrolled for a Bachelors degree programme with the University of Malawi’s Polytechnic to study electrical and electronic engineering as a mature student.
She finished her studies in a class of 50 students where only six were girls.
During her studies, Tiwonge continued to perform and was awarded a two months internship at Rice University, Texas, in United States of America.
She also won the best performing female engineering students’ scholarship by Escom for two years and best performing mature entry student of the class of 2018.
Beyond her earlier disadvantaged prospects, she now owns an electrical contracting company registered by Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera) and a firm that intends to gather young people to share their innovative ideas especially girls from low resource communities.
Describing her work she says, electrical engineering involves designing and developing new electrical systems-designing and developing innovations that can solve problems facing the country as well as improving the livelihood of the citizenry.
“My primary duty as an instructor is to impart skills in the students as regards electrical installation and electronics as well as entrepreneurial and communication skills,” she says.
In addition, her work involves modelling and mentoring the students especially girls.
She says every morning she wakes up a very happy person, ready for a distinguished and rare task; being a woman who is directly involved in imparting technical skills in the youths which she calls a milestone duty in transforming the nation and living standards of the most important population of the country.
“I am indebted every day to carry a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) flag and raise it high to bridge the gap facing women in the engineering field through my daily work as an instructor and motivational talks.
What motivates her the most is the fact that by the end of each year, she will have brought out either an entrepreneur (a self-employed technician) or an electrical technician who will work for one industry or another.
Though she is the only female instructor in the technical field at her workplace and heading the department, seeing most of her students graduate and become independent and supporting their families is an achievement.
Tiwonge is more than contented to be involved in developing humans (improving peoples’ lives) than accumulating a lot of wealth for personal improvement or interest
In her section, there are currently about 120 students and only 10 are girls. A gawping gap she wants closed.
“Women must embrace the idea that there is simply no difference in working capabilities between mankind,” she says.
Tiwonge adds that women and girls who are already in the engineering industry must unveil themselves and present examples of their interests and experiences that can help upcoming engineers to contextualize engineering opportunities.
“Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem) is the ability to create, use and evolve energy to build a better world and thus stem courses make a person think and work beyond the normal.” She says,
She says the study of Stem is so enjoyable as it exposes one to an environment where all they think is ways of improving existing solutions or coming up with new solutions all together.
As a Tevet ambassador, her role includes sensitising young people on the benefits of pursuing a technical career as well as venturing into personal business as technical graduates.
There are not many challenges as one would assume, but Tiwonge finds herself more satisfied leading the department than challenging.
As a leader she finds love and integrity strong garlands, doing the right thing regardless of circumstances. When exercised these she says are enough a force to make people willingly take on their tasks.
Being in a male dominated career has been more interesting than challenging. She has had support from her male counterparts, as “foreperson” and the only woman technician at Yankho.
To women and girls she says, there is not reason enough to let go of one’s precious future,
“God gave equal capability to woman as He gave to man, the only challenge to a woman’s success is a woman herself,” she observes.
She encourages women wanting to study or studying electrical engineering to work hard as the industry awaits.
She urges girls to perform to the best of their God given capacity, as the path is now easy.
“Come and become an outstanding entrepreneur, we have all the grace to penetrate and invest our electrical engineering skills. The market is wide open waiting to receive a female innovator, contractor, senior engineer and entrepreneur!”
“The world is ours to change women and girls can, yes we can through investment of our engineering skills. I invite all interested girls to my firm where we, together can share our engineering ideas and transform them to physical solutions and devices,” she says. n