Rachel’s Notepad: Being Site-Engineer on Windhoek-Okahandja Trunk-works

Hers is a story of a dreamer born in a life of abject poverty, her father dying a month after she was born, and her grandmother weeping all the way to the village not knowing how her only grandchild would proceed with her education after she passed with flying colours.

Last June, Rachel Kakololo became the first Roads Authority woman and Engineer in Training to complete the first phase of the Windhoek-Okahandja
dual carriageway, where for two years, she supervised and coordinated the project as the Roads Authority represented, dealing with the contractors, from consulting engineers, VKE Namibia, to CMC/Otesa and LTE. And she is just 26. To understand the temerity of her role, if she drops the ball on this carriageway, economies sneeze, from South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

“When you’re a resident engineer on-site, you actually check the quality of work by the contractor. So, when the contractor tries to take shortcuts and you want to report, they really start harassing you so that you don’t go to the site. At some point we would ask the contractor to rip-off the whole job if we inspect and find that the material applied was not prescribed or if the measurements used do not meet certain standards.This re-doing would cost contractors millions and might take a month or so, but we just had to do it, for the sake of our country and the region which uses this dual carriageway,”she says.

Many that frequent the Windhoek-Okahandja dual carriageway will recollect a beauty in jeans, floral sun hat, reflector jacket, pacing up and down, notepad in arms, a rare-sight considering the only women on the route are mainly flag-ladies, controlling traffic. Yet from an early age Rachel Kakoloko, also a founding member and Secretary General of the Namibian Society of Engineers (NASE), has always been passionate about turning her ideas into tangible physical reality. Perhaps the realities of being hauled from Onekwaya Village in Ohangwena as an orphan to moving in with her grandmother in Katutura, Windhoek, a cleaner at the State Hospital. She survived through the grind of Katutura and by the time she reached Jan Jonker High School she became a Senior Dux, overall best student, drawing interest from engineering firms across town, who began monitoring her.

“My grandmother is very prayerful. She got me through high school. She is my backbone. It was not tough to give her my whole first salary and stay broke just for her. I vividly remembers her crying in prayer after I passed my matric with flying colour not knowing where should would get money to take me to college,” she recalls, the 2009 period when Roads Authority came into her life with a scholarship for a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering. Heavy engineering firms across the globe are institutions where physique is a major attribute.

Pushing a metal wheelbarrow laden with concrete is a menial task that does not only require energy, but agility to move with haste and tact. It even becomes more daring to walk on a steel structure to detect any defects that may have arisen during construction, never-mind making your way up on a steel scaffold 40 meters daily as a routine. And yet for Rachel, such routine gives her an adrenaline rush and eagerness to explore more.

“I volunteered to be attached to the Windhoek-Okahandja dual carriage. I wanted to be in the deep-end of engineering. For two years we had to ensure the workload was on schedule because when we began with the first phase, we were way behind with the project. That meant having to work Sunday to Sunday for almost four months in succession and being on site every day. In fact I grew so accustomed to being on site that when we completed Phase 1 in June last year, I struggled to adhere to office life or tender evaluations and so forth.” She is today among a few female civil engineers in Namibia who have become a good antidote to testosterone-heavy work-environments.

“Windhoek-Okahandja was my first job, my first project and my first experience with real engineering. I learnt a lot on construction management—that was my biggest lesson—the only set-back is the way women are prejudged on site. The first days there were doubts over my contributions and even existence but after surviving the first six months, there respect became mutual. It was no longer a boys’ club. It became a learning experience for all of us as this is the first G-1 based road in Namibia. The experience is still embedded in my memory and it strengthen my resolve to spend my life in engineering.”

Over N$500 million has been spent on upgrading this project whose First Phase was a 10km road which took three years to complete where the 2nd Phase entails a 27km road which is expected to be completed by 2020, of a N$1.3 billion project. Harassment from various quarters is but one of the many challenges that women in engineering face every day, particularly black engineers of either sex. The reason why she spearheaded the formulation of NASE.

“I first volunteered to be on the committee that was tasked with the mass land servicing in 2015, where the President Dr Hage Geingob engaged the youth on land. That is where thoughts of a society for engineers were born. Not only to represent the underprivileged engineers, such as blacks and women, but also for those engineers to offer their services at no cost on matters of national service delivery such as land servicing or helping the flood prone areas in the North. Right now, we are completing the review of the Engineering Bill. We as NASE have made lots of input from a bill that was drafted in apartheid era and catered for a few and we are impressed by the relationship with the line ministry which attends to our calls.”

As NASE, they have also been plotting how to inspire and attract more women into the profession, says the SG. Adds Rachel, “But I never liked the paltry salary that those flag-ladies are given yet they do a lot. What they do is part of engineering, and I think they are not valued because they are women. Few man can spend the entire day waving a flag at traffic like that. It broke my heart the first days, and it needs fixing.” Sadly, though, engineering has historically been an inhospitable profession for women, Rachel and her exploits is trying to change that, and while you can argue that it isn’t making enough progress, one thing is true: Many women did shrug off the haters and pursued their passion to build stuff anyway. She is one of them. If she is not engineering, she is at home to Meekulu Ephania or spending time with her son, Musa.


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