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Bricklaying keeps widow going

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Christopher Luka wanted to be a builder but when he enrolled for a bricklaying course, he was gutted when he saw a woman as his trainer.

Luka had always considered bricklaying as a man’s job and the sight of the female instructor diminished his enthusiasm, doubting if he would realise his dream to build a house for his beloved mother.

“When I saw my teacher,” says the 22-year-old: “I thought this did not bode well for me and lost interest in the course. I said to myself a female could not effectively teach me a man’s job.”

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But hardly had a month elapsed on his six-month course when Luka changed his opinion of the instructor, whom he started praising, describing her as a “very good teacher”.

“I think I had a preconceived opinion about her just because she is a woman. She has proved wrong not only me but the whole male-dominated class,” Luka says of Sidaya Ulemu, his trainer.

“Had we known the vast knowledge and experience she has as a builder, we would not have belittled her. And because of the way she teaches, I am now confident I will successfully complete the course.”

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As a bricklayer and instructor at Ntambanyama Community Skills Development Centre (CSDC) in Thyolo, Ulemu is one of the daring Malawian women who are increasingly venturing into male-dominated fields.

Ulemu, 38, says the fact that many vocational jobs are considered as males’ prompted her to take up bricklaying to disprove that notion, even if it meant going against the wish of her late husband.

When she sought her husband’s opinion about her wish to sit bricklaying exams, the latter objected, telling her it was a man’s profession.

“When I told him I wanted to sit the exams so I could become a bricklayer, he refused. He said it was not a suitable career for a woman,” says Ulemu.

In a mostly patriarchal society where a wife is expected to do as her husband says, one would have expected Ulemu to listen to her husband and abandon her plan.

But she ignored her husband and went on to sit the exams before enrolling at a vocational school in Chiradzulu, determined to break into a male-dominated field.

“I wanted to prove that what a man can do, a woman can also do, even better,” she says.

Ulemu says she is glad she enrolled for the course despite her husband’s objection, adding that with him no longer in this world, she would have been finding it very difficult to make ends meet as a widow.

“My bricklaying skill has enabled me to lead an independent life and raise my only child single-handedly from the time I was widowed when she was just five years old,” Ulemu says.

Besides single-handedly bringing up her daughter, who is now in Form four, Ulemu has managed to accomplish things that she says she would not have done were it not for her vocational skill.

“When my parents retired, they bought a piece of land in Chemusa in Blantyre,” she told this writer as she supervised her class outside.

“I have built two houses for them which they are renting out. They are getting K20,000 every month from each house in rentals. I have also built a house for myself in my mother’s home village. These achievements have been possible because of my vocational skill.”

Ulemu says she has worked for big construction companies and that she has been involved in building schools and hospitals in the country, big projects from which she gained a lot of expertise as a builder.

“All my supervisors liked me because of my performance,” she says.

She says she does not agree with people who say jobs in the country are scarce. She says job opportunities are there but the problem is that many Malawians want to work in the office.

“It’s down to laziness,” says Ulemu, an ex-pupil of Thekerani Community Day Secondary School who comes from Njale Village in Traditional Authority Mphuka, Thyolo. “Many people want white-collar jobs.”

Ntambanyama CSDC, located about 12 kilometres from Thyolo Boma along the Makwasa Road, is the brainchild of Mary Navicha, the Member of Parliament for Thyolo Thava.

Operating with support from Technical, Entrepreneurial and Vocational Education and Training (Tevet) Authority, the centre has been operational since March 2015. It came into existence to deal with what Navicha says were increasing incidents of crime in her constituency.

“There were numerous incidents of muggings, burglaries and other criminal acts in the area at the time and we decided to put a stop,” Navicha says.

She says a research that they carried out revealed that the area’s idle youths were perpetrators of the majority of the criminal acts that were disrupting people’s lives.

Since its inception, the centre has graduated tens of young men and women from within and outside the constituency, most of whom led idle lives before they enrolled for the courses.

“We have so far graduated 165 students in two semesters,” says Tobias Dodoro, the centre’s principal. “Half of the graduates are working in [tea] companies around the area.”

“Some former students are in cities such as Blantyre where they are self-employed. Others are in various technical colleges in the country.”

There are about 37 CSDC in the country which target unemployed, out-of-school and vulnerable youths, according to Elliot Mulanje, Tevet Centre Manager for the South.

Mulanje says in the 2015-16 financial year, more than 982 people – 673 males and 309 females – across the country benefited from the trainings offered by CSDCs, against a target of 1,600.

“CSDCs are owned and run by communities in liaison with district assemblies for customised training meant to address skills gaps in communities,” he says.

“CSDCs aim to provide Tevet at a local informal institution focusing on training that is relevant to the locality with a view to promoting self-employment and economic empowerment of the local masses.”

Meanwhile, many youths in Thyolo Thava Constituency have stopped wandering aimlessly and indulging in bad activities. Instead, they are making full use of the CSDC to improve their lives.

“I didn’t know how to build a house before I came here,” says Luka. “I plan to build a house for my mother when I finish the course.”

Calling on his fellow youths to stop idling and enroll at the centre, Luka says he will not be the same person upon completion of the course.

“My life will change for the better because there are lots of jobs in communities that will need my expertise. But I will have my teacher to thank should I succeed in my life,” he says, referring to Ulemu.

“She is inspiring us to become tomorrow’s builders of the nation,” he says.

Ulemu encourages girls not to shy away from what are considered male jobs, especially those that are technical in nature.

“The good thing about technical skills is that when jobs are scarce, you can earn a living by being self-employed,” says Ulemu, whose desire now is to give her daughter the highest level of education.

“My vocational skill will help me to realise my dream to educate my daughter despite being a widow.”

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