Plumbing her way into ‘the world of men’
The young lady exudes confidence as she stands in front of the male-dominated class, oblivious of the bemused visitors watching her.
If it is not for the fact that she is not wearing a blue work suit like the rest of the class, the visitors would have mistaken her for a student giving a demonstration.
But Lizzie Mwepetha is not a student: she is one of the many Malawian women who are breaking with tradition to venture into fields that were previously considered only for men.
As a female plumbing instructor at Mponela Community Technical College (CTC), the 31-year-old Mwepetha is an inspiration not only to her class, but to the whole institution.
Mponela CTC is one of the 11 that the government has so far opened in all the three regions under the CTCs Programme to provide Technical, Entrepreneurial and Vocational Education and Training (Tevet).
Phase 2 of the programme, which many of the country’s development partners are willing to support, will see the opening of 17 more CTCs. It will eventually role out in all the country’s 193 constituencies.
Government established the programme as a way of increasing access to Technical, Entrepreneurial and Vocational Education and Training (Tevet).
The Ministry of Labour and Man power Development is implementing the programme with technical support from Tevet Authority (Teveta).
Teveta is assisting the colleges with curriculum development, training of instructors in methods of teaching, and equipping libraries with books, among others things.
One thing worth of note about the CTC programme is its female instructors such as Mwepetha who are imparting vocational skills to the eager young men and women.
“I feel good doing what is generally considered a man’s job,” Mwepetha said in an interview with Mana. “This goes to show that what men can do, women also can.”
She says plumbing is a good profession because it enables her to make extra money after her normal working hours whenever she does small jobs for some people.
However, she admits that some of her clients doubt her capability to do the work when they hire her because of her femininity.
“But their perception of me changes once I have done the job beyond their expectation,” says Mwepetha, who attended Mayani and Chipasula Secondary Schools in Dedza and Lilongwe respectively.
She recalls that one day during her apprenticeship days at the Lilongwe Water Board (LWB), people were stunned to see her digging the ground with male LWB employees.
“A pipe had burst in a residential area and we were there to fix it,” says Mwepetha. “People were surprised to see a woman among men digging the ground.”
Mwepetha, who is married to Gift Mwepetha and is a mother of two, says she never dreamed of taking plumbing as her profession while at school.
“It was not my wish,” she says. “Initially, I wanted to be an electrician but my father advised me to take up plumbing.”
Mwepetha says when she completed her secondary education in 2002, the following year she enrolled at Lilongwe Technical School for an Advanced Craft Certificate Course in plumbing, completing in 2006.
She says she does not agree with some people who look down on plumbing and associate the trade with toilets. Such kind of thinking, she says, is old-fashioned and will not help the country move forward.
“Malawi as a developing nation needs people with vocational skills,” says Mwepetha, echoing what President Peter Mutharika says about the importance of the CTCs to the country’s development.
Mutharika has repeatedly told the nation that white collar jobs will not develop the country, but rather jobs that require skills expertise.
Some Asian countries that today are developed such as Malaysia and Singapore have moved out of poverty because they placed emphasis on skills development from the start.
“The country must have artisans if it is to develop,” says Mwepetha.
Her class of 19 students has 13 males and six females. Most of the male students at first doubted Mwepetha’s ability to teach because of her sex.
“On the first day when I saw that our instructor was a female, I was skeptical about her capability. Other male students felt the same,” student Richard Phiri, 22, told Mana.
But they were pleasantly surprised when they later discovered that Mwepetha was an able instructor and that the entire class now is happy and proud to have a female instructor.
“Because of her performance, we have now discarded the thinking that a woman cannot do a man’s job,” he says. “The desire to be like her is really motivating us.”
Mwepetha says her male students are amazed that a woman can reach a stage where she is able to teach trades such as plumbing and that as a way of respecting her, always address her as “madam”.
She encourages girls not to shy away from taking up trades that society thinks are ideal for men only.
“Long gone are the days when a woman’s place was said to be in the kitchen,” Mwepetha says. “Women should also embrace vocational jobs so that together with men, we can develop our country together.”
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