NAIROBI — Elizabeth Wanjala grew up on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi at a time when young girls shied away from pursuing careers that were deemed masculine.
The 27-year-old Chinese language major developed grit and tenacity at a tender age thanks to inspiration from her hardworking parents and the steely guidance from tutors at all levels of learning, and what’s more, the Sino-Africa cooperation.
“It is Sino-Africa cooperation that has provided a chance to change my life,” Wanjala said.
Wanjala aspired to pursue a career in communication or marketing but later changed course before graduating from university when an opportunity to become a locomotive driver came to knock at her doorstep.
“I never thought I would pursue a science or engineering related vocation during my days in elementary and high school. But when the door opened for me to become a locomotive driver, I embraced the opportunity with zeal,” Wanjala said.
She is among the pioneering group of female drivers of the Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) passenger train dubbed Madaraka Express, whose launch on May 31st, 2017 revolutionized transport between Kenya’s capital city Nairobi and the coastal city of Mombasa.
The Mombasa-Nairobi SGR, which replaces the meter-gauge railway that was constructed more than 100 years ago during the British colonial rule, has been an important fruit that came out of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Summit held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in late 2015.
Wanjala was finalizing her major in the Chinese language at the Confucius Institute of Nairobi University when the SGR commuter service operator embarked on a talent search mission at her institution.
“The SGR operator visited our university slightly before my graduation and brought to our attention career choices that were up for grabs,” said Wanjala.
I joined the company in early 2017 and went to China for a three months training program that focussed mainly on SGR locomotives. When I returned to the country, we continued with the on-the-job training,” she added.
Wanjala said she felt honored to be shortlisted for the three-month intensive training in China where she learned about the technical aspect of operating a modern locomotive.
She said that her crowning moment arrived on May 31, 2017, when President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR passenger service amid pomp and fanfare.
The SGR is one of Kenya’s Vision 2030 flagship projects and complies with the Kenya National Transport Policy — “Moving a Working Nation” (2009), whose vision for the railway sector is to provide efficient, reliable, safe, and secure railway transport services.
“I feel honored to be among the first batch of female SGR locomotive drivers who witnessed its launch and have been shuttling it on numerous occasions,” said Wanjala.
She said that hands-on training and mentorship has injected the much-needed confidence and courage to command the modern passenger train service that has been at the heart of Kenya’s socio-economic renewal.
She admitted that keeping up with the demanding work schedule can be draining but she has nevertheless developed the tenacity required to deliver optimally.
Wanjala said that career mobility remains her key priority even as she looks forward to sparing some hours to mentor young girls keen to pursue a career in modern railway transport.
“My future plans are to elevate my expertise in locomotives and participate in the growth of the company that I have worked for in the last couple of years,” said Wanjala.
I would also like to encourage young girls to aspire for great things and believe in themselves regardless of the obstacles that they might encounter. The girls should trust in their ability to drive locomotives and even aeroplanes,” she added.
The 480-km Mombasa-Nairobi SGR, which is the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative, has been a nerve center of technology and skills transfer meant to benefit local youth.
Li Jiuping, general manager of SGR operator Afristar, said in a commentary published by Kenya’s Standard newspaper that SGR is the “road of friendship” and “road of prosperity and development” for win-win cooperation between China and Kenya.
The last born in a family of four confessed that her three years stint as an SGR locomotive driver has been a transformative experience thanks to skills acquired besides exposure to a multicultural environment since entering the Confucius Institute.
“I feel proud of Wanjala,” said Xiao Shan, Chinese dean of the Confucius Institute of Nairobi University, adding that a large number of local students have benefitted from learning Chinese in Confucius Institute in Nairobi University, which in recent years has gradually shifted from single Chinese language teaching to the “Chinese plus” diversified teaching model, integrating Chinese learning with vocational education and employment, thus successively cultivated “Chinese + skills” talents, involving many fields such as economy and trade, tourism, and management.
Xiao said the Confucius Institute of Nairobi University will further enhance communication and cooperation with Kenyan education departments, higher vocational colleges, enterprises, among others, to better serve the needs of Kenya’s socio-economic development and China-Kenya communication.