Feature: Empowering Kenyan women break barriers in the construction of Thwake Dam

By NaftaliLin Jing

by Naftali Mwaura

NAIROBI, June 22 (Xinhua) -- Braving the sweltering afternoon heat, Victoria Mutweleli skillfully engaged the gears of the giant excavator atop the embankment of Thwake Dam, which is located on the edges of Kenya's southeastern county of Makueni.

The middle-aged mother of two grinned as the excavator scooped mid-sized rocks and placed them at the top of the embankment for compacting, heralding the completion of phase one of the Thwake multipurpose dam, whose construction by China Gezhouba Group Company (CGGC) commenced in March 2018.

A graduate of heavy machinery operations at a mid-level college, Mutweleli initially worked at the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) during its construction, where she operated excavators, crushers and rollers.

In 2019, Mutweleli received a job offer from CGGC as an excavator operator, giving her the chance to develop her skills in civil works, a traditionally male-dominated industry.

"Since I started working on the Thwake Dam project, I can say that I have gained some skills and experience in operating heavy machinery," said Mutweleli during a recent interview with Xinhua.

She is among female employees who have defied stereotypes to lend their expertise during the phased construction of a dam that is expected to boost water supply, irrigation and power generation in Kenya's arid southeastern counties.

Co-financed by the Kenyan government and African Development Bank (AfDB), the Thwake multipurpose dam is a flagship project of the country's Vision 2030. It is being implemented in four phases, covering the installation of the nearly complete embankment, water supply infrastructure, hydropower generation and irrigation.

Zachariah Njeru, Kenya's cabinet secretary for Water, Sanitation and Irrigation, said during a recent inspection tour of the dam that it would provide nearly 150,000 cubic meters of treated water daily to 1.3 million people in the lower eastern region.

Njeru said the dam will generate 20 megawatts of hydroelectric power besides irrigating 100,000 acres (40,468 hectares) to boost food security in a region that has grappled with recurrent droughts for many decades.

The ongoing civil works at the dam have already created 1,200 direct and indirect jobs for locals, including Lillian Gituma Mukami, a heavy machine operator and mother of one.

Mukami's dexterity of operating more than 20 tonnes of heavy compacting rollers atop the dam's embankment on a humid afternoon won her admiration from onlookers. She was among the heavy machine operators who took part in the completion of Thwake Dam's embankment filling, which will pave the way for other civil works meant to support water supply, irrigation and power generation.

"I operate more than one machine, I do lifting and earthmovers," said Mukami, who joined the dam project early this year but has since 2009 operated heavy machinery in Kenya and overseas.

Mukami said it took courage and determination to work in a male-dominated field, noting that working for the Chinese contractor of Thwake Dam has improved her technical and interpersonal skills. She added that despite hurdles placed by culture, Kenyan women are willing to venture into civil engineering and contribute to the implementation of major infrastructure projects like dams, roads and bridges.

Faith Nzimbi, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) expert at the Thwake Dam project since May 2019, said it has fostered talent and skill development among local female employees.

The 31-year-old environmental science major said that it has been a rewarding experience to oversee the ecologically sound construction of one of Kenya's largest dams.

"For me, it has been quite an adventure to work in a field that has few women, and working for a Chinese firm on such a huge project has taught me many skills. I have also improved my interaction with community members," Nzimbi said.

Nzimbi said for the last five years, she had gained knowledge in civil engineering, including structures, materials, machine operations, and blasting rocks, even as she mentors young women to take up construction jobs.

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