PROFILE: MEET MARINE LADY, AN ORPHAN SELLING UGANDA ON INTERNATIONAL MARITIME STAGE
By Mulengera Reporter
When Caroline Abenaitwe set out to chase her dream of working in the aviation industry, it was easy for those around her to label her a lunatic. You are an orphan and here you are hoping you will one day deal with aircraft and boats, some chided her. “Keep dreaming higher,” was all Diaz Tumwebaze, her brother, aware of the cost of training Abenaitwe, kept telling her whenever she outlined her future plans, and talked of her passion for engineering, boats and aircraft.
But she kept pushing, hanging on a thread of hope woven by Tumwebaze, who sacrificed his education for her and her sister to go to school.
That is how Abenaitwe managed to attend Bujaga Integrated PS, completing her primary education in 2007; Mbarara Army SS, where she finished her Lower Secondary Education four years later; and Iqra HS, where she earned her Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) at the start of 2014.
“After that, my brother could not afford paying for me and my sister. He couldn’t handle anymore because he wasn’t earning much,” says Abenaitwe, her voice lowering in reminiscence. “I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t manage.”
Probable shattering of her engineering dream now staring her in the face, Abenaitwe tried applying for diploma and short courses at some institutes in Kampala, but none of the academic programs there won her heart.
“From my childhood, I loved something called ‘engineering.’ All I wanted was to be an engineer, someone who would fly planes and pilot boats,” she recalls. “Our relatives told me my father wished all her children would work in aviation, maritime or the military.”
“I was sure my father would be proud of me wherever he was if I pursued an engineering career in any of those three fields.”
A month before Abenaitwe was born about 26 years ago in Bujaga, Rwampara, in Mbarara District, her father, Lt Meyers Twarugayo, passed on. Some five years later, her mother, Margaret, also left her and her two siblings, sadly installing their brother as the new family head.
For months after her Form Six results returned, Abenaitwe, heavyhearted, chose to pause her dream and face the world – as a way of surviving in the meantime. That is how she ended up teaching in a Rwandan school during her A-level vacation. Years earlier, her sister had taken a teaching path, branching to pursue a course at a Primary Teachers’ College at the end of her O-level.
On return from Rwanda, a friend from her village recommended courses at the Fisheries Training Institute at Bugonga in Entebbe, Wakiso District. Here, she settled for a three-year Diploma in Boat Building Technology and Marine Mechanics, a program that combines different aspects, including carpentry, swimming and mechanics.
“I was the first lady to do that course, and everyone was like ‘it’s hard. Go find courses that women do, leave this thing to men.’”
Indeed, continues Abenaitwe, the course was “challenging but I managed.” In the course of her program, Abenaitwe did internship with the 10th Battalion Special Forces Command Marine Base between 2015 and 2016.
FROM INSURANCE TO AVIATION
Although the completion of her course in 2017 was a huge achievement thus far, finding a job was yet another challenge she had to face. She worked as a sales agent at a city insurance firm, and would have stayed there longer had a client not advised her to try the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA)
“He was surprised there was someone, moreover a woman, with such a qualification. So, he told me to apply to CAA. I applied but got no reply.”
The same client advised that Abenaitwe travels to Entebbe, where CAA is headquartered, and looks for a certain contact. Not sure of what unit she should go to, Abenaitwe was denied entry to what she later learnt was the Marine and Rescue Firefighting Services Department at the Entebbe International Airport (EIA).
She would later talk to Rev Samuel Atubua, now the Chief Fire Officer, who also expressed surprise that a woman qualified in boat building technology and marine mechanics existed somewhere in Uganda. Abenaitwe was asked to return the following day for interviews.
“The interview was supposed to be at 10am but I arrived at 7:15am,” she recalls. “When time for the interview came, the panel couldn’t believe those were my papers. So, I asked for the washrooms, and returned with my overall and helmet on before I started explaining how each tool worked.”
Satisfied with her performance before the panel, Fred Bamwesigye, then the Director Human Resource and Administration, ordered: “This girl must be absorbed with immediate effect.”
Abenaitwe remembers her excitement the day she was hired at CAA at the end of July 2018.
“When I got my appointment letter, I smiled all the way through the signing, then moved out and danced as I called my brother.”
But Tumwebaze played Doubting Thomas until he came to the airport and saw his sister working there a few weeks after her appointment.
ABENAITWE AT WORK
To understand how Abenaitwe does her work, I visited the Marine North Base located at Approach Line 17 at Entebbe. Here, she pilots two trips in a boat for demonstration purposes.
As we wait for the boat to return, I ask Alex Angulaveni, her supervisor, what he thinks of Abenaitwe’s work record.
“I am proud of her. We are teaching her more, and monitoring her,” Angulaveni tells me.
With only 19 months at the Marine and Rescue Firefighting Services Unit, Abenaitwe is the youngest of the 11 women CAA is celebrating in the spirit of the 2020 International Women’s Day Celebrations. (See: WOMEN OF STEEL: THESE 10 WOMEN BROKE THE CEILING TO KEEP YOU SAFE AS YOU FLY VIA ENTEBBE AIRPORT).
Angulaveni supervises a team of some 20 people, with Abenaitwe as the only female.
“Most of the women fear water. When you tell them Marine work involves swimming, they don’t come back,” he says, then focuses his eyes on the returning boat Abenaitwe is steering.
Abenaitwe believes that part of her assignment is to inspire more girls into the field. She is already talking to some people, and encouraging some little ones whose parents would like them to be like her.
Known to many of her colleagues as “Marine Lady,” she is also convinced she can achieve her dream of being a leading global maritime expert. Already, Abenaitwe has represented Uganda on the world maritime stage. In July 2019, through the Ministry of Works and Transport, and the Association of Women in the Maritime Sector in Eastern and Southern Africa (WOMESA), she presented a paper at a Maritime Conference in Malaysia.
Abenaitwe’s paper touched on Uganda’s maritime industry, the strategies being undertaken for progress and how to bring more women on board.
Besides emerging from the conference, which attracted participants – most of them with Master’s Degrees in Maritime programs – from 17 countries, as one of the best presenters, she also earned herself a certificate in Maritime Industry Management through the Industrial Revolution.
She has also had the chance to travel with her senior colleagues in the Mechanics Unit at the CAA to inspect engines in Dubai.
Looking ahead, Abenaitwe is seeking more training opportunities.
“I want to advance. I wish to go for more studies but maritime courses are expensive. I am looking for scholarships. I am ready to go and study if government sponsors me for a degree program.”
She also urges government to encourage more Ugandans to train in maritime courses as a way of professionalizing the sector.
“We need more people in the industry. Also, these people should be absorbed by government once they complete their studies,” Abenaitwe appeals to government.
“They should also improve the Fisheries Training Institute. That institute is good, has some good workshops but more needs to be done to make it a world-class maritime school. Its graduates should also be absorbed by relevant government agencies, instead of them focusing only on university graduates.”
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