Female engineer polishes skills at Kenya’s new rail project

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Esther Wanjiku works at a constructing site of Mombassa West Station of Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project, in Mombassa, Kenya, on April 9, 2016. (Xinhua/Pan Siwei)

Having grown up in a low-income Nairobi suburb where unemployment is common among the youth, Esther Wanjiku knows the importance of hard work.

The diligence of the 28-year-old paid off in December 2014 when she was hired by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) for its mega project to build a standard gauge railway (SGR) line in Kenya.

“A friend of mine alerted me about the vacancy at CRBC and then I applied for it. The company executives granted me an opportunity to offer the skills that I acquired in college,” said Wanjiku in an interview with Xinhua recently in the coastal city of Mombasa.

The civil engineering graduate from a public university said working at the modern railway project has been professionally and psychologically fulfilling.

“I was hired as an engineer by CRBC, but my day job revolves around supervision and management. In any given day, I act as a link person between Chinese and Kenyan workers,” Wanjiku said, adding she also assigns duties to machine operators, truck drivers and casual laborers.

Esther Wanjiku (R) works with her colleague at a constructing site of Mombassa West Station of Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project, in Mombassa, Kenya, on April 9, 2016. (Xinhua/Pan Siwei)

She is grateful to her relatives and friends for chaperoning her through the life journey from difficulties in her childhood to a decent job today.

“I am the only person in our family who has cleared tertiary education thanks to assistance from relatives and friends after my mother passed away during my teens,” said Wanjiku.

For her own part, challenges have never clouded her dream of becoming a successful engineer and improving the living standards of her sibling.

The one-and-a-half years’ working experience with the Chinese company has not only provided steady income to the young woman but also polished her professional skills.

“Railway technology is relatively new in Kenya, but thanks to experience at the SGR project, I have acquired new skills that I intend to apply in future,” said Wanjiku.

The SGR line in Kenya, being built by the CRBC, will run from Mombassa on the eastern coast to the western border town of Malaba, through the capital Nairobi.

It is to replace a narrow-gauge track built over a century ago during British colonial rule.

Esther Wanjiku (C) and her colleagues watch the constructing site of Mombassa West Station of Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project, in Mombassa, Kenya, on April 9, 2016. (Xinhua/Pan Siwei)

Currently working at the Mombasa West section of the project, Wanjiku says she is now able to interpret complex designs and operate sophisticated machines.

“My experience at the SGR project so far is very enriching in terms of exposure to railway technology and robust cross-cultural interactions. I have also improved management skills,” Wanjiku said.

She attended a month-long training program in China sponsored by her employer in October last year.

“I attended the seminar on railway operations and maintenance from October to November last year. The training program was very captivating to someone from a developing country that is keen on modernizing its railway transport,” said Wanjiku.

She added that the program also took her to three big Chinese cities, where she learned about the country’s leap in decades to become an industrial powerhouse.

“Besides interacting with friendly people while in China, I also enjoyed the cuisine and obtained a clear insight on how prudent work ethics made the country industrialize very fast,” Wanjiku said.

The SGR project has so far offered jobs to over 20,000 Kenyans since the work started in January 2015.

Esther Wanjiku (2nd L) talks with her colleague at a constructing site of Mombassa West Station of Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project, in Mombassa, Kenya, on April 9, 2016. (Xinhua/Pan Siwei)

Wanjiku belongs to a growing army of highly skilled Kenyan young women who have occupied the front seat as the implementation of China funded modern railway enters the final lap.

The 450 km Mombasa-Nairobi section will be completed next year, while the rail is expected to eventually extend to other East African countries.

Wanjiku was upbeat that the SGR project, once completed, would help convert Kenya into an industrial hub in the region.

“The SGR project will open this country to the wider world. It will hasten regional integration and foster cross-cultural interactions,” said Wanjiku.

She aspires to pursue post-graduate studies in railway engineering and to continue working for leading construction firms.