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Elizabeth Marami: Kenya’s ONLY female marine pilot

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At only 27 years, Elizabeth Marami is charting the path less travelled and breaking gender barriers that have been in place for so long. Her courage would see her swim away from the waters of comfort to take up a comprehensive and challenging course in navigation and become a marine pilot.

Intimidating and authoritative would be the ideal requirements for her job. However, Elizabeth has a warm personality, petite physique and is soft spoken for a person whose main duty is to take ‘command’.

Here are excerpts of an interview with Sally Mbuthia:

You have the name pilot in your job title, does that scare you?

I do not often introduce myself as a marine pilot. It was just recently that I just found myself doing so.

I believe it must have leaned more into the fact that I was talking to someone who inspires me and made me feel comfortable saying it. I am just Liz.

What influenced your choice of career?

I didn’t want to be ordinary. I wanted to pursue something that would challenge me. So when I heard about a scholarship, I could not resist the temptation to apply. The scholarship would have me leave Kenya for Alexandria, Egypt to study navigation.

The selection process was very competitive and I couldn’t believe it when I was awarded. I had another offer to study law at the University of Nairobi but my mind was set on navigation.

What comprises navigation studies?

The degree course takes five years. On completion you get certification from a UN body, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). There is also a mandatory requirement of 18 months of sea time for every rise in rank and additional channel training at Kenya Ports Authority (KPA).

I’m currently at second officer level. When I joined the training I was one of 2 female students, the rest were men. The training is very extensive with classes running late into the evening. I never had a typical college life of fun and socialising.

You are now a marine pilot; describe a typical work day in your life

I am a second officer in command.

Foreign ships coming to the Kenyan territorial waters are not allowed to navigate on their own and have to have a Kenyan pilot meet them and help navigate. By doing that, you are taking ‘command’.

I understand you are the only woman in your workplace. What are the dynamics? Do you prefer working with men as opposed to women?

Our workplace is predominantly male. Small things such as bathrooms —where we have separate bathrooms for the male staff and the rest for general public— goes to show the gender disparity that is in the maritime industry.

Yet the real struggle is not about the bathrooms but so many other key policies that keep away women from the sea. There is gender imbalance in staffing and training. Consider that women in the maritime industry account for only one or two per cent of the world’s 1.25 million seafarers, according to the International Labour Organisation.

Related: Gina Din Kariuki opens up on her struggles

The men I work with are great; they encourage me and push me towards achieving my goals. Actually, working with men has helped me understand women better. The men in my workplace affirm, encourage me to be more assertive and don’t compete against me. This has helped me look at women not as competition, but team players in the same frontier.

If you weren’t a marine pilot, what would you be doing?

I would be working in the fashion industry.

I would want to build an international brand that showcases African fabric and authentic designs.

Tell me about your blog? Is it an escape from the unwavering tide in your career?

I have always loved writing and fashion. Running my blog keeps me normal.

I get to wear beautiful pieces and get photographed —which is a world away from my job. Sometimes I wish I could run this blog anonymously and that way I would be able to write about the deep-rooted issues of my life.

Her initiative, Against the Tide, is championing for a reasonable gender balance in the maritime industry.

You wrote extensively about rejection on your blog. Would you comment on that?

We were 9 students who were awarded the same scholarship, 8 are male and 1 is female. Part of our course requirements is practical skills in form of 18 months of sea time. All the men in our class have successfully secured sea time on board ships since been offered the opportunity.

I have been rejected by various companies in my quest to meet the board requirements for 18 months of sea time so that I can graduate to a captain, 1st in command.

My applications often come back with rejections based on my gender which can be very frustrating. Companies are afraid of getting into sexual harassment (legal) suits so they prefer not to hire women. The blog gives me an off-my-chest platform where I can share my frustrations.

I have however learnt to be patient. Good things come to those who wait.


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What does your family feel about your career choice?

My family is very understanding. They have been very supportive.

It’s only when I started my initiative, ‘Against the Tide’ that my dad became a little concerned. Be on the lookout for the official launch of this initiative.

Tell me more about the initiative

Against the Tide is my own initiative to see a reasonable gender balance in the maritime industry. Although in its infancy, I want to advocate for policies that favour both genders and allows for equal opportunities in access to opportunities in the industry.

Related: Kenyan firms make strides on road to gender diversity in boardrooms

I also intend to mentor young girls into believing in themselves and having the courage to get into the profession. I have been speaking to students at various schools about the importance of believing in themselves.

You met the President, His Excellency Uhuru Kenyatta. How was it like?

The most impressive thing about meeting the president the second time was that he remembered me from the first time we met.

On this instance, he commended me on our work before our Managing Director/CEO could introduced me as is the norm. That was truly an honour.

Do you have a life mantra? A mentor, someone you look up

Just the other day I was thinking one getting a life mantra!

I admire the Nobel Peace Laurete; the late Wangari Mathaai’s work a lot. Her courage and determination towards her course of making the world a greener place is deeply admirable.

What are you currently reading?

I read a lot.

I have re-read Chimamanda’s We Should All Be Feminists so many times. The book is one of my favourite reads.

What of your social life. You have any?

I learnt early in life to narrow down my circle of friends to a really small number. I have of course forged great friendships with ladies who have now become family.

With them I can lay bare and discuss really personal issues. My friends have really supported me in my career and offered me moral support. They are also successful in their various fields and l have learnt from them a great deal.

Although they are married with kids, I never feel pressured to settle down, even from my parents.

This article was first published by She.Leads.Africa, a community that helps young African women achieve their professional dreams.

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Sally Mbuthia is a freelance Journalist/Filmmaker based in Nairobi Kenya. She runs her company Freedom Media Ltd (K).
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