BREAKING THE CEILING

Meet female heavy machinery operators at Mombasa Port

There is a silentl spoken stereotype that Coasterians are less hardworking people.

In Summary

• The beauty of the coastal city of Mombasa has for long been marred by stereotypes that its inhabitants, especially women, are less hardworking

• However, a group of women is working as machine operators at KPA, jobs dominated by men

Margaret Kungu, 43, poses next to her Rubber Tire Gantry Crane at Mombasa Port on July 3, 2020
Margaret Kungu, 43, poses next to her Rubber Tire Gantry Crane at Mombasa Port on July 3, 2020
Image: ANDREW KASUKU

Mombasa, the second-largest city in Kenya, is famed for its beautiful beaches, warm weather and welcoming lifestyle of its inhabitants.

Many Kenyans from upcountry prefer a journey to Coast to relax during their leave days or holidays.

Behind the visitor’s smiles is a silently spoken stereotype that Coasterians are less hardworking people, who only lazy around in the beaches throughout the year and who are more concerned with talk and bonding than working.

 
 

A largely accepted perception is that women in the Coast, famed for curvy figures, only live to pamper themselves to make their husbands happy, and bother less in helping them put food on the table.

Poor education standards, high rates of unemployment and economic inactivity in the region appear to give credence to these beliefs.

But some women working at Mombasa Port, the largest deep-water seaport in the East and Central African region, are helping break the stereotypes and barriers in the least expected ways.

Nellie Wangui, 39, is the first woman to work as a crane operator in the facility.

“Be stronger than the excuses,” she said concerning the perceptions during an interview.

Many women would not be attracted by heavy boots, the smell of diesel and petrol, noises in the air and huge heavy machinery.

 
 
 

But these haven’t deterred Wangui and friends from venturing into works long perceived the preserve of men at the port.

 
Initially I would face criticism from men and even clients, who feared I may not handle their cargo well. But through performance, people began accepting that I can do it just like men
Crane operator Nellie Wangui, 39

ENDURED CRITICISM

The port is one of the busiest facilities in the country. It is home to huge complex cranes handling all kinds of loads, material handlers, forklift trucks, reach stackers and other equipment. It serves a region with a population of more than 250 million people.

On a normal day, the port is busy with long-distance trucks entering and leaving, ships being offloaded and vehicles transporting staff from one point to another.

One is required to move with boots, a reflector and helmet, as most areas are machine operation zones and pose danger.

Ongoing construction inside the port means that some areas are dusty and noisier than others, but one thing is clear: at any point, the port is busy around the clock.

Wangui operates a Rubber Tyred Gantry (RTG) Crane, which has a working load of 45 tonnes.

The RTG stacks inbound and outbound containers for pickup by trucks or for loading into vessels.

She started off as a pick-up driver in 2003 and was promoted to a staff car driver in 2014.

After two years, she trained as a forklift operator and moved to a terminal truck driver in 2007 before transferring to a terminal truck driver.

She went for more training and was moved to the RTG crane, becoming the pioneer woman to handle the heavy machine.

“Initially I would face criticism from men and even clients, who feared I may not handle their cargo well. But through performance, people began accepting that I can do it just like men,” she said.

Wangui's debut to one of the biggest cranes at the facility opened the doors for other women.

Margaret Kungu, 43, operating a Rubber Tired Gantry (RTG) crane at the Mombasa Port on July 3, 2020
Margaret Kungu, 43, operating a Rubber Tired Gantry (RTG) crane at the Mombasa Port on July 3, 2020
Image: ANDREW KASUKU

DELICATE JOB 

I climbed the RTG with Margarete Kungu, 43, a mother of three who started off a clerk at the port before moving to fortlift and now to the crane.

It will take approximately two minutes to climb 20m high using steep and fairly narrow stairs that will have a visitor almost sweat, up to the crane to the coxswain’s position.

She tells me where I should stand and precautions at the cubicle, proceeds to sanitise some areas, adjusts her seat and switches on the radio call and the machine.

With her buttons, she opens the spreaders used for picking the containers, while bending to look at the container, a tiring position made more complex by the now swinging spreader having to fit into four holes at the corners of the container.

“You see that button, it explains the spreader has locked on the container. We are ready to lift now, I’ll show you how we load to the lorry,” Kungu says.

“Hii kazi yataka moyo. Hii, mpaka ujiamini kabisa (This works needs dedication. You must have self-confidence,” she says.

It’s a balancing work of receiving calls from her clerk on the ground, adjusting the buttons and monitoring the container.

“We normally work in a shift of four hours so you have plenty of time for family at home,” she says.

Her four-year old daughter, Jaide Anne, is showing interest in technical works and now wants to be like her mother.

“Those saying we cannot work, let them know we work hard. It’s important as a woman because your husband can get sick and you be the one helping him feed the family,” she says.

Caroline Nkatha, who is on training at the RTG, agrees. “Women should work hard wherever they are. That way our men say they have married a ‘wife material’,” the 28-year-old says.

“I saw some women on those machines and admired them. Men here encourage and respect us because we are able to deliver just like them.” 

Mwanamkuu Abdi, a Terminal Truck Driver at work at Berth 21, Terminal 2, Mombasa Port on July 3, 2020
Mwanamkuu Abdi, a Terminal Truck Driver at work at Berth 21, Terminal 2, Mombasa Port on July 3, 2020
Image: ANDREW KASUKU

IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE

Mwanamkuu Abdi, 36, is a terminal truck (TT) driver. The mother of three started off as a casual labourer in 2007, recharging batteries for trucks.

She moved on as a clerk before shifting to refuelling of machinery, including the forklifts, top loaders and the gantry cranes.

Friends challenged her to train to operate the machinery instead of just fuelling them.

She trained as a forklift and empty container handler operator, and later as a TT criver.

Kiprotich Cheruiyot, the senior operations officer in charge of resources, says the TT is the engine of the terminal.

The ship-to-shore crane offloads containers from a ship, then loads to the TTs, which take them to designated areas.

With the TT, she moves containers from berth to yards for checking and waiting for the owner.

“At first, the men were asking, ‘Huyu buibui ataweza kweli?’ (Is this Muslim woman able to do this job?). But I said I will prove them wrong,” Abdi says.

After months of work, everyone now approves of her work.

She smiles as a ship-to-shore crane loads two 20-feet containers onto her truck, then leaves with a smile.

“I love my job. Men feel happy when we are around. We are now a family here,” she says with a smile.

She is a mother of three boys, 10 year-old twins and a six-year old.

“They always want to see me around home, so I make sure when I’m not working, I’m with them at home,” she says.

Cheruiyot says Abdi’s performance is impressive and has superseded her colleagues.

"Her performance amazed me. Because of the frequency she was making, I picked a pen and paper to tally her moves," she says.

The performance saw her receive a letter of commendation from the acting managing director, Rashid Salim.

“I wish to convey my special gratitude to you and Team 21 for registering a record of 914 moves one shift on vessel MV COSCO YINKOU, which berthed on June 11 at Berth 21," it read in part.

"Through your hard work, dedication and team spirit, the vessel, which was on its maiden call, completed operations at the rate of 82 moves per hour.” 

Terminal Truck Operator Mwanamkuu Abdi, Senior Operations Officer Kiprotich Cheruiyot, Rubber Tire Gantry Crane operators Caroline Nkatha and Margarate Kungu pose for a group photo at Mombasa Port on July 3, 2020
Terminal Truck Operator Mwanamkuu Abdi, Senior Operations Officer Kiprotich Cheruiyot, Rubber Tire Gantry Crane operators Caroline Nkatha and Margarate Kungu pose for a group photo at Mombasa Port on July 3, 2020
Image: ANDREW KASUKU

At Terminal 2, the busiest at the port, Cheruiyot says 15 per cent of TT operators are women, while out of 261 Gantry Crane operators, 10 are women.

“You may not notice that inside the flow there are women. They move seamlessly with men,” Cheruiyot says.

“Unlike men, the women don’t ask for many off days, and it is easy to convince them to go the extra mile.” 

According to the International Labor Organisation, women account for two per cent of the total workforce in the maritime industry, making the industry hugely men-dominated.

KPA acting managing director Rashid Salim says because the world keeps evolving, inclusiveness and equal rights and opportunities for both genders should be advocated.

“At Kenya Ports Authority, we continue enhancing opportunities for women to be educated and gain experience in maritime activities,” he says.

“Equally important is changing the culture in the maritime sector to reduce the prejudices women encounter on a daily basis.

“Fortunately, there is evidence that efforts to do so are yielding results and more women are embracing less traditional roles in our organisation.” 

He commended female staff who have taken up jobs as equipment operators, crew members in marine crafts, firefighters and other technical jobs, which were long before considered a male preserve.

Kenya's first marine female pilot, Elizabeth Marami, in a past interview said, "Dare to dream and you will be unstoppable."

Edited by T Jalio