With the recent launch of Engineers Without Borders – Namibia (EWB-NA), I managed to interview Charles Mukwaso, an upcoming Mechanical Engineer, who also happens to be the founder of EWB-NA and the cofounder of the Namibian Society of Engineers (NASE). Despite this, he still manages to be a dedicated full time student at the University of Stellenbosch, working towards his Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering. Mukwaso rose from humble beginnings, attending school in a remote area in Namibia and went on to achieve his undergraduate Mechanical Engineering degree at a Russian university, one of the most technologically conscious countries in the world. During his childhood he had to participate in many community projects for the general upkeep of the community, he believes that this upbringing taught him two important things which guide his thinking till today: hard work and to care. His engineering journey ranges far and wide and has taken him from Namibia to Russia to South Africa, from the largest Russian industrial complexes to the largest Namibian military complexes and all of this has led him to believe that: “It’s a greatly commendable thing to earn an engineering qualification, but it is an honourable endeavour to volunteer and engineer solutions to the challenges our needy communities face every day. A well-paying engineering job is a fantastic achievement, but what changes the world is community engineering.” Young engineers pay heed to his word of advice for a sound foundation of for your future careers. He also foresees many collaborations between EWB-SA and EWB-NA, which is exciting news for everyone. So watch the space! To read more of this inspiring interview below.
1) Describe your engineering journey.
It has been an adventure for me. I went to school in one of the remotest areas of Namibia and attended university in one of the most technologically conscious countries in the world: Russia. For the love of mathematics and physics, I ended up in engineering and it’s been mind blowing. In Russia, engineering is part of the Russian culture (it’s literally referred to like that in their literature); in Africa, it’s still a new and therefore an exhilarating elite profession.
While studying towards a degree in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, I interned for Rostelmash Manufacturing Company, one of the largest manufacturing complexes in the Russian Federation and in Europe. Back in Namibia I worked for a military industrial complex that designs and manufactures military hardware. I’ve also worked in the construction industry, designing and building mechanical systems. Of recent, I’ve taught and tutored engineering students. It’s been an exciting journey, a great honour and privilege to learn from and work with the best.
2) What prompted you to start EWB-Namibia?
I have always had a passion for community service and I deeply believe in giving back to society as a compulsory thing to do for every human being.
When I was 12, I led a small but formidable movement to persuade the Namibian government to rebuild one school in the rural areas of our country. Its structure was made from mud and thatch and it was falling apart. I gave a speech before a crowd of community members, learners, the school board, teachers, education inspectors and visiting officials from the Ministry of Education head office in Windhoek. In that speech, I called for the complete reconstruction and electrification of the school so that pupils could learn in a more learner-friendly environment. The following year, the school was rebuilt and the entire community (not only the school) received electricity and planning started for the construction of a 56-km road linking the school to the nearest urban center. That infrastructure stands to this day. That was my school too, by the way.
While in Russia, I volunteered and enlisted for community service for the entire duration of my studies.
When I got to Stellenbosch, where I’m currently a fulltime candidate for the Master of Engineering degree in Mechanical Engineering, I learnt about and joined EWB-Maties. The whole idea of Engineers Without Borders, a community-oriented initiative, spoke to my passion for community-focused projects. After participating in the projects that EWB-Maties planned and carried out for the Stellenbosch community and surrounding areas in 2016, I thought of taking the initiative to Namibia. I discussed the idea with EWB-Maties, linked up with Wiebke Toussant, the CEO and Co-Founder of EWB-SA, promoted the idea in Namibia, and with the support from EWB-SA and the Namibian engineering community, including the Namibian government, EWB-NA was launched on the 3rd of November 2016 in Windhoek, with an initial membership of close to 100 engineers.
3) Describe what your work at EWB-Namibia entails.
EWB-NA was launched simultaneously with the Namibian Society of Engineers (NASE), one of the non-profit volunteer associations of engineers in Namibia, which I was co-founder of. Together with the founding NASE team, we thought that EWB-NA could be well established as an arm for social responsibility financed through NASE. That way we would offset the many financial challenges that come with non-profit volunteer organizations. We therefore resolved that 30% of NASE’s financial resources will fund EWB-NA.
As Chairperson of both NASE and EWB-NA, one of my main responsibilities is that of a chief fundraiser. I’m responsible for the overall running of EWB-NA, presiding over the Executive Committee and ensuring that community projects are identified, planned, budgeted for and implemented. Much of our work will start in 2017 and one of the first projects we will be volunteering our expertise towards when we come back from the holidays is land servicing for low-cost housing in Windhoek.
4) What sparked your interest in community development?
I believe it was growing up in Namibia at a time when we had just attained independence and didn’t always have everything we wished for. Most of the infrastructure we have today did not exist then. Our communities were decimated by the war and everything had to come through the hard work of everyone, including children, without expecting to be paid for it – simply helping to build a functioning and better community. At school, we had to not only study but also clean the entire school compound, including setting up learning equipment, trenching, laying water pipes, and many other things the school needed. I believe this childhood participation in community development projects taught me two things: to work hard and to care. It is these two things that still guide my approach to life today.
5) How have you been able to utilize your skills as an engineer to assist/ empower communities?
I have had the honour to work as an engineer in Namibia, participating in projects and programs that are aimed at developing our country and moving it towards industrialization. As a leader or member of engineering project teams, some of the community-oriented projects towards which I have contributed my skills include construction of clinics, hospitals, schools, waterfronts, community sanitation facilities, manufacturing and production centers and many others. I believe I’ve had the opportunities to help, assist and empower communities, but I think my full potential is yet to be exploited, particularly in voluntary non-remunerated community projects. I have plenty of ideas that can positively impact communities in Africa. My hope is that those ideas will finally see the light of day through EWB-NA. As engineers, we possess unique sets of skills that literally build and improve the human life on Earth. If channelled properly, these skills can undoubtedly change the world for the better.
6) What do you feel you have acquired/gained (both for your professional and personal development) through your association with EWB-Namibia?
EWB-NA is still an infant. It’s impact on both the participating teams and the community will best be assessed for the first time towards the end of next year. On the grassroots level, however, just putting together the first EWB-NA team has given me great insight into organizing and working with people. The collaboration and support from EWB-SA and EWB-Maties also opened my mind to a whole new world of what engineers could accomplish as agents for change.
7) How do you maintain a balance between the work at your day job and your work at EWB-Namibia?
Right now, it’s more of a balance between work, studies, NASE and EWB-NA. I’m a full-time student, at the same time a full-time employee. It’s tough and it has taken a lot of sacrifices to get to where we are today. During the last semester of 2016, as it became clear EWB-NA was a go, I had to do a lot of traveling between Stellenbosch and Windhoek to lay the groundwork, mobilize and prepare for the launch in November. At times, it felt crazy, but the team we had assembled was very committed and hard working so we pulled it all off with so much ease. But through it all I have managed to maintain gym visits, a healthy diet and a bit of reading and resting just to generally fend off stress and fatigue. And with this experience, I feel like I have put together the perfect formula for maintaining the balance even better in 2017.
8) Do you foresee any future collaborations or projects between EWB-Namibia and EWB-SA?
Wiebke was very instrumental in giving us the guidance we needed to set up EWB-NA. The video from her and EWB-SA endorsing EWB-NA was very well received by Namibian engineers, it went an extra mile to prop up support for the initiative. With that, we established working relations with EWB-SA, and we plan to work together in 2017 and beyond to deploy the expertise of South African and Namibian engineers to the communities in our two countries. We have discussed maintaining working relations through knowledge-based mutual consultations and support for each other’s events and projects. We also plan to work together to stage the first SADC EWB conference or summit in the near future. EWB-NA already has a standing invitation to EWB-SA to one (or more) of the community programs we are planning for the near future.
The groundwork has been done for our two EWBs collaborate quite a lot; and together, the sky is not the limit at all.
9) Are there any interesting projects that you are working on currently or in the near future?
Some of the projects we have set for 2017 and beyond include:
- Designing proposals for solutions to water shortages and impacts of drought in Namibia,
- Researching and finding long-lasting solutions to annual flooding in the northern floodplains of Namibia (including mobilizing engineers to assist in evacuations and relocations),
- Staging career fair events in schools to assist matric-level learners to prepare for university,
- Assisting communities with the planning and implementation of waste removal programs (this will include seminars to empower communities with the basics of recycling, construction of ventilated pit latrines and water purification in villages),
- Sustainable farming projects: to assist subsistence farmers to implement and maintain food production,
- land servicing and low-cost housing,
- Sustainable energy projects for communities,
- Establishing chapters in all the 14 regions of Namibia.
Most of these initiatives will be oriented towards sharing DIY fundamentals, emphasizing finding and implementing solutions to existing and potential challenges. EWB-NA believes that the unique problem solving skills engineers have can change the way our communities approach challenges for the better, and we intend to deliver on that aspect.
10) What advice would you give to aspiring engineers?
It’s a greatly commendable thing to earn an engineering qualification, but it is an honourable endeavour to volunteer and engineer solutions to the challenges our needy communities face every day. A well-paying engineering job is a fantastic achievement, but what changes the world is community engineering. Engineers should seek to change our world for the better; our training equips us with what’s needed to do just that. My advice to all aspiring engineers is therefore to seek excellence at what you do, but peg to that a spirit of community consciousness. Be the technical agents of change our world so desperately needs.
Charles Mukwaso interviewed Dhruti Dheda