Promoting women in science is a key focus of the African Higher Education Centers of Excellence (ACE) program, launched in 2014 to support higher skills development in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
These fields tend to be male dominated, especially in Africa. Across the continent, the ACE program –supported by the World Bank – is more and more attracting female students for whom “science has no gender”.
Mbassally “Sally” Manneh is one of those “Girls in Science” who has successfully achieved her dream to become an architect. Her story is impressive and interesting.
Growing up with her family in Brikama Nema in The Gambia, Sally has always had a deep love of learning. There was nothing that made her happier than going to school every morning and staying late for extra lessons as she pursued her dream of one day becoming an architect.
It was this dream that would eventually propel Sally to complete an MPhil in Civil Engineering at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure Polytechnique in Yaounde, Cameroon, one of the African Higher Education Centers of Excellence (ACE).
Sally is now a civil engineer and a builder. But it hasn’t always been easy. Navigating working in a male-dominated profession has presented many challenges. “I have to prove myself 200% before being considered for a job as a contractor or a builder,” she says. “Our society is still in denial about women becoming whatever they wish, irrespective of their skills and potential.”
I have to prove myself 200% before being considered for a job as a contractor or a builder. Our society is still in denial about women becoming whatever they wish, irrespective of their skills and potential.
With 24 siblings, Sally’s family didn’t place a huge emphasis on schooling. Education was self-motivated. So, for Sally pursuing her dream often meant going against the grain, and that often meant being the only woman in the room. Her father, however, was very supportive and agreed to pay for the school of her choice. When it came time to pick a high school, Sally chose one with high scores in technical fields to study electricity, auto mechanics, woodwork, metal work, chemistry, and technical drawing.
“I remember enduring being the only female in my class,” Sally recalls. “My female colleagues from other areas often teased me and asked if I ever got the chance to fix my nails and had time to do what women ‘usually’ do.”
Sally felt the need to work hard to prove herself. She was lucky to have a teacher who would not segregate his classwork by gender. He would tell Sally “Knowledge has no gender!”
“That made me hang on and fear nothing that came my way.”
A Difficult Balancing Act: “A test for either failure or success, I chose the latter”
Sally went from strength to strength after high school. She gained admission to the Gambia Technical Training Institute to study Architectural Draughtsmanship, was employed as a Teaching Assistant and later as a lecturer, and then completed a Higher National Diploma in Construction Management. When the opportunity to undertake an MPhil through the ACE project in Cameroon presented itself, she was very excited.
But there was one hitch – Sally, who was married and already had one child, had just learned she was expecting her second child. “I had never been that confused in my entire life.”
Navigating being a parent and student in a foreign country away from home while expecting was a tremendous challenge, but Sally knew she had to pursue her dreams. “Yaoundé was a test for either failure or success, and I chose the latter.”
She hid her pregnancy from everyone, including her parents. Convinced she would make it through with her hard work and dedication, she travelled to Cameroon for her three-year degree program. But as exams loomed, Sally feared she might give birth during the examination period. And she ended up delivering the baby and writing her Engineering Mathematics exams within four days!
“I sent a word to Banjul about giving birth to my second child. Everyone who heard the news was shocked and pondered how I could have given birth all by myself in a foreign land without any parent or husband. Without breaking me, this experience built me for future challenges.”
Hard Work Pays Off
Despite the challenges, Sally thrived. And the hard work paid off. Back to The Gambia with her Master’s degree in hand, she was promoted to Head of Section for Architecture and a Principal Lecturer at the Construction Department under the Institute of Technical Training (ITT) at the University of Applied Science Engineering and Technology (USET). She has also established her own small business, Sally’s Engineering Firm, among other activities
She hopes to be a role model to other young women. “During my lessons, I encourage young female students to stay dedicated, focused, and work hard,” she says.
“Women continue to be defined by what the community wants. When they see me in my typical overalls and helmet at a construction site, I am confronted by many who don’t believe that I am the contractor or the project lead. Self-esteem is critical as an African Muslim woman practicing engineering, and I hope my story will inspire others.”