GOBABIS: A woodwork class at the Omaheke COSDEC (Community Skills Development Centre) has assembled, anxiously waiting on their instructor to turn up. It is going to be their first lesson, and the group, made up mostly of adult men, cannot hide their excitement at the prospect of learning a new skill.
After a few minutes, the tutor walks in and goes over to the demonstrating table. There is deafening silence, then passive murmuring and the clearing of throats as all eyes fall on the tutor.
Ueritjiua Komomungondo, 30, a qualified woodwork and carpentry instructor descends from the demonstrating table, and confidently takes her place in front of the class. The staring faces are not a new phenomenon to her – she has had to deal with such strange forms of admiration, as she calls it, for the better part of the five years that she had been in the field.
She is one of only a few, but growing number of female vocational skills’ instructors in a discipline largely known to be offered by men.
Armed with the motto ‘educate a woman and you educate a nation’ Ueritjiua is no stranger to ‘men’s’ work.
Legendary godfather of Soul music, James Brown, in one of his hits once sang “This is a man’s world, but it would be nothing without a woman in it”.
Motivated by such words and her own desire to make a difference, Ueritjiua decided to venture into a man’s world and lived to tell her story. This is how it all started…
By her own admission, she has been fascinated by carpentry and woodwork since an early age, and had silently vowed that she will pursue the field one day.
It was, however, only in 2009 that she decided to venture into a career in woodwork, by enrolling with the Okakarara Vocational Training Centre.
“I had no idea what was in store for me. All I knew was that it was really a great passion of mine to do woodwork. Don’t ask me why – I too have no idea.
‘I guess some of these things just happen,” Ueritjiua said of her decision to pursue vocational training.
After completing her practical training in woodwork, she started looking for employment opportunities, but her newly-acquired skills were just not enough to land her a job in the highly competitive vocational career sector.
She eventually got a job in the hospitality field a year or so later. Although the job did enough to pay the bills and put food on the table, Ueritjiua’s thirst for a career in carpentry and woodwork was never quenched.
“I was glad to have a job but deep down I was empty. I needed to do what I loved the most and was on a constant lookout for other opportunities. I knew it was not going to come easy, so I waited patiently,” she narrates.
Her patience finally paid off a year later when she got an opportunity to study as a teacher. Her first and obvious choice of field of specialisation was vocational education, with woodwork being the definite selection.
After successfully completing the course, Ueritjiua, a mother of three, landed her current job at the Omaheke COSDEC as Instructor: Woodwork.
“Students always stare at me at the start of a new class, probably wondering if they had stepped into the right class. Some of them would at first be unnecessarily stubborn and refuse to cooperate in class, but as time goes on, they warm to the idea of a female instructor,” she said.
Dismissing the notion that there is no such thing as a ‘man-only job’ or ‘women-only job’, Ueritjiua notes that all it takes is the correct training, determination and a drive to impart skills in order to succeed in any type of job.
As wise as those words are, Ueritjiua will be the first to admit that the same words were at the beginning of her teaching career only reduced to just that – words. Not only was she expected to venture into a so-called men’s world by tutoring woodwork, but she also had to break down bitter stereotyping from the stern patriarchal society of the Omaheke Region.
To make matters worse, some of her first students were sworn traditional men – many of whom had held different perceptions on the role of a woman in society.
“In a society where a woman does not stand in front of a man, let alone address a man unless spoken to; it was not easy breaking down such traditions. I had to constantly convince myself why I was doing what I was doing to keep sane. Had I not done that, I would have definitely quit years ago,” she notes.
As a married Herero woman, society expected of Ueritjiua to be submissive, dependant and to not show initiative unless guided by her husband. To put it bluntly, her drive and passion for her career did not go down well with many not akin to her.
“My husband at one stage wanted me to change to a career in management as he too did not understand why I had to do what I do now. But with time, he too realised that I was happy doing what I do and has since become one of my biggest supporters,” Ueritjiua recalls.
While the older generation of students had difficulties taking orders from her for obvious reasons, the younger generation also had difficulties following instructions – albeit for different reasons.
“To most of these young boys, I was just a young beautiful girl – probably best suited for girlfriend material – and they would hardly pay attention in class,” she jokingly recalls.
Ueritjiua’s sweat and tears seems to have finally paid off. She now has dedicated students – both young and old – who are willing to succeed in their course by all means. And as one student puts it, they realised that despite societal misgivings and stereotyping, she is good at what she does.
“My daughters at home would sometimes look at me with huge question marks every time I prepare for work, but soon they too got to appreciate what I do,” she remarks with a smile.