There is something interesting about a fairly small woman seated behind a gigantic power desk, pen in hand, lots of paper work at her disposal, all thirsty for her signature, and surrounded by a series of ringing phones.
This image stirs something in me, a reminder that girl power is real and borderless.
This sight is what I walk right into when I enter Evelyne Zalwango’s office at the Awaka Furniture showroom and workshop in Bugolobi.
Seated behind her desk, a powerful demeanor playing on her face, you can almost tell that Zalwango is no ordinary woman even before you exchange words.
And surely, when she adds her voice to the outlook, you are proud that you weren’t wrong about her.
She has a quick tongue and she is aware. “I talk a lot!” she playfully warns as we start the interview.
That, however, is not the one aspect that will stick foremost on your mind after an hour’s conversation with her.
What stands out are her solid ideas and her spirit as she delves into tales of how a woman’s ability in every field has infinite dimensions, and how societal stereotypes have not deterred her drive to push on with her present job.
The 33-year-old is a professional carpenter.
She spends her day in the workshop dressed in overalls, a pencil tucked behind her ear, a dozen nails in one hand, a hammer in the other, surrounded by tape measures, utility knives, nail pullers, drills and air compressors as she cuts wood, levels pieces of it and fuses them together to make all sorts of furniture, in the process soaking her overalls and her hair in sawdust.
She used to do all that, until Awaka Furniture grew into the big company it is today; employing dozens of people. Now she sits behind a desk as the CEO, a title she insists sounds too highbrow for her liking.
“I prefer to be called the owner or at least managing director. And just so you know, I’m rarely on my desk. Most of the time, I’m at the back in the workshop overseeing what the carpenters are putting together.”
She is a nerd for quality, which is why some of her employees regard her an over-bearing perfectionist. “They say I’m picky only because I have an eye for perfection.
I can just look at a table from many yards out and tell you it is not straight. Then you have to work on it again because I believe quality should be every business’ mission.”
Zalwango is a strong believer in the notion that women can do it all. She is therefore not afraid to defy the norm and to push boundaries as evidenced by her choice of career; carpentry, a job that has for long been reserved for men.
Master’s degree holder
Talk to most carpenters in Uganda and they will tell you they learnt the craft while working at an uncle or dad’s workshop, and usually, after they failed at the much desired formal education. Zalwango’s story, however, does not follow down that same path.
Carpentry and general “dirty work” as she calls it, is something she had always admired following her grandfather’s long stint as a woodcarver.
But for her, passion alone was not going to cut it. She realised she would require the knowledge in the same line, which is why she went ahead to pursue a diploma in interior designing and carpentry at the Institute of Technical Science, Karera, India.
“I went to India in 2002 to pursue my degree in Information Technology at the Sikkim Manipal University, Pune,” she recounts.
Midway her I.T course, Zalwango had an opportunity to concurrently take on a Master’s degree in Business Administration at the same University and she did not think twice.
“I went for it. I wanted to make the most of my time in India and in fact, after my Masters and IT degree, I decided I would go on to pursue a diploma in interior designing and carpentry before I jumped on the plane home.”
She looks back at her time in India with pride, satisfied that she made the most of it. But much as her stay there was impactful, it was not entirely rosy.
“Going in, I already had some friends there. It was nice. I liked the food and many other things there. But when my friends came back home, it got kind of lonely. I was there facing this big wide foreign country on my own, even facing the problem of language barrier. I had no job so I survived basically on the upkeep of my parents. It was not easy but I persevered,” Zalwango narrates.
Anticipated return and a rude awakening
After five years, an overly hopeful Zalwango left India to fly back home, so sure that with a diploma, a degree and a Master’s degree, Uganda would be her playground. But the Ugandan job market sometimes has no decency, even for academic top-guns. She was in for a rude awakening.
“I went from one job interview to the next and still came up short,” Zalwango recalls, citing how disappointed this left her. “I had a Master’s degree but no work experience whatsoever, yet at every job, experience was demanded.”
She erased the Master’s degree off her CV, went to work at an aunt’s shop for experience and finally, eight months later, she landed her first job at the now defunct GTV, selling the PayTV package for a commission. “They thought I talked too much and would do well in sales.”
A client she served while at GTV also thought the same and offered her what seemed like a better deal.
“I worked for a company that was dealing in virtual offices and general office space. Our boss was a gentleman from Germany and he taught me a great deal. He was very strict.
He would not hesitate to chew your head off for say being just three minutes late. While there, I watched 24 girls come and go because they could not handle the heat. But I hang in there and when I left, I was ready.”
She went on to work in public relations, then as a consultant and business adviser. That ship, however, sank in the morning of its voyage and Zalwango had to set out again, this time on her own.
Taking on carpentry
Today she is running her own company, Awaka Furniture and pecking what seems to be more than just a decent living off this wood business.
They make chairs, tables, sofas, beds, pool-side beds and all forms of furniture, plus interior design services.
Zalwanga first started carpentry by joining a British family that owned a carpentry business.
Using her savings, she bought shares and worked with them for some time.
Soon however the company had lost its financial footing and the owners planned to dissolve it before flying back home. But Zalwango had a different idea.
She bought the company off, confident that she would turn things around.
And after putting together a workshop team of carpenters she dubs world-class, masterminding the creative aspect at Awaka, in the process increasing the company’s clientele and doing away with carried forward debt, she has indeed turned things around.
Clearly, this business is her pride. For her, it is a representation that the dream she had growing up has come to life. “I have two special ladies in my family who always inspired me to start my own business; my mother and a certain aunt. They were women who never went out seeking employment. They always had something. My mother in particular had a kiosk. This is the kind of woman I always wanted to be.”
YALI President, family woman and a big heart
The bubbly mother of one is a member of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Uganda, an alumni body for the African minds that have attended the Mandela Washington Fellowship in Washington DC, where she got the opportunity of meeting President Barack Obama, her role model.
She is the new President elect, YALI-Uganda due to take office effective April, and Zalwango is confident she will do a good job training and empowering young change makers.
She is also a strong believer in the complete family unit which emphasizes that children should have both parents in their lives, not just the mother.
“My father, though he was mostly away on Kyeyo, remained very involved in my life. My husband too is a good father and I believe this is good for the children especially us the daughters. We draw a lot of self-esteem from our fathers.”
Zalwango is also big on charity and she is the mastermind behind the Weave Project, a support initiative aimed at empowering landslide victims in Kasese disabled by the ADF war, where the victims are offered ready market for the simple task of collecting and selling banana fibre to carpentry and weaving companies.
“I think charity is an aspect I draw from my mother. She always taught us that giving and sharing is golden.”
Do you remember the first piece you crafted?
Yes, away from the pieces we used to do in carpentry school, the first piece I crafted was a table; fine and smooth. I made it in 2010. I sold it off shortly after.
Which piece are you proudest of?
That would be a hand-made sofa we made at the end of last year. There is a lot that goes into it. Each and every log is hand-chiseled, one at a time before you put them together. Then you hand-heave the back of the chair before cushioning it. It took many weeks to make. It goes for Shs3.8m, and I’m proud of it.
Do you use your own furniture?
Of course! Each and every piece of furniture at my home is made by Awaka.
Any challenges of being a female carpenter?
The problem is that many people get to doubt your expertise before they even look at your work, just because you are a woman. But, of course, I have always proved them wrong. Also, some jobs are so physical and surely require a man’s hand, which is why we have many men on board.
What does your family think about your career as a carpenter?
In the beginning, they were not exactly thrilled. Today, however, they have all accepted it because they see it works well for me. They are all proud of me.
Do you prefer management to real carpentry work?
Not exactly. In fact, initially, I was all about the carpentry. I like the carpentry bit. But as the business grew, it has become increasingly important to pay attention to management too. I need to emphasise quality and customer care and to negotiate the best deals. That is why I’m now more into management.
What does your husband do?
He is a banker and has actually been very supportive of this business too.