What you need to know:
Caroline Abenaitwe is a marine, mechanic, water diver and aircraft fire fighter working with a team of 42 men. She repairs rescue and firefighting boats, monitors performance for signs of malfunctioning, such as smoke, excessive vibration, or misfiring. She also performs engine maintenance such as changing oil and filters and directing boats and crew activities.
In the quiet harbour of Lake Victoria, Buku marine north station behind Entebbe International Airport, firefighting rescue boats are visible at a sunny station.
At the far end of the station, 26 –year- old Caroline Abenaitwe is busy repairing the engines of two rescue boats. Clad in a blue overall, a hood on her head and gloves, she is passionate about what she is doing and is not bothered by the oil stains on her hands.
Born in Bujaga, Rwampara District, Abenaitwe lost her parents at a tender age and this left her with no with no one to turn to other than her elder brother, who was only 12 years old. Disowned by relatives, Abenaitwe’s only source of comfort was her brother, who, she says, dropped out of school to take care of them.
“He used to work on people’s farms and do all sorts of petty jobs to provide for our basic needs and a little money to foot our school bills,” she recalls with teary eyes. Amidst their struggles, Abenaitwe says good Samaritans, Amena Muduru Anima and Ramurah Kabungo offered to see her through high school.
Hope against hope
As a child, Abenaitwe’s dream was to become an engineer and had a special interest in mechanical work. Even when her brother told her this was for men, she always knew she wanted to do something hands-on.
“In our neighbourhood, there was a motorbike mechanic and each time children of my age were playing, I would sit at this man’s workplace to observe how he went about repairing motorcycles. From time to time, he sent me to give him different tools among which were the screwdrivers, which I had mastered by number,” she recounts.
Each time she was with this mechanic, she tried to immerse herself in helping him and this is how her love for tools developed. Going through school, she knew she was cut out for mechanical engineering, and she sure worked hard to score the grades required to enable her to attain a government scholarship. However, this was not possible, and at some point she saw her dream vanish into thin air.
“When I completed high school, the two who had volunteered to pay my school fees could not push me any further, yet pursuing an engineering course on private sponsorship was expensive. This tore me apart and made me wish mummy and daddy were still with us,” she expresses.
Abenaitwe made promises to herself; one of them, to become rich and help her family out of poverty because she had witnessed how they struggled for daily meals.
When everything seemed to be going in the wrong direction, her brother asked her to return to the village and sign up for a teaching course in one of the universities in Mbarara City, an idea she vehemently rejected.
She decided to join YMCA, where she pursued a short course in cosmetology. Her plan was to find a job, save money and pay her tuition for an engineering course.
A ray of hope
After paying half of the tuition at YMCA, she was ready to start. It is at this point that she received a call from a longtime friend, asking her whereabouts and the course she was pursuing.
Her friend advised her to apply to the Fisheries Training Institute, Bugonga Entebbe where he was also admitted. She did research about the Institute and the courses they offered and the following day, she presented her academic documents to the academic registrar, who she says approved her grades to pursue any of the courses the institute offered on government scholarship.
However, it was not the academic registrar‘s role to come to a conclusion even when she asked Abenaitwe to apply for any course of her choice.
“I opted for a three-year diploma course in Boat Building technology and Marine Mechanics (BBMM)- A programme that focuses on boating technology, repair and maintenance. After applying, the academic registrar was shocked and I remember her saying in 20 years, only two girls had applied for the same , but were unable to complete the course and since then, the institute had never got any other girl to pursue that very course to completion.”
A week later, Abenaitwe received her admission letter and she had been admitted on a government scholarship.
At the time, she was given an admission letter at Fisheries Training Institute, YMCA was resuming lectures and she had to be in the lecture room, but that did not happen. She instead went to the accounts office and asked for a refund of her tuition.
Abenaitwe desperately needed money to buy a tool box for practical lessons but because she was switching courses, he could not trust her anymore.
“My brother thought I had turned into a conman because initially I told him I had signed up for cosmetology at YMCA. And here I was telling him of Boat Building Technology and Marine Mechanics, something he had never fathomed.”
Her attempts both in the accounts and director’s office for a refund did not yield any results. Abenaitwe went on to call the school director pretending to be the guardian and asked the director to be considerate towards the helpless girl. A trick she says worked out, but out of Shs300,000 she was given Shs150,000.
While she was admitted on government sponsorship, Abenaitwe was expected to pay shs250,000 every semester as fundamental fees. Since she could not afford it, she says she was registered as a needy student and every time a semester ended, while students went home for holidays, Abenaitwe remained at campus to clean the institute’s premises.
From dreams to retaliate
Abenaitwe enrolled at Fisheries Training Institute in 2014 and she was the only female student in that class. The course too, which many referred to as a difficult, had fewer students compared to other courses.
A year later, Abenaitwe had learnt more than how to fix boat motors. She discovered that she was a talented technician with immense career potential.
Two years later, out of the six students, three were awarded certificates to continue to diploma level. To prove to her brother that she was not wasted as he had earlier thought, she invited him to witness the awarding ceremony. And this helped to mend their relationship.
In 2017, she graduated with a diploma in Boat Building Technology and Marine Mechanics (BBMM)
Leave the comfort zone
After graduating, Abenaitwe thought landing a job would come easily as she kept applying to different organisations, but this would take some time. Because she needed money to pay utitilies, she found a placement in an insurance company, ICEA, where she worked as a sales agent.
“For six months, I was earning Shs200, 000. But each time I moved around the country marketing insurance, I carried along my tool box and academic documents. In case of a job opportunity, I would just submit my academic documents and demonstrate what I knew best,” she recollects.
Abenaitwe had also applied to the Civil Aviation Authority’s head of marine but never received any response until she had to leave her comfort zone and become aggressive.
“I was advised by a friend to go to the civil aviation offices and talk to the head of the marine department. I never knew the person and we had no appointment, but I was not about to give up.”
Abenaitwe says the following day, by 8am, she stormed the marine department offices. To her surprise, the person that opened the door was a reverend. All she needed was to present her application to the head of department.
Waiting in the queue, her opportunity to meet the reverend who she later identified as Rev Samuel Atedoa was at 4pm.
Upon entering the office, the reverend thought she was there for counselling, but to save the day she quickly pulled out her application letter.
“I am not the human resource manager,” she recalls Rev Samuel Atedoa’s words as she insisted he receives the application letter.
“After scanning through my academic papers, he asked if the papers I had presented belonged to me. He then called the human resource manager and told him there was a woman in his office claiming to be a boat mechanic. At first the human resource manager dismissed the documents stating they had been forged. It was getting late and I requested to come back the next day,” she recounts.
By 7:30am, the next day Abenaitwe was at the human resourse’s office and at 10am, she was called into the boardroom before a panel of six people and was asked to defend her academic qualifications.
On August 1, 2018, she was given an appointment letter.
Today Abenaitwe is working with a team of 42 men as a marine mechanic who repairs and maintains marine engines including outboard and inboard motors.
“We work in shifts and there are days they will just be called dusty, especially when there is an emergency. I work on the rescue and firefighting boats; meaning they have to be in a proper condition all the time. I do monitor performance for signs of malfunctioning, such as smoke, excessive vibration, or misfiring,” she adds.
Abenaitwe also conducts document inspection and performs engine maintenance such as changing oil and filters. On some days, she serves as a coxswain, directing boats and crew activities. Currently, there are only two women on the team.
In 2016, Abenaitwe repaired the presidential boat during the 2016 general elections when the president was going to campaign in Kalangala District. She is currently the founder of Women In Maritime Association (WIMA) - Uganda.
In 2019, Abenaitwe travelled to Malaysia and Singapore for an international training programme aimed at fostering maritime management through Industry Revolution 4.0. She has also been to Dubai with a team from Civil Aviation Authority for the purchase of a new firefighter boat as a mechanical personnel.
Abenaitwe does not want to stop at diploma level. She is currently searching for scholarships in this field. She draws inspiration from Elizabeth Marami, the first maritime pilot in East Africa and her dream is to walk in her footsteps.