Ugandan Mine geologist Ngonzi Kiiza has proven herself to be resilient to whatever challenges have been put in her way. For her, xenophobia, racism and gender intolerance are a reality in the mining industry but you should not give them too much face time. “Once you identify it deal with it, confront it or walk away.” She left the industry for eight years bowed but not beaten and at a fleeting meeting with Anglo’s then CEO, Cynthia Carroll, secured herself a job. She is passionate about the possibilities her work presents and being in a position to makes sense of the chaos. She also sees it as her responsibility to help the young people in South Africa where she works. By Camila Reed
How did mining come to you? How did you choose mining as a career?
I believe mining chose me, as it was the furthest thing on mind. In fact, I filled in the Geology combination course option in my University application forms just to complete the form so that there would be no blanks. Then when l did not pass as l had expected l ended up at the University doing a BSc. in Geology and the rest is history.
Have you had mentors and sponsors that helped you on the way?
I do not think l would be where l am without mentors in my life. In each stage of my life there have been significant players who have had a tremendous impact on and in my life, as protectors, encouragers, believers in my ability, my support system.
As a young child it has to be both my mothers.
In my formative years, l spent a lot of time in boarding school. So mentors were two of my teachers, my Home Economics Teacher, and my Maths teacher. These two people believed in me to the point where l felt that maybe they were not seeing properly. They expected me to behave and to excel in all areas of my life and told me so.
Tertiary education and first working life session. Dr Abdul Raheem Tajudeen (RIP), General Secretary of the Pan African Movement Secretariat, Director of Justice Africa and Head of the millennium development goals program before his demise. He was my friend, my brother, my anchor. This man believed that there was nothing l could not do. He put me in situations where after the fact l wondered how l managed to go through them. He was always there nodding encouragement. He entrusted me with responsibilities beyond my wildest dreams. I have seen the world, met presidents and spoken to people l would never have spoken to because he believed in me.
Dr Alex de Waal, current Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation. He took a chance on me and gave me the responsibility of heading the Justice Africa Researching program on the impact of HIV/AIDS on governance.
Irũngũ Houghton, senior management professional specializing in areas of public policy advice and advocacy, institutional strengthening and expansion. He taught me the art of volunteering, networking and the whole concept of transferable skills. It was his contact that got me into the voluntary sector in London when l veered away from geology.
Namtasha Bunting who was my sister, friend and that woman you need when you are becoming a woman and you are surrounded by so many men. Namtasha taught me how to behave and deal with the attention without compromising myself. She always said “sometimes confrontation is not the answer; one should try some honey and deliver the intent or you dis-intent”. Honour every individual you meet until that point where you can see it is waste of time then say your peace.
Chidi Anselm Ondinkalu, Chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission is a brother who is one phone call away to my rescue. He listens, he jokes and then he tells it as it is. He gives you options.
Back in the mining field l have Barbara Dischinger, founder of Women in Mining UK and IWiM. She got me back into the industry that l had left for eight years. “You can begin again” l learnt from her. It led to me meeting the then CEO of Anglo American, which resulted in a job with them. When cuts came she told me to: “Get back out there and be determined, to shake off the former things that weigh you down and push. It will happen.” She has referred me to so many people in the mining sector in London, that some have become friends and sisters in the struggle. These contacts were invaluable during my months of job applications.
At the moment I am looking for another mentor to guide me through this phase of my life but taking on mentoring roles as well.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?
When I finished my MSc, I opted to stay in the UK in the belief that my qualifications would open doors. A rude awakening saw me struggle in an unknown terrain for eight years. I found that access to working in established mining companies was almost an impossibility unless you knew someone in them to assist your entry or their professional development opportunities. I knew nothing about access to opportunities like graduate assistant jobs, Professional in Training, job shadowing, etc.
Secondly mining companies, which operated in my home country (Uganda), came with their own resource persons saying that there was no one with the experience and the skills on the ground. How could there be when no one was training them or giving them the exposure? If the facilities that they accord to students/persons in their country of origin were offered or were made known to developing world students, think how different the mining landscape and the playing field would be in Africa and how interesting.
What is your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector?
My experience of being a woman in the mining sector is both positive and negative. In advancing into the mining sector I was prepared for gender imbalance, attitudes and intolerances mainly from men. But no one prepares you for female work relationships. I encountered a woman who had been in the field for many years. For all intents and purposes l thought l had hit the jackpot and l was ready to learn from her as much as she could teach me. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I brought something out of her and up to now l have never known why she took to me like that.
These are the women who have gone ahead before you and feel that you should not ride on their laurels but that you need go through the same hardships they have had to put up with. They ‘punish’ you for being different from their expectation, trying to prove some unknown or an unidentified point. l will call them “she man”, women who project that to be able to survive in this male dominated industry you have to behave as a man. The funny thing is that they never pick the best qualities of men to front but the worst: the aggression, the constant unnecessary fighting to prove who is right, the putting you down in front of everyone and never according you the same respect.
Have you/do you encounter much discrimination?
I have encountered discrimination on the basis of being “different”. I have experienced xenophobia and racism from both the whites and fellow black people. I knew how to handle racism but l was out of my depth when it came to xenophobia, the constant haranguing of why l was in South Africa, why didn’t l stay in my own country? Was I here to take their jobs?
The most shocking and traumatic experience was when l was almost mugged. The almost tangible hatred l felt as the crowd gathered around my car with amused faces, was palpable. The instigator kept screaming in broken English, after gathering that it was the only thing l spoke, that l am foreigner here to take jobs and l kept wondering which job l had taken that she could do. She reached out to slap me and it was the boy who had been washing my car who came to my rescue and told me to get into my car and he got into the driving seat and drove me away from the scene.
Could you share one or two challenges you’ve experienced in your career and how you overcame them?
One of the major challenges I have encountered in my career is with the men at the mines. It is their inappropriate sexual innuendos and unwanted advances. There seemed to be an unspoken law that certain men were to be addressed as “Baba” so and so or “Oom“ so and so following custom/tradition. Not that l minded but l knew where this would then become an issue. When I wanted to point out an error or just carry out a correction, l would find myself blocked by this unspoken aura of respect around the titled individuals.
Once you equate yourself culturally to “uncle” or “father” or “old man” status, in my culture, it puts in me in a position where l find it challenging to tell you off as deserved when the need arises without it being perceived as being disrespectful.
In the end it was just sheer determination and stubbornness of basically saying that l will refer to each individual by their given name no matter how old or reverent you were considered.
What are you passionate about in your work?
I am passionate about the possibilities my work presents and being in a position to make sense of the chaos. I am currently working as a mine geologist at a coal colliery. I begin with the end in mind with regard to production and have to explain the shortfall in the final numbers. I act as a guiding light to the mining team as I envision what lays ahead which l have to then qualify, quantify and communicate to the mining team. I am dealing with maths, physics, chemistry, geometry, art and poetry all in one.
Waking up one day and entering a mining pit or coming face to face with an exposed high wall and seeing nature at work takes my breath away. l see huge rock formations that seem to have been heaved, pushed or squashed into unimaginable positions and voids and spaces, which l have to explain. The colours and shapes of what I deal with, and then the ingenuity of man to be able to take out precisely what he wants is what forms part of my passion for my work.
Any advice to young women starting out in their careers?
You have got to have passion for what you do. It will make the bleary days brighter and challenges surmountable. Identify in the work place who can facilitate your development, people who want to pass on knowledge and information and who want to teach.
Don’t assume or imagine why someone would not want to talk to you, bite the bullet and go and ask. Rejection is not easy but at least you will know — 99% of the time the individual is chuffed by someone asking him or her what they know and if they could pass it on.
Know your rights in the work place especially as a woman. Know the HR team and create a relationship with them.
Xenophobia, racism and gender intolerance are a reality in the mining industry but do not give them too much face time. Once you identify it deal with it, confront it or walk away.
Keep away from office gossip and the person who tends to know every titbit of what is happening in other people lives, trust me much as he/she is sharing other people’s lives with you he/she is also sharing a version of yours to them.
Have a mentor, a go to person you can trust professionally.
Have a life and make sure you attend “golfing” activities to network and understand how the company works and who does what, where and when and how it affects your station or your department. At office party functions be brave and go and introduce yourself to the “big men and women”. Say your name and what you do and ask them what they do and tell them that you are honoured to put a face to the name that has been resounding in the hallways.
Make time to play, do dissociate yourself from work entirely. Work associated depression is a reality.
Do you believe women in mining groups can help to change the image of the industry and make the sector more attractive to women?
I do believe women in mining groups do help change and have helped change the image of the industry. Women in mining groups teach and train men to know and understand that a working place is for those who can do the work regardless of the whether they are male or female. They are training women to be more confident and encouraging them to go into universities to excel and be counted by their contribution in this sector.
I believe women in mining groups are preaching a new message of cohesive existence in the mining sector.
What would you love to do next?
In the present state of mind l see myself employed and in a position to meet my financial needs and my family obligations. But I envision myself as a proficient data analyst with the capacity to handle and meet clients’ needs with the different data requirement. I envision myself being on top of my game owning my own company or working within an establishment that meets my goal and vision.
But l would love to become a significant contributor to the wellbeing of young people in South Africa. It used to be about empowering girls but looking around me there is a need for a concerted effort to ensure that in totality all young people stop selling themselves short. The math and science education sector is falling apart in the country. I want to be part of the doers of the next generation to be thinkers, creators and have the ability to utilise technology not from a crippling point of view but one that opens their horizons.
What is your opinion in the women on boards debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?
I am for effective representation on any given board and not about numbers. That said, in the present state of boards representation I would advocate quotas but for a limited period until such a time when the field is levelled and bottle necks removed.