Two young women training as plumbers

“Scale-Up!” programme in the Dzaleka refugee camp

Training as a plumber: prospects for Bijoux and Lea

Training with prospects for two young women. They have different roots, but Lea and Bijoux have one thing in common: they had to go out of their way to find their calling and achieve their dream: Plumbing.

Bijoux-Penina Dodole had to leave her home, the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the age of 14 to escape the war. Her family ended up at the Dzaleka refugee camp in central Malawi, where they still live. Malawi-born Lea Mtachira had a job as a secretary, but without valid training and with a low salary. The two young women’s lives changed radically when they took part in the CLS-funded training programme for plumbers at a vocational training centre near the refugee camp.

Training programme: Qualification as a plumber in six months for 30 young adults

The “Scale up!” project is provided by the local NGO “There is Hope” in partnership with Deutsche Welthungerhilfe. The Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V. provided funding for 30 apprenticeships for two years to offer young people in Malawi financial security by means of a sound profession. One priority: improving equal opportunities for women. The project also shows how important it is to teach technical skills, especially to refugees, to give them back hope and self-confidence. Most of them will not return to their home country and have to build themselves a new life in Malawi.

The war destroyed dreams

A childhood dream comes true: Bijoux, 22, can finally pursue her vocation.

Like Bijoux. Even as a little girl, the tall Congolese woman was interested in plumbing. Her uncle was her inspiration; he worked as a sought-after specialist in a respected construction company. At the age of 12, his niece often accompanied him to work and helped with smaller plumbing tasks. Bijoux knew: “This is my dream job.”

The war that broke out two years later was the end of her dream and the beginning of a life as a refugee among more than 50,000 fugitives stranded in Dzaleka, Malawi.

Bijoux remembers how hurt and crushed she was. “My hope for a better future disintegrated. Everything changed. Suddenly we had nothing – life as a refugee was depressing.” Bijoux’s passion to become a plumber vanished.

Unemployment, frustration and hollowness at the refugee camp

What worried the young girl the most was the lack of prospects in life at the refugee camp: there was no work and therefore no way of becoming financially independent. Bijoux explains that her seven siblings and her parents were destitute. They were allocated a small piece of land on which they grew crops such as beans and maize, to sell – but it was barely enough to feed everyone.

“It was a hard time,” she recalls. “I had nothing to do. My future was bleak and my whole life felt meaningless.” As Bijoux had no special skills or qualifications, she could not contribute to the family income. She was just another young person in the camp hoping for change.

Financial security and independence as a woman in a traditional village

At first glance, Lea Mtachira had it easier: she is from Malawi, grew up in a traditional family with three siblings and had a simple job as a secretary in a wholesale business. Lea’s interest was piqued when three friends told her about the plumbing training they had completed, about better working conditions and a higher income, more security and better prospects.

“I was impressed by my friends’ lifestyle. They were more financially secure than me and most of the women in my neighbourhood,” says Lea.

Two young women training as plumbers

Lea, 22, had to break with tradition for her apprenticeship.

Breaking traditional gender roles

But she still had to fight to be allowed. “My mother was strictly against me doing an apprenticeship as a plumber. It was inconceivable to her that a girl could be successful in this profession. She emphasised repeatedly that it was taboo for a woman to do this job and that I would not make it,” the 22-year-old tells us.

“My mother tried to discourage me with the strangest claims. Women are not good plumbers, she said, it was a dirty trade.” Her younger sister put obstacles in her way too and began to set relatives against Lea using similar arguments. Plumbing, she said, brought shame on the whole family, because all you were doing was shoveling faeces out of people’s houses. A misunderstanding that Lea could only clear up later using exact knowledge of the content of the training.

There is hope!

Working together: Other young women are also taking the opportunity to show their strengths in a male-dominated profession.

Despite constant pressure from her mother and resentment from those around her, Lea quit her job and signed up for “Scale-Up!” in early 2023. So did Bijoux, who started her six-month training at the same time. “I am very happy to be one of the women in the camp taking part in this wonderful course. This qualification will open new doors,” Bijoux said. “I never thought that one day I would be one of the lucky people who get to learn their dream trade.” Lea is also confident that with the knowledge she has acquired, she will finally be on her way up.

A qualification recognized throughout Africa

Participants in the training earn a certificate that is recognized by the Technical, Entrepreneurial and Vocational Education and Training (TEVET) authority, a public body that regulates vocational training in Malawi. The qualification is thus valid throughout Africa, so Bijoux and Lea could also work outside Malawi if they so wished.

Double calling: independence and role models

But both young women already have clear plans in their (chosen) home: Lea’s determination to convince her family that women can be successful in a male-dominated profession was successful. Her mother’s change of heart is the ultimate proof. “My mother realised how wrong she was. She has put aside her prejudices. She now looks at me with respect and admiration. I have become a role model for our family,” Lea reports. After graduation, she plans to establish herself in the plumbing industry. 

Role model: As a plumber and as a woman, Lea wants to encourage others.

She would also like to start a small plumbing business with her female classmates to break the common gender stereotypes in construction professions that she herself experienced. Lea is convinced that a woman with the corresponding technical know-how has a competitive advantage over male colleagues. “People are fighting for gender equality all over the world. The path that has brought me this far has taught me a lot. I am convinced that many employers and clients appreciate this,” Lea emphasises.

Looking to the future: Bijoux now has a job that secures her livelihood.

Bijoux has gained valuable knowledge in her training too, which she can apply in practice immediately after completing the course. This is essential in Dzaleka. The lack of opportunities to give refugees financial prospects is exacerbated by the lack of qualification offers.

Bijoux is gradually gaining recognition in her community. She recently helped a neighbour lay a sewer pipe. She mainly wants to use her job to earn a living and maybe even to support her parents. She knows it won’t be easy, but Bijoux is confident: “I have the skills and the qualifications. That’s all I need.”

© 2024 by Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V. – Kindly supported by Hubert Burda Media.