Tanzania's first female mineral processing engineer

Saturday April 09 2022
Mineral Female

Theonestina Mwasha

By Ramadhani Ismail

Each of us is born with different strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, it is good to embrace our uniqueness and support each other. Comparing ourselves to others only blocks our true potential.

What women need to understand is that they should always be themselves and be confident about their personalities.

The executive secretary of the Foundation of Artisanal and Small Scale Mining Development in Tanzania (FADev), Theonestina Mwasha, did exactly that by choosing a profession that did not seem to attract many at the time, especially women.

When she was in school in the 1970s, many students wanted to either become doctors or teachers. She herself dreamt of becoming a medical doctor. But, fate led her on a different path.

While she wanted to study Physics, Chemistry and Biology (PCB) so she could become a doctor, she was selected to study Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics (PCM), subjects that saw her become an engineer instead.

That time, the government, gave priority to the best performing girls to study engineering, which was dominated by men.

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“Even though I was among the best female students selected to proceed with advanced level studies, I struggled a lot to change the course so I could study PCB and become a doctor,” recalls Theonestina.

Born on July 24, 1954 in Katoma Village, Kagera Region, Theonestina - who holds a MSc in Mineral Processing Design from Imperial College, University of London, UK - went on to become Tanzania’s first female minerals processing engineer.

“After finishing my Advanced Level education at Tambaza Secondary School in the mid-70s, I was lucky to get a chance to work in the-then ministry of water and minerals. While there I got interested in the activities at the mining workshop - and when an opportunity arose for a Commonwealth scholarship in mining studies, I went ahead and applied,” says Theonestina.

This marked the beginning of her journey in mineral processing.

“At Cardiff University, I was the only female student in a class of 12, and in the whole department and the whole faculty,” she narrates.

She graduated with a BSc degree in Mineral Processing from Cardiff University College, University of Wales, in 1980.

Theonestina is grateful toher late father, William Bigoye, for taking her to school at a time when girls were viewed as fit to be only fit for marriage.

“My father was my first mentor in everything. He made sure I succeed in education despite society’s negative view on educating girls. When I failed in my Standard Two exams for example, my father who believed in me found me another school so I could continue with my education,” says Theonestina.

She says her late father instilled in her the sense of uniqueness and the confidence of doing things differently because she doesn’t have to do things like everybody else. “Since I was a little girl up to secondary school level, my father was there to make sure I studied hard.” Speaking of mentors, the mother of three says finding a mentor and support hasn’t been much of a struggle to her, because she has been mentored by various people at different times along her career journey.

She mentions Mr Allenius (she only remembers one name), a mineral processing engineer from Finland who was working with State Mining Corporation (Stamico) as an expatriate as her other mentor. Mr Allenius encouraged her to work in the field of mineral engineering.

“He used to encourage me not to give up saying it was the right field to work in. He helped me to be confident despite having been surrounded by men,” she shares.

At Stamico, Theonestina was incharge of supervising a crew of about 80 workers who were all men.

In addressing gender equality issues at the workplace, Theonestina always believes that women and men must be treated equally.

“Performance matters the most. We need to give people equal opportunities, because we need to show them that gender is not an issue and that all that matters is performance.”

Speaking about empowering girls and women to leadership roles, she says; “Government and stakeholders need to create more initiatives for women. This can be done through talk shows, seminars and workshops for both men and women to develop their leadership skills,” she says.

Theonestina says women leaders who have already made it to the top should share their experience with others and become mentors too.

As human beings, we all engage in regular self-care, where we do things that make us feel taken care of mentally, physically and emotionally.

For Theonestina, self-care, is all about surrounding her mind, body and soul with only important stuff.

In her generation, women were not shown how to take care of themselves, especially when it comes to establishing healthy boundaries. That time, self-care was perceived as a luxury and not a necessity.

“Personally, as a leader I accomplish my self-care by focusing on maintaining my self-worth and value, embracing my uniqueness and knowing who I am and having balance,” says Theonestina.

Apart from self-care, she believes when it comes to leading others, one needs to be able to respond well to pressure, stress and be kind to oneself without forgetting you are gifted.

“Always be the one to make a difference and make sure that you provide values to others so as to improve their talents and experience,” she notes.

Theonestina has worked for government institutions, the private sector and a few international organisations in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda with roles and responsibilities varying from conducting research and developing training programmes in the mining field.

She has been an officer in charge of an intergovernmental organisation consisting of countries like Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Uganda and Tanzania. She also worked as the coordinator of Fairtrade Africa pilot projects in Tanzania and participated in establishing and operationalising the first NGO specifically dealing with artisanal and small scale mining development (FADev).

FADev is an independent non-governmental organisation established to catalyse multi-stakeholder dialogue, knowledge sharing and collaboration. The organisation intends to promote formal and legal Artisanal and Small-scale Mining operations through well designed support mechanisms in Tanzania.

The mother of three provides counselling to women during her spare time when needed because she knows the hardships women go through - and how they are not given opportunities. She is committed to empowering those who are not usually empowered.