BIKO: Maureen keeps planes in one piece in the sky

Maureen first joined Kenya Airways in 1988 as a technician intern attached to the avionics workshop, maintaining the aircraft communicationaudio system components.

She was later licensed as an aircraft engineer, handling the maintenance of aircraft including the SAAB, F27-50, B737-300700800, B767 and the B777. In 2012, she became a director at Jambojet, and her role in a thumbnail is to make sure that the aircraft are safe to fly.

We met at Mama’s Patisserie at ABC Place in Nairobi. She walked in late, hobbling on a busted and bandaged right knee. But she was cheery, engaging, talkative and smart – qualities that failed to completely mask the steel and brass that shone beneath.

She was also spectacularly unapologetic – so much so that I often had to confirm if she still wanted to remain on the record.

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And what happened to your knee?

We had a Jambojet Fun Day and I misjudged the strength of my legs and tried to throw people off forgetting that you can’t really lift and throw people like Willem (Jambojet CEO) so I ended up twisting my knee.

Pole. Willem is a towering giant. Did you manage to break his neck?

(Laughs) He is and no, couldn’t even lift him off the ground.

You have been in a very male-dominated space for close to, what, 30 years now? Did you have to earn your position at the table?

Not really. Growing up, I was a girl among five boys. That background blinded me to all the males in my industry. I just lived my life. I didn’t realise that I was a woman among men. When I got pregnant with my first child, my supervisor couldn’t believe that I was actually pregnant. They forgot I was a woman.

I think it is more about being somebody who has to do what has to be done. The job is at hand. I do my best and I speak my mind. I give my best in whatever I’m doing and, of course, I will study and gear up for the next round. I never really worked or thought or planned out my positions as I climbed up the ladder. That just happened.

What’s the most difficult part in doing what you’re doing?

The most difficult part? Really, I think it’s leading the teams and not as an engineer because as a maintenance engineer, I just did what needed to be done. I got my hands dirty. But I think what stood out was the fact that I believed in myself a lot. I took the challenge, and I won because I remember lots of times when the organisation would say this cannot be done, I would always want to prove it can be done. That’s me.

It comes from my background. We were many children. Nobody gave instructions on what to do. You saw and you did. If it was bad, you corrected. And it was expected of you. And nobody applauded you for what you did. I think that is what has seen me where I am today.

A lot of times, I would do things… it could be a report, a situation… and all I could think of is how can I turn around the situation? Is there anything that can be done differently from what we are doing. And that just drives me.

What did you study? Where did you study?

I started off studying from my father’s house. Dad worked as an engineer for the East African Airways back in the day. So yeah, I started seeing aircraft from when I was a very young girl. And I was pretty close to him, so there are days when he would work long hours and I would say, “No, you are not leaving me behind. I am going with you to Embakasi.” So aircraft are something I have been watching and enjoying. I did electrical and electronics engineering at JKUAT.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were 30?

Challenge the boss!

Challenge the boss?

Yes. I think many women believe that you should be recognised by people and that you can go up the ladder only because of your hard work… that you can’t be open enough to speak your mind and say what’s on your mind all the time. Well, that’s not what the whole battle is about, I realised.

What is it?

You’ve got to understand people’s ego to know how well to manage them, to know what to say and how to say what you have say and know what to expect from the discussion you are having. Many of us go in completely naïve. Because you believe in your management school stuff, you go in with theories in your head you go with your theories from management and you want to apply them as you were taught, and that’s not real life. Your management theories remain theories out here. You just have to challenge the boss.

What is the worst decision you have made in life, Maureen?

Marriage.

Marriage? Are we still on the record with this one?

Yes, but I don’t know if that should be on the record.

Come on, but don’t take away the good stuff and leave me only with stuff about aircraft!

(Laughs hard) You know… you can be very innocent in what you say, but you don’t know what the other party takes out of it. (Pause) What do I know about marriage? Marriage is very difficult. I once told my mom, “I have taken many exams in my life and I have taken many challenges. I can do another PhD and Master’s but marriage is on a different level… it is different. Oh! I will go back to the Bible and tell you that the only thing that Jesus compared to his relationship with the Church is marriage. It is complicated and it is very difficult. You know what Jesus had to go through for the Church? (Laughs).

If you got divorced now, would you marry again?

No.

But what do you like about marriage?

Marriage is very wholesome. It matures you. It tests every strength you have. It is the only place I know I have grown in terms of my abilities. Just how much can I stretch? You don’t know how much you can stretch until you are married. No other job can stretch you because a job I can just walk away from and make money from a string of mkokotenis.

What are you struggling with now in your life, in general?

My investments. All I can say is that when you get to the age where I am, you quantify where you ought to be. Many will tell you that people in my age group are in a crisis right now. You ask questions are there things I would like to change? Is my base good enough to make the decisions I thought I could make? The economy right now has just changed our mindset. Whatever you thought you could achieve is not really where you are, you know, and that is key. Because you are looking at investments, you are looking at what you want for your children.

How many do you have?

Three, the eldest is 23 and the youngest 12.

What is your biggest fear?

My children not being self-reliant. I have spent a lot of time trying to make them what I think they ought to be, but when you look at the horizon, they have decisions to make on their own. They have choices to make. Are they going to end up being what I would want them to be? I think that’s my biggest fear.

What’s the last thing that broke your heart?

Being misjudged or being misunderstood. Giving your best and… what can I say… it is like a stab in the back, you know. Somebody not being honest enough despite the fact that they see what you are saying, yet they turn around and give it a totally different meaning. That to me is pretty unacceptable.

What is your aice on corporate backstabbing? I suppose it happens a lot.

It does. The only thing I can say to the person who is a victim is that it does not take your knowledge, your skills, your power away from you and that should be your joy. Because you will always have another opportunity – or create the opportunity – for you to excel again. It should not stop you.

Are you happy, Maureen?

(Laughs) I don’t know. Don’t I look it?

I don’t know. Looks can be deceiving.

I am a real person. I love to laugh, I speak my mind, I love my life. I am happy.

SOURCE: BUSINESS DAILY