“My fear is my strength” Stories

6 March, 2019

Joyce Okeny was the first in her family to become an architect. In South Sudan, where she grew up, this is not a common feat where children face many barriers that can stop them from finishing school, from conflict to economic status, and even more so for girls.

Joyce is an architect who served as a County Inspector of Works on the project Local Governance and Service Delivery: Institutional Strengthening of Local Governments (LOGOSEED) implemented by Cowater on behalf of the Government of South Sudan. The project focused on the delivery of training to county-level officials in financial planning and reporting, procurement, and the development and management of community infrastructure projects in accordance with national standards. In doing so, the project helped build the capabilities of local governments in South Sudan to provide essential services to residents both effectively and transparently and thereby contributed to the social and economic development of this young yet deeply conflict-affected country.

Cowater’s component of the LOGOSEED project came to an end in the spring of 2018, at which point we spoke to Joyce about her experiences as a member of the project team and as a female architecte in South Sudan.

Cowater: Could you tell me about the most pressing challenges facing South Sudan in terms of infrastructure?

Joyce Okeny: In South Sudan, the rural areas are extremely difficult to access by road. The terrain is not favorable to transport and to work with. It is made of clay and when it rains, the soil becomes very muddy and difficult to manage. This also means that bringing tools and machinery to these areas to build infrastructures takes time and is very costly.

The other issue is that it is difficult to find the right people who are willing to go to these areas and have the knowledge to develop infrastructure there.

CS: What was the most important impact of the LOGOSEED project in terms of infrastructure, according to you?

JO: In rural areas where the project was based, a lot of activities conducted by the communities were traditionally done out in the open or under trees as a form of shelter. For examples, markets and schools were held outside under trees. But when the rainy season came, it meant these activities could not continue.

The infrastructure built during the LOGOSEED project – including classrooms, basic health units, latrines and market shelters – meant that the life of the community was transformed, and activities became more constant.

CS: You were one of the only female architects on the LOGOSEED project. Why do you think there aren’t more female architects in South Sudan?

JO: The environment is not favorable for women to work in the field of architecture because most men do not think that women have the same capacity or expertise to carry out the work. They think we are unable to conduct the same tasks as them so it takes courage to stand up and show them that you can do the same thing as well as them. In general, people are not encouraging women to pursue this career.  Even at university, girls end up dropping out because they don’t think they can manage as well as their male peers.

Even when you graduate from university and enter the labour market with your architecture degree, people don’t think that you can do it. During the project, some people did not expect me to attend trainings and go to the field in rural areas because they thought it was not the place for a woman. But I stood my ground, and I still went. During training, they told me I could not do it, but I think people should be given the space to do what they can and try. These types of situations especially embolden me to continue forward and to stand my ground. I find that in some situation, when you challenge the men, they let it go and you can do what you want.

“My fear is my strength, this is what keeps me moving on.”

CS: Did you have someone that encouraged you to pursue this career?

JO: Not really, but then again, I did not have anybody who discouraged me. Nobody told me that I could not achieve my goals, so I told myself that I had the capacities to do it. There is no one from where I come from that pursued engineering studies, but I wanted to do something different. At some point, people in my family were concerned about the cost of attending university, because it usually makes sense for boys but not for girls. However, I have an uncle who told them to let me finish my studies.

CS: What would you tell other young people to encourage them pursuing studies?

JO: I always try to encourage my sister’s children and tell them they can do what ever they want to be. They ask me what I studied to become an architect and I always tell them that they need to work very hard – especially if they are a girl. I also have cousins and friends who are in high school and they want to be like me and study. I encourage them and tell them that it takes time and courage. I don’t discourage them. I encourage them to read physics and chemistry books. I make sure I keep them focused on school – especially the girls. I tell them that they can wait to get married. 

CS: As an architect, how did the LOGOSEED project affect your career?

JO : I learned so much from the project. The supervisors of the project were not only developing the capacities of our beneficiaries but also our own as trainers. As such, they made sure that we had access to training opportunities. For example, I attended training on procurement or data collection, and I learned so much more than I expected. Now I know how to manage a project on my own and feel confident managing the framework of a project from contract management to implementation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for the purpose of this publication

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