I dashed away as if possessed, fearing for my eyes as dazzling sparks emanating from a young woman’s handiwork with the intensity of a thousand stars threatened to render my world permanently dark.
Miffed by the scenario, I could not help admiring the lady doing her thing calmly and diligently behind a façade of protective gears. “Not using them is tantamount to inviting blindness, skin disorders and myriad other problems,” she says of the gear covering her from toe to pate.
Meet Chepkoech Chumo, the humility drenched Kenya’s only certified woman pipeline welder whose rise from a simple volleyball player to secure grip in a profession deemed too dangerous for the fairer sex has the ingredients of what fairy tales are made of.
Hearken this. The lanky, rural girl from Bomet County scores C- at the obscure Gelegele Mixed Secondary school in 2001 when thousands of students were scoring university entry grades.
She has nothing better to cling on to save for her volleyball talent cultivated from secondary school, a gift that runs in the family. Her elder sister had played for Kenya up to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Chumo on her part had played superbly at national secondary school level and had attracted the attention of Kenya Pipeline scouts, who promptly recruited her into the company team.
Playing on contract for the team, she had travelled to Egypt, Mauritius, Madagascar, Tunisia and Morocco.
It was while serving in that capacity that she came into contact with oil pipeline welders and developed interest in the technical discipline that was perceived a strict a preserve of men.
“I fell in love with welding sparks and found myself betrothed by enrolling privately at the National Industrial Training Authority for the ordinary version done on iron plates otherwise known as fillets. I graduated with trade test one that qualified me to be a welder. This impressed the Human Resource Department, and I was promoted from subordinate staff to fillet welder (welding flat objects).
Chumo says there were only two pipeline welders at the time and she was among 10 new ones considered for training when the company decided to increase the number. She was the only woman.
After eight months of rigorous training at Morendat Institute of Oil and Gas in Nakuru County, Chumo attained the unique skill of certified welder 6G able to weld an oil, water, gas or sewerage pipe in all positions. She proceeded to Spain for international assessment and passed. We caught up with her recently doing her thing off Mombasa Road near Sultan Hamud stretch of Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC).
What does pipeline welding entail?
“Travel and bravery. A pipeline welder has to go where the work is, so I am always on the move along the line between Mombasa, Eldoret and Kisumu. The work is less predictable than other welding careers because it involves hopping from site to site. Work hours often run into overtime,” Chumo says.
Born 37 years ago in Chepalungu, Bomet County, Chumo has been married for 12 years to Administration Police Officer, Senior Sergeant Leonard Koech. The couple is blessed with three children. Asked how she combines the demanding job and family, she says: “Commitment is important, but it has to be supported with understanding from the family. Family support and encouragement matters a lot for success and I owe a lot to my husband and three children”.
Risk is a byword for the job according to Chumo. “The intense light from arc welders and other equipment can damage your eyesight, the welding tools generate tremendous heat and there is a risk of inhaling gases or particles from the welding process,” she says.
“To reduce the risk factor calls for strict adherence to safety procedures that include wearing the right attire, including protective lenses and heat resistant gloves.
So what attracted her to a technical skill dominated by men? “I wanted to prove that my low academic grade was but accidental and could not stop me from scaling higher in the professional ladder. I wanted to prove that women are capable of excelling in male dominated fields”.
Her trainer and supervisor Fredrick Ogano urges women to overcome their phobia for disciplines that require extra courage and resolve. “It has been proved that when a lady has interest in anything, no man can reach her,” says the engineer.
The welding training project manager says women have the natural gift of handiwork and need only a little coaching. “Men have the advantage of being more daring but have to work harder to catch up with women who have been helped to overcome initial fear. Chumo is a perfect case in point,” says Ogano.