“We’re 1% of all women, but get 100% of the attention”
Meet Elizabeth Marami, Kenya’s first female marine pilot, passionate youth advocate and Kuza board member, who tells us about her struggles, her challenges and motivations to become one of the global 1% of women in the professional maritime life.
‘Though she be but little, she is fierce” may be your first thought when meeting Elizabeth Marami, Kenya’s first ever female marine pilot. When the petite, twenty something is not in her uniform, ‘Liz’ is a fashion blogger and mentor to girls and women in the marine field, she is also the founder of ‘Against the Tide’, an online empowerment campaign. As a passionate youth advocate, you can also find Liz on the board of the Kuza Project, a youth employment project run by Adam Smith International at the coast in Kenya. We’ve met with the trailblazer in Nairobi to discuss why being the first woman matters and what needs to change for other young people in Africa.
1. Elizabeth, you are a pioneer. Tell me, how does it feel to be Kenya’s first maritime pilot?
It’s great, but to be honest with you it also comes with a lot of responsibility and pressure. I have zero room to fail or make any kind of mistakes. Globally, there are only 1–2% of women in the marine life but we get 100% of the attention and pressures of being in the job.
2. It’s the 21st century, why do we still need to celebrate the ‘first woman’? Shouldn’t we be over that?
Honestly, that is a question I ask myself too. The very fact that the ‘first woman’ in something is still a thing and gets special attention shows that we have a huge problem and aren’t acknowledging it enough.
3. Why the sea? What brought you here?
I always wanted to be different. When I was little, I kept telling my mom ‘one day I am going to be the president’. Then reality kicked in and I realised it wasn’t that easy after all. I was about to study law, but it was my father who suggested a maritime scholarship he had heard about. So I applied not thinking much would come out of it.
4. Your dad seems to have played a significant role!
Yes absolutely. I am one of four kids. Three girls and then a boy. I call him the ‘oops baby’, he came at a time when my father had already come to terms with the fact that he probably would only have girls — so he treated us equally. He always said to my sisters and me ‘Whatever a guy can do, you can do’. I’ve lived by that.
5. You work in a sea of men — what are some of the challenges you face?
It’s certainly interesting! Thankfully, my colleagues now are very nice and supportive. One of them was asked by a reporter recently what I bring to the team, and he said ‘Imagine being a bachelor for so long and having your house upside down. Liz brings order and discipline and makes things better’.
It’s also very demanding though. All eyes are always on me and I don’t like that at all: I mean, I’ve struggled many years and had to overcome gender barriers to finally get to this stage where I am now, yet here I finally am and I am still facing difficulties. I want to reach a point where me being in this job as a woman is normal I am not treated or held to different standards than my male colleagues.
6. You said once, you like ‘taking command’ — what do you like about it?
When I board a ship with seniors, they never expect much ‘from a woman’. So whenever I give commands to the arriving captains and ships, my seniors and the other captains are surprised. Bet you didn’t expect that from ‘a woman’ — countering these stereotypes and changing perceptions gives me satisfaction.
7. If women were ‘in command’ of our world, what would you imagine it to look like?
(laughs) More organised, for one! I think it would be a warmer place. Men do things by the book and don’t question the status quo very often because it works in their favour. We are more compassionate because we know how it feels to struggle. They say women ‘overthink’ things all the time, but I believe that doesn’t automatically mean it’s a bad thing. It also means willing to think outside the box and provide solutions and ideas to problems that were overlooked.
8. In one of your videos on social media, you say ‘Every time I am encouraging young girls, a part of me feels like I am lying’ — what’s the lie?
I am a pioneer, I’ve ‘made it’, but really there are still structural barriers that make it likely to get stuck along the way. Even if they make it through all the struggles to study, will they find a job? Youth unemployment is high and I feel responsible to fix the situation first before encouraging others to ‘go for it’.
It’s frustrating: gender shouldn’t be a qualification for anything these days. Yet, those that make it despite their gender feel like once in the role, they have to be ‘invisible’. Try and fit into a man’s world, not wear make-up, not wear nice clothes and so on. I love fashion and my feminine side and have decided to just be unapologetic about who I am. I hope to pass this on to the girls that look up to me.
9. Many young people leave Africa for greener pastures they hope to find in the West for the same reasons you just mentioned — what’s your message to young people like that?
My message is: Don’t apologise for being who you are. Nothing is impossible. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to make it in life, there are many ways and many areas one can learn to excel in. Africa is a content with many opportunities!
10. The sea is….
Definitely a woman! (giggles) The sea, like women, it’s this ball of emotion. It’s unpredictable, one moment it is calm and beautiful and the next moment a raging storm. The power that lies within her and that you don’t expect or underestimate, makes me think the sea is a woman.
11. You are a board member of the Kuza project — Why did you join?
I think Kuza’s work is extremely important, especially because they work with marginalised youth. It’s a critical time for all humans, and being young and hopeless really can get you down. Showing these youth that someone cares and making them feel loved will certainly change the course of their lives to the better. I also love the passion and dedication of the Kuza staff — it’s contagious! Together I think we can move something!
The Kuza Project is a youth employment project run by Adam Smith International, currently funded by UKaid and implemented in partnership with businesses and the county government on Kenya’s coastal region. Youth unemployment here is as high as 44%.