Yes, this is she.
In 1995 after I graduated from the University of Zambia, several months later (with no job in sight) I reached out to one of my mentors Dr. Harry Chabwela (at University of Zambia) signaling to him that I was looking for a job in the conservation field.
You see, my first degree was a Bachelors in Science with Education (BSc.Ed) and as such I was supposed to find a job as a teacher and do the needful. However, my courses in environmental studies and conservation biology had totally shifted my focus. In fact, if I had had a chance I would have worked as a warden in a national park – except Dr Chabwela didn’t think I should do that at this stage. I digress.
Following my request, he later called me to tell me that he had heard that the Environmental Council of Zambia (ECZ) was looking to hire interns, biologists and it was a paying job too. He further added that it seemed the institution had received funding from the Canadian Development Agency (CIDA) and they were supporting an initiative to manage water hyacinth (a menace of an invasive species) on the Kafue River. I was ecstatic with joy about such a prospect and he further added that I needed not be too excited as it was not an office job. The needed someone to be a part of the project team going to the river on a boat at least four times a week. I jumped with joy!!!!
You see, I was pretty much a Tomboy growing up. I loved the outdoors, climbed trees three quarters of my childhood (to the horror of both my grandmothers and mother too) and did “mini-explorations” in my home town (to the horror of my father who thought perhaps I was trying to be a “female” Indiana Jones”).
I asked Dr Chabwela what was expected of me and he indicated that I had to write a letter of interest (an application letter of sorts) and express my interest for this internship. I quickly scribbled something on paper in my best handwriting (cursive), gathered all the relevant information and put in my application.
My memory is a little hazy as how the whole process panned out however what I remember quite vividly was the call that went something like this:
HR person on phone: Hello is this Musonda Mumba?
Me: Yes this is she.
HR Person on phone: Ohh you are a she? (sounding surprised). It’s just that from your hand writing I thought you were a he.
Me: Well I am a she.
HR Person on Phone: And you have a science degree?
Me: Indeed I do have science and education degree from UNZA (University of Zambia)
HR Person on Phone: Wow (exclaiming) Dr Chabwela recommends you highly for this role and I hope you can do the job as a young woman.
Me: Of course I can do the job. I learnt from the best.
HR Person on Phone: (Pause)
Me: Are you still there?
HR Person on Phone: Yes I am. It’s just that we don’t have a woman as part of the team that works on the river. You know this job requires going on the boat, monitoring the weed and will entail checking boat engine occasionally.
Me: I understand. Dr Chabwela already explained all of this to me and I am ready.
HR Person on Phone: Ok, we shall see you tomorrow then.
Me: Thank you very much, I am very much looking forward.
Please note that the voice on the end of the line was female. Many months and certainly years later I reflected on this (and this is will be part of my reflections in subsequent blog posts) as to why people underestimate you as a woman (both men and women). The judgments, interrogations, undermining, condescending and demeaning dynamics have been so much a part of career path.
So many questions popped into my mind after the mini phone conversations: Am I too young? Was Dr Chabwela right to recommend me? Will I even know how to manage a boat on the river let alone learn how to drive one? Does one even drive a boat? Will I drown? Will the crocodiles eat me?
This job was the beginning of my scientific and environmental career in a predominantly male dominated environment in Zambia. Ironically the people who pushed, hoisted, guided, mentored and encouraged – where mostly male. And I would also like to add that indeed this handwriting of mine has played a role in many facets of my being over the years and I shall elaborate how – along the way. Example: after my acceptance to the University of Zambia, I applied for accommodation and forgot to included my gender by way of Miss – ending up being allocated a room in the male residence. The saga of it. To this day I still laugh about.
So back to the “river” job - all I did was show up and BE THE BEST.