As Florence takes you through her journey, you can only admire the tenacity of Kenya’s First Female Civilian Aeronautic Engineer. She makes it clear that the first female to open the doors in her field, now deceased, was military trained and did not pursue the profession on leaving the military.
Florence Akinyi Odero’s journey started in primary school in Nairobi, Kenya with a lot of encouragement from her maths teacher Mr. Daniel Karanja. As she says: “he made me appreciate maths as a vehicle to engineering and scientific careers. When I finished secondary school in 1990, I had my maths, physics and chemistry qualifications and knew I was edging closer to my dream career in Engineering.”
First she had to turn down a University offer to study archaeology. She says: “I was not too keen on archeology and did not want to invest time and money for a career I had no passion for. I probably had a passion for engineering carved out way before I had to select what studies to embark on”.
Not wanting to miss the opportunity for a joke, Florence adds: “Dr. Leakey had discovered whatever fossils there was to discover so I could not see what archeology would do for my career”.
Having convinced her Dad of her choice of career and passion for engineering Florence registered on a Mechanical Engineering course, Aeronautics option at Kenya Polytechnic in Nairobi, Kenya .
As the only woman on the course the first year was tough having to deal with colleagues’ attitudes and apprehensions including insecurities about her venture into their supposed domain. She had also outlived her expected voluntary dropout date set by colleagues.
However, Florence had to relive the attitudes and insecurities again when she went looking for internships. She said:” It was either a comment about how I would upset the men’s insecurities or the employers had no confidence in a woman doing engineering.”
Tired, dejected and given up for the day, Florence and her elder sister Christine decided to pay a family friend a visit. This turned out to be Florence’s opportunity that has remained her place of work to date. Rachel was working for Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), a religious charity that provided help in inaccessible areas of East Africa. Their Chief Inspector Roland Knight gave Florence a 6 month internship.
Florence embarked on her practical journey that has never been devoid of male apprehension of her abilities and capabilities. Having done all tasks from stripping down a whole light aircraft to re-assembling it to Acceptance check standards, Florence feels the doubters need to prove they can accept her worth as an engineer.
Florence finished her course in 1994 and worked for Kenya Airways first before finding employment with MAF again in 1997. She has slowly been ‘accepted’ but believes the perceptions will always be there for any other female coming into the field.
On how things could improve for women passionate about breaking into male-dominated fields, Florence pauses for a powerfully worded answer.”Women have to empower themselves before anyone can change anything. A lot of us give up easily when it gets tough rather than doing the opposite. Changes in perceptions and male insecurities should not be a woman’s problem to worry about.”
Florence feels she owes MAF a debt of gratitude and especially Roland Knight and Hugh Beck her trainer for believing in a female engineer. As for Rachel Wainana, Florence could not thank her enough for introducing her to MAF who remain her employers to date.