On a normal work day, you would find her in meetings, mostly in a male dominated board room. With time, she had grown accustomed to working in this environment dating back to her campus days where in a class of 97 students, they were only two ladies until the fifth year, navigating through the competitive world of design and architecture. A bona fide prodigy, Architect Mariamu El Maawy was without doubt a woman on top in a stratosphere ruled by her masculine peers. She was the Principal Secretary in the State Department of Public Works and formerly Lands in the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development.
Coming from Lamu, Mariamu was exceptionally lucky to grow up in a family that firmly believed in educating the girls in their family. The year is 1941 and Mariamu’s great grandmother was a woman with a vision. She ensured that every girl in her family went to school, thus Mariamu’s mother and aunt were amongst the first girls in Lamu to get educated, setting the trend for generations to come. “My mother tells me they were jeered as they made their way to school.” she recalled during our interview.
Her grandfather too urged the girls in his family to get educated before settling in marriage. This can’t have been easy in a culture that socialized the girl child to remain at home. There was a concept that a girl was meant to “finish” school after primary or at most, secondary school.
With her mother as a nurse, her father a teacher and her older brother an engineer, Mariamu’s family impacted her choice of career in a big way.
A vivid experience from her childhood that also contributed to her move into an artistic program and consequently architecture, was a visit to Nairobi with her uncle at the age of nine. Mariamu recalled walking into the revolving restaurant at the top of KICC one evening and for one hour, little Mariamu enjoyed riding around the top of the iconic building in pure fascination of the magnificently lit city skyline. This experience left a permanent mark in her soul; she not only appreciated the revolving aerial view of the city but also developed more interest in understanding nature and physical things. Another vivid experience was at the age of six whilst visiting one of her favorite aunts who had a job in Nairobi and lived in an apartment building, somewhere in the city centre. She recalled rather vividly that that apartment building had a wide staircase with a wooden balustrade and hollow block wall, large French windows, fitted closets, and pvc tiles. When other children would be colouring flowers and pets in their drawing books, she would be drawing houses and castles.
Later, Mariamu discovered a simple way to tour a new town or city by hopping onto a bus and ride the length of the route through to the last stop and back just studying towns. Up until her passing, she would enjoy touring in new places trying to understand the planning and transport system of different cities.
With a fully informed decision as a child, she resolved to pursue architecture at the age of twelve. Yet she had no idea it was a male dominated field until her first day in architecture school. She was the only girl at first then later joined by another with 97 boys. Boys are extremely competitive and everyone in the class was an A student. However, they also shared and motivated one another. They were also very protective and treated the girls like their very own treasured sisters. Architecture is an expensive course and to keep afloat, Mariamu would use her crafting skills to make interior handcrafts including lampshades and curtains and sell to friends.
Education & Early Career life
“When I was born, my family lived in Wajir. Thereafter they moved to other parts of North Eastern, Coast, briefly in Central, then Nyanza before settling in Nairobi.” She said of her upbringing. Mariamu’s parents thus arranged for her to live with her grandparents during school days so as not to interrupt her education and join them in the holidays. This rich tapestry of upbringing was reflected in her work as she incorporated both nature and culture in her designs.
Mariamu attended her primary education at the Agakhan Primary in Mombasa and Parklands primary school in Nairobi. She would then proceed to Kenya High School for her O and A levels later joining the University of Nairobi for a Bachelor of Architecture degree where she graduated in 1993. During her school days, she interned in prestigious architectural firms where she learnt the joy of detailing and discovering the qualities of building materials. Another of her summer jobs was in desk top publishing and advertising and here Mariam discovered yet another passion that would also develop into a fully-fledged business. Two months upon graduating, Mariam was lucky enough to get a job. She described her first job experience as humbling; riding on matatu for 30kms and using the ferry to cross the ocean from Mombasa to Ukunda on a daily basis. “It did not matter that I had a degree, I had to start out like everybody else. One had to make a choice between getting a job with excellent experience with modest earnings. Thus I worked in an architectural firm by day and in the evening I ran an advertising firm.” Mariamu narrated. The firm took Mariam to various projects in several parts of Kenya and in neighboring countries, designing mostly beach hotels, lodges, sea front and other homes and the occasional restaurant and shop interiors. By evening she was designing advertisements, selling space in the local dailies, doing write ups for publications and working on marketing strategies for new products. The opportunity was very rewarding as she would earn commissions from selling space for the publications. Over time, Mariam could manage a complete production with the help of photographers and content editors. This side by side with the normal social roles for women, to cook, maintain the home and go to the market on Sundays.
In 1996 after completing her professional exams, Mariamu decided to start her own architectural firm. “Getting startup capital was not easy. At the time, financial institutions would not even understand a lady building a professional practice often doubting whether she could manage a construction at all,” she remarked. Her breakthrough actually came from the informal sector when she approached some established persons in her village to assist her with a small loan and instead, they offered her bales of mitumba to sell. The informal sector can actually be a great employer for every Kenyan and indeed after about six months she had enough money to buy a computer and other office equipment. Two years into the practice, she purposed to go to South Africa to study Project Management but around the same time, Mariamu settled in marriage and had a baby.
By then her architectural work had also expanded into educational institutions, low cost housing and restructuring corporates who were transforming their operations from analogue to digital. To get work, Mariamu had to compete with established firms, so she chose to get projects that were a little remote away from the main urban centres. Whilst this worked greatly in expanding her portfolio, she experienced one of her first major setbacks after the elections of ‘97, where due to crises and displacement, a number of her project sites were inaccessible. Tough decisions had to be made including releasing her professional staff, who managed to get jobs in other towns. A number of firms closed down and one had to put in even more hours. Yet there was a strong period of recovery from 1999 onwards. There was a collective resilience and determined spirit of renewal that is typical of Kenyans in times of adversity.
“Being in a service club such as Rotary International offers community engagement interaction and meeting people at all levels. This can contribute greatly to gaining a wide network of people with common values and aspirations. In every service project, the participation of the beneficiary community is just as important as that of the sponsor and is powerful in bringing people together and distributing resources.” Mariamu said of her early days in public service. Another area she enjoyed but hasn’t had enough time for in the recent past is mentoring through programs such as Junior Achievement. “Service organizations also contribute to personal growth, training and leadership. Developing the skills to lead volunteers is quite unlike those required in leading those one supervises at work,” she added.
Mariam was also very active in their professional body, the Architectural Association of Kenya, notably helping to start the first branch in Mombasa in 2002, organizing the East African regional meetings in 2005 that led to the common practice protocols and whilst serving as treasurer creating the first three year sustainable budget model. Using her advertising and professional experience, she fostered partnerships with stakeholders expanding sponsorship and participation opportunities. She regularly attended both local, regional and international events and had served as a jury member in architectural competitions presided over by the African Union of Architects.
She was particularly keen to understand institutional reform and getting research and survey data to inform the policy in ethics and integrity. In the Procurement Authority, which she started during her last year at KACC, Mariamu and her team also managed to build a healthy relationship with the Architectural Association and set up manuals for building procurement. The open tendering system established at the time has now made it easier for people to tender for projects’ in the government. Having served in various boards, she singled out the Steering Team for the upgrading of technical colleges into Universities as one of the most satisfying. In the higher learning institutions in Kenya, universities per se, there were no opportunities for a diploma to be escalated to a degree and for the longest time, it was a challenge for certificate and diploma holders to advance their qualifications. For this reason, she committed to see established colleges upgraded to universities for equal academic opportunity to all.
In 2013, Mariamu was appointed the Principal Secretary for the Ministry of Land, Housing and Urban Development. In the position and within the few past years of service, she appreciated this as a wonderful opportunity to transform land management because all the programs of transformation are now regional. “The opportunity to bench mark Kenya against the neighboring countries and work together with their governments is open,” she noted. Mariamu had learnt that in the capacity of a Ministry, the decision making process is very elaborate and consultative hence the final decision is often made to be part of the strategy rather than a program. The process is unique but eventually one sees the holistic benefit of the procedure. “Quite unlike the private sector, with the government there is exceptional talent pooling in a diversity of people, with great skills and the ability to mount major programs.” Once again she recalled her days mingling with ordinary Kenyans in the Likoni Ferry and believed that part of the answer in empowerment lies in securing land tenure for the ordinary mwananachi. She firmly believed that with this asset, anyone had the opportunity to develop.
In the Public Works, where she has served until her death, Mariamu brought some of the private sector culture. Notably, the Public Works department was belabored with several incomplete projects, the infamous stalled government projects. Here she introduced the Teams, where each team is modeled after a professional outfit with a full complement of lead professionals, architects, engineers and quantity surveyors and their technical staff. Each team has dedicated clients, by way of particular ministries, handling every project need for that Ministry. This first started out with a little apprehension. Thereafter in a short period, 209 of 225 projects were completed despite challenges in budgets. It goes to demonstrate that good projects is in practice, client relations and site management. In Lands, converting the skills into e and automated processes and introducing a digitally recognised titles and online payment services and in housing pursuing the first PPP for low coast mass housing. The logistics for the project period is very long yet it is hoped that this will model a breakthrough for other projects to follow suit. In informal settlements, Mariamu enjoyed the community participation in the Kibera housing project, which is completed and could very well provide housing for the un-housed. In Lands, the youth played an important role as it was young university students and college graduates that assisted to put all the documents in the registries in order. “We have to work hand in hand with the people we serve” she would often insist.
“We are on a growth curve as an industry in terms of building volume; we still cannot meet the housing deficit, the homes that are needed, industrialization deficit and infrastructure. There is work available and what remains is a relationship between economic stability and the building and construction industry. Manufacturers have also grown and there is room for more with some very reputable local industries producing building materials at a global scale,” Mariamu noted. She added that skills have also diversified; environmental, green building, landscaping, town planning, estate management, ICT, urbanization among others. This means that there are more opportunities for young people to choose an area of specialization. More schools of architecture and built environment are needed which Mariamu hoped to promote through her position by creating a strong relationship between the Ministry and the few public universities in order to offer accredited programs outside the city. With computer technology, architecture students can accomplish so much more. Mariamu observed a shift in approach to architecture between the older and present day generations. Whereas the older generation values the traditions of on-site and face to face meetings, young people enjoy a more virtual way of practice where they can join design teams anywhere in the world. This trend is fast gaining currency and skills are criss-crossing the planet. In her own practice, they made a determined decision to move towards a completely networked environment, yet she still believed there is no substitute to sketching as a skill.
“Challenges can be very daunting,” she admitted “but in the same challenge, there may very well be an opportunity.” Transcending cultural reservations has not been easy in a society where ambition for women oftentimes may not be supported. In the work space, one can find that it is tough for women to rise to senior positions. Yet again, the people one meets along life’s journey can also be the ones to create opportunities. Building a portfolio has been task-some but she observed that the holistic experience gained through the journey was vital for the expectations demanded of her capacity at the Ministry. Looking back, Mariamu also remembered that it took a huge sacrifice, patience and determination to accumulate tangible finances to establish her own business as a young person and the construction industry can go through cycles of highs and lows. Family responsibilities and especially parenting was among Mariamu’s top priorities, a role she strived to balance with her tight office schedule. She loved to whip a meal and entertain with her own dishes, her favorite being Swahili cuisine. One of the things that have helped strengthen the bond in her family is prayer and another is studies. She indicated that being back in school as a parent helped her daughter relate to her more easily as she felt like she understood her daily experience in class better.
For Mariamu, her blessing was to be able to do the things that she loved. She enjoyed everything she did and even made a lot of friends along the way. She actually redefined her work as fun.
Young people including her own children also inspired Mariamu greatly and especially those that stand out in their pursuit to do what many other people are afraid to dare. Such youths reminded her of her once idealistic approach that saw things as can be.
Her faith in God also saw her through hard times; she expressed missed opportunities as God’s way of telling us that maybe the same opportunity will come again in a different way, and when destiny avails you a second chance, embrace it. In her words, “You have to wait for gratification, some times over a long period of time.”
Working with skilled and extremely capable people also served as a motivation to Mariamu as work gets done excellently and within set deadlines. She said that at the Ministry especially, it was very exciting to set up teams of very able people who can easily run with major programs and take up long term projects very successfully.
Handling diverse, large scale government projects exposes you to higher knowledge and experience hence access to greater opportunities which in addition to service, Mariamu termed as a healthy stretch for growth and credibility.
“Architecture is a journey that gets better with time and the kind of profession that has stay power. It doesn’t change much, if anything, one can only grow with it,” Mariamu said. “Never lose sight of a dream, only find the right time to do it. Embrace every opportunity that comes your way, that way you can rise beyond your imagination. Managing personal finances and time is key from a very early stage in life. You will realize that once you do, you will only wish you had started earlier. For social time, decide what you want to do, when and how. Identify the things you love to do and convert them into businesses or opportunities to generate income. Bring in fun to what you do to avoid boredom.” She advised.
In future, Mariamu hoped to continue handling work at the same capacity as present but on a regional level. Her desire was to also help make cities grow in Kenya and across Africa. “We can learn from other cities,” she said. “Durban for example has very similar characteristics to Mombasa and in Tunis she disovered Sidi Bou Said which is almost a replica of Lamu only well rehabilitated in its conservation and heritage architecture.” Mariamu had no political ambitions, at all. She was more inclined to public service and urban growth with streamlined efficient systems.
To wrap the ribbon around the edge, one would wonder how she balanced the full plate on her hands; a very demanding public office, studies and family among other things. Her secret weapon was pre-planning locking the important tasks for that period and priorities to be met. Her strategy operated under subsidiary leadership building on the strengths of her colleagues. She said that this arrangement empowers the people who work with her to be independent, decisively confident and to deliver within their potential or even beyond. “For an individual to have a holistic experience, ask them to do what they are best at. That is often very rewarding and the results are amazing,” Mariamu asserted.
With a jelly toned appearance and a gentle voice, it was easy to mistake Mariamu for a soft personality. But as you dug the layers, she sprouted out as a firm and poised servant leader. She had great admiration for people with keen attention to detail.
May her soul rest in eternal peace.