HA MASAKALA — The time is just a few minutes before 5pm and workers constructing the magnificent cable bridge in Ha Masakala are preparing to call it a day.
That it is Friday could explain why the employees are in such a buoyant mood since the following two days would be a rolling sabbatical and a time to spend quality time with friends and family.
A giant Tractor-Loader-Backhoe (TLB) suddenly rolls into view from the other side of the cable bridge — a breathtaking masterpiece to be used by both humans and livestock upon completion later this year.
However, as the TLB draws closer, all eyes leave the bridge in-spite of its magnificence and are transfixed on the woman behind the wheel.
Twenty-nine-year-old ‘Marelebohile Molibetsane suddenly breaks into a broad smile as she notices the surprised and fascinated looks of those who have come to catch a glimpse of the cable bridge, the moment they realise the driver of the gigantic loader is but a woman.
Molibetsane has been operating the TLB — a heavy-duty vehicle consisting of a tractor-like unit fitted with a shovel/bucket at the front and small hoe at the back — since August last year, three months after the construction of a vehicle and pedestrian bridge started along the 6.15-kilometre Sefikeng gravel road.
Upon completion of this first bridge, the only woman in the project joined 59 men in building the 248.5-metre-long cable bridge — the only such passage in the southern Africa region.
However, Lesotho has not only scored a first in constructing a unique bridge under the Metolong Dam Project but the country also prides itself in having the first known woman in the region to operate a TLB machine on this kind of construction works.
Molibetsane says she has always been interested in conquering such heavy machinery which has always been a male domain, despite her uncertainty about job opportunities because she had not seen any woman operating the TLB.
“The TLB looked heavy, intimidating if you like and that is what fascinated me.
“Despite a lot of discouragement from some quarters all I wanted was the chance to prove to myself that I could transform into reality, the passion I felt for this kind of work,” Molibetsane said.
Now the proud holder of a Code C1 driver’s licence and also a competence certificate, Molibetsane approached McKenzie Plant Hire in Maseru in August last year and explained her interest in learning how to operate a TLB.
“I met Mr Pieter Theron, a mechanic at the company and carefully stated my case. I asked if he could train me and fortunately, he agreed,” she said.
Theron, who is popularly known by his nickname “Buks”, trained Molibetsane for two weeks before the company hired her after passing the examination.
Her employment also coincided with the construction of the two bridges, on which her new company had been hired to provide TLB services.
“I was tested for the operations at the bridge construction site in August, together with five other male candidates who all failed to meet the requirements.”
However, Molibetsane explained the work soon proved far more challenging than what she had expected.
“The job was very challenging mainly because of the terrain and nature of operations expected of the machine operator.
“ I was expected to manoeuvre the TLB on very rugged and steep terrain.
“I had to conquer my fear of heights, especially as I made my way down the steep areas for excavations.
“It’s a scary thought if I look back.”
She explained the TLB is a multipurpose machine, which provides the power needed for various tasks such as digging and using both back and front buckets to ferry rocks and soil to wherever it is required or away when it’s no longer required.
The machine also demands the operator to thoroughly understand how it works from both sides, which is the most difficult part, Molibetsane added.
“You need the passion, strong heart and mental capacity for proper coordination of the machine.
“Some of my family members, who saw me at work in the early days, thought it was suicidal and seeing myself high up the ground that depended on my skills not to dig myself under the bridge, I could not blame them.
But such comments also pushed me to learn fast and adapt to what was demanded of me by the environment I operated in and also by my colleagues.”
Molibetsane learnt fast how to manage the special skills that included adjusting controls on the movement of the buckets while on very dangerous terrain.
Working on the cable bridge whose height from the central pier is 37 metres and its suspended nature as it balances on broken boulders, only took the brave heart of a lioness.
“The work demands accuracy in measuring distances, extreme caution and also gentleness on the machine to prevent accidents that can endanger the lives of fellow workers and myself.
“The fact that the TLB is a 4×4 kind of a machine and can plunge into difficult terrains and do the work needed, really demands the operator to be alert and exercise extreme caution,” Molibetsane said.
With fear of operating the machine in extreme terrains over, Molibetsane only has a bright future to look forward to.
A mother-of-one, Molibetsane said her first job has taught her with enough willpower, women can also break into male-dominated fields, and gain the trust and confidence of colleagues.
“What I like most is the fact that they treat me like an equal and don’t make me feel like they want me to fail.
“I am part of the team and there is no discrimination deliberately intended to remind me that I am a woman.
“Here, operating this heavy machine does the talking and since I do it brilliantly, they are happy working with me.”
The EXR site agent, Xolani Cele said his company has made attempts to train more women to operate the TLB in neighbouring South Africa without success.
“This is our first time to have female a TLB operator work with us and managing this kind of work, which is demanding. Her experience here would definitely open new opportunities for her,” Cele said.
Cele’s company, EXR, is contracted by Metolong Authority to construct the two bridges worth M75 million, four concrete semi-bridges (culverts), the 6.15-kilometre Sefikeng road and North Access Community road, which is 8.5 kilometres.
A culvert is a structure that allows water to flow under a road, railroad, trail, or similar obstruction.
These developments, expected to be complete by the end of the year, are part of the Metolong Dam project.
“The current works on the walk-way by Structural System, who are subcontractors, are to ensure the stability of the cable bridge which is going to go a long way in assisting local communities to cross the Phuthiatsana River.
“We have since completed road works, culverts and the vehicle bridge,” Cele said, further explaining with the Metolong Dam works, chances are the river would experience high water levels, which might then pose crossing difficulties.
“That is why we are having two bridges and the culverts to effectively manage the flow of water,” Cele explained.
He further said because there is a lot of emphasis on the tension of the cable bridge for more stability, animals too, could be trained to make use of the bridge.