Amplifying the Zambian Voice – Ep.23

Advocating for Diversity – Ep.22
April 2, 2021
Breaking Barrier‪s‬ – Ep.24
April 9, 2021

Aerospace engineer and author, Mukuka Chipanta joins the podcast to discuss the beneficial effects diversity has on the field of aerospace engineering, reveals the significance of his novels and their connection to Zambia, and explains what we can learn by embodying the “Zambian Voice.” 

Melyssa Barrett: Welcome to the Jali Podcast, I’m your host, Melyssa Barrett. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around diversity inclusion and equity. Each week I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share, or is actively part of building solutions in this space. Let’s get started.

This week I’m joined by author and aerospace engineer, Mukuka Chipanta. He was born in a mining town in the Copperbelt Province of Zambia. He has studied engineering in the United Kingdom becoming an aerospace engineer, and he now resides in the United States. Not only has he written award winning books, but he also has a podcast himself called Kutika!. He has had the opportunity to work on magnificent the Airbus A380, as well as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. So I am excited to have him join me and talk about his journey and experiences, but also his books and the podcast today and how some of those things may influence our views on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Please join me in welcoming Mukuka Chipanta. All right. So I am so excited as I say every week to have Mukuka Chipanta with me today and he is… You have heard his background, such an interesting and dynamic background. And so one of the things that I really wanted to start with you is just give us a flavor for the journey that you have had coming to the United States, where did you grow up? How did it inform your career? And where you are now as a writer?

Mukuka Chipanta: Thank you very much Melyssa, I’m happy to be on your podcast. Thank you very much for inviting me. It’s an exciting time and I’m privileged to be here. So my journey, my life’s journey begins several decades ago back in my home country of birth, and that’s in Zambia, South Central Africa. And I had a pretty happy upbringing. I was born and raised in a mining town in Zambia called Kitwe pretty decently sized city. And I spent most of my formative years there until I graduated from high school and I attained a scholarship to go and study for my university degree in the United Kingdom. And so that was my first excursion, if you will, outside of my comfort zone outside of my home.

Just to go back a little bit, I grew up with three other siblings, my mother and my father, and a big extended family. It was pretty decent and ordinary bringing happy. In those days when I was growing up in my mining town, we had a big mining conglomerate that was dominant in that city and in the country in general, and we had lots of amenities in the city, things that we could do, and I saw those things growing up. And then I also lived at a time when I was leaving the country, I started to see changes in the country, changes in terms of how the economy was progressing and how changes were happening in the mining industry. And so that planted a seed in my mind that would later evolve into what I’ll talk about later, which is my writing. When I left Zambia I was about 19 years old, just before 20, and I went to the UK to get my mechanical engineering degree.

And I spent some years in Manchester England, right before I graduated with my mechanical engineering degree, I interviewed with several companies that came into our university looking for young graduates to take onto their rotating management programs. And I was one of the people that they liked, and I was fortunate to get that opportunity to get a job as soon as I graduated. So then I started in that rotation program and that led me to different companies within their umbrella, subsidiary companies, I worked in the electrical power industry.

Later, after several years of their rotation program, they offered me a permanent position, and I worked for them for a couple of years until another opportunity came knocking, and this would be the opportunity that would lead me into the aerospace industry. That was at a time when Boeing was looking to design what they were calling the E-7 aircraft, which later came to 787 Dreamliner. I was a young engineer at the time, I got recruited by a subcontractor to Boeing. And so I got introduced into the aerospace industry, I worked in that organization for several years and then moved on to bigger, better things. But I grew, and strengthened and progressed in the aerospace industry. I’m trying to summarize. I’m trying to-

Melyssa Barrett: And now you have shifted again.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes. At a certain point after spending all of 9 to 10 years in the UK, I then decided to make that big transition to come over to the US, and I’ll preface that by saying, I have a sister in the US who was already living in the US and I really wanted to be closer to some family members and also continuing in the aerospace industry. And so I made that transition, and I’ve been here since working in various capacities in the aerospace industry.

Melyssa Barrett: Let me just go back and ask you before we get to some of the stuff that you’re doing now, because I can’t imagine… As you outlined, you were like, “Hey, I’m going to the UK to do my mechanical engineering degree.” Which I’m assuming you must have made up in your mind that you wanted to go and pursue mechanical engineering, and you didn’t want to do it there in Zambia, you wanted to go somewhere, were you recruited for that? How did you decide you wanted to go into the UK?

Mukuka Chipanta: Yeah. Very good question. The large mining conglomerate that I talked about back in Zambia had a center of scholarships that they would offer every year for the top performing students in the country so it was about 35 of us every year. So you had to one have a good, excellent grades at your high school graduation, secondly, you had to do an entrance exam, go through some medicals, and those types of things. And then you got through that program, then they would sponsor you to go and study at your university of choice in the United Kingdom or the United States. It was a very greater opportunity something that one wouldn’t let go by or pass up.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. I just figured, I’d emphasize some of that because we have so many companies that are looking for creative ideas on how to recruit and tap into different markets and this is an interesting one. So that clearly was done decades ago-

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: And that you benefited from, and now you’re dealing so many different things. Second of all, I have to tell you that the Dreamliner is one of my favorite planes ever.

Mukuka Chipanta: Fantastic. I’m glad to hear that.

Melyssa Barrett: As I have traveled internationally it is definitely one of the most comfortable.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: I encourage everyone to experience it. So now you have gone from a very technical position in terms of aerospace engineering, where I imagine there wasn’t a lot of people of color maybe-

Mukuka Chipanta: [crosstalk].

Melyssa Barrett: … At Boeing, I don’t know. Can you talk about what that experience was like?

Mukuka Chipanta: Yeah. Good question. It’s coming up to a little around 20 years ago when I started in the aerospace industry, I was certainly… Even in my rotation program prior to getting into aerospace, it was not uncommon for me in the UK to be at a manufacturing facility and I would be the only person of color, especially in some of the more remote areas. I have to admit I had really good experiences, I was very fortunate to have met really good people that took me under their wing, taught me things, but it’s always challenging when you’re always the other, you don’t see people like you in certain positions of authority, it’s difficult to become what you can see.

Fortunately, I’ve seen a real progression over the years, if I speak today, I’m a chief engineer in Raytheon, and we have a robust diversity and inclusion program. And the company is very deliberate in trying to have a diversity of ideas, a diversity of people in your organization. I think we are benefiting hugely from that. And I can see a lot of strides have been made, certainly from when I joined to now, we still have a long way to go, but I have to say we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were.

Melyssa Barrett: That’s great news, for sure. And kudos to them for creating programs that will nurture and promote and retain employees as we go, that’s awesome to hear. So now, if we talk about this new direction that you’ve pivoted to, where you’ve decided that author should be attached to your name, and not only do you write books, but you write fictional books.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: So do you want to talk a little bit about some of your writing and how you got into it? Because I find it… You go from a very technical expertise, and now you’re doing something that is totally different side of the brain.

Mukuka Chipanta: Right. I get that question quite often. Yes. It is unusual for highly technical person or somebody involved in the highly technical field to gravitate towards doing something of the arts, and-

Melyssa Barrett: Maybe it shouldn’t be so different.

Mukuka Chipanta: Maybe it shouldn’t, exactly. In my mind, I think I’ve spoken to this several times, I feel that there are a lot of parallels between, for example, designing an aircraft and writing a compelling fictional tale. And the comparisons in my mind are when you’re designing an aircraft, you draw on a diversity of experiences, you have a team with you, it’s not as a solitary pursuit, you learn things, essentially you experience a lot of things and then you weave them all together, and hopefully if you create something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.

I feel like story writing is essentially very similar at its core because you have to experience life, live life first of all, gathered those experiences, meet different people, put all of those things together and stitch all those into a coherent thread and hopefully create a compelling story, which is again, greater than the sum of its parts. I feel there’s a parallel there.

Melyssa Barrett: I love it. Yes. And it’s funny because, I mean, if you think about… I mean, everything is connected.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yeah.

Melyssa Barrett: As I continue to say, diversity and inclusion is one of those things that is in everything. So if you look at diversity and inclusion, it’s everywhere, it’s in everything we do, and how we approach things. I wish hopefully we’ll get to the point where everybody has such an open mind that they can see clearly, and collaborate clearly, and design better, and innovate better. You have a podcast called Kutika!?

Mukuka Chipanta: Right.

Melyssa Barrett: And people can listen to your stories on the podcast.

Mukuka Chipanta: Right. What I’ve tried to do… Maybe just back up a little bit to the beginning of my writing journey. So it started about seven to eight years ago when I became a published author. So I put pen to paper on a manuscript, which basically put together a lot of experiences that I had growing up in Zambia, in the mining town in Zambia. I wanted to have the voice of the people in that community, in those communities heard, it’s something that I hadn’t seen in other places, or hadn’t.

I read avidly, but I hadn’t seen that story and I thought, “Well, who better to tell that story than myself.” I’ve lived in that environment, and I’ve seen those changes and so went on. That manuscript went on to be picked by a publishing house, small press. And that later became the novel of casualty of power. I was fortunate that it resonated and won several prizes. And essentially the story is about a cultural class that occurred in Zambia when you had Chinese migrants coming into Zambia and taking over certain mining concerns and how the indigenous people reacted to that. It’s more of the beauty of the story is more… It’s because it has the lens of various players.

So it’s got the lens of the young people and how they see the future, and how they see all of the things that are happening. It’s got the lens of the freedom fighters of old and their narrative of what they see. It’s got a political angle as well, and so it’s a pretty wide ranging story if you will, and gives you a good flavor, a good picture of what is happening, not only in Zambia, but across Africa. And I think that’s why that book resonated as well as it did

Melyssa Barrett: Sounds similar to what’s happening today about all the connections that you’re talking about in terms of the lenses that people use, and the different perspectives to create the voice.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: I can see why an award-winning book because it doesn’t sound fictional.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: It sounds very much like a reality.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes. Steeped in reality. Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: Are there things we could learn from what you have written there?

Mukuka Chipanta: I think, yes. The book isn’t prescriptive, it isn’t telling you, this is what you should learn about it, and this is what you should understand, it asks more questions than it gives answers. However, I think what we can learn from the novel is, how we all should have empathy for each other I believe so. We all approach the world with a certain lens from a certain perspective, and it’s always important to understand that. And so in all our interactions try to think about what it is like to be in somebody else’s shoes is I think a big takeaway you could draw.

Melyssa Barrett: Definitely. Yeah. If we only had more empathy in the world, right?

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes. Absolutely.

Melyssa Barrett: I love the asking questions too, because I have spent a lot of time just talking about being curious, and a lot of times we’re not curious I feel, that we’re not curious enough about ourselves, and there are so many things that we continue to learn about ourselves through our journey. But a lot of times we don’t go back and say, why is it that I’m thinking that way? Or why do I believe this certain thing? And in some cases you don’t realize you’ve learned a particular way or through a particular lens that you might not have even know.

Mukuka Chipanta: Absolutely.

Melyssa Barrett: It’s interesting.

Let’s pause for a moment. We’ll be right back. You’ve written Casualty of Power, and you have other books as well?

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes. I have a second novel that got published with another small press in November 2019, that book again is set in Zambia, in that environment. I took the clock back in that novel, in that story, I took the clock back to 1979. This one is a thriller type of book, really fast paced. The story is about a settler couple on a farming estate in outside of the capital city of Zambia, and one night they get brutally killed in an attack on their farm, so that’s where the book starts.

And then the pursuit of the perpetrators of that crime begins, but then as you walk through life in that time, the frustrations of being a civil servant in that time, and things of that nature, as the story goes, different threads start coming to light in there, and things are not quite as they seem as you get to the end of the book. There’s a little bit of a twist and a surprise. That book has been doing well, as well as the…. I’ve received a lot good feedback on it.

And the story is Five Nights Before the Summit, and the summit is a Commonwealth heads of government summit that actually took place in Zambia in that year. And so there’s a lot of pressure for the Zambian police and the Zambian government to solve that case, and get those perpetrators apprehended. There’s a lot of outside pressure from the British government being the former colonial masters. And so there’s that tension between again, the cultures happening.

Melyssa Barrett: Interesting. Well, and again, steeped in some reality, right?

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: So these are the best stories.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: Interesting. So what do you have on the agenda next then from your writing career?

Mukuka Chipanta: Good question, I continue to write. I write a lot of short stories that have made their way to different publications, some online publications, some actual physical publications. So I have all of these stories and various forms and various states. And I came up with this idea a couple years ago now in 2019, I think it was. I came up with this idea to find a home for some of the stories that I hadn’t published, I thought of a vehicle to get them out there and to want to introduce people to my writing.

And secondly, to also entice folks to read African literature. That’s a big passion of mine, and I really want people to read more and read for the love of reading, I thought that by introducing a podcast, so an audio story people can get to love just that flavor, that cadence of African storytelling, and then, Hey, look up my books or look up other authors from Zambia and elsewhere.

Melyssa Barrett: I think it’s really interesting because the way that you’re doing it is that, it’s in like these bite sized pieces where people can get a little portion and then go away and come back and see it, and give him another little force. And so you have this suspense thing going throughout, which is how you actually read a book-

Mukuka Chipanta: You’re right.

Melyssa Barrett: … Because most people don’t read the full book in the one city.

Mukuka Chipanta: Right. Exactly. So that podcast is called, Kutika!, Spelled K-U-T-I-K-A with a-

Melyssa Barrett: Exclamation point.

Mukuka Chipanta: … Exclamation point. The word means, listen, in Bemba, which is a Bantu language. So Kutika! you can find it on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, wherever you get your podcasts. Yeah. Received a good reviews on that. Like you mentioned, it’s by sized, so you can listen to it while you’re making your dinner or driving to work or jogging or whatever you’re doing.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. That’s awesome. I love it. I know that this podcast is typically… I talk a lot about diversity and inclusion, and I love the fact that you have the voice of Zambia coming out through your writing, which you carry around with you every day, because you are from Zambia.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: Are there things that you think, our country, our world, could be doing that they perhaps aren’t doing? And I know that’s a pretty broad question, as you’re the voice of Zambia for me today, are there things you think we could be doing that we should or could?

Mukuka Chipanta: That’s a good broad question. I’d say that Zambia… First of all, I would encourage anybody, everybody to go and visit Zambia. It’s a beautiful, warm place. The one thing that you will notice and what almost everybody that I’ve met who has visited Zambia says is how warm the people are, how accommodating they are, how they’ll look after you, even if they just met you for the first time. So it’s that warmth, that acknowledgement, that human to human connection, that acknowledgement that you are a human and I am because you are.

And it is that warmth that I think we need more of in the world. And I think that really does speak to the topic of diversity, because if we recognize each other as humans, make that human to human connection, have that empathy, have that warmth, we won’t discriminate based on whatever that net is, race, gender, orientation, all of those things. So I think that’s one thing we could be doing better for sure.

Melyssa Barrett: I love that connection. I’m definitely going to put Zambia on my list of places to go.

Mukuka Chipanta: Absolutely. Go and see [crosstalk] of people.

Melyssa Barrett: I love warm places. Tell me something about there.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes. You’ve got the Victoria Falls, is something that you have to see, one of the seven wonders of the world. It’s got like a little micro rainforest around it, so a lot of animals in that area, the falls are beautiful, lots of beautiful hotels, and you can fly in directly there as well. You can bungee jump if you want to.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah.  You’re speaking my language right now because I’m… This whole COVID thing when you haven’t been able to travel in a year and it’s like…

Mukuka Chipanta: Yeah.

Melyssa Barrett: I love it. That sounds beautiful.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yeah. I mean lots and lots. Lots of history, you can learn about the freedom struggle, lots of nice museums you can visit, told you about that. There are lots of game parks in different parts of the country. You can also go visit some of the mining industries and some of the open pit mines and things like that, very interesting to see. Lots of good food.

Melyssa Barrett: Interesting.

Mukuka Chipanta: You will definitely enjoy yourself.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. It sounds like it. All right. I’ve definitely got it on my list. And then just to re-emphasize, I love the fact that you called your podcast Kutika!, which is listen.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: Because I think so many so often we don’t listen. Although you’re telling a story, which, I mean, the way we connect most of the time is through story when we’re talking to each other. I love the fact that you’re emphasizing the focus on listening versus just I’m hearing or speaking in order to create that empathy that you were talking about earlier.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes. Absolutely. I thought about that, what to call the podcast, that word just seemed to fit it perfectly and yes. If only we could listen more.

Melyssa Barrett: Well, and it’s so funny because this podcast called the Jali Podcast after Jali [Kay], the storyteller. So we were meant to connect I think at some point.

Mukuka Chipanta: Absolutely.

Melyssa Barrett: Listen to the story. That is the focus today.

Mukuka Chipanta: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: Anyway, I love the fact… I mean, this has been a great conversation and I know I am standing between you and a wonderful day off with your wife and daughter. So we’re going to cut it and make sure that people have the opportunity to go listen to you and your podcast on Kutika!, or buy your books, and if you want to say the names of those books again.

Mukuka Chipanta: Sure. The first title I talked about where you’ve got the mining industry and the clashes in Zambia, that when it’s called a Casualty of Power, that’s the first book. And then the second book, which is the thriller I spoke about is Five Nights Before the Summit. And then of course you’ve got my podcast, Kutika!, spelled K-U-K-I-T-K-A and a with an exclamation point. And then you can also look me up, you can just Google my name Mukuka Chipanta, and my website as well, which is

Melyssa Barrett: You make it easy for people to find you.

Mukuka Chipanta: Right. I always respond an email, you can reach me through my website and on social media as well. I get lots of correspondence and I respond to everybody.

Melyssa Barrett: Awesome. Well, you have been an awesome guest and I’m so glad to have met you, and enjoy your story. It was so unique to me that I was like, I really want to just explore your mind, one of those beautiful minds.

Mukuka Chipanta: Thank you.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. So thank you for joining me, and best of luck, and wishes to you and both in your aerospace career, as well as your writing career.

Mukuka Chipanta: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. And again, it’s been a pleasure and an honor to be on your show. Thank you.

Melyssa Barrett: Thanks for joining me on the Jali Podcast. Please subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. See you next week.