Nicholine Tifuh Azirh holds a Bachelor’s degree in Nautical Science from the Regional Maritime University (RMU) in Accra, Ghana, and a Master’s degree in Maritimes Affairs (Specializing in Maritime Safety and Environmental Administration) from the World Maritime University in Malmo, Sweden. Yet when she sought employment after completing her studies, the only job Azirh could land was as a Graduate Assistant at her university. Reason being? She’s a woman.
It wasn’t until Azirh was selected for the Mandela Washington Fellowship in 2016, which landed her at Florida International University (FIU), that doors began to open up for her as a result of a partnership Celebrity Cruises has with RMU. When Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, the President of the premium cruise line, met with students from the fellowship she was introduced to Azirh who shared her story of perseverance in the face of racism and sexism. The story stuck with the president and just this past summer, Azirh became the first official new crew member from the program.
Inspired by her story as well, we reached out to Azirh to share what kept her going in the face of such discrimination and what her hopes are for opening up the doors for other African women in her industry. Here’s what she told us via email from onboard the Celebrity Equinox cruise ship.
MadameNoire (MN): What was your childhood like growing up in Africa?
Nicholine Tifuh Azirh (NTA): I am from Cameroon, I am a Cameroonian. I only came to Ghana when I was admitted into the Regional Maritime University. My childhood was full of dreams and aspirations each time I had the opportunity to watch TV. In terms of school, it was not very easy, though the primary school I attended was not far. My siblings and I faced difficulties like buying books and school uniforms, since our mom was the only one supporting the family. There were exciting weeks and seasons as well, such as Christmas, cultural week, when people and youths from the surrounding villages would come together for a cultural festival.
MN: How did you end up at Florida International University as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program?
NTA: I was among the 1,000 young African Leaders who were selected in 2016 for the Mandela Washington Fellowship program. The 1,000 fellows were hosted by 24 different universities in the USA and Florida International University was one of those universities. Fortunately, I was among the 24 Fellows who were hosted by the Florida International University.
MN:What interested you in the Maritime industry?
NTA: I can’t tell if it was an instinct that has always been there in me or somehow innate. What I mean is that it was a childhood desire that has always been there, I don’t know how it started, but as time goes by, I grew to love it. Though it was a male-dominated field, I wanted the challenge so that my desire will not die prematurely. The love for taking up challenges in a male-dominated field and to model the way for other women (to enter the field) makes me love the sea.
MN:What was your experience like trying to find work post-college?
NTA: Finding a job was not very difficult. I was employed immediately after I graduated from the Regional Maritime University as a Graduate Assistant in the same university. But finding my dream job (i.e. going onboard ships) was a very big problem because I am a female and not a male. The truth is I never gave up hope. I had an opportunity to sail on a South African Training ship (SA Agulhas) for four months in 2012 before Celebrity Cruises brought this great opportunity to me.
MN:Why is it so hard for African women to find work in the maritime industry?
NTA: I could think of two principal reasons. First, this is because there are few vessels owned by Africans or African-based companies, and the few African shipping companies still somehow see seafaring as a man’s job. It’s disappointing. Secondly, racism/gender inequality will be the other reason, and this will apply for companies out of Africa.
MN:What do you think can be done to break down some of the race and gender barriers that exist?
NTA: Racism and gender inequality are as strong as or even stronger than HIV/AIDS and other deadly viruses in the world. Sad to say, these ideologies are killing humanity, so there needs to be a greater boost on awareness, sensitization and, if possible, sanctions. The quality of a man is inside and not outside. There are talents leaving the earth everyday unfulfilled, people who would have been the solution to many of the world’s crises today, but because of the color of their skin or gender, they were never given the opportunity. I give a big applause to Celebrity Cruises for this giant step to break that barrier, and I hope other companies will follow.
MN: How did it feel when you found out you were the first official new crew member from the RMU program?
NTA: It was a very exciting moment;I just can’t put it in one word.
MN: Did you ever think about quitting/leaving the industry when finding work became difficult?
Quitting? No, that has never been in my agenda as far as my pursuit for becoming a captain is concerned. I am not a quitter. I only quit when I realize that the value for what I am pursuing has reduced or it will not take me to where I am going, as well as it is not what I really want. I have always kept in prayer and in pressing on for one more opportunity. Here it is today.
MN: What has been your experience so far onboard Celebrity Equinox?
NTA: So far, it has been an amazing learning experience for me as I go through my cadetship onboard Celebrity Equinox. I am learning a great deal every day, thanks to my wonderful bridge team who are very helpful and supportive.
MN:What are your hopes/plans for the future as you progress in your career?
NTA: I would like to fulfill my dream of being the first female sea captain in my country, Cameroon. That would be great history. I would also want to establish an NGO aimed at empowering more women from my country and Africa as a whole to take up seafaring careers in order to breakdown the ancient belief that “seafaring is a man’s job.” In addition, as life goes on, we learn every day. In this regard, I would like to further my education and obtain a PhD degree in Maritime Affairs.