I had to interview Walta Brumskine on Skype while she was on the move due to her ‘busy bee’ schedule.
She was ‘multitasking’ while the interview was going on and yet it turned out to be such a rich, in-depth and revealing interview. I couldn’t wait to transcribe it.
The way this interview was conducted pretty much sums up the kind of person Walta Brumskine is – She makes time for the things or for the people that are important to her. She makes no excuses. She gets the job done.
Walta is a stalwart upright individual. She’s selfless, family oriented and driven by a vibrant positive energy that’s ultimately contagious.
Extremely dedicated to her vocations, you can tell that Walta’s employers and clients are lucky to have her.
This is the interview of a lady that I’ve admired for a very long time.
The story of a Civil engineer who works and lives in the US but comes from a strong cultural lineage that traces back to a rich Liberian history.
The story of a survivor who can never be held down.
She triumphs over every situation she finds herself in – exuding inspiration to those who come in contact with her.
NEKITA: Can you shed some light on your background Walta?
WALTA: My name is Walta Brumskine. I’m from a tiny little country in West Africa called Liberia. For those who don’t know, it’s a small country on the West coast of Africa – about the size of the US state of Tennessee. I grew up there for most of my childhood. My grandparents and ancestors were ‘Americo Liberians’ but my father always identified with the Bassa tribe. He told us all our lives that we were from the Bassa tribe. He grew up in Grand Bassa county and he spoke the dialect fluently.
My maternal great gand mother was from the Kpele tribe.
However we were raised not to place too much emphasis on a person’s tribe.
I shy away from tribalism because I grew up in a civil war where tribalism led to the massacre of many innocent people.
NEKITA: Who are you?
WALTA: I am a child of God.
If I say I am someone’s wife, that means that if I divorce my husband I am no one.
If I say I am a mother and my child dies then I am nobody.
If I say I am so and so’s employee then I’ll be no one if I lose my job.
I have been through situations where I’ve lost everything. When you work hard and you lose all you’ve amassed over the years – treasures and assets, then your identity is seriously challenged and that is when you have to figure out who are you without all these things. This is why I say I am a child of God.
NEKITA: Describe yourself in two words.
WALTA: Jovial. (I love to laugh a lot) and I’m also spiritual.
NEKITA: What’s your best quality?
NEKITA: What’s your worst quality?
WALTA: Communication again. I know this will come as a surprise. Let me explain.
When I was young my teachers told my mother that I was too talkative in class. I can be talkative but that also has it’s positive sides. For example, today, that communication quality helps me a lot at work. So you see, you can turn your vice into a virtue or vice versa.
NEKITA: What do you do, and what do you hope to be doing in the next 5 years?
WALTA: I am a civil engineer. I also have a master’s degree in transport engineering
Transportation engineering consists of the planning, design, construction and maintenance of transportation infrastructure like roads, trails, sidewalks, airports and so on and so forth.
I currently serve as a project manager on several municipal infrastructure projects.
I hope to keep moving up in my department and I want to be able to have more successful projects under my belt. I have 12 different projects going on right now. I want to keep building my portfolio but I also want to get back into the Liberian reconstruction scene. Hopefully I can use my vacation time to tackle some projects there. That’s my goal.
In the long term I will return home. Yes, I still call Liberia home. There’s a reason why I was born in that country. I could’ve been born anywhere else in the world but I was born there.
I am reminded daily that I am no better than the bodies that lay lifeless as I rode away from my home in Sinkor Monrovia in the back of a pick up truck.
It could’ve been my corpse lying there, but it wasn’t.
I believe I am still alive today because I still have something to give to that country and to the world around me.
“I have an undying love for Liberia.”
Family wise – my goal is that my sons grow to become the best in whatever they aspire to be. I hope to always be there to support them in their endeavours.
I also dream of writing some books some day. Yes I said “some”.
NEKITA: Have you always been drawn to engineering since you were little?
WALTA: Yes. In a way. I wanted to be an architect when I was a young girl, but I gradually grew to realise that I wanted to be a civil engineer as time went on. The two disciplines are not far apart from each other. They both touch on design, art and creativity.
NEKITA: Where did you school?
WALTA: I schooled in Liberia, La Cote d’Ivoire and the US.
I was in Liberia during most of the civil war. My family left (temporarily) as refugees in December of 1990. That’s when I first attended school in La Cote d’Ivoire at the age of 13. It was an all girls boarding school. I spent about 7 years in total (on and off) in Cote d’Ivoire. Whenever there was a semblance of peace in Liberia my father would take us back to Liberia.
I guess that’s where I get my multi-cultural personality from.
My father was a medical doctor (a surgeon, Urologist). He was the most patriotic Liberian I have ever known. He was so passionate about our country and about medicine that no situation was bad enough to keep him away.
He nearly got executed twice by two separate regimes. One of those times my mum, three of my siblings and I all faced a firing squad with him…yet he always went back home.
I think he must have passed that passion on to me.
NEKITA: How did you come to live and work in the US?
WALTA: I got my first degree at the Ecole Superieure Nationale des Traveaux Publics (now called INP) in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire.
I had wanted to study architecture but the university didn’t offer that so I settled for a technical degree in building and urban planning instead.
When I graduated from college I went back to Liberia because I had my dad’s heart.
I had inherited his patriotism.
My first job was for a construction company in Monrovia. My boss was a civil (transportation) engineer. I was the only person in the office at the time who had a technical degree.
After working with them for a couple of years I was awarded a one year scholarship to the University of Tennessee Knoxville USA. The plan was for me to get a bachelors degree in civil engineering and return to work for them. They followed through and paid for my first year at the university, but by the time that year was over another war had erupted in Liberia. I couldn’t go back to Monrovia as we had planned.
I remained and pursued a graduate degree in civil (transportation) engineering. I was blessed with scholarships throughout most of my studies in the US and my mother supplemented with income from her properties. She sacrificed a lot for my siblings and I.
Many people assume that I am where I am because of my dad’s affluence. Unfortunately that was not the case. As at 1990 my dad was basically a philanthropist. He was no longer working for a profit. He had ten kids at the time of the war and he had a lot of responsibilities. By the time the dust settled we had nothing left but his reputation.
He always said to me “Take your studies seriously because the one thing no one can steal from you is what you put in your brain.” Those words propelled me to where I currently stand professionally.
NEKITA: How did you build your career once you finished schooling?
WALTA: When I graduated from UT I applied to several companies and received many offers. One of those offers was from a company I had heard of while in Liberia. That was the offer that I took. It was an international multi disciplinary engineering firm that happened to be the first international engineering consultancy to open an office in Liberia in 1956. They played a role in many major contracts and helped put Liberia on the map. Their resume included infrastructural projects like the Executive mansion, LAMCO and many others.
I always wanted to be part of a firm that could lead me back home. That was my dream. That after schooling I would go back home and be part of my country’s reconstruction.
I worked for that firm for almost 7 years in the US. I then got to work for them in Liberia for a little under 2 years.
For a short time, I got to live my dream. I was country manager and project engineer for several projects in Liberia. I got to travel to villages and be with people who have touched my heart forever. I am proud to have played a part in the Mount Coffee hydroelectric dam project. I also worked closely with the ministry of public works on several projects including bridge inspection and roadways feasibility studies.
Unfortunately Ebola hit Monrovia in 2014. My husband (at the time) and I and our sons were there. Schools had shut down and clinics became unsafe. That’s when I returned to the US.
At first, I thought this would be a short stay, but while visiting with my sister the company shut down. My eldest son was almost out of high school and I had to choose what was best for him.
I applied for a job and to my surprise I landed my dream job. I now work with an amazing team of people, impacting the community we live in everyday. It’s fulfilling, yet each day I dream of the day my time here will bear fruit in Liberia.
NEKITA: What has been your major milestone in your career?
WALTA: What I enjoyed the most and what has been most fulfilling to me was when I had the opportunity to teach at the University of Liberia in the civil engineering department.
While in Liberia, I took up a contract with a USAID funded project called Excellence for Higher Education for Liberian Development (EHELD). It was a five-year educational project geared at training Liberian students in Engineering and Agriculture at the University of Liberia (UL) and Cuttington University. I was hired as contract staff to teach Transportation Engineering and a Freshman Engineering course at UL.
I was so fulfilled teaching there. I learned a lot from my students. One of my students was a single mom. She was very intelligent and studious. She literally Aced every test. Another was a young freshman student who arrived late for class every time. I later learnt that she traveled from another region, riding on heaps of market goods by pickup back just to get to school. There was no public transport in the village where she lived. Another student was a brilliant young man who had a passion for research. He ran a business to help pay his tuition. These weren’t your typical students who were in school because their parents made them. These were kids who showed up hungry for knowledge and with hope for a better future.
If I had to go back to Liberia, this is probably what would take me there. I really hope to teach again. When I think of home I think of those students. It was my most fulfilling experience.
NEKITA: So how has all the turmoil and conflict in Liberia affected you generally?
WALTA: Hind sight is 20/20 so I can look back and say that I was quite fortunate to have had a VIP seat and backstage pass to every disaster that has occurred in Liberia. As if I hadn’t had enough, I had to go and partake in the whole Ebola crisis too. (Laughs)
All this has given me a peculiar outlook in life though. A lot of bad things have happened throughout my life. (Pause) I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Most people don’t know that I was homeless – twice. I kept moving though. I was focused.
The first time, I was an intern at an Urban Planning firm in Abidjan. My salary was a bus pass. That was my salary (Laughs). I would get up, brush my teeth, look for a place to change and off to work I would go. I needed that internship to graduate.
The second time, I was out of college and my eldest son was less than a year old. An old Ghanaian lady allowed me to leave him with her during the nights (she wouldn’t let me stay there) and I would sleep on a bench near at a tea shop near the bus stop. That didn’t last more than a month though. I started working for an Architect and was able to get a studio apartment.
I’m thankful that I’m still alive and that I still have a sound mind.
I know that no situation is permanent.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not perfect. I get depressed, I get sad but one thing I know for a fact is that no situation is permanent. God has blessed me through all I’ve endured. So, I believe there’s nothing I cannot overcome now.
NEKITA: Have these experiences made you wiser?
WALTA: “Experiences don’t make people. It is the way you react to these experiences that counts.”
It’s by God’s grace that I survived. Surviving has strengthened my character. You see, character is not something you learn at school.
As far as wisdom is concerned, I have been told that I am wise but wisdom also comes through seeking. A lot of other people also went through the war and they all came out differently. Affected differently. So, for me to say the war has made me better would be to belittle other people’s struggles and battles.
NEKITA: Would you say that the American society is a ‘spoilt’ one in comparison to the Liberian society?
WALTA: I wouldn’t go as far as saying that American society is spoiled. On the contrary, I think Americans as a society work harder than any other group of people I have ever lived with. Americans take shorter vacations than other countries, have less lunch/coffee breaks and tend to live by constantly filling to-do lists.
If I were to compare, I’d prefer to compare Liberians before and after the civil war. I can say that I was spoiled before the war. Scarcity creates demand. when you have a lot at your disposal you lose track of what is privilege and what is necessity. The internet can be a privilege or a necessity depending on your context.
“Your awareness of the hierarchy of needs is most pronounced when certain things are removed from your life.”
For me, my most pronounced need at the time of the Liberian civil war was safety. I would have opted for a prison cell with no food if that meant I’d avoid the risk of getting my head cut off. That was what I needed at the time. To stay alive.
Now, I have become picky. I say I won’t eat this or I won’t eat that. (laugh) How easily we forget, right?
It would be unfair to compare cultures or generations who don’t share the same context.
NEKITA: What do you do in order to relax when you are not building roads, bridges or working to support your country folk?
WALTA: I love to workout. I love hiking, camping, yoga, and high intensity interval training (that’s like a combo of weight training with cardio and strength conditioning – a boot camp type of thing). I enjoy Zumba and running too. And yes, some people do think I am a health zealot. A health zealot with a weakness for dark chocolate. (Laughs) I am an outdoorsy kind of gal.
NEKITA: How do you manage to balance your home front with your career?
WALTA: When you figure that out let me know. (Laughs) I have no idea. It’s a one day at a time kind of thing. It’s challenging. The most challenging of all is time management with kids.
My goal right now is to be 100 percent present. When I’m home, I’m home. My time with myself, God and my family is special and can’t be compromised. When I’m at work I work. I try not to bring work home but at times work follows me home. Home is a priority so I keep my work aside until my kids go to sleep.
NEKITA: Which female inspires you the most?
WALTA: My mother.
My mother. She is a rare find. She’s made me who I am – my love for God, my character and my ability to love, all come from her. I could write a book here just explaining why so I’ll spare you the details and tell you to look out for the future ‘book’ about my mother.
NEKITA: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learnt in life?
WALTA: “That which we focus on is empowered (by us) to take complete control of our thoughts, emotions, will and actions.”
NEKITA: What has been the most trying obstacle that you’ve overcome in life, and how did you overcome this?
WALTA: Recovering from deception. I overcame that by understanding the art (yes, I said art -lol) of forgiveness. It’s a continuous process but there’s so much healing once you reach the other side.
NEKITA: Everyone has a sense of fashion and personal style. What’s yours?
WALTA: I’m afraid I have a very dull sense of fashion – lol! My wardrobe consists of black, blue or grey pant suits, blue striped button down shirts, and an occasional random ‘summer-coloured’ blouse that I wear when I’m trying to make a statement. Lol! Then there’s a bunch of active wear. I guess I’m Plain Jane or Tarzan’s Jane – not sure – but I must do it well because some people actually think I’m sophisticated.
NEKITA: What is unique about you?
WALTA: My history.
NEKITA: Tell us a secret about yourself that no other person knows.
WALTA: I draw little hearts with my finger on the fogged up glass in my shower.
NEKITA: Tell us in two sentences what you think of sex, love and marriage?
WALTA: Marriage is an outward manifestation of a commitment to share forever with someone (never take that lightly) while sex is an outward manifestation of the merging of souls. Love is knowing the worst in someone and choosing them anyway.
NEKITA: Which popular personality inspires you the most?
WALTA: Jesus Christ.
NEKITA: What is your life’s slogan?
WALTA: My father’s words – “Take your studies seriously because the one thing no one can steal from you is what you put in your brain.”
NEKITA: If you had the power to change the world in one way, what would you do?
WALTA: I think I already do.
“We all have the power to change the world.”
It’s really simple. We all have a role to play. It’s all about being our best selves and being present.
You can find Walta Brumskine on Linked in or on Facebook as Walta Brumskine.