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The Z Files: Chi Onwurah

Updated Monday, 14th October 2019

Poet and writer Benjamin Zephaniah interviews Chi Onwurah, an Engineer and MP with a deep love for the art and beauty of engineering

Transcript

The Z files

Benjamin Zephaniah
We need poetry and we need stories that reflect how we live, and that’s what drives me.  But I also know that we couldn’t live the way we do without engineers and the City of Newcastle has a proud history of engineering.  The person I’m meeting today was inspired to continue this great tradition.  Chi Onwurah is an MP, an electrical engineer and a lifelong Newcastle United fan.  Her love of engineering started here in Newcastle’s Discovery Museum.

Tell me what this ship means to you.  Because to me it’s just a big ship, to you it’s a bit more than that isn’t it?

Chi Onwurah
Well yes when I was a kid my mother would take us to the science museum and I’d see this ship.  It was just such a work of beautiful engineering and the fastest ship in the world at the time it was built, but also powerful and useful.  It wasn’t beautiful and useless; it was useful I guess.  And it was from Newcastle, you know, and that really did inspire me.

Benjamin Zephaniah
When I was a little boy going down the park with a little girl, I would have been like freaked out if she looked at a ship and went wow isn’t that beautiful, a beautiful piece of engineering?  I mean did what other kids around you think at the time?

Chi Onwurah
Let’s remember we were the only black family on a large working class white council estate.  I was bizarre anyway.  So the fact that I liked engines and science and maths, the friends that I had, you know, took me for what I was, they had to.

Benjamin Zephaniah
And as a kid did you think in the future I want to go into engineering or did you just like it as a hobby?

Chi Onwurah
I think really early on, maybe seven, eight or nine, I wanted to be an engineer or a scientist, because, you know, there was never any doubt that I was going to have to earn my living, we had no money.

Benjamin Zephaniah
No.

Chi Onwurah
And if you’re going to earn your living I wanted to do something that inspired me. 

Benjamin Zephaniah
So what happened after comprehensive school?  Did you go to university?

Chi Onwurah
Yes.  I went to Imperial to study electrical engineering, and that was a bit of a culture shock, because I had to move down south and it was very white.  It was very male, it was very public school.  Whilst I wasn’t designing beautiful objects like this I was learning how to be an engineer - telecommunications that was my speciality.  I mean this is something which I think is absolutely gorgeous still to this day.  I mean you could put that on your mantelpiece couldn’t you?

Benjamin Zephaniah
You really see beauty in that?

Chi Onwurah
I do, I think its form is fantastic and look at those rivets. 

Benjamin Zephaniah
Give me an example of something that you’ve done that is working that’s out there now.

Chi Onwurah
Well I mean it’s a bit of a confession, but I actually have, I’ve kept one of the first circuit boards that I designed myself and had manufactured.  And what that did was to manage 32 telephone calls at one time on this piece of A4 circuit, and I’m really proud of that.  That was like the sort of the Turbinia of telecommunications at the time, because it was all cutting edge, but now, you know, now on the same sized board you could probably get one and half thousand telephone conversations on that board.  So it’s great to see how things have moved on.

Benjamin Zephaniah
Why do you think there’s not more people from the ethnic minorities and black people involved in the science and engineering? 

Chi Onwurah
I think it’s something to do with the fact that there aren’t black and minority ethnic engineers and scientists visible, so you don’t get children being inspired.  It’s something to do also with the fact that, you know, there aren’t more black and minority ethnic physics and maths teachers, and it isn’t a cool thing to do.  Which is why, you know, we need poets and filmmakers and the media as well to say engineering and science is great. 

Benjamin Zephaniah
Say if I wanted to be like you, you are my hero, is there a chance for me or do I just forget it? 

Chi Onwurah
I don’t believe it’s ever too late.  You don’t have to have your A-levels; you can start if you like from the very beginning.  You know, for me the very beginning is one plus one equals two.  If you can understand that you can go forward step by step to learn the skills you need to have a role in engineering and science.  Engineering is absolutely everywhere: it’s understanding the world about you, how it works and being able to make a difference. 

 

 

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