The Lady Mechanic Initiative in Nigeria trains women, some of whom have been, or are vulnerable of becoming prostitutes, to fix cars. There are even women at work in Kaduna, a state infamous for Sharia law and inter-religious violence.
By Ekwtosi Collyer, Lagos and Kaduna
”God spoke to me in my dream. He told me I had to become a mechanic,” recalls Sandra Aguebor Ekperhuor. Sandra had the dream when she was 14 years old. She remembers waking up and running to her father’s house, and begging him to take her to the local garage, so she could learn to become a mechanic. Her father, who had three wives, was a staunch believer in the traditions of his tribe and so shrugged Sandra off and told her to go back to bed.
During a business trip to England and America, Sandra’s father happened to see a woman working as a mechanic and another as an aeronautic engineer. So he allowed his daughter to put her dream into action, and paid for her training at a local garage.
That was over two decades ago, since then Sandra has graduated from Benin Technical College top of her class, worked for the Nigerian Railways Authority, run her own garage, fixed the cars of the rich and famous, attracted the attention of local and foreign dignatories. The list of acolades is endless.
The Lady Mechanic Initiative, which Sandra founded a decade ago, has trained over 500 women, several of whom have been, or are vulnerable of becoming prostitutes. Some of the women have worked on the streets of Europe, but for different reasons found themselves back in Nigeria. The Lady Mechanic Initiative offers women a monthly stipend throughout their three-year training programme. Trainees spend six months doing a placement at a reputable car dealer. Most women who graduate go on to gain employment or to set up their own garages.
On the workshop floor at Elizade Limited, the largest Toyota sales depot and repair workshop in Nigeria’s comercial capital Lagos, there are women donning the blue overalls of the Lady Mechanic Initiative. Demola Omotosho, the workshop manager, insists they not only do their job better than their male colleagues, they make the customers feel they are getting a special service because a woman has fixed their car, ”we have a customer waiting room with a glass panel that opens out to the workshop. So we normally ensure some of the lady mechanics are working in front of that panel. The customers are usually amazed to see them.”
By contrast, Sandra’s skills were not initially appreciated when she set out as a mechanic. Several weeks after establishing her own garage, a choice that was made for her because her former employer, the Nigerian Railway Authority consistently failed to pay her wages, she had no customers. For the first two weeks Sandra received no customers at her garage, which she built herself with four posts and a roof made from cardboard boxes on a piece of virgin land. Sandra had been wise to select that particular piece of shrubland because it is located in the expensive neighbourhood of Ikyoi.
One day on her way to her garage Sandra happened across a lady whose car had broken down on a busy bridge. She offered her assistance. The lady was stranded above the 50-mile wide Lagos lagoon, so she reluctantly took Sandra up on her offer. Within minutes the car was fixed. Luck would have it that the woman worked for the government in a building over looking Sandra’s garage.
”The lady offered me money for what I had done for her. But I said, ”no, don’t be silly, it was my pleasure.” Then she asked me where my garage was. We were both surprised that her office overlooked the very same bush land I had choosen to build my garage. After that she sent her colleagues to me to fix their cars. My first cheque I ever recieved was from the government for 20,000 naira (400 euros). For me, that money was like one billion naira.”
Sandra’s business went from strength to strength and she began employing other women. Then, ”I had another dream ,” recounts Sandra. This time, she says God told her to evangelize to poor women and ’convert’ them into lady mechanics. So on weekends Sandra would go to bus stations and other public places where women hawk petty goods. Equipped with a megaphone Sandra gave public sermons about how self-suffiency among women can alleviate poverty, social vices and violence in society.”
In 2002 the northern city of Kaduna was in flames. Muslims and Christians were fighting bloody battles on the streets. Radicalized by religion, Muslim and Christians youths clashed over plans to hold the Miss World contest in the city. Kaduna, also the name of the state, had been under Sharia law since 1999 and remains so. Yet a quiet revolution led by women is unfolding in Kaduna today. Sandra has been sending Lady Mechanics to work there for the past three years.
Kaduna is home to Peugeot Automobiles Nigeria, or PAN , which manufactures and supplies Peugeot cars to the Nigerian market. Miryam Mohammed heads PAN’s Learning Centre. As a conservatively dressed Muslim woman she doesn’t necessarily strike the pose of a revolutionary. But three years ago she granted Sandra permission to send a select group of Lady Mechanic Initiative trainees to the Learning Centre.
From there the women go on to work alongside men in garages in Kaduna. ”We are expecting to receive a reply from the governor’s wife soon. We sent letters to them asking them to help us promote training for women in Kaduna State,” said Miryam Mohammed, director of PAN Learning Center, with a confident smile.
Other states in Nigeria have signed agreements with the Lady Mechanic Initiative to offer the training programme in colleges and polytechnics. Kaduna State may well be next.
Power of belief is what makes the Lady Mechanic Initiative such a compelling story - a "calling from God", according to Sandra. Faith, coupled with determination, is growing a budding alumini of Nigerian women mechanics.