LAGOS, NIGERIA — The unlikely mechanic steps out of her office and dons a fake tiger-skin cowboy hat, ready to inspect the latest vehicle to roll into her open-air garage. Sandra Aguebor, an activist known to Nigerians as the Lady Mechanic, is on the case.
The energetic mother of two rose from humble beginnings to national prominence as the creator of the Lady Mechanic Initiative. It's a thriving enterprise that trains disadvantaged women in Africa's most populous nation to learn a trade once considered for "men only."
With support from overseas diplomatic missions, businesses, and aid groups, Ms. Aguebor has turned a personal passion into a successful project in female empowerment.
Aguebor began by stopping to help women whose cars had broken down on chaotic, crime-ridden Lagos streets and giving them a quick lesson or two in basic car maintenance while she changed tires or got their cars started.
"When I see a woman and her car has broken down and she looking at it as if it is a cooking pot in the kitchen – I get so angry!" she says.
So Aguebor set up the Lady Mechanic Initiative in 2000 and is now passing on her lessons to some 70 young women training as car and generator mechanics placed in 12 garages across Lagos State. The girls get a monthly allowance of about $25, and can expect to earn nearly ten times that once trained; perhaps more if they open their own garage.
In a country where more than 70 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, that's good earning potential.
Nigeria has a strong educated elite from which numerous women have risen to positions of power and success in business, and, since the end of military rule in 1999, they have increasingly made their mark in politics, too. But for less-educated urban Nigerian women, earning income is largely restricted to petty trading, hairdressing, or domestic work – all poorly paid and with little social status.
"Being a mechanic means I will have value in my community. Normally mechanics are men, so I'll win respect," says 16-year-old Oluwabukola Olayode, one of Aguebor's youngest apprentices.
All of Aguebor's recruits are underprivileged or vulnerable girls. Many had to drop out of school because their families couldn't afford it, or wouldn't support them, says Aguebor. Some of them have even worked as prostitutes before joining the Lady Mechanic Initiative.
"Whether school dropouts or commercial sex workers, they have been brought into the garage to learn a skillful profession which can improve their life and make them more independent," says Aguebor.
Aguebor's work to empower women has earned her awards from Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo, visits from British politicians, and has taken her to the United States. One of Aguebor's latest marketing coups, was getting substantial financial backing for her project from South African communications company MTN, whose logo is emblazoned across the girls' distinctive canary-yellow overalls.
The first payment from MTN of some $30,000, enabled the Lady Mechanic Initiative to swell to 70 women apprentices. MTN has promised continued financial support, which, among other things, will cover the girls' monthly allowances, and buy them tool kits which they will receive when they graduate.
Aguebor has also secured her girls – and their families if they choose – highly subsidized health insurance through local charity Hygeia Nigeria Limited and financed by the Dutch government. The US-based oil company Chevron has also offered cash for the initiative, as have numerous wealthy individuals, including the wife of the governor of Lagos State. Jadesola Idowuof Hygeia's Community Health Plan said that donors are positive about the long-term success of the Lady Mechanic Initiative.
"We would encourage more people to fund projects like this. We want more Sandras to crop up all over the nation to get girls empowered," Ms. Idowu says.
Aguebor hopes to expand her project nationwide, and perhaps one day beyond Nigeria.
A devout Christian, Aguebor says that God spoke to her through a series of childhood dreams and told her that she should become a mechanic. With no other mechanics in the family, her father initially scoffed at the idea, until he traveled to the US in the 1980s and saw women working in positions considered "men only" in Nigeria.
Her first "garage" was a patch of land covered with cardboard for shade, but she has always aimed high. An avid reader of self-help books, Aguebor encourages her girls to think big – and they do.
"I was impressed by Sandra and her garage," says a sassy 21-year-old Prisca Anyaehie. "I want to do the same, but I'll have an even bigger garage!" she says to whoops and encouragement from the other girls.
The intricate braided hairdos, wigs, and painted nails so popular with other Nigerian women their age are gone for now, the apprentices explain. But one day, they say, they'll be sitting back filing their painted fingernails as they oversee their own successful businesses.
Already the girls are learning basic book keeping skills, and one day each week a tutor comes to the garage to provide engineering lessons.
Two of Aguebor's protégées have even found jobs in South Africa, and Aguebor is now helping them to arrange the necessary work visas.
Aguebor revels in her position as a women's role model. "I have broken the yoke of shame, of fear of the unknown – you know, women fear a lot." She tells her apprentices: "You have to be like the men – tough and tall!"