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Wrenches in hand, Nigerian lady mechanics retool gender roles

Over 700 women have graduated since 2004 from the Lady Mechanic Initiative, a program aimed at creating jobs and empowering women throughout Nigeria – including the restless north. 

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    More than 300 women are currently on the waiting list to be admitted into the popular two-year Lady Mechanic Initiative.
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The road that runs by the Sandex Garage is little more than a giant pothole — an unforgiving groove that turns into a muddy river after it rains. Cars heave and shudder as they roll slowly by, tires straining against the rutted ground.
 
But behind the garage’s concrete walls, no one is complaining.
 
“The roads around here are terrible, absolutely terrible,” says Lancy Nowamagbe. “It’s bad for the cars, but it’s very good for our business.”
 
On a recent rainy morning, Ms. Nowamagbe and some thirty other trainee mechanics gather in a classroom behind the garage, located in Lekki district, one of the city's busiest. Today's lecture is on troubleshooting engine problems. Dressed in heavy black work boots and blue jumpsuits, their hands leathery and calloused, the group looks like any other mechanics’ school in the world, with one exception: all are women.

Scroll through international news coverage of women in Nigeria and the main image that emerges is of kidnapped schoolgirls and hollow-eyed refugees, victims of Boko Haram militants. But if their plight has inspired global outrage and generated social media activism (#BringBackOurGirls) in a country with more than 85 million women, it is hardly the only storyline. And here in a humble classroom, a small group of women are literally wrenching loose gender stereotypes — one transmission replacement, oil change, or generator repair at a time.

“In Nigeria this job isn’t common for a woman, so if you do it well, people will really admire you,” says Winifred Akpofure, whose bright red t-shirt reads “I FIX CARS.” At the garage where she is completing her apprenticeship, she says, “my bosses treat me like anyone else, but they also like flaunting me in front of customers. It’s good business to have a female mechanic.”

Creating jobs

Nigerian cities like Lagos run on engines, from the hundreds of thousands of ancient cars wheezing in traffic to the hum of the generators attached to shops and apartments as band-aids for the woefully unpredictable electrical grid. 

At the same time, although nearly a quarter-million new vehicles are registered in the city each year, its roads are woefully under-maintained. Most streets are not paved, or are picked apart by crater-sized potholes. A journey of ten miles can easily take two hours in stop-and-go traffic.

Meanwhile, some 80 percent of young Nigerians are unemployed, according to the country’s Central Bank, and nearly two-thirds of the country’s residents live in “absolute poverty” — on less than a dollar a day — a figure that continues to creep upward each year.

All of that has created a constant supply of business for Sandra Aguebor, who runs both Sandex Garage and the Lady Mechanic Initiative, which trains women to work on both cars and generators. She started the program 11 years ago.

She now operates in five Nigerian states, and claims more than 700 graduates, many of them now garage owners or mechanics for the top luxury car brands favored by Nigeria’s moneyed elite. More than 300 women are currently on the waiting list to be admitted into the two-year training program. 

“Women are detail oriented and they listen well, and those who have gone to my school come very highly trained,” she says. “But the truth is getting jobs is not ever going to a problem for us. As long as manufacturers continue to produce cars year in and year out, and as long as cars continue to be the necessity that they are in this country, we know there will always be work.”

Women at risk

Despite the relentless popularity of the school, she still makes a point to seek out women in precarious life circumstances. She is a frequent face at Lagos brothels and drug-dealing hotspots, where she makes a simple pitch: Give me two years of your life, and I’ll give you a skill that will change your life. At least a dozen of the 80 women currently enrolled in the training program are former sex workers, she says. (As if to underscore the difficulty of finding work in Nigeria, however, several more are lawyers, engineers, and other university graduates.)

Now, as fighting between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military continues to roil the country’s north, LMI has turned its attention to the northern city of Kano, where earlier this year it graduated its first class of 20 “driver mechanics,” capitalizing on the fact that many in the Muslim-dominated region consider it culturally inappropriate for a female passenger to be alone in a car with a male driver. 
 
“I really believe when you train a woman in this work, you give something to a whole community,” Aguebor says.

Outside her office, students come and go from their classes. As the power flickers on and off, a lecturer describes the process for removing moisture from a water-logged generator. Meanwhile, Faith Sunday slides out from beneath a silver Honda Pilot SUV to break for lunch. A former professional soccer player, she describes her last job as “selling all kinds of stuff on the side of the road.”

When she initially enrolled at LMI, she says her family was baffled. What did a woman want working with cars anyway?
 
“But now they’re very happy,” she says. “I have work and they can see that I’m good at it, and that makes them proud.”

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