“This is a man’s world, this is a man’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl…” crooned James Brown in the 60’s. Well, if only Brown was born in this era where women are fearlessly taking the lead in spheres that were formerly considered to be “male-only.” If only he were alive to witness the revolution, he surely would have had different lyrics to his song.
Sandra Aguebor is the founder of the Lady Mechanic Initiative (LMI), the CEO of Sandex Car Care Garage and has been a mechanic for 30 years. Against the will of her mother, who thought it shameful for a woman to be a mechanic, Sandra started training to be a mechanic at the age of 14. Her father was supportive, he had been out of the country a couple of times and had seen female aeronautic engineers, hence he didn’t see why his daughter couldn’t be an automobile mechanic if she wanted to. So he took her to the workshop where he fixed his car and, according to Sandra, once they arrived the workshop, she immediately fell in love with a dismantled car engine and refused to leave. Thus began her training. And although she was still in secondary school, everyday she would leave for her mechanic training after school hours.
“When I opened my shop, my name was all over town, “If you go to the Lady Mechanic, your car will be well taken care of …” I started getting [so many] jobs, I could not cope anymore, I had to employ somebody”, she told Aljazeera. That birthed the idea of an empowerment programme, “I thought why not start empowering women to be mechanics so that they can open up their own shops…” she explained.
She started her empowerment programme training 7 girls and a boy; and overtime, successfully built a network of female mechanics that is fast spreading from city to city in Nigeria. Her LMI is dedicated to training orphans, former sex workers, school dropouts, single mothers and victims of trafficking to become mechanics. “Lady Mechanic focuses on the poor.”
One year into her training, Gift Igbeneweka is one of the many students of the Lady Mechanic Initiative. Her dream is to finish, open a workshop of her own and train other women. Gift is a single mother who lives with her son in a single room in Jakande Estate, Lagos. Gift is currently good at a few things like changing brake pads and servicing car engines. The young lady describes herself as a former “hustling” street girl who was fighting for survival. She migrated to Lagos from Benin City in search of greener pastures.
Being the social and commercial hub of the country and playing host to several multinationals, Lagos is the dream city for millions of Nigerians and so its population is constantly increasing as people from all over the country troop in with the hopes for a better life.
Gift used to live as a sex worker in a red light district called Kuramo. There, some women advised her to join the Lady Mechanic Initiative. She found the idea of women mecahanics intriguing and decided to give it a go, plus, she was tired of the street life anyway. Her friends mocked her new decision, asking her to return to prostitution, but Gift refused. “Lady Mechanic changed my life,” she said.
Before joining the LMI, Rebecca Ogwuche was a stripper at a club in Victoria Island. Dancing naked in front of a large audience was daunting and so she started taking drugs to give her some form of courage. Adapting wasn’t easy for Rebecca who struggled with her new life for about a year, particularly with losing her independence and being told what to do. But now, she’s over it.
Fausat is the first graduate of the Lady Mechanic Initiative. She now has her own mechanic worshop – Fausat Auto Garage – and a women empowerment initiative called Pay and Train, where aspiring female mechanics pay to be trained to become mechanics. The trainees have both practical and theoretical classes where lecturers are brought in from technical colleges to tutor them, with an examination at the end of sessions to validate their learned skills. LMI trainees also go on internship programmes with car manufacturing firms. Most of these firms offer them employment once the programmes are completed.
Sandra and her lady trainees often embark on campaign drives where they spread the gospel of the initiative, speaking to young women and encouraging them to become Lady Mechanics. According to her, both the recruiting and training process are not easy, “the girls are from different parts of Nigeria, different backgrounds and with different life stories and challenges.” But this woman is passionate about what she does, “skills change lives; transforming a life from nowhere to somewhere, giving hope to the hopeless girl. Now, she’s an entrepreneur. Now, she’s taking other girls off the street. Now she has dignity as a woman. Now she’s confident. Now she has a voice and a future.”
Both her business and the initiative seem to be doing very well; while she’s changing the lives of young women, her auto garage is home to a pool of unique clients. “Our clients keep coming back, they prefer us because we are determined to be better than a lot of mechanics who take their jobs for granted,” she says. This strong and ambitious woman occasionally visits her satellite branches of LMI which is fast expanding across Nigeria with her latest branch in the northern city of Kano. Aljazeera reports that so far, the response from Muslim women has been unprecedented.