Burundian refugee finds solace as mechanic at Kakuma

Jacklyn Amina works on a vehicle at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Turkana County. In 1996, the Burundian national and her mother escaped to Tanzania, and later Kenya, seeking asylum after her father was killed. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

It is a hot day at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Turkana County and Jacklyn Amina is busy in a garage. Amina, 37, arrived at the camp nine years ago and has turned into a successful mechanic to support her family. 

Hers is a tale of struggle, stress, and desperation after crisscrossing three East African countries in search of refuge.

Amina was a young girl when she ran away from her home country, Burundi, in 1996, to seek refuge in Tanzania after her father was killed.

“My father was killed, and we sought asylum in Tanzania with my mother. Being a refugee has not been easy,” she says.

As a teenager in Tanzania, she fell in love with a Congolese man who soon married her.

Amina adds: “I was a young girl when we crossed the border, where we stayed until 2012 when we were thrown out of Tanzania. My husband left me with four children, and an unborn child.”

Her efforts to return to her motherland were futile.

“My family rejected me. They said they did not want to see Congolese children. They told me that my father was of Congolese origin and was brought in by my mother, and that they did not want other children with unknown fathers in the family,” she narrates.

She got help from a well-wisher who facilitated her travel to what was then the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, for the safety of her children. At Bujumbura, she delivered her fifth child, after which a well-wisher advised her to relocate to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.

“The man said he had read about Kakuma on the internet. I had nothing and depended on well-wishers for food and other necessities,” Amina says.

“A well-wisher offered to drive me to Kampala, Uganda and handed me over to a driver who took me to Malaba along the Kenya-Uganda border, then to Bungoma, Kitale, Lodwar and finally Kakuma,” she adds.

Amina claims life was unbearable at Kakuma and she was at one time forced to engage in sex work to enable her cater for her children.

“I was getting desperate, and I decided to sell my body for basic needs. In the process, I conceived my sixth child,” she recounts.

With the support of a local Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), she resolved to quit sex work and took up a tailoring course.

The NGO donated a sewing machine to her but it was unfortunately sold by her friends, leaving her destitute once again. That is when an idea came to her mind – to become a mechanic.

“I travelled to Lodwar town and met several mechanics seeking training, but they dismissed me, saying it was an art reserved for men. I returned to Kakuma, disappointed. I later approached a mechanic and told him my troubles,” says Amina, adding that he agreed to train her.

“I learnt very fast and today, I am as good as any mechanic. Training helped me understand the basics of motor vehicle repairs. I do puncture repair and can diagnose engine problems,” she adds.

She now dreams of owning a garage to employ others.

“I don’t want to return to my past. Motor vehicle mechanics has taken my mind off my previous life of depression and indignity because I can provide for my children and earn respect from the society. Today, when I walk around, people call me a mechanic,” she says.

Amina’s trainer and boss, Willy Kwizera, also from Burundi, describes her as strong-willed.

Kwizera runs the Jitegemee Refugee Centre, where he trains refugees on motor-vehicle mechanics and driving skills. He says the Kenyan government gave them land to operate their businesses.