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Women mechanics invade men's domain

By | September 24th 2011

By Joe Kiarie

It is a chilly morning and a group of women walk into an auto garage in Nairobi’s Makadara suburb. Usually, they would be here to sell break time uji and chapatis to male mechanics.

However, their greasy hands and oily blue aprons indicate that they are not chapati merchants.Within minutes, three of them are busy fixing a Toyota pick-up.

While one cleans the carburetor; another is greasing bowl joints and the other balancing the wheels. At the far end of the yard, two others are tuning-up an engine.

Their concentration rivals that of a pack of canines enjoying a fresh catch in the wild.

The women are part of a group of 18 who have decided to overcome gender stereotyping and undergo formal training in auto mechanics.

This is a rare undertaking in the country, not just because it involves women, but also because majority of male mechanics currently learn their techniques informally via on-the-job training.

And while digital car diagnosis equipment remains an illusion to most local mechanics, these women are using it as a routine.

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The group is about to graduate from the Medibaw Institute of Industrial Technology after eight months of training as auto mechanics under a project dubbed Lady Mekanika.

This is part of an initiative by Project Africa, a non-profit making organization aimed to meet the third Millennium Development Goal that calls for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Eliminate poverty

Mr Wanyama Njoli, the institute’s director, says on top of breaking gender barriers, the project will help allay poverty.

"All our youth need are technical skills and this project will be the best way to reduce dependence in our society," he states.

The institute has for years been importing deductive training equipment.

This consists of machines ranging from automobile parts and television sets specially configured for training, which it supplies to technical training institutes.

Wanyama says the administration last year decided to offer free training in electronic repairs to 10 youth from poor backgrounds in Makadara constituency.

"When Project Africa heard about our programme, they brought in 30 women to train as auto mechanics starting last April," he says.

The training has been a sandwich programme whereby the women take lessons in automobile mechanics, computer skills, electronics and first aid as well as business skills such as accounting, customer care, and marketing.

The training is fulltime and involves two days of theory and three days of hands on training in various garages in Nairobi.

The director notes that after fairing well in class, two of the students are currently on industrial attachment in the Mercedes and Nissan sections of DT Dobie-Kenya.

Two others are at Ace Auto Centre SA while others are about to join various leading vehicle assembly and repair firms in Nairobi.

Ms Evelyn Wairimu, 27, says although her male counterparts are puzzled by her choice of career, she will continue putting on a brave face until the day everyone appreciates her passion.

"Like the men, I am here to earn a living and will keep focused and prove my doubters wrong," says Wairimu, now attached to Ace Auto Centre.

Ms Achieng Ng’ang’a, a 19-year-old currently on attachment at DT Dobie, reveals that her career goal has always been to be an independent automobile technician, and she is glad that her dream is unfolding.

"My dad being a mechanic, I got exposure to this vocation from a very young age. It surprised him that I was very interested in this work and would spend most of my free time at his workstation. Every time I found an engine being dismantled, all I craved was a spanner so that I could also play a role," she says.

Achieng, who sat for her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Exams last year, notes that her obsession distracted her school studies to an extent that she had to be transferred to a boarding school.

But her passion to be a mechanic was irresistible and her parents finally gave in to her wish.

"My parents have now bought me a comprehensive tool box and have been very supportive to my course. I want to eventually own a garage from where I can train more ladies who feel locked out of this profession," she notes.

Achieng says it is time women believe in their ability rather than try to attract sympathy and rely on freebies from men.

Ms Grace Onsango, the project’s leader, says the Lady Mekanika project will challenge long held stereotypes and empower young women who have been struggling financially despite their passion and potential to succeed in male dominated professions.

Profession at heart

"One of the main criteria during intake was that the students must have this profession at heart, and they have proved this," Onsango asserts.

Mr Milan Lyimo, the proprietor of the garage where the women have been training, admits he has been taken aback by their commitment and aptitude.

"They have learnt so fast and a group of seven now works on up to 15 vehicles daily. I only supervise them when they are dealing with the most sensitive parts of the car," notes Lyimo.

But he says as much as the lady mechanics are impressive, they face an uphill task when it comes to dealing with weighty equipment.

"This work usually involves a lot of heavy equipment such as the engine and that’s one major challenge for them. But in terms of servicing, repairs, and all the other aspects of auto mechanics, they offer a touch better than that of men. This is because they are more focused, unlike most men," says Lyimo.

Gender stereotypes

Onsango reveals that the project has not been all rosy, with the ugly head of gender stereotypes often rearing itself.

"The class started with 30 women but the number has dropped to 18. While some have dropped out due to personal reasons, others have been literally forced out. One of the women’s husbands insisted there is no way his wife was going to be trained as a mechanic, just like him, while another dropped out recently after her parents opposed her career choice," she states.

And with the next intake for trainee lady mechanics set for January next year, one wonders if this could be part of a revolution that will edge men out of their age-old dominance of the auto mechanics industry.

Only time will tell.

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