Last week, Aljazeera’s English Channel aired a documentary on Nigeria’s first lady mechanic and her Lady Mechanic Initiative (LMI), which has drawn hundreds of young women out of poverty and misguided living into a more pure, purposeful and productive existence. We were moved by this exposé, which highlighted the high, untapped potential young African women possess to become independently successful – particularly in the many fields that are male-dominated.
Sandra Aguebor’s story is unique. As a 13 or 14-year old, she fell in love with the field of auto mechanics – against her mother’s wishes, but with her father’s consent. Her father, after all, had traveled to the United States and the United Kingdom, and seen women work as engineers, technicians and in other hands-on, male dominated fields. So when adolescent Sandra asked for his blessing, he said “Why not?”
Years later, having mastered the art of auto repair, Sandra opened her own shop. With her expertise and commitment to quality (a rare double throw) she became overwhelmed with the high demand for her services. “It’s time,” she said, “for me to train other ladies to be mechanics. Why not?”
Today, LMI is recruiting former prostitutes, strippers and drug addicts, women from the shanty towns of Lagos and Benin, training them to work expertly on cars, generators and other mechanical objects. But the training doesn’t stop there – LMI trains its interns in business management, with the full expectation that these women will one day open their own mechanics shops or be recruited to work at major car dealerships with the potential for promotion, given their well-rounded training. And school girls are signing up, too. LMI has a vibrant after school program for high school girls – they line up in their jumpsuit uniforms and set out on their very first career-oriented activity – repairing a car – with seriousness and commitment.
Women in Kano are also benefitting – this time from a driving program. LMI teaches the women how to drive professionally, so that they can earn a living as taxi drivers. Kano, remember, is in predominantly Muslim Northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is causing havoc in its quest to institute Sharia Law through violence and mass kidnapping. The most notable of their antics was the abduction of two hundred schoolgirls that warranted the world wide campaign, #bringbackourgirls. In light of this turmoil, the sheer courage of one woman to open doors for other women – and the fearlessness of the women of Kano to respond positively – is nothing short of remarkable!
With such an inspiring story, we got to thinking. What if something like that sprouted here?
Yes, we know Liberian women. An old Liberian folk song prodded Monrovia women in particular for loving their lipstick and high-heel shoes. Just look at the young ladies trekking up and down that steep Ashmun Street in their stilettos, and you know the song writer did not lie. But is Nigeria all that different; and is this phenomenon impossible to duplicate here?
Certainly not! The Booker Washington Institute (BWI), we know, has produced a few aspiring lady mechanics and plumbers. MVTC has, as well. But we would posit that these women are ill prepared for the work force because those core competencies were imparted without being paired with business development skills – particularly geared towards women.
Another challenge is the poor quality of vocational education available in Liberia overall. Those professing to have been certificated in a given trade from MVTC, LOIC, Tubman High Advanced Architecture Program, and (sadly) BWI are, by and large, dismally clueless about their respective trades. This stems from poor instruction and limited exposure. If the instructors are not equally clueless about the trade, they are not committed to their students. This diminishes the value for money of the course, because there is no point in paying an instructor’s salary, when he won’t show up to class half the semester. On the other hand, even if the instructors are genuinely skilled, there is no machinery that students can use for practice. They end up, therefore, learning theory only; and then they show up to your house making big mouth and ruining your piping.
As the Education Minister, Hon. George Werner, has exhibited some good old fashioned humility and allowed for some Nigerian educators to come and teach in Liberia, we need to invite LMI to open a training program here. We could even allow them to second personnel (and equipment) to run the mechanics programs in all vocational schools to set a standard for quality across the industry. Once the program is well established, it can become mandatory for mechanics to take refresher courses every five years and seek (and periodically renew) certification, which would be a strict requirement for operation in the trade.
Not only will this attract to the trade countless young women – many of whom entered motherhood too early, cannot afford formal education, and/or have simply given up on it; it will also attract young men and raise the quality of mechanical service provision in Liberia.
And Lord knows we need it! Everyone would benefit from such an initiative. Government, corporations and private citizens would save millions of dollars a year on vehicle maintenance. Service providers would be able to charge more for their quality services; and young people – especially young women – would have respectable, gainful employment and rise far above the poverty line.
But one question begs repeating – would our readers hire a woman to perform these tasks? Are we that open-minded, or will we shut them out and continue letting the John Browns of the world ruin our piping? If we believed in the power and potential of a well learned woman to lead our country, we can certainly trust a well-trained one to repair our cars. The opportunity for change is here, and we need to seize it.