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Lady Mechanic Initiative Trains Women For 'The Best Job'

Students at the Lady Mechanic Initiative in Lagos, Nigeria, work on cars in their open air workshop. (NPR)

The young women training to be mechanics at Nigeria's Lady Mechanic Initiative wear navy overalls and work boots and their hair is tucked under customized red caps as they repair vehicles in a garage. Customers come and go, dropping off and collecting their cars. Trainee Enogie Osagie says she faced great resistance at home when she started.

"At first, they were really angry. They didn't want me to go for it," says Osagie. "My mum wasn't happy with it. She just went on crying, 'Why do you want to be a mechanic? The risk is too much.' I was like, 'Don't worry, this is what I want. I'm like a tomboy. I have a flair for cars.' "

Olumide Okesola, a senior male mechanic at the garage, is one of their trainers.

"In my life, I never work with ladies like this. I can see that they have it in mind that they want to become a somebody in life. They have the determination that one day I will get there," Okesola says. "Before you know it, you will see lady mechanic here, lady mechanic here, lady mechanic here."

In the cramped office at her workshop, surrounded by car parts, awards and framed photographs with VIPs, sits the founder of the Lady Mechanic Initiative, Sandra Aguebor-Ekperuoh.

She is a classic, driven multitasker. While giving instructions to a trainee mechanic about fixing a car's air conditioning, Aguebor-Ekperuoh responds to umpteen phone calls as she fields questions from this journalist as well as from her 2-year-old son, one of her six children. He has just popped in from nursery school.

Aguebor-Ekperuoh says juggling her many jobs and hats is all down to "strategy."

"I have strategy for everything I do," she says. "You have to plan and have strategies for what you want to do in life."

She struggled to open her first automobile workshop, which she describes as a makeshift construction, in Lagos, Nigeria's bustling commercial capital and largest city, back in 1995.

Now, as a garage owner, Aguebor-Ekperuoh also oversees the training of the young women who're learning to become car mechanics — just as she did almost 30 years ago. They are paid apprentices, and the "Lady Mechanic," as they affectionately call her, says she is constantly looking for sponsors, as well as additional funding for the project.

But, she says, it's all about passion for the job.

"It took a long time for people to see that Lady Mechanic was not a flash because people saw it like a flash, that it was something that has come and is going to fade away," Aguebor-Ekperuoh says. "But, right now, we are solid. I have been able to empower about 300 female mechanics in Nigeria."

That's since 2004. Recently, 50 more young women graduated, she says.

"I will say to you that there is no automobile company in Nigeria that does not have female mechanics, and they got all these girls from me," she says. "So it's spreading out like a wildfire, gradually, and also empowering other women. And we don't intend to even stop in Nigeria."

Faith Macwen, who graduated from the Lady Mechanic Initiative in 2009, now works for a top automobile company in Nigeria. She says Aguebor-Ekperuoh was instrumental in shaping her future.

"It wasn't hard at all to find a job because the Lady Mechanic made the arrangements for us," Macwen says.

Macwen says men at work were initially dismissive. "Actually, at first, the male were feeling, 'You can't do it, that it's our world.' But we made them realize — I made them realize — we can do it. I want other ladies to take up the opportunities. Go out. When you have a flair for something, go in for it," she says. "Don't let anybody tell you you can't do it. You can do it."

But Aguebor-Ekperuoh recalls her own rocky beginnings.

"I had this dream — Jesus Christ teaching me how to fix cars. When I first mentioned it to my parents, it was a big taboo. They said, 'No never, you can't even dare it.' I said, 'But God has instructed me. This is what I'll do for the rest of my life.' "

Eventually, she persuaded her father, who helped her achieve her dream. "When we went to the garage where he fixes his cars, I saw one big engine dismantled on top of a table, dark engine oil running down the table," she says. "My spirit fell in love immediately with that dark oil."

She says it was as if "the engineering world has welcomed me and my spirit has accepted that it is what I want to do."

Now, she has trainee mechanics all around the country. Some of the young women are from disadvantaged backgrounds, some former sex workers and others just hugely enthusiastic.

Elizabeth Ekwem, 25, is two years into her three-year training and says she's inspired by the Lady Mechanic.

"She's my role model. I like her," she says. "My father said, 'No, I can't do it,' and I said, 'Dad, I will do it.' So, this is my second year now, so I can."

Ekwem effortlessly slides under a saloon car to inspect its innards.

"I want to train other girls. I want to build up this country. One more year, and I'll have my own garage," she says. "Look, my hands are dirty. People say, 'Engineer, how are you?' They say, 'Are you a man?' I love it. I like it. It's the best job in the world."

Aguebor-Ekperuoh says there are still challenges ahead, and her dream is to build a Lady Mechanics Academy.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

NPR has been reporting on how women's lives are changing as technology and demographic shifts reshape the world. This morning, we head to Lagos, Nigeria.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That is where, 30 years ago, a young women says she had a series of dreams in which God spoke to her, telling her to become a car mechanic, a profession that's traditionally dominated by men. Despite initial resistance from her family, she fulfilled that dream.

MONTAGNE: Now the woman known to many as Engineer Sandra is taking it a step further. The Ladies Mechanic Initiative is her vision of getting more women into a field of work that's booming, thanks to Nigeria's oil-fueled economy. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Let me just paint a picture of what it's like here in Lagos, this energetic, incredibly vibrant and sprawling city. Traffic is a word that jumps to mind. In fact, traffic jams, Lagos is a jumble of exhaust fumes mixed with car horns as a jostle of vehicles fights to move forward, with commuters jumping on and off rickety public transportation. Now, that's Lagos.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR STARTING)

QUIST-ARCTON: And this is the environment in which Elizabeth Ekwem, Ehiozee Peculiar and 23-year-old Enogie Osagie are operating as trainee mechanics.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

QUIST-ARCTON: The young women wear navy overalls and work boots, with their hair tucked under customized red caps as they repair vehicles at the Lady Mechanics Garage, out in the open.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILL)

QUIST-ARCTON: Customers come and go, dropping off and collecting their cars.

ENOGIE OSAGIE: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Osagie says she faced great resistance at home when she first started.

OSAGIE: My mom wasn't happy with it. She just went on crying and, like, why do you want to be a mechanic? The risk is too much. I was, like, don't worry. This is what I want, since I'm like a tomboy, that I have a flair for cars.

QUIST-ARCTON: Olumide Okesola, a senior male mechanic at the garage, is one of their trainers.

OLUMIDE OKESOLA: In my life, I never work with ladies like this. I can see they have the mind that they want to become somebody in life. They have the determination that one day, I will get there. By the time, you know, you will see lady mechanic here, lady mechanic here. (unintelligible) before you see, woman mechanic everywhere.

QUIST-ARCTON: In the cramped office at her workshop, surrounded by car parts, awards and framed photographs with VIPs, the founder of the Lady Mechanic Initiative, Sandra Aguebor-Ekperuoh, says it's all about passion for the job.

SANDRA AGUEBOR-EKPERUOH: It took a long time for people to see that lady mechanic was not a flash. Because people saw it, like, a flash, that it was something that has come and is going to fade away. But right now, we are solid. I've been able to empower about 300 female mechanics in Nigeria.

QUIST-ARCTON: That's since 2004. Fifty more young women mechanics have recently graduated, says Engineer Sandra, as many people refer to her.

AGUEBOR-EKPERUOH: I will say to you that there's no car company, there is no automobile company in Nigeria that does not have female mechanics, and they got all these girls from me. So it's spreading out like a wildfire, gradually, and also empowering other women. And we don't intend to even stop in Nigeria.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

QUIST-ARCTON: Faith Macwen, who graduated in 2009, now works for a top client automobile company in Nigeria.

FAITH MACWEN: It wasn't hard at all to find a job, because Lady Mechanic made the arrangements for us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Macwen says, initially, men at work were dismissive.

MACWEN: Actually, at first, the men were feeling you can't do it, that it's our world. But we made them realize, or I made them realize that I can do it. So I want other ladies to take up these opportunities. Go out. When you have a flair for something, go in for it. Don't let anybody tell you you can't do it. You can do it.

QUIST-ARCTON: But the lady mechanic, Sandra Aguebor-Ekperuoh, recalls her own rocky beginnings.

AGUEBOR-EKPERUOH: I had this dream Jesus Christ teaching me how to fix cars. And when I first mentioned it to my parents, it was a big taboo. They said, no, never. You can't even dare it. I said, but God has instructed me. This is what I'll do for the rest of my life.

QUIST-ARCTON: Eventually, she managed to persuade her father, who helped her achieve her dream.

AGUEBOR-EKPERUOH: When we went to the garage, he fixes his cars, I saw one big engine dismantled on top of a table, dark engine oil running down the table. My spirit fell in love immediately with that dark oil.

QUIST-ARCTON: Engineer Sandra, what do you mean you fell in love with black engine oil?

AGUEBOR-EKPERUOH: It just means that the engineering world has welcomed me, and my spirit has accepted that that is what I want to do for the rest of my life. That's the fall in love.

QUIST-ARCTON: Now, Engineer Sandra has trainee mechanics all around the country.

ELIZABETH EKWEM: I want to check the oil.

QUIST-ARCTON: Some of the young women are from disadvantaged backgrounds, some former sex workers and others just hugely enthusiastic.

EKWEM: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth Ekwem is two years into her three-year training, and she says she's inspired by the Lady Mechanic.

EKWEM: She's my role model. I like her. My father said, no, I can't do it. I said, dad, I will do it. So I can.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ekwem effortlessly slides under a saloon car to inspect its innards.

EKWEM: I want to train other girls. I want to build this country. So, one more year, and then I'll have my own garage. Look, my hands are dirty. People say, engineer, how are you? They say are you a man? I said, no, I love it. I like it. It's the best job in the world.

QUIST-ARCTON: Sandra Aguebor-Ekperuoh says there are still challenges ahead, and her dream now is to build a Lady Mechanics Academy. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

GREENE: And there are some great photos of these newly minted auto mechanics at our website, npr.org. That's where you'll also find links to all of the stories in our series about women's changing lives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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