"The Lady Mechanic Initiative"? It sounds like something out of a quirky novel. But it’s not a work of fiction: it’s real and it’s changing the lives of disadvantaged women all over Nigeria. VSO volunteer Russell McKeown is drawing on 25 years’ experience in engineering and business to help The Lady Mechanic Initiative go from strength to strength.
A typical Lagos traffic jam. Six lanes of traffic where there should be three. Chokingly thick exhaust fumes. Dozens of damfus – decrepit yellow VW buses – jostling for space, full to bursting with commuters. Hawkers weaving their way around the vehicles, selling anything from newspapers to phone cards to toilet seats. Armed SUV after armed SUV, sirens blaring, accompanying anonymous politicians to important meetings.
Amid the chaos of the daily jam sits an intriguing blue van. ‘I am proud to be a LADY MECHANIC’ is emblazoned on its side, accompanied by images of women in blue t-shirts bent over the bonnet of a truck. The van promises ‘FREE TRAINING WITH MONTHLY SALARY!’. Two phone numbers and an email address encourage people to find out more.
Madam Sandra had a dream...
This is the van of The Lady Mechanic Initiative, a ground breaking non-governmental organisation that is challenging gender stereotypes across Nigeria. Its founder – and driver of the van – is the charismatic Madam Sandra, who as a child was told in a dream that she should become a mechanic.
Undeterred by those who doubted her, Sandra started her training aged 14. Twenty years on she has inspired dozens of girls to follow in her footsteps and is famous all over the country. Another 40 Lady Mechanics are set to graduate this summer.
In the van’s passenger seat is Russell McKeown, a VSO volunteer who is spending two years sharing his skills and expertise with Madam Sandra and the Lady Mechanic Initiative. Originally from Lancashire, Russell is drawing on over 25 years’ experience in engineering and business to train the girls and help develop the organisation further.
The Lady Mechanics and VSO working together
Russell’s official job title is ‘automobile mechanical trainer’ but he uses that loosely because his role encompasses so much more.
‘As well as lecturing in mechanics and taking the girls into the garages to reinforce what they’ve learnt on the academic side, I’m chief letter writer, I fundraise, I meet with government officials, I offer general support on running the business,’ explains Russell. ‘I’m a qualified mechanical engineer but I’ve also got a business degree, so it has been really fulfilling to use such a diverse range of skills.’
The most rewarding part of Russell’s work is seeing the girls in the garages, accepted by the men they’re working alongside. In a male dominated profession and in a country where there is great pressure for women to stay at home and have children, the Lady Mechanics are an inspiration.
Life-changing support for the most vulnerable
Many of Madam Sandra’s mechanics are – or were – among the most vulnerable girls and women in Nigeria: street children, ex convicts, widows, commercial sex workers.
‘Recruitment is done on the back of a truck going round Lagos with a loudspeaker so that we can reach a really diverse range of people,’ says Russell. ‘The training isn’t just about mechanics; it’s about life skills. The girls become so much more confident.’
Three years of free training and apprenticeships lead to good jobs and a much brighter future for these vulnerable girls and women. Society benefits too. ‘The Lady Mechanic Initiative is very successful in terms of how it’s giving back to society,’ says Russell. ‘Girls are earning a decent salary so of course that affects their families and the local community.’
The Lady Mechanic Initiative in demand
Back in the traffic jam, the intriguing blue van is attracting lots of attention. Hawkers, pedestrians and drivers who’ve abandoned their cars clamour round it, firing questions at Sandra and Russell. ‘I want my daughter to become a Lady Mechanic! How do I sign her up?’
Their queries answered, they return to their places in the traffic jam. Already futures are looking up for another generation of Nigerian girls.