Nairobi’s Lady Mekanikas Turn Pain Into Power
AFRICA SERIES : PART 2
On Mondays and Fridays, Lindy Wafula skims through local newspapers in Nairobi, Kenya. She’s looking for ads for damaged cars sold by insurance companies in a country with extremely high rates of road accidents.
These cars will end up in a garage where they will be repaired by women mechanics – the Lady Mekanika team.
Dressed in their dark-blue overalls, the Lady Mekanikas (Mechanics in Swahili) are unique in Nairobi. Over the last year, 30 women underwent a training course in car repairing – from brakes to engines and everything in between. They are some of the most vulnerable women living in poor neighbourhoods – sufferers of domestic violence, school dropouts, young mothers, widows, HIV-positive women.
The Lady Mekanika workshop is about turning pain into power, as Wafula, the project’s initiator, knows all too well.
At the age of 14, she lost both her parents to HIV/AIDS and was told by relatives she could not inherit because she was a woman. “I was bitter,” she says firmly. “But then one day I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought: my name Lindy means ‘The beautiful one’. Bitterness is not beautiful. I won’t allow to be defined by bitterness, but by beauty.”
Fast forward to 2011: Wafula is a proud organiser of the Lady Mekanika project and the founder and director of Project Africa, a local NGO determined to equip women with self-sufficiency skills. Project Africa also works with adult literacy education, has a mobile health clinic and a Nanny project, among other initiatives. Here, Wafula shares her ideas about women’s empowerment and social enterprise at a TEDxBayArea event in San Jose, US.
Garages have long been considered “men’s territory” in Kenya as elsewhere. Women, when they express will and determination to earn a living for themselves, are usually given sewing machines or told to continue selling tomatoes by the roadside. While such options are not necessarily bad, they are not enough. “We want more women plumbers, more women electricians, more women engineers,” Wafula says.
Technical skills are not only about challenging gender stereotypes (some customers find it a “joke” that their car would be repaired by a woman). They also ensure financial security and independence – a key element for empowerment among poverty-stricken communities – and provide women with much-needed self-confidence. Existing power relations also start shifting: once they start earning a decent income and become economically self-sufficient, the women can afford, quite literally, to liberate themselves from abusive relationships. “They can say to their husbands: ‘I know better now. I will pack and leave if you beat me again’,” Wafula says. And they do.
There’s also a direct political twist: Wafula is a local politician running for office (parliamentary elections in Kenya will take place in March 2013). “Women vote more than men in Kenya, but their perception of who is a good leader is somewhat limited,” Wafula says. Generally, women – as well as men – assume that men “naturally” make better leaders, something that infuriates women like Wafula.
Additionally, poverty (i.e. economic disempowerment) leads to unfair elections: “Women vote for men politicians who buy their votes: they come and say ‘I will pay for your husband’s funeral’, and women fall for it because they know they cannot afford such expenses. I say, ‘I will not pay for his funeral. I want him to live’.”
For Wafula, Lady Mekanika is about empowering women and putting them onto decision-making platform. When they have the skills, confidence, and independence, they will make better choices in politics, too.
Images: Lindy Wafula & Project Africa.