Clad in her red overall, Charity Akello, 20, takes the engine out of a motorcycle to change the worn out ring. At her workshop in Gulu, on the Kampala-Gulu highway, about five metres away from the road, she repairs motorcycles, generators and cars.
Akello studied mechanics, a profession not conventionally attractive to women but one in which some are picking interest because of economic demands.
It is not a different scenario for Akello who was not keen on being a mechanic but rather took it on as an alternative after failing to join secondary school. Today, the resident of Pece-Acoyo village in Gulu District, does not regret being a mechanic.
Akello, the fifth born in a family of eight children, says she joined Gulu Youth Development Association, a vocational institute that trains youth in practical skills in 2007. After completing Primary Seven in 2006, from Pageya Primary School, she could not further her education, having lost her father during that period.
“I was caught between a hard place and a rock. After several discussions with my mother I opted for mechanics,” she tells of how she got into the profession.
“People made fun of me, while others asked what had befallen me to make me choose mechanics, which is mostly considered a man’s profession,” she adds.
The two-year course had a class of 40 students, where she was the only girl. But she had to fight for her space amidst all the challenges that she faced at the beginning.
“I was scared the first time I joined the class and thought I had chosen the wrong path in life. But I later got used to the environment and to-date the skills I acquired are a reason for me to smile,” Akello says on second guessing herself at the start.
Two years later, she completed the course and looked for a workshop, where she could polish her skills since more emphasis was put on the theory than practical in school.
In 2010, Akello went to Active Motors Garage for her industrial practice, where she had four months of apprenticeship and she was later retained because of her hard work and resilience.
Two months later, however, Akello could not bear with the terms the garage owner had in place. “All new mechanics were required to pay Shs90,000 every month, to the garage owner, which meant that you paid that price till he felt that you were established. I opted to quit,” she explains, adding, “With the little resources I had, I decided to open up my own workshop since I had the skills and knowledge.”
In 2010, Akello and two other boys pooled Shs300,000 for buying tools and paying rent and started their workshop.
Before the team she started working with left, they mainly repaired trucks that go to South Sudan, because of the location of the workshop.
“Highway truck drivers approached us to repair their trucks, though it was so challenging at the beginning, because when these truck drivers did not come, we barely did any work and also, car owners within the town were not yet used to us, so business was generally low,” she describes the early days. “We used to get between Shs15,000 and Shs25,000 each day, which was very discouraging.”
Although all her friends shunned the workshop because of the few customers and little cash they earned, she carried on.
Diversity and turning point
Consequently in the same year, Akello moved on to start repairing motorcycles and generators, since trucks were scarce and truck owners never trusted her mechanical skills.
“One day my landlord told me he had a problem with his generator. I told him I could fix it and he believed me. I worked on it properly and that is how I started getting other clients,” she recounts.
“I also advanced to repairing motorcycles for boda boda riders whose stage was in front of my workshop. In case of any mechanical fault, I was always available to give a helping hand.”
Today, Akello has proven that success is not earned in a day.
With the little money she earns, she has been able to recruit three permanent workers to help her due to the high number of clients.
She says the payment to her fellow workers is on a piece rate and depends on the magnitude of the work.
“I normally pay them Shs10,000 in case the work is a lot and Shs 5,000 for small jobs,” Akello says.
“I have been able to pay rent, send two of my younger siblings to school of which one sat for UCE last year and buy basic needs for myself and my mother without having to beg,” Akello says.
On good days, she earns Shs70,000 and on the bad days, Shs20,000 or even nothing on some days.
Akello says although she has regular customers, a lot of people still disapprove of her skills in mechanics.
“Sometimes people are recommended to my workshop but when they find out that a woman will be the one working on their motorbikes or generators, they doubt me or even remove their machines from me,” she says and adds,
“Other clients use my gender as an excuse not to pay me, saying they don’t believe I did a good job.”
Akello hopes to save more cash and open a bigger workshop and also register it as a company.
She would also like to upgrade her level of education and pursue a diploma in mechanical engineering.
“I want to go back to school and become one of the professionals in mechanical engineering in the region,” she says of where she dreams her work will take her.