Breaking the mound in auto repair

Joanita Nabitalo is automechanic in Kyebando. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA.

What you need to know:

  • Joanita Nabitalo. It might have been necessity that drove the 19-year-old into the garage, but dedication and self belief is what is promising to make her invincible in the trade.
  • Sophia Nanjaako (pictured below). The 24-year-old repairs motorcycles in Ssaaza village in Masaka. She shares more about how she got into this line of work.

On the fringes of a group of five young men being instructed on how to test the lighting of a car battery stands a girl. They are standing in a dark corner of a large workshop filled with motor vehicle debris. Even with her long braids, she is so inconspicuous that someone has to point out the fact that there is a girl among the students.
From the way her mirth-filled smile lights up her eyes, Joanita Nabitalo gives off the appearance of being extremely shy, but by virtue of the fact that she is the only girl in the First Year certificate class of Auto-Electric (AE) at Lugogo Vocational Training Institute – the oldest vocational training institute in Uganda – she is known to everyone in the workshop.
The 19-year-old did not just wake up one morning and decide to make history at the Institute by being the only girl in a class of 25 boys. It was during her Senior Four vacation in 2016 that necessity drove her to try out a profession that some consider a preserve of men.
“I completed my examinations at Pimbas Secondary School in Bwaise. I live with my grandmother in Kyebando, so every morning I would wake up and cook for her. Afterwards, I would be idle the entire day. One morning, I walked into Simba Auto Garage and asked one of the mechanics, my stepbrother, Michael Bbosa, to teach me how to work on a car.”
Bbose, whose specialty is wiring cars, agreed to teach her free-of-charge, although his usual fee for learners is Shs3m.
The owner of the garage did not mind Nabitalo’s presence because she was not getting in anyone’s way. Her 85-year-old grandmother encouraged her, saying as long as it made her happy, she could do anything she wanted.
“It was easy to learn, and I loved the work. Besides, I showed a lot of interest that Bbosa enjoyed teaching me. Every day, I would clean the house, cook for Jjajja and then go to the garage. I am the only girl working among eight men but the owner does not discriminate among us. If a client brings a car for repair, he randomly chooses any mechanic to work on it, trusting that we know what we are doing.”

The most difficult cars
Once she had learnt how to pull the ropes, Nabitalo started earning Shs50,000 for a full day’s work, depending on the number of cars she worked on. However, there are unique challenges to being a female mechanic. “Some clients can be very tough,” she says, adding, “The men may look down on me, with my braided hair, and wonder how I’m going to work on their cars with long hair. Some are quite vulgar. Others tease me, telling me that if the car does not get repaired that day, they will carry me home with them.”
Of all the cars she has worked on, Nabitalo ranks the Nissan Teana and Nissan Elgrand as the most complicated.
“Once, a client brought a Teana that had locked itself. It seemed to be a simple job because all I had to do was unlock it and reprogramme the system. But after a few minutes of driving the car, it locked itself again. I unlocked it and reprogrammed it again. Then, it locked itself again after a few minutes. I spent four hectic days working on that car. Eventually, the other mechanics helped me come up with a lasting solution.”
With the Nissan Elgrand, the problem was that the computer kept diagnosing different faults in the car. “I would hook the car to the computer and it would tell me what was wrong. The owner would buy the spare part and I would fix it. Then, I would hook the car to the computer again and it would indicate some new fault. It did this a number of times. Patiently, the owner bought the different spare parts. Elgrand is a luxury car and the spare parts are quite expensive. I spent a week working on that car. Of course, the owner was irritated at having to buy so many spare parts. When I eventually fixed the car, he was happy with the results and paid the entire amount.”
Complimenting work with education
When the Senior Four results were released, Nabitalo had passed with 51 points. Her family did not have the money to advance her education to Senior Five. And even if by some chance they found the money, she did not want to study up to Senior Six and then drop out again. The mechanic decided to supplement her skill with a certificate in AE because, “I do not want to remain in a small garage forever. I want to work for a large company. I also know that no company will give a woman the chance to work in its mechanics department unless she has a certificate. They will always doubt your ability until you produce some paperwork.”
On her first day at the Institute, the head of department told Nabitalo that in his entire career, she was the first girl he was going to teach. Undaunted, she knew her experience put her on the same level with the boys. “Since I am in the Day Programme, every evening I go back to the garage and work for a few hours. Sometimes, I get Shs20,000; other times, I get nothing. That money caters for my transport to Lugogo and my personal needs.”
As she had anticipated, though, her tuition is a challenge. “I do not have a specific sponsor. My relatives chip in, but not all of them get money at the same time. My tuition is Shs585,000, which is quite high, and I did not start the semester on time. That is why I am not wearing an overall. But, I have hope that I will achieve my dream of graduating.”
Advice to girls who are stranded
According to the young mechanic who has never been in a relationship, failing to make it to Senior Five is not a sentence to early marriage or teenage pregnancy.
“These youthful years are the years in which we should be working hard. If you find yourself in circumstances similar to mine, strive to find work. If a man comes into your life along the way, he will find it difficult to abandon you because of your financial contribution to the relationship. And even if he leaves you, at least you will be able to take care of yourself.
“The job of a mechanic does not require a lot of capital, and yet, at the end of the day, after you have learnt, you earn a good amount. I would not compare it to, for instance, hairdressing which needs a lot of capital to set up your own saloon.”
From her job, Nabitalo provides for her needs within her means, and takes care of her grandmother. In five years, she hopes to set up a garage from her savings with a number of workers.

What others say

Michael Bbosa, Auto software mechanic
”It was a delicate job teaching her because we deal with auto electricity; any mistake in the wiring can cause a car to catch fire. I taught her computer programming. I have worked for several companies and I have my own tools, so that is the advantage she got. We specialise in Nissan and Toyota cars.
Everyone was impressed with her work. Recently, a gold mining company in Tanzania hired my services and I travelled with her. The company wanted to retain her but I refused because I want her to get an education first – from a certificate to a degree. I am also studying a degree in automotive software engineering. Last month, KIA hired her to work with them for a while. Her work is good, but I want her to excel. I do not think the Institute recognises her capabilities.”

Patrick Oyita, classmate
“I was seriously surprised when I saw Joanita in the class. It was my first time to see a girl doing auto engineering. I used to think the course was for boys. We are learning the same things but I cannot perform better than her. Because she is a girl, all the boys want to help her. So, I expect her to excel far better than me. Now that I have seen her work, I expect more girls to join us.”

She repairs motorcycles

Sophia Nanjaako will fix any motorcycle technical problems. PHOTO BY SHAMIM J. NAKAWOOYA.

Briefly tell us about yourself?
My name is Sophia Nanjaako. I live with my grandparents at Ssaaza- Masaka while my parents, Abbas Njaako and Hellen Nandawula, live in Kampala. I have two handsome brothers and two beautiful sisters. I repair motorcycles.

What is your education background?
I attended nursery school at Seeta-Mukono, Primary at Kalina-abiri Primary school-Masaka and Masaka Parents, Masaka S.S, Kijjabwemi S.S , Merryland Entebbe and Kisubi Domestic Institute but I didn’t manage to go further due to financial constraints.
When and how did you start motorcycle repairing and maintenance?
After Senior Six vacation, I decided to join Kisubi Domestic Institute in 2013 where I wanted to get a certificate in Mechanical Engineering. I used my O’ Level certificate to apply for the course. I could not apply for a diploma since I only studied Arts subjects at A’Level. However, tuition was too high for my parents to afford so I was forced to drop out after the first semester. We later had a talk with my mother and we agreed that I join a local garage in Masaka dealing in motorcycle repair and maintenance as a trainee for a period of two and a half years.

What inspired you to join this job?
I think I was really driven by my passion to do that work. I grew up admiring men doing it and I wanted to do it too. Being a woman, it was difficult for me at the start. Some of the machines at the garage were too heavy for me to carry and at times it got discouraging.
Any achievements since you started this job?
Not many, besides networking or making many friends in this field. I am planning to start up a practical training center dealing in motorcycle repair and maintenance since we have very few in the country and most of them train motor vehicle repair and maintenance. I also want to open up a shop dealing in motorcycle spare parts.

Who is your role model?
Frank Gashumba. I really like that man, he inspires me, he speaks his mind.

Married or dating?
(Laughing) Neither but I’m seriously searching for a good man.

What lesson or tips do you have for young women out there?
Do not under estimate yourself. Study if you can because you need both theory and practical qualifications to stand out and compete favourably. Be passionate about what you want to do and remember that hard work, confidence, self-esteem and God-fearing are very important in building our lives.