Meet the woman who fixes cars

Namubiru fixes a car tyre at the garage. Photo by Abubaker Lubowa

In her greased blue overcoat, Esther Namubiru looks no different from your average mechanic. Unlike the heavily made-up women you will find selling spare parts in Kisekka Market, she is devoid of makeup with her natural hair worn in a ponytail. She does not wear trousers.
Her male colleagues are protective of her, suspicious of anyone who comes looking for Namubiru. It is understandable, seeing that she is the only woman in a half lit workshop full of car batteries, jerrycans of sulphuric acid, and clutters of old cars.
It is soon evident why. since she began working at Kiyingi’s Garage near Kitubulu on Entebbe Road, no other woman has come to ask for a job. Every now and then, Namubiru gets up to check on the levels of the 30 batteries she is charging.
“If they overcharge or overheat, we would have a disaster,” says the woman who once dreamt of becoming a medical doctor.
We sit at the back of the workshop, where there is very little light, on a seat that once graced a Land Cruiser, surrounded by jerrycans of acid. The incessant din of three-phase electricity, tapped directly from the pole outside is not for the fainthearted.
“There was a time in 2003 when I learnt how to plait and style hair in Kikajjo, Namasuba after my parents failed to pay for my A-Level education,” she says.
She quickly discovered that she was not cut out for salon work. She then drifted to Ntinda, working in a supermarket before joining Nkumba University restaurant in 2004.
“By 2006 I had had enough. I quit and sat at home. None of the jobs had made an impression on me. By then, I had met my husband and we began living together.”

Joining the garage
In April 2006, her husband’s friend informed them of a job at a garage.
“They needed a cashier but I had never studied accounting. I did not know what an invoice looked like.”
When the friend advised her to study a certificate in accounting since the position was to be filled in August, she almost despaired.
“I decided to go and explain my position to the owner of the garage. The first question he asked was if I knew what I was getting into. I told him I did not know how to balance accounting books but I was willing to learn.”
Taking a gamble, Diriisa Kiyingi hired her but told her to return after three months, in August. When she returned, he taught her how to write invoices and receipts.
“In the beginning he was strict. When I fell sick, I would take medicine and come to work. The same applied to funerals. I wanted to give up, but a mechanic, Hussein, encouraged me to work.”

Her work
A year into her work, Namubiru’s boss asked if she was willing to learn how to handle car batteries. Eagerly, she accepted.
“I had been watching my colleagues working on cars and I picked interest. When I was not busy chasing invoices in government ministries, I hang around them, handing them the tools they needed.”
At this point two gentlemen come inquiring if their batteries are full. The checking process involves tapping the batteries and listening to specific sounds they produce. “They are not full,” Namubiru replies. She asks the men to return in the morning.
“The water levels must be correct. This is not an easy task and when my boss began teaching me how to do it, I was afraid of the electric current.”

Charging and filling a dead battery is dangerous. First, one has to pour water into a can, and then pour concentrated acid into the water. The mixture is then put in the battery.
“My hands have to be steady when I’m making the mixture because if I do it hurriedly, the steam will burn me,” says the mother of one. “And once it did. When you pour acid in water, the first few seconds are deadly.”
Before, she used plastic gloves to protect her hands, but when they wore out, she never bought others.
“It has never occurred to me to buy another pair. The day I got burnt, I had forgotten to place a funnel on the mixing jerrycan. I also miscalculated the levels. The water was too little and the acid was too much. The burns were minor and I treated them by applying cooking oil.”
Namubiru also learnt how to repair the battery terminals used for charging.

Graduating to cars
Human beings are active learners, and Namubiru is no different. Soon, her interests moved beyond the workshop to the yard, which is littered with cars at various stages of repair.
“I can now repair batteries, and anything else to do with a car’s electrical system from wiring to checking the lights. I can also repair self-starters and alternators,” she says.
We are in the yard now and she is pointing out different car parts and their functions. Under a shade, a mechanic is spraying grey paint on a Toyota Corona. The smell is suffocating.
“I want to graduate to engines now,” she says. “I know about them of course, but I would like to learn how they work and how to repair them.”
For the moment, her tasks include spraying T-Cut on cars. The spray is used as a finishing, adding a touch of gloss to the new paint on a car.

“Men wonder when I am assigned to work on their cars. The first question they ask is what I am doing here. The next question is if I can do the job.”
Namubiru says she does not consider this as discrimination because eventually the sceptics become her most loyal customers. Certainly there are some who ask her out on dates, but she turns them down.

Family woman
“My husband, Kefa Ssekyanzi, trusts me. It does not bother him that I spend the day in the company of men. We have been together for 10 years and he has never even been to my workplace.”
Namubiru says she does not have the desire to wear makeup or polish her toe nails. Her husband, a farmer, loves her the way she is.
The mother of a four-year-old son, who desires to have more children says, “At first, my son used to come to the garage after school and wait for me until 7pm. Now, a relative babysits him.”
During her pregnancy the work became strenuous. She was fed up of bending and lifting batteries, and car oil made her nauseous. She had a C-section, from which she recovered after four months. Luckily, her clients were always asking about her, which kept her job intact.

Out of her efforts, Namubiru was able to pool money with her husband to build their home. She also built three rentals in her parents’ compound.
“I have been able to sponsor three of my siblings to go and work in Dubai. I bought the air ticket, paid for the passports and visas, and gave them pocket money.
“I intend to set up a hardware business in the next five years,” says the ardent swimmer. “When I grow older, I would love to have a job where I do not expend much energy. Besides, I hope that by then I will have a bigger family.”

Advice to women
“Do not look down on jobs. If you fail to find one, learn to do something out of the ordinary. At the end of the day, it is not about who is watching you but the money you earn.

Born in 1986 to Ssalongo Ssempebwa and Miriam Nakazzi, the second born of eight children attended St Luke Primary School in Nkumba, and AgroLinks Secondary School for O-Level.


“Some clients bring batteries for charging and when I recommend that they buy new ones, they do not. When the repaired battery works for only a few days, the client comes back shouting at me, claiming I cheated him. Some refuse their old batteries and claim newer ones that are not theirs. Others do not even come back.”
In 2013, when she was one-month pregnant, Namubiru almost lost her life to a quark doctor.
“I was at work when I started bleeding. At a clinic in Abayita Ababiri, the doctor told me there was a problem in my uterus which he could fix in 30 minutes.”

Unknown to her, the man was a veterinary doctor trying his hand at human medicine. She was anaesthetised. The last thing she remembers was seeing the doctor picking up a sharp instrument. When she woke up the pain was terrible and her cries forced the man to take her to Entebbe General Hospital.

“At least he helped me call my mother but the surgeon was not around. When I went to the toilet, small pieces of flesh began coming out. My husband had arrived by then and drove me to Kisubi Hospital.”
At first, the doctors referred her to Mulago hospital, but after her mother’s pleas, they decided to operate on her. She could not walk and every time the pain forced her to take a deep breath, more pieces of her intestines came out.
Luckily, the surgeons were able to repair the damage. However, the double anaesthesia left a lingering cough that incapacitated her for seven months.
“My boss kept my position. Even when I could barely walk, he allowed me to sit around until I recovered.”