When Sofela told her parents she wanted to become a mechanic, they lost it. Their reason; "this is not a woman's job".
How does one react when your teenage daughter, still oozing with the preppy aura of secondary school, decides that she will not be attending university? Shock? Pain? Surprise? Disappointment? The options are somewhat familiar.
But when Sofela Ayotunde told her parents the path she was towing, that she wanted to become an automobile engineer, they lost it, quite simply, they could not see it happening. “ My parents were like, no, no, no. You can’t do this.”, she remembers. Their reason was simple, “this is not a woman’s job”.
You can blame the limiting definitions of our culture, among other reasons, but in traditional African societies like Nigeria’s, gender roles are firmly established.
That patronising view of women as the paragons of care and love has been interpreted as making them suitable for 'stay-at-home' roles that involve caring for their children, their husbands and everybody else.
God forbid they dream of the definitive stuff, like work that can support a family or duties that task the mind and the body, roles traditionally left for the male gender, like being a mechanic.
Born in September 1993, Sofela must have enjoyed the same routines that we associate with young girls. But somewhere, somehow, from a young age, her attention shifted to the road and the vehicles that ply them.
As she matured, automobiles became her main interest, and then, a forceful passion, so much that, by the time she was leaving secondary school, she could think of very little else.
“After my secondary school education, I have always been passionate about cars…”, Sofela says, “so I decided to join Automedics Training School, where they train about automobiles, how to diagnose them, how to repair them.”
Her plans were elaborate; she would join spend a few years at the training school, before setting out as a certified auto mechanic. First, she had to tell her parents.
The African parent stereotype is based on many assumptions, many of them wrong. One of the most accurate, however, is the comfort they find in the familiar.
Africa’s millennial generation has been exposed to a wealth of information, and by necessity, they feel the innate need to push down the walls that their culture has built around them. Doing this, though, often ignites conflicts between the radical youth and parents who believe that things should work a certain way, mostly because it is all they know.
In Sofela’s case, her parents were not ready to see their daughter sacrifice a bright future for a job that not even all men would be willing to pursue.
“We had a lot of disagreements, we would quarrel.”, Sofela says of her parents'' reaction to her decision, “My parents were like, no, no, no. You can’t do this. This is not a female’s job, this is not something you should go to, I want you to go to university.”
Somehow, Sofela showed an understanding of their perspective but more importantly, she chose to show them her decision was borne of passion, drive, not laziness.
“It’s not a case of me not going to the university. I am not the kind of person that plays with my education but I don’t see myself sitting down in the normal kind of university for 4 years and then coming out, looking for a job, when I already have the passion to do something.”, she recalls telling them.
Soon enough, they reached a necessary compromise; they agreed that “I’d go ahead with the Open University, get my B.Sc and then I would do what I want to do.”, she recounts.
Since then, it’s been onward and forward.
“I am studying computer science at the National Open University of Nigeria”, she says, “ (I’m) currently a 400 level student there. It has a lot to do with my job because nowadays you find cars are more computerized.”
At work, she works with a team of young men who she supervises. The feeling of having a female head mechanic is strange to most of them. and the irony and the absurd privilege and underestimation that her gender can bring is not lost on Sofela herself.
“Being that I’m female gives me an edge over the male counterparts because they are surprised and they are like; ‘let me give it a try, let me just see how she is going to be able to handle my car’”, she says.
Straddling the line between school and work also has its own nuances; “It was not easy, it’s still not easy because I am combining school and work. But then, it’s what I love doing and even if you wake me up by 2 o’clock in the morning, It’s still what I love doing.”, she says.
In her love for her craft and the relative comfort that progress brings, Sofela has reached a point where she is at peace with herself. Yet, she is careful enough to understand how society may view her work, particularly her female contemporaries, friends and otherwise.
“The lifestyle of other girls is not really a problem to me”, she says of how she deals with expectations of what her lifestyle should be, “… because those who are my friends know what I do and they appreciate what I do because not many girls can actually venture into this type of career.”
“It’s a dirty job, I must put it like that and it doesn’t really give you time to say ‘okay, I’m leaving the house in the morning, let me make-up, let me do this, let me do that’. But you can still look good while you are doing the job. So, peer pressure is not a problem for me.”
As she looks on while the Automedics four-post machine lifts the car, it is difficult to see Sofela this happy anywhere else.
The reality of the life she chose is unfolding before her and with her mechanic’s shirt and the skills she has garnered in the past few years, one can only be excited for how one young woman is using her passion to tear down gender stereotypes.
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