SOUTH SUDAN: 'My Mechanic's Overalls Will Make Me a Role Model for Other Women'

Friday, July 15, 2011
The Guardian
Eastern Africa
S. Sudan
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Nura Koleji rubs her toe in the ochre dust, hugs her knees to her stomach, and keeps her eyes firmly downcast – until we hit on the one topic she is bubbling to talk about. It is not how she fled her village of Lanya when AK47-wielding soldiers arrived from the north during the Sudanese civil war. Nor how they kidnapped her brother to train him as a child soldier; how she watched as they picked out victims and shot them; or how her two uncles were among those butchered in front of her.

It is not even the topic I am here to speak to her about – why she decided to train as a mechanic. What really riles Nura is men's dominance in the workplace. Last week South Sudan, became an independent country following a 22-year war that ended in 2005. And in this brand new country, women such as Nura are keen to see changes.

"We have a saying that one hand is not enough to clap. It's true," she tells me. "We need both sexes, not just one. There's an hereditary attitude in my village that women are weaker. I ignore those words and despise the people who say them because I have louder words in my heart telling me I am strong."

Nura is not an activist; she has never heard the word "feminist". She is a 20-year-old, softly spoken Sudanese girl, wearing oil-slicked blue mechanic's overalls. When she graduates next year she, along with three other female classmates, will have defied the odds to become the first women mechanics in South Sudan.

By the time we meet at 9am, I've dressed, had breakfast and negotiated the potholed roads of Juba, Southern Sudan's de facto capital, to reach the technical college, a secondary school where the 470 students (85% of whom are boys) train to become electricians, bricklayers, carpenters or mechanics. Nura, meanwhile, has collected water from a borehole, swept her family's compound, poured tea for her six younger siblings, revised, and picked mangoes before her two-hour walk to school. After classes finish at 3pm, she will sell the fruit at Juba market and put the earnings towards her £41-a-year school fees.

As her 16-year-old classmate Pamela Daniel says: "If you live here, everything is a struggle. But if you don't struggle, you may as well spend your life asleep because nothing will come to you."

Nura chose this profession partly because she loves cars, partly because she would love to drive (but has neither the money nor facilities to learn), and partly because she wanted technical skills and a trade, rather than a traditional academic education. One motive, however, supersedes the rest; Nura believes there are no female role models in Southern Sudan and her ambition is to become the first.

This is quite a task for a girl whose mother is absent (she was separated as they fled Lanya during the war), whose father has no job, and whose income from trading mangoes leaves her with just enough money to pay school fees and buy shoes, but not enough for an exercise book. Even so, Nura has already overcome obstacles that halt the education of the majority of her peers.

Though 87% of Southern Sudanese women are illiterate, Nura and her classmates can read. While they live with their parents, the majority of girls in South Sudan girls are married off at 13. "Parents value the dowry more than their girls' education and freedom," says English teacher Emelda Elizulai Melling. And with the average dowry around 200 cows (vast numbers of the population earn less than £97 a year and the cheapest cow costs £280), it is not hard to understand why.

Even menstruation is a challenge. "When a girl has her period, she does not attend classes because she doesn't have the appropriate facilities," says Angelina Alel Habib, spokeswoman for Plan International in Southern Sudan. Luckily for Nura and her classmates, their teacher spends part of her wage on sanitary towels for the girls.

Then there is the fact that as the only four female mechanics students in a class of 60 boys, they faced relentless teasing and family opposition. "My neighbours laughed [at] my overalls. They said girls should not be mechanics," says 17-year-old Natalina Kiden, who would like to be a chauffeur but "doesn't want to rely on men for anything" – not even fixing a car.

Pamela, who hopes to train as an aeroplane mechanic, spent three days persuading her mother to let her go to technical college. "She thought automechanics was a dangerous and dirty job for men," says Pamela.

Nura, meanwhile, likes her overalls, despite the ridicule they provoke. And she doesn't worry that men might find her independence unattractive, or that when she marries, her husband might ban her from working. "I'll talk to my husband in a polite way and make sure he accepts my work," she tells me. "He will not refuse. I am determined. I will keep talking until he lets me."

This, after all, is a society with stringent gender-based traditions. "When women pour water for their husbands, they must kneel as a sign of respect," says Habib. And while sharia law was not imposed in the south of Sudan as it is in the north, its strict code has still restricted women's behaviour; for instance women are not supposed to speak in public. "One of the exciting changes our independence will bring is that women will finally be able to speak freely," says Habib.

Other equalities, such as increasing numbers of women in the workforce from the current 30%, will inevitably take longer. "It is not easy for men to adjust to the new economic status of women," warns mechanics teacher Francis Osumba. Juba college, which was built in the 1950s, only began accepting female students in 2005 to study bricklaying, and automechanics in 2008.

So far the students have mastered welding and engine cleaning, learned the entire anatomy of a car and even been taught how to make tables and chairs using scrap sheets of zinc – despite a poorly equipped workshop.

Nura dismisses these obstacles with touching optimism. Does she worry that male owners of car repair firms will be reluctant to hire a girl? "No," she says, insisting she will instead be a walking role model when women see her on the street in mechanic's overalls.

Osumba agrees: "The girls want to disprove people who say mechanical work is just for boys. It is not easy for them but they've passed their first and second year exams so why shouldn't they be given the same chance as the males?" Why not, indeed.