While almost everyone around Zainab Dayyabu expected her to get married and become a full-time housewife like her mother and most young women in her Muslim-majority Sokoto State in northern Nigeria after she graduated from the Shehu Shagari College of Education in 2017, she had other plans.
"I started having a passion for fixing and repairing stuff from when I was in primary school when I used to watch my father [a medical engineer] repairing medical stuff and electrical appliances," said the 20-year-old from a middle-class family of 12 siblings.
Because her elder sister knew Dayyabu loved playing with and trying to fix mechanical appliances, when she learned about a female-only vehicle mechanic workshop called the Nana Female Mechanic Workshop in Sokoto, she immediately told Dayyabu, who instantly picked interest in pursuing a career as a female mechanic.
Dayyabu visited the workshop, picked up and filled out an application form and was admitted as a trainee after an interview. The only required criteria for admission was at least secondary school education, and even drop-outs were admitted.
"[I did it] to break the gender stereotypes about car repairs and also to prevent female car owners from being cheated by their brothers, husbands and dishonest mechanics and also to prevent my financial struggles," she said.
Four years after learning and specialising in Honda and Toyota engine and electrical repairs, she now makes at least N5000 on a bad day attending to cars and more on a good day.
The all-female mechanic workshop is the creation of the Nana Girls and Women Empowerment Initiative, a Sokoto-based nonprofit supporting young girls from poor backgrounds in Sokoto and Kebbi states through skills training, educational and maternal and child health support.
Sixty-year-old Fatima Adamu, the nonprofit's founder and associate professor at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, established the workshop in 2019 to empower girls to gain skills for economic independence, especially as the petty trading most girls and women are involved in here is not sustainable amid high poverty rates.
It was also intended to help the girls screw gender role stereotypes that have held down women in this highly conservative northern Nigerian society and to keep their minds away from thoughts of early marriage. Up to 78% of girls marry before they turn 18 in the north of Nigeria, according to a 2021 study.
The female mechanics, who sometimes work with their hijabs on, only attend to female car owners. Nana Girls and Women Empowerment Initiative designed it that way so the girls can feel comfortable enough to work, especially since they are unlikely to be shamed by female car owners.
The first step after building the workshop in 2019, the nonprofit mobilised experienced automobile repairers and mechanical engineering and physics teachers from polytechnics and universities in Sokoto to train 22 girls who applied and got admitted.
"We invited people with technical backgrounds for the theoretical aspects of the training and the roadside mechanics for the practical. We held meetings with them to brainstorm how to go about it," says Aliyu Adamu, head of the initiative's economic empowerment unit.
Although the workshop was initially designed to train widows and older women, the focus later shifted to unmarried young girls.
"Widows don't get enough support from their families after the demise of their husbands, unlike before. So we thought helping them this way would lift their burden, but they did not apply because of their children," said Adamu (the founder).
During the one-year training, this initiative purchased materials/tools for the girls, including laptops, to enhance their training. They also interned with other operating workshops for three months each to practice their skills before resuming at the nonprofit's workshop.
The 22 trainees comprised secondary school graduates, undergraduates, graduates and some drop-outs. Besides the organised training, they were advised to take self-taught classes in their areas of specialisation: vehicle electrical repairs, engine/mechanical, and vehicle body repairs.
"We trained ourselves through online courses and modules in practical, demonstration and theory sessions," Dayyabu said.
Obasi Gladys, now a 200-level student studying agriculture at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, was among the girls trained in 2019. Now she combines her studies with work at the workshop.
"In as much as it's in line with my faith and not violating my cultural beliefs, I don't care about what others say. I am a female mechanic, and I'm balancing work and study," she said.
But the workshop is facing more challenges than foreseen. With a focus on attending to only female car owners, the workshop gets less patronage.
"We are thinking about making awareness through radio programs so that we can have more women bring their vehicles or learn the skill," Adamu (the founder) said.
This challenge has forced as many as 18 of the 22 trained girls to abandon the workshop for other things, including marriage, trading and school.
But leaving the workshop to get married pretty early worries the nonprofit the most since it was a major problem it is fighting to reduce by getting the girls preoccupied with productive activities until they were mature enough to make such decisions.
"There was one 19-year-old Maryam who was very skilful; a cheerful young woman who was willing to work on anything, but she got married the following year after their training and never came back," Adamu (the founder) said.
The initiative is considering involving the remaining girls in other capacity-building activities and skills. However, poor access to funding limits progress as it continues to scout for donations.
But for Dayyabu, working as a mechanic is an opportunity she will always be grateful for and never see as a waste of time. Despite the low patronage, she said she attends to at least one customer daily, which is enough to meet her daily financial needs.
"I plan to continue even after I get married," she said. "But then, I would love to have my own workshop and train more females."
This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.