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In a Nigerian mechanic’s yard, life lessons and hope for a new generation

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In a mechanic’s yard in northern Nigeria, a skinny boy named Amir Yusuf flits about like a nervous bird. As four guys work on the front wheel of a black Mercedes, he’s in the thick of it, looking on. When two others hunch over an engine, he’s in there too. His boss, Musa Ibrahim, a stringy, boyish fellow with a gentle smile, says being a car mechanic is a man’s job, but Amir looks barely 12. He scuttles to unlock a small tin shed, sealed by a small padlock, which houses tools, greasy engines and car parts piled higgledy-piggledy. The lock won’t budge, but he fights it silently until it gives way.

When Amir says he is 15, people scoff. But his boss understands. He, too, was once a slight kid who looked young for his age, working in this same auto yard in Nigeria’s second biggest city, Kano. Even now, Ibrahim’s long, slender fingers seem more suited to some delicate trade, like tailoring. His business doesn’t look like much. It has no name — so there’s no sign — and pipes, springs, wires, axles and other pieces of unidentifiable car junk fill one side of his yard. But Ibrahim employs 10 people, supports his large, extended family of parents, siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, and is engaged to be married.

Amir’s father, an electrician, had worried that his oldest son would end up unemployed, in a street gang, or taking drugs and stealing. So he begged Ibrahim to take him on as an apprentice, afternoons, after school. “I like school, but I adore this job,” the boy says. Two of his eight siblings died in infancy. He has to “run errands, jack up cars, change the wheels and change the engine oil. I have been here two months, but my enthusiasm increases by the day.” Some things about the skinny boy remind the mechanic of himself.

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