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

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Ibrahim grew up as a cattle herding boy, stealing wild honey from bees and diving naked into rivers. When he was a baby, his grandparents tied many amulets (written prayers housed in leather cases) onto his little body to make him strong and ward off the ill health, danger and bad luck that seem to plague so many lives here. He only started school at 10 and had to drop out at 18, without graduating, because his parents were too poor to pay. He tried tailoring for two years, but it drove him crazy. In a city crawling with beggars and thousands of unemployed university graduates, joining a mechanic’s yard felt like his last chance. Ibrahim moved to Kano from another state and lived here with a brother while he became an apprentice.

But the boss wasn’t convinced he could handle the work. “I was lanky and I looked younger than my age,” Ibrahim recalled. “He said, ‘You can’t be a mechanic.’ I was really determined to prove him wrong.” The boss was not easily pleased. He started at 7 a.m. and finished late, sometimes at 9 p.m., sometimes around midnight. Anyone who was late or wasted time was flogged. Several times, Ibrahim got a worse punishment for misdemeanors like talking back to a superior or fighting with another worker. The boss made him lift an engine block with his bare hands and hold it above his head for two minutes.

“It wasn’t easy. Whenever you had to do that, you could hardly wake up the next day, your body was aching so much,” he said. The job was so tough that Ibrahim gave up and ran back home to his parents. But his mother urged him to try again, telling him the only path to success in life was hard toil. He returned and learned the job in seven years before opening his own workshop. Later, he moved his business to the yard where he first began working 12 years earlier. It seemed to him the amulets had worked.

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