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


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“He’s a very kind boss,” says Amir, perched on a rickety bench, while Ibrahim keeps an eye on the other workers. “In the morning when he comes he buys us breakfast. He buys us takeaway food for lunch too and even when there’s no work, he pays us our daily wages.” Ibrahim scolds his workers for being late or careless with his tools. “Sometimes I have to rant and shout when they cut corners.” But he doesn’t hit them, the way he was once beaten. “I’m soft. I can’t do that,” he murmurs. When a client says he is too kind to his apprentices, Ibrahim chuckles softly. But there’s another reason Ibrahim never hits anyone. He says his hands are “too strong.”

“My hands are like weapons. I know how much damage I can do when I beat someone, so I never beat anyone.” His slender fingers were so powerful he says they became a problem several years ago. “Each time I tried to tighten a bolt, I’d break it. The amulets were responsible for the damage I was wreaking. I was losing customers because I was breaking parts,” he said. But he was afraid of what might happen if he gave the amulets up, so he explained the problem to his grandparents and they gave him permission to leave them at home. He stopped breaking things.

As he tells his story, an apprentice runs up with a broken radiator. Four workers, including Amir, cluster around, as Ibrahim patiently explains how to fix it. The group hurries off to carry out his instructions. Amir attends school in the morning and works at the auto yard in the afternoon. At night he does his homework, often by the dim light of the family’s charcoal brazier. The only time he gets off to play soccer with his friends is Sunday afternoon. “Honestly, I’m not under pressure,” he says earnestly. “I think I’m just lucky because I am preparing for my future. Not every kid has an opportunity like this. I pity them, because I know what I am gaining here.

“I learned two things from my boss. One, he’s honest. Two, he will not cheat. He will not inflate the prices, which is what a lot of mechanics do. In life, cheating doesn’t pay.” Ibrahim’s grimy, oil-stained trade job was sneered at by college graduates when he started out. “They thought it was for failures and people who couldn’t get a degree,” he says. “But now I am an employer of labor. I have friends who are graduates who haven’t achieved as much as I have. Many of them don’t have jobs.” Boys and parents often beg Ibrahim for apprenticeship, but he has plenty. And when Amir looks at his boss, his eyes shine with boyish admiration. All he wants is to be just like him.

“My aim in life is to be able to have my own house and to set up my own workshop and employ my own apprentices, like my boss is doing with me.” Darting around eagerly, Amir doesn’t notice Ibrahim’s face. But just occasionally, his boss throws him an approving glance.

– LA Times

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