As the traffic crawls along Nairobi’s Juja Road, it is hard to miss the overall-clad mechanics who are seemingly oblivious to the passing cars, focusing instead on the repair jobs in front of them.
Also unmissable is 37-year-old Joyce Tsikhungu, who has chosen to walk an unbeaten path into the male-dominated world of motor vehicle repairs.
“I am proud to be a mechanic,” says Tsikhungu who has worked for close to six years at Captain Mungai Garage, in Mlango Kubwa area.
Her passion, she recalls, dates back to her childhood days in Musanda Village, Mumias County, where she would spend time venturing into what is considered to be masculine activities.
There were even times when she would count vehicles on the road. The idea was to identify the models she would repair when she came of age.
Luckily for her, this dream was realised when her elder brother, Moses Shibona, introduced her to his mechanic, Benard Mulama in Nairobi’s Eastlands.
“Initially, changing employers’ mindsets and making them believe that a woman could do a good car repair job was not easy. But I had talent and only needed an opportunity to prove my skills and passion,” she says.
Lady luck smiled Tsikhungu’s way when Mulama offered her an opening at the garage.
“I noticed her strong character and zeal for the job, and decided to give her a chance to prove herself. She has never let us down. The commitment she has shown has encouraged us to bring more women on board when an opportunity arises,” says Mulama.
That was how Tsikhungu came to join Captain Mungai Garage as the first ever female mechanic, working on commission. That was in2010.
It was a bumpy ride at first, with some colleagues and clients wondering if she would last in her new position.
But she proved her critics wrong when she gained confidence, besides becoming popular with a section of clients who have since entrusted her with their vehicles.
“My first day at work was in Kibwezi Town, and I was accompanied by my mentor, Mulama, and two other male mechanics. It took us about an hour to complete the work. I did everything right, judging by the looks on their faces,” she recalls.
Surprisingly, Tsikhungu is self-taught: “Mine is an inborn thing. I have always been fascinated by cars and wanted to learn more about them. I can do both electrical and mechanical work.”
You need teamwork
But despite this, she worked closely with her mentor for a few months before she was finally ready to take on projects by herself.
She says Mulama encouraged her to take risks, which not only built her character but also much needed resilience. To date, the woman who earns an average of Sh10,000 a month has serviced uncountable vehicles of all kinds. However, the pay can go higher, depending on the nature of the work undertaken.
“We have monthly targets, which can only be achieved when you accept ideas from your colleagues and collaborate with them,” she says.
A born-again Christian, Tsikhungu attributes her success to her strong character.
“You can be very good at what you do, but you need teamwork and discipline to stay on top,” she says, adding that her job requires accuracy, dedication, commitment and to some extent keeping secrets, depending on the customer.
Like any other successful person, Tsikhungu has faced challenges in her work.
She recalls that during the first two years at her new station, there were clients who looked down on her despite proving difficult to deal with.
“Initially most of our clients who happened to be people with the mentality that men are in a better position to fix their cars than a woman. This made it difficult for me to get adequate opportunities, and ended up little money,” says the woman who begins her work at 8 am until late afternoon depending on the number of customers.
Also, the fact that a number of people have nicknamed her Conje (short form for Conjestina, the Kenyan boxer) due to the tough nature of her job besides insinuating that she would end up beating up men. They tend to avoid getting close to her, and this has demoralised her.
Despite this, it appears there is no stopping Tsikhungu who believes that her heavy workload calls for hard work and disregards gender biases. “I want to challenge women out there to venture into male-dominated fields. I also want to urge parents to stop dissuading their children from pursuing some professions because they are dominated by men,” she says, adding that it is also important for men to encourage women to pursue such professions.
What are her future plans?
“God willing, I plan to open my own garage with assistance from a good Samaritan and then help women who are interested in pursuing the profession by mentoring them for free,” says the unmarried mother whose son, Kevin, recently completed his secondary school education. “I am still looking for the right man to come along when God decides. Who knows, perhaps I may stop working as a mechanic the moment I settle down depending on my husband’s decision,” she adds with a laugh.
It is hard to believe that this confident, easygoing woman faced difficult times in her younger years.
For instance, her father compared educating girls to “watering someone else’s field.”
Thus, when the then 18-year old got pregnant, it was akin to kissing her studies goodbye. She was then in Form Two at Musanda Secondary School.
After giving birth to a son, she passed a school interview, but her father would hear nothing of it about her going back to school. So she started doing menial jobs to earn a living, and even worked as a house-help in Mumias, and as a casual labourer with a road contractor.
“My father’s decision to marry a second wife, leaving my mother to fend for the five of us, only made things worse. I had to help take care of my siblings,” she recounts to Sunday Magazine, with a sad look on her face.
Tired of the daily struggles, Tsikhungu decided to visit her cousin, Rhoda, a security firm worker who lived in Mathare North Estate in Nairobi, with the aim of looking for greener pastures. That was in 2000.
“She set the rules, which I followed to the letter. This simply meant that I ended up working as a nanny for a year in her house, in exchange for food and shelter.”
The rest is history
The following year, Tsikhungu secured a job as a housegirl in Ongata Rongai, where she worked for more than one and-a-half years.
“Unlike the other places I had lived, where the atmosphere was unfavourable, my employer was always good to me, and that this is why I looked after her five children for close to two years after her death. My salary was about Sh3,000.”
It was at this time that Tsikhungu decided to venture into something different.
“My elder brother who had just completed his internship at Kijabe Mission Hospital and been posted to Garissa, decided to sponsor my hairdressing course. I studied at a college in South B, for six months and obtained a diploma.”
From then on, there was no looking back. Tsikhungu worked as a hairdresser for six months before opening her own salon. But the going was tough.
Not only was her heart not in it, but the clients were few.
“Despite my brother’s efforts to convince me to stick to hairdressing, deep down I was determined to follow the yearnings of my heart and become a mechanic,” she admits.
“Although at first he laughed it off, when he realised I was serious, he agreed to help me realise my dream.”
Soon, they were on their way to a garage, where Moses often took his car for service. And like they say, the rest is history.