Mashudu Netsianda, Senior Reporter
SHE is beautiful, slender and trendy.
Her voice exudes confidence.
Judging by her looks, one would be forgiven for thinking that is she is into modelling or some kind of light duty work stereotyped by society to be synonymous with women of her stature.
Despite her gender and being a Zimbabwean in a foreign land, Ms Memory Bere (29), a qualified diesel and petrol mechanic in Durban, South Africa, defied the odds and carved out a niche for herself as an expert in the male-dominated automobile industry.
She tells of the monumental struggle to convince car owners to give her jobs to prove herself as most dismissed her off-hand just because she is a woman. Perhaps due to the nature of the job that may involve lifting heavy machinery and getting dirty, women feature less when it comes to mechanics.
Ms Bere, who developed a strong passion for cars at a tender age, is determined to conquer a “man’s world” by following her dream.
She said her craving to work on cars stemmed from her father who used to spend his time fixing his old Datsun 1500 to save money instead of taking it to a mechanic.
“I fell in love with cars when I was still young and doing Grade 5. While growing up, my father had a Datsun 1500, which I used to call skorokoro because that car used to give him problems. Each and every time, he had to take it to a mechanic to get it fixed until he got fed up and ended up fixing it himself,” she said.
“I would go with my father to the mechanic during which I would constantly observe how the mechanic fixed it. I developed a keen interest in the art of fixing cars, as such I would be seen playing around with my father’s tools, unscrewing and tightening bolts on the Datsun.” Ms Bere said each time her father cleaned the carburettor, changed tyres or tightened bolts, she would be by his side until she eventually fully comprehended the skill.
“Being the last born and only child left at home while my siblings were at boarding school, my father would ask me to pass him tools and spanners to use on certain vehicle parts and that is how I learnt how to change a tyre, replace brakes and other mechanical units,” she said.
From that experience, Ms Bere grew to love mechanical engineering and undertook to pursue it as a career.
“I grew up telling myself that I wanted to be a professional mechanic after secondary school, I enrolled at a local college and studied mechanics. Upon finishing my course, I couldn’t find a job locally as most garages doubted my capabilities just because I was a woman,” she said.
Ms Bere then decided to try her luck in neighbouring South Africa, and in 2013, she relocated to the coastal city of Durban.
However, upon arrival in Durban, it was not a walk in the garden as she encountered similar challenges in terms of securing employment.
“On arrival in South Africa I found it hard to secure employment, simply because I was a woman. Most employers and colleagues felt I was not physically strong enough to handle the heavy engine blocks and transmissions on vehicles. Another problem was that I was not being taken seriously as a woman,” she said.
Lady Luck smiled on her when a garage that specialised in high-end vehicle repair and service eventually decided to give her a chance to showcase her skill, marking a turning point in her career path.
Ms Bere now services heavy construction machines at Turner Morris, a construction plant hiring corporation in Durban.
“When I got my first job in Durban in 2013, it was not easy for me given that I was not only a female mechanic, but a foreigner as well in an automotive industry dominated by men,” she said.
Today, Ms Bere looks back at her success with pride. She is one of the few courageous women who are actually standing up to challenge men in their “own world”.
“Most female motorists I attend to feel better leaving their cars in my hands. Whenever I applied for posts, many companies did not believe that I am a woman or that I was capable of doing what men can,” she said.
When she finally got her breakthrough as a car mechanic at a Durban garage, one sexist incident in particular made her furious.
“I was fixing front brake pads for a customer and fastening wheels. On completion, the male customer summoned my male workmate. He asked him to cross-check the work I had done on his car’s wheels to test my ability. I was so angry that he looked at me as a woman and doubted that I could refit brake pads and wheels,” she said.
However, Memory was comforted by the professionalism of her male workmate.
“He rebuked the customer by saying: ‘this woman has fixed your car brake pads with 100 percent adherence to safety requirements. Do not look down on her’. I was so grateful he did that,” she recalled.
“It is not easy to be a foreigner, especially in Durban where locals accuse you of stealing their jobs. When I was the only female mechanic visible in a car garage, sometimes I was insulted by hostile local women accusing me of harbouring thoughts of snatching their husbands.”
Ms Bere vividly remembers one proud moment in her career.
“My male colleagues were struggling to fix one of the popular Volkswagen GTI model sedans. All of them abandoned hope of diagnosing its engine issues. I stepped in, studied it, applied my skills and cranked its engine to life. I was over the moon as I proved that a woman can do it too,” she recalled.
Ever since Ms Bere started working as a mechanic, she has never worked with a female mechanic, something which worries her so much.
“My dream is to open a workshop where I will teach girls how to fix cars, visit schools encouraging girls to take trades which are being dominated by men and God willing, set up a foundation. I want to see more women dominating in the mechanics field,” she said.
Ms Bere admits mechanics is a dirty job but she believes the joy and rewards come from being dirty in overalls and grease.
Realising not less than R20 000 a month, Ms Bere is taking care of her ailing 63-year-old mother back home and her eight-year-old son.
“For me, it was a sacrifice, to find myself in this field, but I have never looked back. This is a flourishing field in South Africa although it is male-dominated,” said Ms Bere.
Ms Bere enjoys spending her free time between the beach and making comedy skits on social media, which she also uses as a tool to market herself. With more than 11 000 followers on Twitter, Ms Bere draws most of her clients from the micro-blogging site.
Ms Bere believes her story will inspire and motivate young women who would be interested in mechanics. Having worked in one of the biggest workshops in Durban, Ms Bere believes she can conquer the world.
“My dream is to see more women in the mechanic field. One day I wish to open my own workshop where I will teach young girls how to fix cars and also to have a school of mechanic for women,” she said. —@mashnets.