DAKAR, Senegal – Fatou Sylla is used to being laughed at. She owns her own car repair shop with her cousin in a country where few women work outside the home and fewer still fix car engines.
Since opening their business in 2005, she and her cousin Fatou Kamara, 29, have become celebrities in their district. They're known for their business savvy, for making it as women in a place that is very much a man's world.
The two were even invited to meet Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade in 2007.
"Women in the street would laugh at me when they saw me walk by in my mechanic's jumpsuit," said Sylla, 30. "Now, they don't laugh anymore."
Sylla and Kamara never wanted to do what the other little girls did. They never planned to become seamstresses or to style hair — they liked working on cars. They spent three years in technical school in the West African nation and worked as mechanics in repair shops. They put aside money little by little until they had enough to open their own garage.
"We did it all on our own, through our savings and our motivation to succeed," Kamara said.
They've faced their share of battles, both from male employees and men hesitant to leave their cars with female mechanics. Now, though, they have eight employees — all men — and business is good. The shop works on 10 cars a week, and the cousins plan to expand their business.
Seven women studied in their class at mechanics school, but none of the others went on to open their own garage.
"We were the only two with enough courage," said Sylla. "The rest got married."
Mareme Cisse Thiam, director of the Women's Entrepreneurship Ministry in Dakar, said this is often the case for women in Senegal, where girls do not have the same opportunities for schooling as boys.
"Of course, we have seen a huge improvement in girls' access to education," she said. "But now the question is how do you maintain this? Many young women leave school early to get married."
Even as they take jobs outside the home, many women continue to work in traditional domains. They juice fruits or hull nuts to sell at the market. They work as independent hairdressers or sew clothing. Some, though, are repairing transmissions like the cousins.
Ndeye Coumba, who owns the auto repair shop Femme Auto, manages 30 employees, 10 of whom are women. She also founded a group for female auto mechanics that now has 200 members.
Like the cousins who own the shop outside Dakar, she is not married. But she said working as a mechanic is like working any other job.
"Wade called for everyone to work," she said, referring to the country's president. "Everyone's doing what they can."