‘Women can’t manage this kind of work. The tools are heavy – you’ll never get the pipes fixed.’
That’s what the men in Margaret Lotee’s Ugandan village told her when she first started training as a borehole mechanic.
But 18 years later, more than 8,000 people in 10 villages depend on her to keep them supplied with clean
Not only has Margaret become a badass mechanic, but she trains others in the trade – and together they keep seven boreholes in good working order.‘Now things have changed,’ she said. ‘When the borehole in a village breaks, the men are the first to come for help.’
This work is vital in Uganda’s north-eastern Karamoja region. Until recently, the area was plagued by tribal and military violence, as well as drought.
With this turmoil in the background, Margaret has fought her own battles just to keep the boreholes going.
A lack of resources
Every time a borehole breaks, Margaret walks the hour-long journey to the spare parts store to collect tools and necessary parts.
Sometimes she manages to get a motorbike back, but if not, she walks – sometimes with men to help her carry the heavy parts.
What would make the whole process easier, she says, is to have a set of tools near each borehole.
Some people refused to drink out of the boreholes, preferring the polluted water of local rivers. Others even claimed the pipes brought disease.
But over the years Margaret’s gradually been able to change people’s minds.
And of course, sexism
Just by doing what she does best, Margaret has challenged the local perception of women.
‘The status of women has changed in our community,’ she said. ‘Now we have the respect of the villagers. The men look at us and see we have values in common.
‘In Karamoja, the culture is that men see women as people who cannot do anything. In meetings we were not allowed to talk or even to sit near the men – but now everybody comes to village meetings. We all mix and sit and discuss.
‘I want to empower women – to have both women and men working together. Women bring different values and issues to a meeting, such as violence by men against them.’
Naturally, Margaret is incredibly proud of what she’s achieved.
‘My children will remember that their mother was a borehole mechanic,’ she said.