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It is 9.30 a.m. on a seemingly ordinary Tuesday, and the sun is already showing signs that it is going to be a brilliantly hot day in Kampala. I am at the traffic lights in Ntinda, one of Kampala's suburbs. I am driving to a meeting and I am already running late for a previously scheduled appointment with a potential client for my side gig. The lights seem to be deliberately avoiding turning green.


The traffic lights finally scream green and as I start to step on the acceleration pedal, Bijou (the name I call my red Mazda) coughs and jerks a few times before stopping. The cars behind me start to hoot because they want to get by before the lights switch to red- again.


I turn off the engine, convince myself to calm down amidst the pressure of angry drivers and boda boda guys slowly gathering at the side of the curb to watch how all this will play out. I turn on the ignition and the car starts. It stays on, long enough for me to move it to the side of the curb. I roll up my windows, find my phone, and dial a number.


Me: Good morning Jamil. The car has stopped at the lights. Can you come and help?


Jamil: Yes Madam. Where exactly are you? I can jump on a boda boda right now and be there in 10 minutes.

Meet Jamil Kibalya, a 26 year old auto mechanic in Kampala. Source: Charlene Kasumba


I sit in the car for exactly 10 minutes (by then, the small crowd that was starting to gather had since moved on, as there seems to be no promise of drama from this tiny driver). Jamil knocks at my window. I roll it down and he asks me to pop open the bonnet while assuring me that all will be well soon.


Experiences at Garages in Uganda


I have since cancelled my appointment because I am already an hour late. Jamil tinkers here and there, and asks me to move to the back seat so he can drive the car to the garage where he works. Thirty minutes after arriving at the garage, I am being billed and ready to head out to a freshly rescheduled appointment in the glaring Kampala sun.

Jamil helping fix my car after it stopped at the traffic lights. Source: Charlene Kasumba


It is safe to say that, a car mechanic is one you would most likely encounter because you have a car that needs fixing. If you live in Kampala, you may know that not just any random mechanic should be trusted with your car.


You need to watch them like a hawk just to make sure none of your car parts are stolen and resold elsewhere. Tales are told of mechanics taking advantage of their clients by giving false diagnoses of what is wrong with the car, on top of using cheap materials that will need replacement in no time.


A quick Google search will give you a list of over eighty repair shops or companies in the country. These are the ones that are listed. If you took a trip downtown to an area called Kisekka, you would most certainly see several others.


In fact, the whole area is filled with cars and people busying themselves under, beside, or around vehicles in need of immediate repair. There are also repair shops at major car dealership outlets such as Toyota, Mercedes, and Suzuki. If you can afford the rates, why not have your car worked on in a place where you don't have to guard it?


According to the Global Press Journal Africa, as of June 2022, 2.3 million Ugandans own cars. These statistics prove that there is a need for skilled auto mechanics to help service and maintain these vehicles.


Mechanical engineering is a course that is offered at many universities in Uganda. For those that are not able to afford the cost of a degree in mechanical engineering, they opt for technical or vocational institutes whose tuition costs are much less in comparison to those of a university. It is here that one chooses to specialize in the various fields of engineering such as auto engineering, the focus of our story.


You may not be surprised to hear that the majority of the auto mechanics around Kampala have acquired their skills just by learning on the job or simply hanging around a car repair garage while watching and tinkering around. Many end up doing school later because they need a professional qualification to be taken seriously by their clients, or to start their registered businesses. This was one of my first encounters with Jamil Kibalya. A humble auto mechanic who is 26 years old.


Jamil’s Journey


Jamil is from a family of 5 and had to leave school at the age of 17 so that his younger siblings could have a chance to study. At the time, his mother gave him two options of possible careers he could pursue; construction or auto repair work. Jamil chose the latter of course.


At the age of 19, Jamil's mother talked to Haruna, a well known auto mechanic in their home area Jinja, and asked him to take on her son; teaching him the basics of auto mechanics. Haruna was able to train Jamil and help equip him with the knowledge he needed to be good at what he does.


Jamil shared "I started to spend time at a nearby repair garage in his hometown, Jinja where I picked up the interest in fixing cars. I learnt mostly on the job. When a car that needed repair was brought in, I would watch the other skilled mechanics and learn as they worked. The next car that would be brought in would be mine to work on. It wasn't always easy but I enjoyed doing this so much and so learning became easy."


Jamil learnt all he could before moving to Kampala to make a living for himself and currently cares for his siblings as well as his wife and son with his earnings.


He added, "One of my older brothers heard of a place called Motor Care in Kisaasi that was hiring auto mechanics. I moved to Kampala in 2019 to take on the opportunity. It was a great experience for me and I was able to learn so much more before moving on to work on my own."


Jamil’s Work Routine


Jamil's day can start as early as 5 am depending on what a client needs. He explains, "In this auto repair work. There are many categories, for example, wiring, spraying, panel beating and bodywork, engine work etc. I specialize in engine work and so I partner with other auto mechanics who specialize in these other categories depending on what is needed to help fix my clients’ cars.”


Jamil has a special knack for rescue, as he calls it. There isn't anyone I have referred Jamil to who doesn't speak of this. It doesn't matter where you are or what time it is, if you are stuck somewhere and in urgent need of help with your car (just like I was), Jamil will come to the rescue.


Sometimes, by lunchtime, he has worked on between 1 to 3 cars when he doesn't receive a rescue call. He has a team of trusty mechanics that he works with depending on what a car needs; from spraying to changing wipers. Jamil specializes in engine work and so it makes sense to have a team of specialists with him. 

A photo of Jamil at work. Source: Charlene Kasumba


As I leave the garage at 1pm, Jamil receives another phone call. He has been called on another rescue mission in Gayaza, a suburb in the nearby Wakiso district. He quickly puts his tools into his toolbox before hailing down a boda boda to take him to his next office for the day.


When I ask Jamil what he enjoys most about his job, he is all smiles, "I love that I have gotten an opportunity to meet people from various walks of life. These people have continuously given me business and referred me to their friends. I am grateful for their trust in me. I also get to drive long distances, especially upcountry, to work on cars, and this has helped me improve my skills as an auto mechanic."


For Jamil, honesty is an important trait in his business. Many Ugandans will tell you never to trust a mechanic and he has made it his mission to change the bad narrative that has been cast on his profession. "I call my clients and give them updates on the progress of their cars. Many don't trust mechanics so I offer the option of working on their cars at their homes so they feel safer. This has really helped me improve my clientele relationships, and I am grateful for the various opportunities given to me", says Jamil.


He concludes, "I would like to inspire others to work hard and be the best at what they do. No matter what you choose, you can be good at it. Your lack of money or background should not hinder you. I am here today because someone took a chance on me and showed me how to repair cars. This is honestly nowhere near my wildest imagination."


The future is indeed bright for Jamil. He plans to return to school and get certification for his profession. This will help expand his client base and add to his level of professionalism.

Charlene Kasumba

Charlene is a gifted writer, singer, and songwriter who loves to pour her heart out on paper and tell stories through words and music.