Three refugee women succeed in a “male” business and even defy COVID-19.
Mpela Leontin Ndonda, Landu Mamy Leko and Luti Pebe, three refugee women, who met during a professional training in painting, now work together as professional painters. An unusual sight in the construction industry, confirms Mpela who arrived from her native Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) many years ago. “Everywhere, when they see us painting, they say ‘ah… women!’”
The three women break gender barriers with success: “Now, when people see that a woman can do a man’s job, they prefer to give the contract to the woman,” Mpela says. The three friends are members of the Association of Women in Construction, which provides networking and other opportunities to women through its chapters across Nigeria.
The job near Lekki Highway is routine for them. They only came for retouches. “We have been taking on way bigger jobs, painted entire buildings,” Landu, also from DRC, says with pride. “We are not afraid to climb on scaffoldings.”
Nothing destined the three women to work together. If Mpela and Landu came to Nigeria a long time ago, Luti – from Central African Republic (CAR) – only arrived in 2014, and was granted refugee status in 2018. Mpela was a civil servant, but found herself a political prisoner. When she finally managed to flee to Nigeria, she could not bring her children because of the rush.
“I have no information about my husband, my children. I don’t know if they are alive.”
Luti’s story is not less heart-breaking. In 2014, she was suddenly uprooted as violence reached her area. “They threw grenades in our village; I couldn’t help but to run, straight to Nigeria, through Cameroon”, she recalls. “I didn’t look back, but now I have no information about my husband, my children. I don’t know if they are alive.”
Landu followed her husband to Nigeria, but is reluctant to share details. Even after 16 years, she still fears retaliation for having left.
Once in Nigeria, it was a story of survival for each woman. Seeking refuge in churches, relying on the generosity of the community, all three took on informal jobs. Mpela found solace in catering: she took the initiative and paid for a one-year catering course, then Landu and her baked cakes for events. Eventually, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, granted her money to buy a cooking kit, pans and stoves, so they could turn their informal business into a more stable occupation.
Luti, on her part, rekindled her passion for hairdressing, a vocation she embraced in CAR. Thus, she started making wigs, weaving hair, and could soon afford a hair dryer and a hair straightener, the first steps toward building her own beauty salon.
Lagos remained a harsh place for them, just like for Nigerians. Political winds, unpredictable energy supply or just the tides of supply and demand affect every business. So when the occasional event caterers Mpela and Landu learned of a paid training in construction skills, they signed up immediately. An opportunity to learn something different, and to tackle what is seen as a male-dominated trade, would make them less dependent on the demand for cakes, they thought.
There, they met Luti, trying to switch career after four years in hairdressing which bore heavily on her health, as weaving hair all day long took a toll on her back. “It is truly a miracle of God”, Mpela says, “such a course is only for young adults, and I was already over 35!”
Run by the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF), this programme trains them in several trade skills. UNHCR regularly informs refugees about the opportunities with LSETF and refers them to the Fund. “UNHCR’s protection and livelihoods partner Justice, Development and Peace Commission (JDPC) selects potential candidates among the refugee community and promotes the programme”, explains Felicia Aladesua, JDPC’s Livelihoods Officer. LSETF organises the training and pays for transportation fees. “This year”, Felicia adds, “eight refugees graduated from the training center, and they are all working now”. JDPC accompanies each participant with counselling and placement advice. UNHCR, together with JDPC, has advocated for the inclusion of refugees in the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees. One of its key objectives is that refugees’ self-reliance is enhanced.
“We have now countless job offers”, Mpela announces with a smile. “We work full time, Monday to Friday, and I can’t recall how many painting jobs we’ve had”.
“I live in Nigeria, I’m eating your food… You need to pay me like Nigerians!”
The start was not easy: “Before, people tried to pay us less because we are refugees.” Mpela recalls: “But I used to say: I live in Nigeria, I’m eating your food, I’m drinking your water… you need to pay me like Nigerians!” And the contractors complied. Different from hairdressing and catering, the three refugee women now have a regular income. Whether a day’s task or a month-long project, each job brings between 2,500 and 6,000 Naira (about 5 to 12 US$) a day for each worker.
The Association of Women in Construction helped with contacts, and LSETF supplied them safety gear and equipment. Only the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw the construction sites closed, put them off for six months. They never gave up. “We resorted to our previous skills”, says Luti, “and went back into catering and hair dressing”.
Now that the painting market is back, the refugee ladies aim for more – to properly register a company, be truly on their own, win more contracts and maybe, take in employees and apprentices. “We are allowed to create a company, but the bureaucracy is hard, especially if you are not Nigerian”, knows Landu. UNHCR’s partner JDPC is trying to help. And their own resilience will help the painting women succeed in a men’s world.