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Inspirational Story: Mechanic going against odds

April 26, 2021

By Kafula Chanda

According to the World Health Organization estimates, about 2 million women and men in Zambia, or 15 percent of the population, have a disability.

As reported by the World Programme of Action (WPA), experience shows that it is largely the environment that determines the effect of an impairment or a disability on a person’s daily life.

A person is handicapped when he or she is denied the opportunities generally available in the community that are necessary for the fundamental elements of living, including things such as education, employment, participation in social groups, access to public facilities, and the general style of daily living.

In the context of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), as disabled persons have equal rights, they also have equal obligations. It is their duty to take part in the building of society. 

Societies must raise the level of expectation as far as disabled persons are concerned, and in so doing mobilize their full resources for social change. This means, among other things, that young disabled persons should be provided with career and vocational opportunities – not early retirement pensions or public assistance.

This is why the Zambian Industrial Training Academy (ZAMITA) a UNIDO project has been contributing to the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) by using a role model scheme with an aim to eliminate gender disparities in education and ensuring equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, and persons with disabilities.

Thomas Maleka is an example of a voice that is advocating change in TVET, raising awareness and setting the stage for people living with disabilities.

Born in Ndola with a disability in his lower limbs, Thomas is now a skilled mechanic who is specialized in fixing light vehicles and trucks.

Though disabled, Thomas was born with a promising future. But that future was disrupted when Thomas lost both his parents at the age of two. His maternal aunt took him to Kitwe and started taking care of him. He attended both his primary and secondary school in Kitwe but went back to Ndola where he completed Grade 12 at Temweni High School in Chifubu Township.

After that, Thomas was not interested in sitting idle. He started frequenting garages to learn how to repair motor vehicles from car mechanics. He was driven by a passion that he fully utilized to learning the trade of repairing motor vehicles.

“I never saw myself any different from the rest and worked as passionately as others to pursue my desires,” Thomas said.

His dream to succeed came true in 2017 when he was accepted at Northern Technical College (NORTEC) to pursue a trade test level one certificate programme in Automotive Mechanics. He used to admire people who drove and fixed vehicles and the NORTEC programme was a step closer to him realizing his vision.

Thomas was not exempted from trials like anyone else. The biggest challenge he faced came in the form of discouraging words from some people who tried to divert his passion for engineering to focus on something else. People would try to impose their opinions on him to do carpentry and joinery because of his disability.

He said people questioned how he would manage to lift heavy things, but he viewed their pessimism as something that did not represent the love he had for auto mechanics because he knew he was equal to the task. “Little did they know that in mechanics, we have lifting equipment,” he said.

Studying Automotive Mechanics brought meaning to his life. On graduation day, NORTEC principal Victor Mulenga awarded Thomas a toolbox, some spanners, and a laptop, something that deeply encouraged him to face life with a vivid perspective.

Receiving the principal’s award on graduation day gave him the much-needed boost to continue pushing himself towards his vision, and to excel professionally.

A lot changed about his life because of the skills he acquired. From being kept by a Good Samaritan to completing his course and eventually setting up his own workshop in Ndola’s Masala Township, Thomas now says; “I am now able to take care of myself and pay for house rentals.”

What is striking about Thomas is that he saw how his tenacity and passion towards mechanics had the potential to benefit him and others. According to one of his peers who did not want to identify himself, Thomas has got a single-minded determination. The man said it was unimaginable that at one point, Thomas used to dig wells for survival!

When Thomas sets to fix an engine of a truck, he lifts his body up with a walking stick to position himself correctly. Once he is in position, he quickly transitions into the mechanic that he is, touching every component with diagnostic insight, and after that, a client only has to pick up his or her fixed vehicle.

The unfailing motivation of Thomas is driven by his sense of responsibility to use his skills to improve his life. “I have been privileged to have my workshop, but when God blesses me, I want to own a diagnostic tool and a compressor that would make my job more efficient and end my challenges,” Thomas confesses.

When asked what advice he would give the future mechanics, Thomas starts by advising people living with physical disabilities. “Be active in your life and don’t feel pity because you have a disability. In life, people will always have something to say and make you feel like you are nothing. But whatever you can manage, do it with your might. Others choose to do nothing, but I choose mechanics,” he said.

Thomas also has advice for the youth. He said young people like him who think they are less than, or not capable of doing something, must be encouraged that they can make the future possible.

“One day the world will get comfortable and realize that we are all human,” he said. 

With determination and confidence, he has set the stage for persons with disabilities and seeks to help restore hope in every individual who could be willing to pursue Technical Educational, Vocational and Entrepreneurship Training (TEVET) programmes especially in automotive engineering.

He has made the best of the training he received from NORTEC, with knowledge and hard work which he has used to change the perception of society. Society now sees a capable man and a skilled mechanic in a person whom people once thought could do nothing.