Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2004   by

Out of Africa

There’s a certain pleasure that comes from solving a difficult problem. When a car has been to five different shops without a cure and you’re the one who finally figures it out, well, it’s an ego booster. It’s something to brag about over coffee break.

But when you do it with next to no resources, it’s the stuff of legends.

In the mid-1980s, I spent two years working as a mechanic in Kenya, East Africa. Aside from all the shots, medical tests, and application forms, the mission organization I was hoping to work for had a number of aptitude tests that I had to endure. In addition to making sure you weren’t an axe-murderer trying to flee Canada, the mission wanted to be confident that their workers really knew their stuff.

One question on the application form really stood out. It said, "If a vehicle is broken down in the bush, would you be able to repair it and bring it home?"

Now, take note, it didn’t mention anything about having access to the right tools, and it didn’t specify what kind of vehicle it would be. The question was to the point: "Can you fix it?"

When there’s nobody around to ask for advice, can you figure it out? When you don’t have a shop full of air tools or electronic gadgets, can you make it run?

It was a question worth asking.

Once I arrived in Africa, I learned a lot of handy tricks, like using a bumper jack to break the bead of a 10-ply tire, and like tying off the punctured section of an inner tube with rope because someone forgot the tire patching kit. Bush pilots showed me how to stuff dried grass into a thorn-damaged tire so that they could take off and get back home. I discovered that mais-meal works just as good as stop-leak in a leaky radiator when you’re in the middle of nowhere.

One day I received a radio call from a colleague who had broken down in the African bush. The short driveshaft between his transmission and transfer case in his 4×4 had snapped a U-joint, and he was stuck. I ransacked the mission workshop, but I couldn’t be sure the dusty parts laying on a wooden shelf would fit his Nissan or some other foreign vehicle that had passed through our shop sometime in the last 10 years.

I packed up my tools and began a 40-kilometre trek across the African plains, following a dirt road that wound its way past thorn trees and dry riverbeds. It was a strange feeling to realize that for at least a 300-mile radius, I was the only trained mechanic around. Village chiefs and government officials would travel for hours to have me look at their Land Rovers, simply because they’d heard there was a Mzungu fundi wa mashine (European mechanic) living in the village. Even the nearby military camp brought their troop carriers over for welding repairs when the rough terrain got a little too abusive.

I found Wayne sitting by a cooking fire near his stranded truck, literally in the middle of nowhere. It would have been a long walk home. We set to work, and I discovered that my suspicions were right; none of the parts I’d brought would fit. I removed the short driveshaft for inspection. One joint was completely ruined, but the other was serviceable. There were two other driveshafts on the truck, one for the front axle and one for the rear. Fortunately, all the universal joints were the same size, so with a hammer, punch, and a large rock for a bench I was able to tap out one of the joints from the front driveshaft and reuse it in the small primary shaft. Wayne wouldn’t have four-wheel drive, but at least he could make it home.

In a way, my time there symbolized how critical the automotive technician has become to our mechanized society. We are the fix-it guys. Like the blacksmiths of old, we keep the wagons rolling.
We solve complex issues with the tools we have at hand. Like the tech who figured out that by removing the guts of a Ford mass air flow sensor and gently cleaning the hot-wire with brake clean and a toothbrush, he could make the car run better, stop pinging, and stop throwing lean codes. Or the guy who discovered that a misadjusted hood on a Honda was binding up one hide-away headlight, causing the battery to run down overnight.

These are things you don’t find in the manuals.

Some days it’s a real jungle out there, but remember, we’re the fixers. We do it to earn a living, and because we love the challenge. And because there’s enormous satisfaction in a job well done.

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1 Comment » for Out of Africa
  1. says:

    lol very cool story , well done!

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