First Class Break Down
Updated: Oct 18, 2019
During our 11-years living in Rwanda, it was not unusual to find ourselves in complicated situations. Car breakdowns was one of those with no AAA, service stations, or insurance-based support system. However, all breakdowns were not created equal.
by Bryan T. Hixson
For 10 of our 11-years in Rwanda we drove a 4WD white Toyota Prado (pictured to right) with chrome bull bar and roof rack. That vehicle served many purposes including everyday vehicle, taxi, school bus, trash truck, moving truck, tow truck, and limousine. Those who had the means and wanted to drive something to make a statement drove much newer black Toyota Land Cruisers. When we bought the Prado it was already 10-years behind the times so it wasn’t considered worthy by the national elites for their use. We were just thankful to have something especially considering that vehicles were generally twice the cost as we would pay for the same vehicle in the U.S. This reality made the purchase of something newer next to impossible for most of those in the missionary/development community.
What this also tended to mean was more vehicle break-downs. Thankfully, we had a couple of pretty good years before significant problems became the norm. Those years were not free from problems, but they were mostly problems I could manage with the minimal car maintenance skill I’d learned watching my Dad as a kid. Although I never touched the tools for more than handing something to Dad, I often watched carefully. I didn’t watch as much because I thought I’d need the skill someday as I did because I thought I should do it. I was a people pleaser from an early age and knew that being close enough to lend a hand if Dad needed one was a good thing to do. I knew he appreciated the help and I knew it scored “points” that could be cashed in at a later date. While in Rwanda I came to wish I’d watched more closely.
Thankfully, I had watched just enough to manage some basic issues on older vehicles. Those basics saved us on many occasions, but two stood out. These two breakdowns were not unlike many others except for their location and first-class attention. I like to think that just like other first-class people got attention for their vehicles, I also got first-class attention because of mine.
The first of these two incidents occurred in the height of the rainy season in the middle of what we called gully washers in Oklahoma. My Grandmother would have said it was “raining cats and dogs”. In Rwanda, during the rainy season, it was more like “buffalos and elephants”. The amount of rain that could fall in a few minutes was unbelievable. If not for all the hills, flash flooding would have been the norm. Instead, for too many living in poverty on the sides of hills in mud-brick houses, it meant people’s homes being badly damaged or even falling. It didn’t really matter how heavy the rain was though, Rwanda’s run for cover until the rain stops. Unlike America where almost everyone has a car, most do not have cars and so you see people walking everywhere except when it’s raining and then they are crowded under gas station awnings, standing in storefronts, tucked under trees and anything else that would protect them from the rain. Most of the time the rain wouldn’t last more than 30-60 minutes which was an acceptable time for most to sit it out. In our case on this particular day, sitting it out was not a possibility.
We were headed to the Ministry of Gender where Holly and colleague, Jana Jenkins, would be meeting with the Minister. The Ministry of Gender just happened to be in the same highly secured compound as the Prime Minister’s Office. The protocol was to pull up to the gate, turn off the vehicle, walk through the metal detectors, return to the car post inspection and then enter. We didn’t quite make it to the gate before the Prado passed out and came to a complete stop about 20-yards from the gate and directly in front of the Prime Minister’s office on the opposite side of the fence. I knew this would be considered a problem, but didn’t realize the degree of a problem it would be considered by the elite security. I half-way expected they would be cowering inside the guard shack waving people through like happened in most any other less secured locations in the country. This was far from the case this time.
My abrupt stop opposite the PM’s office brought immediate attention. One guard was at the window of my vehicle in about 3-seconds and another one was on the passenger side. I was trying to gather what I would need to make a quick repair as the guard in his dark camouflage, full length, overcoat tapped on the window. I rolled it down knowing to do so would mean being drenched as the rain was falling in bucket form and blowing in the direction of my window. That was completely irrelevant at the moment. The choice of wet or dead was really not a choice so down the window went.
The guard emphatically demanded, “You must move the car.”
“I understand sir, but it won’t start, I need to fix something,” I said. Meanwhile, over my shoulder, I hear Holly say, “Well I’m not just sitting here we can just walk to the gate and go on in. You can figure this out.” Jana agreed, and they opened their doors and got out in the downpour. The security on that side of the car looked at them like they were nuts and didn’t say a word as they walked to the gate in their heels and business attire toward the only remaining visible guard. Their exit made me a bit nervous as I was afraid it would agitate an already nervous group of men with machine guns with orders to not allow anyone to park a vehicle along the fence in front of the PM’s office.
I started opening my door when the guard pressed back against it asking me what I was doing. I informed him that I needed to get out to repair the car. His immediate retort was, “move the car, now!” I gently responded, “Sir, that is what I’m doing, I’m going to open the hood. Repair the problem, and move the car.” He looked at me completely baffled but stepped back enough that I could open the door. As I stepped out into the downpour in my suit he asked, “Are you a technician?” “No sir, but I can fix the problem.” He looked even more baffled as he stood there with his AK hanging off his shoulder but now aimed at my hip. I slid off my wet black suit coat and tossed it into the car. The guard did not move from my path to the front of the vehicle so I very slowly worked my way around him with my hands and arms away from my sides. I carried only a single black and yellow handled screwdriver I’d had since college in one hand and a 3/16-inch Stanley box wrench in the other.
Before the five seconds it took me to get around him to the front of the car in slow motion I was already dripping wet. No dry spot remained on my white shirt and black tie dotted with tiny crosses. Water was pouring off my nose but I didn’t dare move my arms in toward my body. I kept my right hand and screwdriver visible and away from the car as I reached under the hood with my left hand and released the hood lifting it open. I knew I was going to have to lean over the vehicle and doing so with my tie on was going to be problematic so I thought about taking it off and handing it to one of the guards, but thought better of it since they both had their automatic weapons pointed at me.
I made the long reach to the middle of the engine unscrewing the top of the air filter to access the carburetor. I removed the tiny nut and sat it on the battery with the wrench as the guard opposite me looked on like he was watching magic. I couldn’t see the guard behind me but could feel him over the shoulder and notice the guard who had remained at the gate was working his way over now to observe the Muzungu in a suit performing the job of a technician. You see, in Rwanda, there is a significant division of labor as almost no one does anything beyond the specific task of their job. The fear that someone will take their job prevents most teaching others. It’s a form of job security that significantly holds the nation back. That reality said to those men that there was no way I could be there to see a cabinet minister and be a technician which is only part of the reason I did not say “yes” when being asked if I was a technician.
After removing the top of the air filter, I took my screwdriver that I had rested between the radiator and fan belt guard and propped open the carburetor throttle. I never knew exactly why this worked but had seen my dad do it numerous times in getting different cars started with the problem I was having. I’d been doing this off and on for a few weeks so I was quite used to the process at this point. I started back to the driver’s seat and the guard closest to me asked, “where are you going?” I responded, “To start the car.” He looked at me completely puzzled and said, “You forgot your spanner (screwdriver).” I got in the driver’s seat and thankfully the car started immediately. I stepped back out in the rain that had not let up to reverse my steps.
This time I noticed that all three guards had lowered their weapons and looked at me like I was some kind of god or some kind of nut case. I believed the former since the guns were no longer aimed at me. Sitting in a pool of water, dripping like a gutter spout, I pulled up to the gate. One of the guards rolled his mirror around the base of the vehicle, another opened the gate and I drove through. At this point, it was as if my clothes had finished the wash cycle in a washing machine but stopped before spin so I decided to just sit in the car like a dozen or so other drivers sitting in the same parking lot. Now I had secured my status with these three guards as both driver and technician (auto mechanic) which neither one made any sense for a middle-aged white man in a suit in Rwanda coming to the office of the Prime Minister and Ministry of Gender and Family.
If this was the end of such an experience I would not have been in Rwanda as I seemed to find myself in odd situations on many occasions. Part of this was that it was a different culture. Part of it was that I was a minority. Part of it was that I did a lot of things outside the expected norm. Whatever the case, I was thankful for life experience growing up that had prepared me to manage unusual and challenging situations. This was just the beginning of similar challenge…