The Ugly Duckling

I thought Mats was joking in the email he sent me, while I was out on mission. ‘It finally has been put out of its misery, Peter.’, he said, ‘It is done now. Its suffering has ended. Your Landrover is no more.. A wall fell on it.’

I looked at the pictures showing how the seven meter tall wall surrounding our office parking had collapsed. My car was covered with tons of rubble. I could barely see part of the side window and a tire sticking out.

The guys in the Kampala office always took the piss out of my Landrover. They said the car could only make it from the workshop to home and would then break down. “As your house is up a hill, you do not need the engine to come down anyway”, they joked, “Just release the hand break – correction, that does not work anyway -,so pull the stone from underneath the wheel – and let it run off the hill until you reach the workshop. You let them work on it for a day, and in the evening you can make it up the hill again!” They exaggerated a bit, though… It was not that bad! Most of the time, I could make it home twice without a repair pit stop! The funny thing was, as they repaired one thing, something else broke. I suspected they used my car for spare parts. Or took out a working piece, only to put it back again once I returned the car the next day, charging me an arm and a leg for the work done.. The fuel tank always showed ‘empty’ when I picked up the car also. And my light bulbs would disappear.

The car was a challenge, I have to admit. I bought it second hand. Well, fifth-hand was more like it. It was a dirt-blue, 10 year old short-wheel base Landrover 90. It looked sturdy and quite macho with its squared shape and minimum of comfort. The seats were a sheet of plywood covered with foam filled pleather, which always glued to my legs in the heat. There were no electronic car accessories and those few electrical features like the headlights or the windscreen wipers were controlled by sturdy handles, not touch buttons. The gas and break pedals squealed like a piglet readied for the slaughterhouse. I had to refill the brake fluid every other day. I had a spare gas tank installed, as the car consumed so much fuel I had to stop by the gas station every three days. To get the fuel from the spare to the main tank, I had to switch on an electric pump which I think they got from a washing machine. Well, at least the noise resembled that of a washing machine.

The boys and their toys.. I had always dreamed of owning a Landrover. Something to do with the pictures from the Camel Trophy. I often thought of the Camel Trophy, driving around in Kampala with roads flooded from a rain squall and water almost reaching into the cabin. Most of the time I had to take off my shoes and roll up my trousers when driving during the rainy season. Negotiating my way up and down the hill to reach home was no less of a challenge. I did not want to spend money to replace the old tires, which had no more grip - I needed all my money for the mechanical repair anyway. This made driving in the lowest gear, skidding left and right in the slippery mud, in between potholes and ditches the rain had cut through the steep mud track up ‘our hill’, certainly resembled a Camel Trophy challenge. I was always glad I made it home in one piece. You might not believe it, but I always actually looked forward to the adventure of driving home in the evening. Like arriving home in the evening was an achievement.

When Tine joined me in Kampala and saw the car for the first time, she laughed and called it ‘our ugly duckling’. She needed a car as there was not one shop to buy everything that keeps a household running. Even just the food, we would have to buy from different shops, spread all over town. Often the wives of the expats would call each other with the latest shopping news.. ‘You know near Nakasero, there is a small shop on the corner where they had French cheese yesterday.’ or ‘Remember the butcher in Kabalagala? They start selling packed lamb chops as of next week!’. ‘Fresh yoghurt at the Star supermarket near the matatu station today!’. So Tine got the Landrover. I admired her, six months pregnant and racing around town, from shop to shop. She said it took a bit of planning to find a parking spot facing down hill, so she could jump start the car in second gear, as the battery was dead most of the time. She explained in certain flat areas of town, the kids would recognize her – and the car – and hang around until she got out of the shop, as they knew she would ask them to push-start the car. Tine would always give them some change when they helped her.

At first Lana, two years old then, did not like the Landrover. Having only front seats, we had to fix her baby seat with straps and ropes in the back. But each trip we did, she would cry her heart out. We could never figure out what was wrong, until we noticed she always tried to get up to look through the windows while her shoulder straps would keep her down. So we raise the baby seat by strapping it onto two big aluminum packing crates. Then she was happy. As the car would bounce around over the unpaved roads, we had to fix the seat real well with straps and buckles. It looked a bit like a pilot’s jump seat in a fighter plane. Our two year old in her jump seat…

My Landrover was not only famous for its mechanical problems. I never got its paperwork fixed either. First it took me a year to get the registration papers from the previous owner who had left the country. To get the car officially transferred to me, it had to go through inspection. The official inspection shop was not much more than a shack with a huge pit dug in the ground, and a guy holding out his hand asking for ‘Pesa’ (‘Money’). I always refused to give bribes and would answer him ‘Hakuna pesa’ (‘No money’). So my car never made it through inspection, even though it was in much better shape than the thousands of wrecks driving around in town…

And now the wall killed my car. Finally, the car was put out of its misery. I thought…! However, Edward, the landlord of our office building, felt so guilty about his wall falling on my car, he paid for the repair, in an ultimate attempt to revive it. Call it car-CPR ! The axles and chassis were still ok, it just needed ‘a bit’ of body work. He paid a ‘body work shop’ – another shack with a pit in the ground, to bang out all the dents and put in new windows. To top it all off, he had the car spray painted so it looked better than it ever did before. We towed my Landrover from the body work shop and left it parked in front of the office, as the body work had not solved its engine problems… If it was a human being, we could say, it was kept alive artificially, but could not live without external help…

To be honest with you, I almost gave up on our ugly duckling, by the time I got reassigned to Kosovo and had to sell off all of our belongings. Fred, one of our local technicians, bought the car for about a tenth of what I paid for it. That was not including all the repairs. Months later, my teasing colleagues wrote to me, a modern age miracle had happened: Fred had put a new engine in the Landrover, got the car registered in his name, and the ‘ugly duckling’ was now on the road again. Guess miracles do happen. On the other hand, probably it took a miracle to keep the old Landrover on the road in Uganda. With a bit of bribing. Or maybe it is just the patience needed to sit next to the car as it is being repaired to make sure they don’t steal parts of your engine, siphon off your fuel and run off with your light bulbs…

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Anonymous,  01 February, 2007 14:13  

:-) well the landlord was perhaps feeling guilty but I also remember someone chasing him down nicely advicing him that the landrover would be chained to his gate unless he fixed it :-)



Peter 01 February, 2007 14:17  

Hahahaha... Yeah, now that you mention it.. I forgot that part..! :-)))


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