engine trouble

Bad motoring start…

We settled down in our house and gradually started to discover Lusaka and its ways. Of course, walking in the city was not advised as there was a high risk of getting mugged. In view of the situation, a car was a must and we needed it fast. Renting a car was not common those days so we relied on “borrowing” a small project vehicle to do our necessary errands.

Northmead, a small shopping centre was quite close to our house and there we did most of our shopping at first. Although safe, we learnt to be very alert of our surroundings while parking at shopping malls as we heard a lot of stories about robbers lurking about. Soon, Mabel discovered other shopping options in both Woodlands and Kabulonga that we started to frequent as well.

At first, goods supply was erratic and poor. Although amusing in retrospect, it was not so when you faced it. A supermarket would have half of its shelves full of one make of toilet paper and the other half with rice while another one will be full of salt, toothpaste and cooking fat and so on. Sugar was impossible to get and people would drive to Mazabuka (Southern Province) to buy it in bulk from the sugar factory located there and then sell it at a high price in the open market or pass it on to friends.  

Because of the situation people were organized in groups whose members placed orders and took turns to do the shopping for the various items and then they would meet at a house and distributed the shopping. A cumbersome but effective system that also worked for meat and its sub-products such as ham and bacon that were obtained at a farm in Chilanga.

Fruits and vegetables were on offer at markets where people from different farms would be offering all sorts of produce, including milk and eggs that complemented the production from the small livestock kept in the houses. These markets were mostly operating on Saturdays and they were a great source of information about what was going on in the city.

So, although with more difficulties than usual, we managed to get by and, luckily, the situation started to get more normal after a few months of being in the country.

Clearly, a car was essential. After having a Land Cruiser in Ethiopia, we decided to go for a larger version: a long-wheel base hardtop, economic and resilient as well as roomy to carry our rubber dinghy, its engine and other needed items for our planned camping and fishing. A large car was a great decision as our family would start growing that same year and we planned to take our children with us at all times, regardless of their age.

Our new car on safari. Mabel and Florencia riding on the roofrack and Annie (our nanny) inside the car while Giuseppe looks on.

Buying a car in Zambia was not as simple as you may think. There was no internet and faxes were the new thing at the time, so you did not have the present-day advantage of buying online! At the time, although there were a few places that offered cars to be delivered fast, these were either of the wrong make or very expensive, so we did not pursue these options.

As in Ethiopia, we decided to place an order through the United Nations (UN) goods procurement agency. This process had advantages and disadvantages. Drawbacks included a three-month waiting time and the limited model choice together with the rather austere specifications of the UN vehicles [1]. This did not bother us but the low price that the UN was able to negotiate was too good to be ignored.

Zambia was still not trading with South Africa, so Durban was out of bounds. The same applied to Walvis Bay as negotiations for the independence of Namibia, that finally got its independence in March 1990, were not yet completed. Mozambique was still undergoing its civil war so both Maputo and Beira were not available! So, the car would arrive in Dar es Salaam, over 1,900 km North-east, a journey of about three days. Luckily, the system for such purchases was already in place as most vehicles imported into Lusaka (both official and private) would come through there.

After the three long months had passed, I got a fax announcing the date the car was due in Dar and from that time things started to move fast. I contacted the FAO Office where I was put in contact with Mr. Victor, the Senior driver, who would be in charge of bringing our car to Lusaka. He would fly to Dar with all the necessary documents, the needed cash and a hotel booking to be able to clear the car and drive it all the way back. Of course, I was to meet all expenses.

I took Victor to the airport and we agreed that he would let me know his arrival time in Lusaka so that I could meet him at home without stopping in Lusaka. This was an added precaution in view of the recent disappearance of a number of new vehicles from various international agencies.

The vehicles were somehow placed in containers and shipped by road to South Africa through what was some organized system that the Zambian authorities of the time could not (or wish not) stop. Interestingly, periodically, the South African police would recover some vehicles and the lists would be distributed among the various international agencies based in Lusaka, but I do not remember of any vehicle listed in them ever returned!

The day of the arrival of the car I stayed home to meet Victor, excited to be getting a new car. I heard the hooting at the entrance, and I was at the gate before Mr. Lemek (the gardener) could open it! It looked like a great car, so I followed it to the house parking area where I met a tired looking Victor and saw that the windscreen was cracked!

Trying to dissimulate my disappointment, I greeted him warmly but I could see that he was very worried and immediately started to apologize. I cut him short and told him that the journey had been very long, and he could not control where the loose stones present on the road would hit the car. Despite my remarks, he still looked very worried. It was then that I heard Mr. Victor saying “Sir, it also has a knock in the engine”. “What?”, I muttered, as if hit on the head with a hammer! He explained that he heard the noise from the first time that the engine started but he did not know what caused it. Again, aware that it was not his fault, I tried to minimize the problem while helping him to collect his belongings. I took Victor home and, honestly, my mind was racing on what to do next!

As soon as I came back, I started the car but I could not hear anything, so I tried to convince myself that it was not a serious issue. However, I phoned Toyota Zambia and they told me to bring it the following morning for them to inspect it. They also warned me that it would be difficult that they would accept liability for the problem as it had happened to a car that was not purchased through them. Additionally, they stated that the issue started in another country! A guarded reply that left me quite worried!

The following day I was at Toyota Zambia before it opened! Eventually I met Phillip (Phil), the Workshop Manager to who I explained my predicament. Luckily, he was a very reasonable man, so I started to feel better. He immediately brought the car to the workshop and tested the engine confirming that there was some abnormal engine noise. More checks made him suspicious of piston damage that would require opening the engine. My mood was somber again.

He must have seen my disappointment as he was quick to add that, after repairs the engine would still be as good as new adding that that engine was among the best engines Toyota ever made. He added that, before opening it, he would report the issue to his boss, the Toyota representative, and hoped that he would agree to do the work under the guarantee. However, Phil could not give me a positive answer until then.

I left the car at the workshop and waited for news while continuing with my project activities but still worried about the car. I waited for two days before Phil called and said that he had bad and good news. The latter was that the representative had agreed to cover all needed repairs under the guarantee. The bad news were that he had already opened the engine and the repair involved replacing a piston and other parts that I did not get. He also asked me to go to the workshop when I had time.

I dropped everything and went straight there. Phil showed me and explained what had happened. Trying to simplify things, the top ring in one of the pistons was “gapped too small”. Then, the heat of the engine caused its expansion and its ends run into each other. The ring pressure became too much for the cylinder and, with more heat, cooling was not sufficient and the piston head broke! Luckily, Phil said, he could find no damage to the inside of the cylinder. It was, he said, “a clear manufacturer error”.

The needed cylinders, valves and other smaller bits and pieces were ordered that same day and, amazingly, these were in Lusaka a few days later and the car was soon repaired and it run well for as long as we had it.

The phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” was true in this occasion as in many others. I got to know Phil and, later on, his wife Rosemary.  Phil retired a few months after I got my car back, but we kept our friendship alive until we left Zambia in 1993.

They lived in a lovely house in Woodlands extension, a leafy suburb a few kilometres from us where we spent a couple of afternoons watching his lovely fishpond that snaked through the garden adding a touch of colour from the koi and gold fish it had, an attractive feature for humans and cats alike. Rosemary and Phil kept several cats that were the children they did not have.

Depending on the weather we would sit in the verandah or on the lawn having a cup of tea with the traditional British scones. Rosemary served the tea and then sat at the piano to play classical music in a very British setting. The only difference was the good weather of Lusaka that, for me, made all the difference.

During his spare time with Toyota and more fully after retiring Phil repaired firearms, mainly from hunter friends and he had a well-equipped workshop. While visiting it Phil proudly showed me his patented invention: an ingenious adjustable chain wrench to remove any kind of oil and diesel filters. He was pleased that these were selling well.

He had also fitted his “bakkie” (pick-up) with another of his creations, a strong metal plate that would lock over the three pedals covering them completely making driving the vehicle impossible without removing it. I found the contraption an overkill and I teased him about it but he swore by it so, still learning about security in Zambia my jokes stopped!

Their kindness to cats was such that they were delighted to accept our offer of leaving the now quite elderlyTigger with them when we we left our elderly Tigger with them when we departed from Zambia [2]. We got frequent updates of our cat’s life until it died a couple of years later.

Rosemary and Phil moved back to the UK a few years after our own departure. Sadly, Rosemary passed away soon afterwards, but Phil managed to somehow adjust to the loss and to England. We kept in touch and we had the great pleasure of hosting him a few years later while we were living in Rome when we reminisced of our time in Zambia like two members of the “Whenwe” ethnic group [3].

[1] As an example, to get an air-conditioned car you required a strong justification endorsed by your country representative!

[2] Inky, our Siamese, had died earlier of kidney failure despite my efforts to keep her alive.

[3] People often start talking saying “When we were in Africa…” so, jokingly they (us included) are referred as “Whenwes”.