Stranded in West Africa with a dead Peu­geot, a lit­tle French, and, for­tu­nately, a set of span­ners.

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Skills - BY DAVID BRAN­CAC­CIO

MY MOTHER SAID ev­ery adult should be able to make a quick pasta mari­nara. I would add one more es­sen­tial skill: know­ing how to wield a span­ner.

Af­ter a se­mes­ter abroad in Ghana, another stu­dent and I got it into our heads to drive to Tim­buktu. We teamed up with a guy who owned a well­worn Peu­geot 504, a sedan with a skid plate beneath it for light of­froad­ing. I’m not sure we un­der­stood the scale of our trip. Three days got us to the right coun­try, Mali, but not to Tim­buktu since the sand was too deep for two- wheel drive. We had to turn around.

Headed south in Togo, just past a sign warn­ing of cross­ing ele­phants, the nee­dle in the Peu­geot’s volt­meter wob­bled, then sagged to­wards zero. The en­gine be­gan to mis­fire, so I tried to get us to the top of the next hill. That way, if we had to push-start the man­ual trans­mis­sion, at least we were point­ing down­hill. We got to the peak just as the en­gine cut out for good. I popped the hood. Di­ag­no­sis: a bad al­ter­na­tor.

Luck­ily, I had my span­ners – met­ric box-end beau­ties I’d packed just in case. Al­ter­na­tor in hand, I hitch­hiked the 20 km back to the town of Sokodé, where, as luck would have it, there was a Peu­geot deal­er­ship. Once there I used my slim French and ro­bust pan­tomime skills to con­vey my prob­lem. The parts guy had a new al­ter­na­tor in stock. Per­fect. Ex­cept for the price: the equiv­a­lent of R10 000. I asked about a used part. He pointed across the street to a man he called “the fit­ter”.

The fit­ter was a pipe-fit­ter, a black­smith, and a me­chanic. Bare­foot, stand­ing by an anvil next to an open fire, he in­spected my dead al­ter­na­tor.

“Id­iot!” he ex­claimed us­ing the French pro­nun­ci­a­tion with the ac­cent on the last syl­la­ble. “You’re right, I’m an id­iot,” I said. “Id­iot!” he said again, this time with more en­thu­si­asm.

Only then did I re­alise he was not call­ing me an id­iot. He was us­ing the French pro­nun­ci­a­tion of “diode,” DEE-YODE. Al­ter­na­tors have diodes to keep the cur­rent pass­ing in the right direc­tion. It was my diode that had failed, not the en­tire al­ter­na­tor. Back at the dealer, a new diode was just R100.

I hitched back to the stranded car and with my cher­ished span­ner, bolted the al­ter­na­tor back in. Ig­ni­tion on, se­cond gear, clutch in, we started rolling down the hill. I popped the clutch and the Peu­geot’s en­gine sprung to life. The win­ter that had clouded my fel­low stu­dent’s face when the car broke turned to spring, then sum­mer, as she watched the volt­meter rise from the dead.

We were able to make Togo’s cap­i­tal of Lomé by night­fall, and ad­ja­cent Ghana the next day. The tim­ing turned out to be crit­i­cal. Our first night back, a fac­tion of the Ghana­ian mil­i­tary staged a coup, de­posed their pres­i­dent, and closed off the borders. With­out my ninja moves with that span­ner, we would have been stranded on the wrong side of the bor­der try­ing to raise money for food and shel­ter by auc­tion­ing off a dead Peu­geot. PM

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