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