Cooking Steak Using a VW Camper

The garage, Pakwach.

Douglas Adams once complained that the Hollywood process of producing a film was “like trying to cook a steak by having a long line of people walk past and blow on it”. That is slightly how I felt on Thursday about the process of fixing a car as I stood in the oppressive, shoulder-sagging heat of Pakwach watching eight men watching one man trying to bodge a weld on the door of my campervan. The door is in a sorry state owing to the car’s previous incarnation as Uganda’s coolest matatu, but having given a generous five weeks and a not inconsiderable sum of money, I was angered to arrive in Pakwach to discover that the only thing which had concretely been done since my last visit was that a bench had been placed in the back of the car so it could be used as a chai parlour.

Count them. That's seven people fixing a windscreen wiper on to the car. Shortly after this shot it became clear the wiper was fixed wrongly, so it had to be removed and replaced.

This bus is the latest addition to my long line of idiotic vehicular decisions- the Honda H100 to commute in Welsh winters (have you ever tried to prise your frozen fingers off the handlebars after 1hr of chugging along in the ditch and being splashed by lorries? I have.), the rubber dinghy to go down the Dordogne (for the record, it coped pretty well despite the incident with the helicopter) and the milk truck across the Andes (driven by Jesus. Though he insisted on “Hey-Zeus”, we knew the truth). So it’s not as if I don’t have form in this department, but still I somehow persuaded myself that buying a campervan which was living out its last days as a shed in Pakwach was a good idea.

Sunset from the Pakwach bridge. Photographing from here is technically illegal and takes a lot of begging and an armed escort.

She’s a pig. Her front end is dished in from (and I quote) “being driven into a house in Panyimur” (the word “into” accompanied by a hand gesture which suggests the car didn’t just hit the wall and stop, it probably went right on in and disturbed supper). She used to be an ambulance once upon a time, and still has one frosted window to prove it. Since then, however, she has been a matatu serving the Kampala-Nebbi route back when it was a) decrepit and b) a warzone. I’m guessing she was driven fairly fast, judging by the bullet holes which are still visible on the houses along that road. Her backside was stamped with the words “Enjoy Me Again” in sky blue, but that was scratched off, probably around the time she ceased active service and became a storage space for damaged truck parts.

Back in her Matatu days

So we arrived in Pakwach on Wednesday afternoon after a journey which included 10 people in a 5-seater saloon to Kagadi, then a hitch from a very nice chap called Jimmy to Hoima, then declining offers of grasshoppers before a matatu to Masindi (which was of course overloaded. When they heard there were traffic police ahead they immediately flagged a boda boda and sent the offending extra body past the police by motorbike, picking him up afterwards). Breakfast in Masindi was chased by a bumpy ride to Kigumba in another matatu, full of Acholi laughter at the two mono (whites) courtesy of some students riding back from school. From Kigumba to Pakwach we chose good old GaaGaa coaches, a coach company which always amazes me because of the sheer girth of its on-board mosquitoes. These little swine sleep in the curtains, emerging to suckle on the calf muscles of patrons, and fly lazily as they try to cope with the surfeit of food.

Bagged grasshoppers for sale in Hoima

Pakwach was, predictably, utterly boiling. It’s a small town entirely structured along the road which passes from Karuma to Arua and on to Koboko and Sudan, and it makes a small living from the trade which stops to buy roasted meat before the final dash for the border. Somehow it exists in a bewitched pocket where the air never moves unless disturbed by a mosquito. The storms which boil out of Amuru, full of fury, sight the rail bridge which is the only route into town from the East and turn tail and flee. In the evenings elephants wander out of Murchison park to come and wallow in the luxurious muddy swamps beside the Nile, but aside from them there is precious little in the way of distractions. However my campervan was in this town, so visit I must. We went to see the car in the late afternoon, and after seeing the lack of work done I left an angry little list of jobs but returned in the morning to find them untouched. We stayed the night in Comfort Guest House, whose slogan is “enjoy a night with comfort’, but it appears comfort is a euphemism for bed bugs.

Boys paddle out to fish below the bridge at Pakwach.

The only solution seemed to be to sit and physically supervise the work, to prevent the man who was supposed to be fixing the brakes from wandering off to try his hand at panel beating or window washing. First it would be ready by 11, then 1, then finally at three I lost my temper, desperate to salvage my poor car’s corpse and the remains of my day. We demanded a mechanic accompany us to Kampala, which the garage grudgingly allowed, giving us a cheerful man named Moses whose sunny disposition was rapidly dispersed by my frustrations. I drove the car out of Pakwach, stalling it in front of a giggling policeman. The steering was loose and the car moved like a yacht, and the brakes needed two pumps to get a response. But I needed that car away from that town, so we had little choice. The idling was set too low, so the car (with no starter mechanism, of course) stalled every time it approached speed bumps. We were stopped by police first on the Karuma road, a small stop which cost 10,000 shillings. Tired of Moses giving me driving tips to cover for the fact that it was his shoddy work making the driving difficult, I told him to drive.

On the road near Kigumba

The rest of the journey was a bit of a blur. We ate chapatis and beef, paid bribes to three other roadblocks, fuelled in Kigumba and made it to Kampala mercifully late along roads which were less busy than I had feared. The engine has a satisfying roar which soon becomes a brain-rattling white noise when combined with the shaky windows and the temporary fix on the door. I lost my temper with a policeman somewhere in that void between Kafu and Nakasangola, but thankfully he had a sense of humour and let us pass for free, possibly sensing how close to collapse I was. The accelerator cable snapped outside Luwero, and the clutch cable snapped in Ndeba. We bodged fixes on both using wire, and I pushed it up a hill at one point using muscles which I had forgotten all about, but the car is now in a garage owned by a man who knows Volkswagens well and who I hope will do as good a job on mine as he has on his own.

Fred takes a look at my bus's guts, Ndeba, Kampala.

What I am slightly deliberately overlooking in this whole tragicomic tale is the joy with which the car is greeted by everybody. Children chase it, matatu callers hang out of windows to gawp and point, and even the grasping policemen chuckle and joke as they pull it over. It’s a strange car, a thundering noise pushing a happy face with a drivers seat positioned so that driving feels dignified. It distracts the women from their bundles of firewood and makes the men look up from their communal pots of brew. The journey might have been an approximation of hell, but it feels entirely worth it now. At the end of quite a saga I hope never to have to repeat, I now at least own a camper in a useful place, if not a useful state. Updates will follow.


About Muzungu

I’m a Uganda-based freelance photographer (and occasional writer) working for a broad range of clients including NGOs, newspapers and magazines and development agencies. My work has taken me across East Africa, South America and Europe, and previous clients include USAID, the World Bank and the East African. I also work on personal documentary projects in my spare time. If you’d like to hire me or to know more, please feel free to get in touch.
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6 Responses to Cooking Steak Using a VW Camper

  1. tumwijuke says:

    If that van could speak …

  2. Barney says:

    That last paragraph, it’s because it’s too ancient even for Africa. I last saw such a car in active service way back in 1996, when I was in second grade in Jinja. And even then, they were a curiosity not only because of their design, but the wooden benches in the back.

    Great blog this is.

  3. Dilly says:

    Will, this is an absolute joy to read! (sorry about all the trouble, but that’s what makes such a piece of writing) xxd

  4. okecha hadad says:

    One thing for sure this was bought from my Uncle, and the garage were it was first fixed in Pakwach also belong to one of my uncles called Yusuf.

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