You Want Guacamole With Your Tune-Up?

Early morning in Remera

Tradition and protocol are important aspects of life in a foreign country. Do’s and don’ts, can and can’ts, accepting – or at least respecting – the different ways of doing things in these parts. And so it was that I spent a morning learning the intricate steps involved in getting an oil change in Rwanda this week:

  • First of all, agree on a meeting spot where you can rendezvous with the mechanic you’ve had recommended by someone you trust. Since there are no reliable street names in Kigali, all navigation is by agreed-upon landmarks, and the “easiest” way to connect with someone is to play phone tag until you’re within waving distance of one another. Follow your new best friend through a maze of potholed dirt side streets to the unmarked yard behind his parents’ house, where he has set up his work shop.
  • Proceed to carefully remove the ripe avocados from the work shop floor. They are being shaken from a massive tree by one of the mechanic’s assistants, evidently short a car to work on and opting for a little farming in his down time. Getting the massive fruits out of the way allows you to pull your car up under the old UNHCR tarp strung between two poles with frayed extension cords, and that in turn allows the mechanic to pop the hood and start working in spite of the torrential downpour that is turning most of the lot into mud. 
  • Hand the mechanic the equivalent of about 20 bucks, so he can send his barefoot assistant (no, not the guy who is still up in the tree shaking down avocados; the other one) out to the nearby market to buy the required liters of new motor oil. Inventory control takes on a whole new meaning around here — nobody keeps even the most basic stuff in stock, and most service providers have little if anything in the way of liquidity or credit. So merchants simply buy the materials they need when the order is placed, using the customer’s cash to do so.
  • As the old oil drains off, you may take note of the absence of drums marked “waste” and consider where Mr. Mechanic and his crack squad might “recycle” the nasty, sticky mess that is congealing in a plastic tub beneath your car.
  • Help the mechanic’s assistant hold the improvised funnel in place over the engine while he carefully pours in the fresh motor oil. Start engine, then thank the mechanic profusely, and promise to return in a few thousand miles’ time to do it all over again.
  • At last, hope like hell that you remembered the complicated sequence of turns you took coming in so that you can find your way back out of the back alley maze without embarrassing your sorry white self too much in the eyes of the locals.

It all makes an interesting change from simply pulling up at Midas and watching recaps of Monday night football on the big screen in the waiting room while sipping awful coffee for half an hour.