by Joseph Diedrich
The second, and last, spare tire blew out just before noon somewhere between Butembo and Beni. Ian and I were three days out of Rwanda, heading for Mutwanga, a town in northeastern Zaire near the Ugandan border. From Mutwanga we planned to climb the Ruwenzoris, The Mountains of the Moon. It was 1993, less than a year before the Rwanda genocide, when the Hutus massacred the Tutsis and the whole region fell apart and eight years before somebody with a wonderful sense of irony changed the name of Zaire to The Democratic Republic of the Congo.
We pulled over to the side of the road, the ruined tire flopping dismally, stopped under a tree, opened the back of the old Mitsubishi we had rented in Kigali. and lifted out the first spare — the one which had blown out an hour earlier. We laid it on the road and sat down on it to wait for someone to come along who would give us a lift to somewhere where we could get it fixed. We were on the main north-south highway in Eastern Zaire, which meant that a truck ought to come by every hour or so. When one did show up we wouldn’t have any trouble stopping it. What traffic there was on the Zaire highway moved at about ten miles an hour. Even at that speed we had ruined two tires that morning. That’s how bad the road was — if you could call it a road.
A few minutes later the first private car that we had seen since we left Rwanda appeared, coming down from the direction of Beni. As it came closer, picking its way from pothole to pothole, we saw that it was a new Land Rover, its shiny white paint gleaming in the sun. A white man in a white suit was sitting in the rear seat. An African man wearing a chauffeur’s cap was driving. A logo on the door disclosed that it was the property of an Evangelical missionary society.
Ian and I jumped up, waving and smiling, pointing to our ruined tire. The white man looked at us for a moment. Then he leaned forward and said something to the driver who then drove over to the far side of the road and slowly drove past. The white man stared straight ahead as they went by. Ian and I watched them bounce and weave down the road and out of sight.
‘Do you suppose he knew that I’m a Catholic?’ Ian wondered, resuming his place on the flat tire. I said something less charitable.
It was half an hour before the traffic grew heavy again. A second vehicle came in sight, this time approaching from the direction from which we had come. It turned out to be the second private car that we had seen in Zaire, this one a newer model of our stranded Mitsubishi. Once again an African man was driving, but this time he was the man in the white suit. It was our day for white suits.
He stopped, got out, and came over to where we were standing, hopefully, by our flat tire. He was a tall, slender man with acquiline features; almost certainly a Tutsi.
‘It looks like you have trouble,’ he remarked in perfect French. I explained the situation as best I could in my broken patois.
‘There is nowhere that you can get a tire repaired until you get to Beni,’ he said. ‘That’s at least three hours away, the way this road is, and it gets even worse up ahead. I’ll be happy to take you there, but it will be night before you can get your tire fixed and get back here. You don’t really want to leave your car out here after dark.’
‘One of us will stay with it.’
‘You don’t really want to do that either. Look, our cars are the same model, why don’t you take my spare wheel? Then you can drive to Beni and get yours fixed and return mine to me at the Beni Hotel. I’ll be staying there tonight.’ He handed me his business card. ‘Just ask for me at the desk.
They’ll know where to find me.’
Then he took the spare wheel off of the back of his car, gave it to us, and drove off up the road with a wave of his hand. He didn’t even ask our names. Ten minutes later we were happily bouncing up the road towards Beni, thinking nice thoughts about African men in white suits.
Twenty minutes later we crashed into a pothole the size of a bathtub and knocked the right rear wheel loose. The wheel swung backwards and upwards against the frame and things came to a screeching halt. Literally.
We crawled over to the side of the road, the tire squealing against whatever was keeping it from falling off altogether, and found a flat place to jack up the car. Then, without much hope, we crawled under it to look things over. Ian is a banker and I am a pilot, but we didn’t need to be mechanics to see what was the matter. The main bolt which held the whole wheel assembly together, a piece of steel as thick as my finger, was sheared off, the shackles which had held the leaves of the support spring together were broken and the leaves were fanned out like a hand of cards, and the driveshaft-axle had pivoted back so that the tire was up against the top rear of the wheel well. The wheel itself was cocked out at a thirty degree angle. We weren’t going anywhere. We needed a repair shop and a good one and a tow truck to drag us there. The chances of finding either where we were, were about as likely as finding a polar bear in the grass hut across the road.
Instead, a woman walked out of the grass hut and brought us a ripe pineapple. It wasn’t what we needed, but it helped a little.
‘We ought to take off that fellow’s wheel and see if we can send it to him in Beni.’ Ian suggested. ‘We sure as Hell aren’t going to get there tonight.’
We took the wheel off and leaned it against a tree. Then we sat in the dirt beside our broken car and ate the pineapple the woman had brought us and waited for someone to come along, or for something to happen, whichever came first.
A preternatural calm settled upon the Zairean north-south highway that afternoon. Except for a few citizens on foot or on bicycles, all of whom stopped to have a look and make comments in the local language, the road was deserted. Then, just before four, the rumble of a large truck could be heard in the north. Presently, it lumbered around a bend under some mango trees and waddled towards us, a battered old six wheeler, loaded with coils of rope, a crowd of riders hanging on to the top and sides for dear life as it lurched along. Zairean trucks always carry a crowd of riders. In most of the country they are the only means of transport.
The truck was coming from the direction of Beni so we didn’t try to stop it to see if it would take the man in the white suit’s spare wheel back to him, but it stopped anyway when the driver saw our broken car jacked up by the side of the road.
The Zairean driver climbed down from the cab and walked over to us, smiling. He was short and stocky with a splayed nose and bushy hair; almost certainly a Hutu. He was carrying a crescent wrench. He might have been anywhere between thirty and fifty.
He spoke some broken French, which put him on a par with me, so we were able to establish basic communications. His name was Citizen Mulenge. I introduced myself and introduced Ian and we all shook hands. Then Citizen Mulenge turned around and crawled under our car.
He stayed under there for some time. We could hear him banging on things with his wrench. Then he crawled out, went over to his truck, and said something to the cluster of riders, who all climbed down, walked over to have a look, smiled at us, and then settled down under a tree in front of the grass hut. The woman came out with some more pineapples.
‘Maybe we can fix it,’ Mulenge said, coming over to us. ‘You, Monsieur Joseph, can help me. None of them’ he waved a disdainful hand at his passengers squatting under the tree, ‘none of them know anything.’
We used a jack from his truck to lift our car higher and Mulenge and I crawled underneath. Mostly, I just passed along the tools that he called for as he needed them. I translated what he wanted as best I could and Ian fished it out of the truck’s toolbox. Somehow or other, we got it right most of the time.
After three hours Mulenge had removed and reassembled the support spring He had improvised a way to replace the broken clamps. He had put the wheel and drive axle back into place and, after a lengthy search, he had located a bolt on his truck, a thing connecting part of the rear bumper to the frame, that he could safely cannibalize and put in place of the one we had broken. That was the essential find. We had to have that bolt. Without it our car could not have been driven.
Of course we couldn’t get the damned thing off. It was down in sort of a cul de sac and it needed a special wrench to get at it. Mulenge didn’t have one. He would see if he could borrow one from another truck, he said. There was nothing we could do except to wait for one to show up.
It was getting dark so we went over to join the passengers who were eating something the woman from the grass hut had brought out. It was a kind of corn stew with bits of chicken in it and it tasted great. While Mulenge and I had been under the Mitsubishi a man had come by with some beer which Ian had bought and handed around. The passengers had built a little fire and there was a lot of talk and laughter. Nobody complained about the delay.
After a while a truck came along. The driver didn’t have the wrench we needed, but he stopped anyway and everybody got out, either to join the party or to see if they could help, or maybe both.
The next truck didn’t have one either, but the third one did. It was now almost eight o’clock and really dark. I held a flashlight while Citizen Mulenge took the bolt off his truck. It didn’t want to come, but with a lot of hammering and grunting and African profanity he finally got it out. Then we crawled back under our car and I held a flashlight while he tried to put the bolt in.
It didn’t want to go. The hole was too small. We would have to find a round file and ream it out before the bolt would fit. Mulenge didn’t have a round file and the truck which had provided the needed wrench didn’t have one, but the second truck, the one that had stopped just to see if it could be of any help, did.
At ten o’clock, when our last flashlight batteries were dying, Mulenge finally got the thing in. We lowered the car back onto the road and Ian tried it out, moving gingerly back and forth. It worked. Cheers went up from the assembled crowd of drivers and passengers. Mulenge was the hero of the day.
I tried to give him some money but he wouldn’t take any. Drivers always help other drivers who are in trouble, he said. Nobody expects to be paid.
We shook hands all around. Then Citizen Mulenge and the other African drivers started up their trucks, the crowd of passengers resumed their perches, and they all drove off. Everyone was waving. It had taken them more than six hours at the side of the road to put our car back together again.
Ian and I headed, carefully, up the Zaire highway to Beni and Mutwanga and The Mountains of the Moon.
I have thought about it often since then: how the Hutus butchered the Tutsis in Rwanda and how the surviving Tutsis came back out of Uganda and chased out the Hutus and then followed them across the border into Zaire-Congo where the fighting between the tribes is still going on.
I think about the Tutsi businessman in the white suit who lent us his spare wheel without a second thought because we needed it, and I think about Citizen Mulenge, the Hutu truck driver who spent six hours fixing our broken car because people help other people who are in trouble. And then I don’t know what to think.
I have been wandering around the world for fifty years. Most people, in my experience, are friendly and helpful and decent, whatever their color, whatever their religion, wherever they live. What I never have been able to figure out is why we all allow so many utter bastards to get into power and screw everything up.
Joseph Diedrich is a retired Pan Am pilot who spends his time traveling, sailing, trekking, and “messing about.” He and his wife live in Mallorca, Spain.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.