Mechanical Pitfalls: What to avoid while driving in Uganda
a car in Uganda can drive you round the bend.

Mechanical Pitfalls: What to avoid while driving in Uganda

With Uganda's multitude and increasing size of potholes, an average driver finds him/herself executing no less than a dozen emergency stops a day.

By Ivan Kibuka-Kiguli
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First published: May 30, 2008

Are you a motor vehicle owner in Uganda or do you hope to hire one on your holiday there? If you are the type who love driving but hate knowing what is going on underneath the hood (bonnet) of the car, it is time you sat up and paid attention. If you do not wish to end up stuck in Mabira forest in the middle of the night or are tired of spending money on unending series of car malfunctions, I am willing to share with you a few tips. Do not be mistaken. I am no mechanic or expert. I am only letting on what I have learnt/ been told by trustworthy mechanics.

Where shall we start? With the tyres? Only buy car tyres from approved dealers/garages. This sounds like common sense but you will be surprised how many times some people (including yours truly) are tempted to buy used tyres just so they can pay less to get their cars back on the road. Used tyres may look okay buy may have fatal faults so small you cannot see them with a naked eye. You may pay less for such tyres but end paying more with your life. If you are fitting new tyres to your car, avoid shanty garages in Kiseka Market, Katwe, etc. The fellows there have been known to cut fresh treads into bald tyres and sell them off as usable, if not new (with the help of some black shoe polish, of course). Yes, there is all sorts of entrepreneurship in Uganda.

Do you want to take your car for regular servicing? Most local garages have a score of mechanics running around soliciting for work from potential motorists who approach their garages. In my experience, the quality of work you get from such garages depends a lot on how much you know about your car and how well you know and trust the mechanic that you regularly deal with. You therefore need to be on one-to-one terms with your mechanic (the relationship develops over a period, of course). However, be careful not to be taken for granted, which results in him starting to cheat you. You need to have a way of knowing that the type and cost of repairs he suggests are what your car needs. That is why it is important to know a few things about your car. Ensure that any spares are sourced from the right shops, are the exact ones fitted into the car and that their prices are right. If in doubt, shop around or seek a second opinion.

For brake parts, batteries, exhaust pipe components and the like, please follow the same advice as for the tyres. With Uganda's multitude and increasing size of potholes, an average driver finds him/herself executing no less than a dozen emergency stops a day. You need to be equipped well for this. A car with all round disk brakes, good tyres and ABS (anti-lock brake system) fares better than one without. Uganda is a 'Toyota country'. That is, more than 90% of the cars in Uganda were manufactured by Toyota in Japan. Avoid owning other car makes and even Toyota models manufactured outside Japan. They may look a little similar but actually share few spares. Non-Japanese manufactured Toyota models can therefore be as expensive to service/repair in Uganda as European and American models because few car part shop owners stock their spares. Try looking a steering rack for a Japanese-made 90s Toyota Corolla and compare how easily you find it to that for a Volkswagen Golf of the same age. You will understand what I am talking about.

To make a simple test to find out if your shock absorbers are still any good, simply push down on your bonnet (hood) several times when the car is parked. Release and observe. If the car spends more than around two seconds to stop bouncing, then your shock absorbers are gone. Sometimes, the shock absorbers are so bad that you feel the car going wonky while driving. Have a new set fitted but remember there are plenty of fakes being sold in Uganda.

Fancy fitting 'sport' or 'alloy' rims? Many Ugandans love to improve the looks of their cars by making them look sportier but beware. Not any set of sport rims is good for your car simply because it has the right number if holes for the bolts. The bolts and nuts that attach the wheel to your car are designed to do just that �" hold the wheels firmly on the car but not to carry the car's weight. Either purchase wheels made by your model's manufacturer or ensure that the end of the axle fits snuggly into the centre hole in the rim.

Avoid fitting 'after-factory' electrical equipment that is has heavy power consumption to your car. Music systems, fog lamps (called 'sport lights' by some), air conditioning units, etc fitted to a car after it leaves the manufacturer's factory are notorious for ruining the car's alternator (the unit that makes electricity for your car) and constantly running down your battery. Bling that can get you stuck in rural Uganda because of a flat battery is best left alone.

In short, note the following:

  1. Avoid simply handing your car keys to a valet, mechanic, etc. They can make copies while you are not looking and steal your car at their convenience.
  2. Try as much as possible, to inspect any mechanical/electrical work on your car while it is on-going rather than afterwards.
  3. Ask anything you do not know. Besides helping you to identify and avoid similar faults in future, it makes the mechanic/technician wary of trying to cheat you.
  4. Try to deal with mechanics/spare part distributors that you know. While it may not necessarily save you from being cheated, it may help when things go wrong with your car afterwards.
  5. Inquire from other drivers/vehicle owners in Uganda how they manage their cars. You never know what tips you may find.
  6. Avoid abusing your car. Abusing a vehicle may take any form �" overloading, over-speeding, poor servicing, poor pothole negotiating skills (you may need a PhD �" pothole driving qualification/experience to improove), etc.
  7. Learn to personally inspect your vehicle every morning or before a long trip. You may be able to spot anything out of the ordinary before it turns into a crisis.
  8. Try to vet your mechanic. Observe his clientele. You can always judge a person by the kind of company he keeps.

I wish you safe driving in Uganda. If your car breaks down, do not call me. I am not as smart about cars as you think. I am just another driver trying to survive on Uganda's pitiful roads.

By Ivan Kibuka-Kiguli
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First published: May 30, 2008
The author is a pollution control equipment engineer/consultant and a proud active member of UGPulse.