Monday, 21 March 2011

The car saga

Public transport (i.e. taking overcrowded commuter buses) or walking (i.e. for miles under the sun) are not options in Zim if you want to go anywhere quickly, especially with two small children. So owning a vehicle is top priority. Sick of crying over the absence our superb but useless Honda CRV parked at some warehouse in the London suburbs, we decided to buy a vehicle locally and splash a bit more of our savings on yet another 4x4 - I don't want to hear about carbon footprint here - just like that! Just like that. This is an account of the path we followed to get (nearly) there:

Ben called on the help of Chenjerai, a very knowledgeable car mechanic friendly to Tearfund who had given excellent advice on a few purchases. They toured dozens of car dealers over a period of about three days, with disappointing results.

So when our neighbour told me that her car was for sale (small Mitsubishi 4x4, within budget) I felt very hopeful to find a quick solution to our problem. But Chenj strongly advised us against it (has had one of those stuck at his garage for 4 months waiting for spare parts, so not good).

At the risk of becoming very boring with my systematic questioning of every single person I knew or met (essentially, “wives”) about cars for sale, I eventually got the details of some white Zimbabwean selling what he said was a 2004 Toyota (the winning brand here) 4x4 with “only a few scratches” at an extremely reasonable price. Sounded too good to be true. As Ben and Chenj went to check it out, they were met by a relatively unpleasant guy who dared to prompt the question “has this guy got a license?” when Ben introduced Chenj as his car mechanic. I hate to think that there wouldn't have been such question if Chenj's skin colour would have been any different. His car turned out to be a wreck 10 years older that what he had said. That episode did make me a little (understatement) angry.

We finally heard of some British embassy people leaving the country with two cars for sale. So there we are, we bought what we thought was a 1995 Toyota Rav 4, which we realised was actually 1997 (deal!!) after we made the transfer. Joy, intense happiness, clap clap clap, Amarula chin chin, we are all over the moon. Well done us!!!

End of the story... but not quite.

The car is currently being registered so it has got no number plates on it. Many people drive around Harare without number plates and we were told that it is fine as long as we carried the related documents in the car in case of a police check. Prudently, we decided to wait until everything was completed to use it and we continued borrowing the office's car when available.

Last Monday, Edward, the office driver crashed the office car (broken window and the side properly scratched, no one got hurt). Ben comes home with our new car.

On Tuesday, the new car doesn't start, the battery is dead. Thanks to a neighbour's help, we are good to go. Ben asks Chenj to organise for a new battery to be installed that very morning. I pick him up, go home and off he goes with strict instructions to be back on time for me to be able to pick Amandine up from school. He is late, I get a bit nervous. As it turns out, the reason for this is that he got stopped three times by the police, once for speeding, once for driving through an orange light at the “robots” and another time because of the absence of number plates, which he got away with showing the paper work.

With the new battery fitted and my two girls at the back, I'm taking him home on the way back from school and as we drive past a police check point, I'm being asked to pull over. The policeman who checked Chenj about half an hour earlier about the number plates tells me that I am now breaking the law. I show him the same paper work, only to be told that one crucial document is missing. Chenj engages in a conversation in Shona and not surprisingly gets angry at the policeman, which is obviously not doing our case any good. So here comes the usual “what are we going to do now?” question. And as he realised that I was not going to give up on letting go of a $20 note unrecorded, he summons me to come to the nearest police station for my car to be impounded. I explain that I have two very hungry and tired children at the back and that I won't be able to go home if they impound my car. I don't get much sympathy. I ring Ben, who luckily is with Edward (and the crashed car) and can meet me shortly. Our car is sitting by the side of a busy road in full sun, so I take my babies out, cross the road and wait for Ben under the tree with the policemen hoping to, if not change their mind, make them feel guilty for giving me a hard time for a bribe. Ben arrives and we swap cars. He goes to the police station taking one of the policemen with him whilst Edward drops Chenj off and takes me home.

On the way to the station, the policeman explains to Ben that he can make a call and sort it out quickly. Ben says that as a Christian, it is against his principles to pay bribes. At the police station, Ben receives some elaborate explanation that he needs to pay 3 fines: one for the front plates, one for the back plate and one for the disk (all for the same infraction), and in that case, he has to go to court. And the car should be impounded, but really “it is not safe to leave it here”, at a police station! At this point, the policeman whom Ben took in his car says that they should let go of them (probably realising that putting together a court case that they were very likely going to lose was not worth it). Ben finally pays a $20 fine, gets a proper receipt and comes home with the car, two hours wasted.

To avoid more trouble, we share the car with a broken window, i.e. that can't be parked unattended, with the office and ourselves for the rest of the week.

On Saturday night, Ben and I went out. By a miraculous mistake, Ben pressed the button to close the broken window, and up came the glass, intact, beautiful. And we should get number plates on our new car tomorrow!

End of the story.