How Bush Mechanics Help Fix Your Broken Car in Africa

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When taking an overland trip across Africa, you never know when you might end up with a bush mechanics help. Africa isn’t exactly known for its stellar road conditions or amazing infrastructure. It is a beautiful continent, but it’s also rough, with lots of wild nature and some harsh conditions. Most cars simply aren’t built to handle all of that, so at some point, you can expect a breakdown of some kind.

Especially when you’re traveling through low-density areas, you won’t be able to find a sophisticated workshop. Every region has some local folks that are quite skilled since they’ve had to learn to fix their vehicles themselves. They often are more than willing to help you out if needed. Here’s my experience with the so-called ‘bush mechanics’!

Car trouble, you can always run into problems

My car during the African roadtrip

Driving around a foreign country by itself can be intimidating. You likely won’t speak the local language, and you don’t know who is going to save you if your car breaks down. What are you supposed to do if you have a serious problem on the road? Luckily, I’ve never had an extreme situation myself, but I’ve definitely needed a lot of help.

My African car has died several times due to a couple of different reasons. Besides the roads not being in the best condition, the car I bought was not exactly the newest model. I also can’t call myself a mechanic by any means, so I was dependent on others to help me out.

Finding help is really not a big issue in Africa

Gas Station in Zimbabwe in the middle of nowhere

Your first step is to figure out how to find help when you’re in the middle of nowhere. My tip would be to look for a gas station. They are surprisingly easy to find: Stations are widespread across Africa, despite the otherwise meager infrastructure. There are always people around that’ll help you tank up, in exchange for cash, and this is also the place where bush mechanics hang out!

If they are not there at the time you arrive, they usually are happy to come as soon as possible. Worst case scenario, the station clerk will know who in the area is a mechanic. You probably will at least get the number of someones who might be able to help!

Bush Mechanics, the guys who fix every old car with even older tools

Finding a new tire

Car trouble has happened to me a couple times during my trips through Eastern and Southern Africa. The gas stations have always helped me to find the right person. But you might be asking, what exactly is a bush mechanic? Basically, anyone who lives ‘in the bush’ (rural Africa) and has some sort of car knowledge. Most of them have gathered some experience from working in a city.

They might have not per se been trained, but have learned out of necessity. If they didn’t fix cars in their towns, no one would. Therefore, the bush mechanics are often highly respected by their local community, and they have become slightly arrogant because of that. You might see them bossing around less skilled people, but besides that, they’re fairly quiet.

Getting it done, that’s what it is all about after all

Bush mechanics can really fix the problem on the road

As expected, repairing a vehicle in the rural countryside is not the easiest of jobs. The essential tools might be available, but don’t assume there are many spare parts lying around: The conditions just are too primitive. The mechanics probably will just check under the hood and test all the joints, wires, and other vulnerable places, trying to spot obvious weak spots.

For me, the problems could always be solved to the extent that I was able to continue on with my journey, although nothing fundamental was repaired. Instead of replacing a broken part, a plaster was just put on it, covering a problem instead of fixing it. But all in all, I was able to keep going: Quite amazing, considering the situations!

The limit, when car’s go to car heaven – or hell

Luckily the car served me well during the trip

What I’ve described above is generally how car trouble is handled in most of Central and Eastern Africa. Southern Africa is a bit different though. It seems to be a little more developed, and the car workshops are somewhat more sophisticated. The cars themselves also look like they’re in a much better condition.

That being said, mechanics in Southern Africa will either not help you (because plastering won’t get you far here), or the costs they ask for are so high, that it won’t be worth it. In the end, my African car was doomed and I could not get it fixed in South Africa anymore.

Bush mechanics might not be formally trained, but they truly are lifesavers! I have the highest respect for them, as the conditions they work under are harsh, and they simply do not have a lot to work with. Their methods are definitely unconventional, and their solutions won’t hold up forever.

Sooner or later you’ll need another maintenance job done. But really, it is amazing how long they keep old vehicles going, much longer than we in Europe or America could imagine. My experiences with bush mechanics were overall mostly positive, as they kept my journey alive!

Adrian Sameli founder and editor of aSabbatical.com
Travel mindfully to meet local people around the world and embrace new cultures. Get inspired and inspire others!