The day I got stuck in the Congo and called Car Talk

Fortunately, Click and Clack knew the difference between the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, and a carburetor.

Photo illustration by Scott Wallace/Staff
"At this rate you'll dig yourself down to China!"

(The Monitor’s Africa correspondent recently had car trouble in the jungles of eastern Congo, and spent the night swatting mosquitoes in a mud hut in the Walungu district. He was tired at the time, but believes he may have called the NPR talk show, Car Talk, for advice. Here’s a transcript of what may or may not have been said.)

TOM: Hello, you’re talking to Car Talk. Who’s on the phone?

ME: Yeah, this is Scott, calling from Congo.

RAY: Hello, Scott!

TOM: Is that the Republic of Congo, with the capital in Brazzaville or the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the capital in Kinshasa?

RAY: Look who paid attention in geography class!

TOM: At least someone in our family did. (Laughter.)

ME: Yeah, Tom, it’s Congo-Kinshasa, although I’m way over on the other side of the country near Lake Kivu.

TOM: Oh, that’s beautiful country out there. How’s the weather right now?

ME: Well, it’s been raining off and on all day, as it has been since we got here.

RAY: Well, Scott, I hate to tell you this, but we have gorgeous New England autumn weather here in Cambridge, cool and crisp. The wife and I just got back from a lovely drive up in New Hampshire. Leaves were gorgeous.

TOM: Yeah, Ray, the leaves in your yard are gorgeous, too. Maybe you coulda stayed home and picked up a rake.

RAY: Ouch! (Laughter.)

TOM: So, Scott, what can we do for you?

ME: Yeah, look guys, we’re driving a Toyota Land Cruiser on a muddy mountain road, and we got stuck in a deep hole. We can’t get out.

TOM: A Toyota Land Cruiser, huh? Best four-wheel-drive car in the Third World. Sorry, I guess we say the Developing World these days.

ME: Yes, the Land Cruiser is a good car. But right now, it might as well be furniture. Our driver has gone into forward and reverse so many times that the front left wheel is now stuck up to the hubs. It’s also leaning way over and wedged up against a muddy cliff. We’re spattered with mud from head to sandal.

TOM: OK, I’m guessing there isn’t a tow truck around.

ME: No, we’re the first car the villagers have seen for days. And it’s dusk, so we’re losing daylight fast.

RAY: Any villagers around to help you out?

ME: Yes, there’s a whole crowd watching us, but it’s Sunday and they don’t work on Sunday. They say we’re welcome to stay the night.

TOM: Well, that’s nice of them.

RAY: Look, Scott, clearly it’s not doing any good to do that forward and reverse thing. At this rate, you’ll dig yourself down to China.

TOM: No, actually, Ray, if he digs down from Africa he’ll end up in the Pacific Ocean. I’m thinking north of Tahiti.

RAY: Thank you, Mr. Geography. Scott, have you tried wedging rocks or boards under the wheels to give them traction?

ME: I’ve tried to suggest that in my broken French, but the driver keeps insisting that he always gets himself out of holes this way.

RAY: Oh mercy.

ME: Uh-oh, now the engine just went dead.

RAY: Really. What does it sound like?

ME: Rrrr... rrrr... Rrrr...

RAY: How’s that again?

ME: Rrrr... Rrrr... Rrrr...

RAY: Yeah, that doesn’t sound good. Could be the battery’s dead.

TOM: No, Ray, I think the driver just flooded the engine. Listen, the local people in your part of Congo are more likely to speak Kiswahili than French...

RAY: Listen to my show-off brother. Ki-what?

TOM: Kiswhahili. I learned it during a backpacking trip across Eastern Africa in the ’60s.

RAY: Oh, that’s where you were. Mom thought you’d gone to some commune in upstate New York.

TOM: No, that was later. Don’t tell my wife.

RAY: Too late! She’s listening in the lobby. You’re busted! (Laughter.)

TOM: Scott, I’m going to teach you a little Kiswahili. Ask your driver to check the battery cable connections first, to satisfy my brother Ray. Say “Angalia batteria.” And then, have him do nothing for 10 minutes to let some of the fuel evaporate from the engine and try it again.

ME: How do I say “do nothing” in Kiswahili?

TOM: Actually, Scott, I don’t know. My Kiswahili is kind of limited. But better than my brother’s. (Laughter.)

TOM: Oh, ask him if he can fix it today. Say, “Utaweza kuitengeneza leo?” (Pause).

ME: The driver says no, he can’t fix it today.

RAY: So, Scott, I guess you’ll be sleeping in the village. (Laughter.)

TOM: Scott, did you bring any mosquito repellent?

ME: No.

TOM: A raincoat?

ME: We’ve got one. My friend and I are taking turns with it.

TOM: Any food?

ME: We’ve been living on bananas and warm Coke for the past two days.

TOM: Bananas and warm Coke. Mmmm, that takes me back to Africa.

RAY: Hey, Tom, (sound of snapping fingers). Tom, hello, we’re trying to help this guy in the jungles of Africa here...

TOM: Ray, there’s nothing Scott can do at this point but wait for the morning and hope the road dries out a bit. Meanwhile, you better get to that village. Don’t expect the Ritz. If it gets cold – and it will – you can ask the villagers for a blanket. Say, “Naomba blanketi tafadhali.” “Tafadhali” means “please.”

RAY: Tom, you’re scaring me with this Kiswahili thing.

ME: OK, Tom and Ray, my cell battery is starting to die. Or maybe it’s just flooded. Thanks for your help.

TOM: Thanks for calling Car Talk, Scott. “Barackasvili” (good luck).

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