The Nimble Finger-Eater and other Ghanaian Wheels I have Known

Ghana’s roadways are tough. In the rainy season, roads become rivers of mud. The good news is that the water hides the potholes. The bad news is that the water hides the potholes.

My first venture into the country of Ghana has gone by quickly. On the whole, it has been a marvelous experience. I have little room to complain. However, if forced to identify one persistent challenge to my visit, it would have wheels.

Before I tell you about our problem vehicles, let me tell you about three that were not a problem.

Joyriding through the village of Gulubi with James.

(1) The little shuttle that took us from the airplane to the airport terminal and back again.

(2) The little motorbike that belongs to Pastor Francis.

(3) The little bus that played rap music and flew down the mountain when LOtC died.

Which brings me back to our problem vehicles.

I will describe them in random order. To protect the identity of their drivers (whom I assure you are all very fine people), I will use fake names.

The first of these was Squealing-Jeep piloted by King James.

Squealing-Jeep is quiet when resting.

Squealing-Jeep is an American-made Laredo that began to fuss on a long drive from Accra to Cape Coast. The further from home, the louder the fussing became. Having suffered this sort of behavior in my own family, I immediately diagnosed the problem: the rivets on the shoes that once held brake pads were carving their little faces directly into the rear drums. In short, the brakes were shot.

The King was casually hovering about five feet off the bumper of the car in front of us. Now, in the Safeway parking lot, this is not a problem, but at 85 mph on a highway littered with chuckholes and random motorbike parts, it is frowned upon. When the driver in front of us unexpectedly hit his brakes to miss a goat (or something), the King pounded the pedal to keep us out of a trunk where we didn’t belong.

Squealing-Jeep wailed: “XHEEEEEeeeeeeeee!” Metal shavings peeled off like orange skins.

The boys in the back didn’t miss a beat. Conversation continued. The King recovered momentarily, looked over all the knobs and buttons incredulously, and, once satisfied, continued to lightly pilot the flight with two fingers. Obviously, I was the only one who was troubled by the combination of high speed, bad roads, and poor brakes.

As a person who hates confrontation, I tried to share these concerns as nonchalantly (yet as urgently) as possible. The King admitted that the front brakes had been replaced a week or so ago, but the mechanic had run out of time for the backs. He would get to those another day.

More brake lights appeared: “XHEEEEEEEeeeeeeee!” (Metal shavings littered the road. Sparks too.)

I closed my eyes and prayed to be killed instantly, not maimed in some grisly way that would force me to strum mandolin with my toes. Fortunately, given my position in the front seat, a quick death was a sure thing.

Needless to say, my prayer life was enhanced that day. My son would have been proud. I screamed like a schoolgirl only once when a pedestrian missed the side mirror by a whisker. No one else seemed troubled by the near-death experience. They did pause at my squealing though. Maybe they thought I was expressing delight for African motoring by doing a brake impersonation.

When another trip came up a couple of days later, I noticed that Squealing-Jeep was still fussing. Perhaps the King thought better of taking it far from home again and instead recruited the Little-Opel-that Couldn’t (hereafter LOtC) and its driver.

When I got in LOtC, I was impressed. Neat as a pin. Comfortable. Strong brakes. To make it even better, KK, the driver, slipped in some smooth jazz that could have oozed from the French Quarter. It was heavenly. KK didn’t just hang on and hope for the best either, he actually drove those wheels.

However, problems developed over the course of the trip that brought us back down to earth. LOtC found increasing difficulty in mounting the speed bumps found on every road in Ghana (they actually fall trees across the road in the north just to keep drivers alert and the dentists in business. In this I am TOTALLY SERIOUS.). Unfortunately, KK couldn’t keep the engine idling, and, after a time, LOtC met a speed bump with girth beyond its power. It died honorably in the traces.

KK repeatedly muttered something about how “this-has-never-happened-to-me-before” and I earnestly believed him. He felt betrayed. However, being a resident of Kentucky where such betrayal is commonplace, I jumped at the opportunity to practice my home-grown skills. We did what every Bluegrasser is taught from the womb: push the carcass of your dead car off the road, lift the hood, wiggle a few wires, stare at the engine in disgust, and then go take a pee in the trees. I would have preferred to put the dead car on blocks in someone’s yard to complete its life-cycle, but when you are in a village in the African bush, neither blocks nor yards are always convenient. We all did pee, however.

At one point I counted ten people working to fix LOtC. It was an unsuccessful attempt at resuscitation-by-committee.

We called for a local mechanic who was oddly absent but sent many apprentices instead. Since no progress was made six hours later (dark fell and the spitting cobras came out to hunt), we thought it prudent to abandon LOtC in search of a little bus that could play rap music and fly us off the mountain.

More could be written about this experience, but I think I’ll leave it there. Between friends, I will tell you this: I can’t wait to return home and tell my fellow UK fans that there is a a dead Opel sitting beside a mud hut in Ghana to this very day and I had something to do with it. I just pray someone found some blocks.

The Nimble Finger-Eater proved useful in helping to move us, as well as local people and their stuff in difficult places.

The third vehicle of disappointment was a Nissan truck. It was quite a robust affair, with a king cab, knobby tires, locking front hubs (for four wheel drive), and big bars that wrapped around its nose like a muzzle. With the help of its Handler, the truck did amazing tricks. One trick it did was tear up its own exhaust system. This happened on one of those sneaky potholed roads despite some very high clearance. Of course, the road in question would have been a challenge for the moon-rover which is why astronauts never worry about mufflers.

Another trick we did while driving through very tall grass after dark is fall into a ravine. Because of the depth of the ravine and the way gravity works, the Nissan stood erect on only one wheel. It was quite an exciting balancing act for me, since (1) I had never done a trick like that before, and (2) the only wheel in contact with the ground happened to be the one directly under my feet. Fortunately, the event did not progress to a full summersault, which is even trickier. Even in a robust truck. The good news is that we did all manage to escape from the top hatch (which used to be a side door) and a whole villagefull of men were able to pull the truck out of the ravine using nothing more than their bare hands. In the dark. Surrounded by spitting cobras. Not even astronauts without mufflers are privileged to experience such rescues. I know for a fact that Squealing-Jeep was jealous.

These tricks explain the nimble part. But how could such a truck be disappointing?

The Nimble Finger-eater in need of a bath. The muzzle in front is useful when doing tricks.

The answer rests in our return. After several days of tricks in the bush, the Handler took the Nissan to have its exhaust problem fixed. In the course of surgery, the mechanic got his finger stuck in the jagged pipe. When he pulled it back, it came off. Not the pipe, mind you, but his finger.

Needless to say, the lost digit was found and transported with its former owner to the hospital. There, the doctor made the pronouncement that there was nothing to do but plug the hole. Certainly, the mechanic was quite disappointed with our vehicle. Especially if he played the mandolin. This is why I call the Nissan the Nimble Finger-Eater.

Between Squealing-Jeep, LOtC, and the Nimble Finger-Eater, I am quite happy to write this blog while flying away from all of Ghana’s wheels. However, now that we are high above the Sahara desert, I am wondering about wings.