No Licenses for Dirty Vehicles

We’re now the proud owners of a Toyota Hilux Surf!  I’ve never heard of a Hilux prior to coming to Zambia but they’re one of the most common vehicles here (the others being some sort of Land Rover, Toyota Prados or Mitsubishi Pajeros).  Hiluxes are typically four-door open bed trucks but ours is enclosed.

Purchasing a vehicle here can be quite an ordeal — first you have to find one where the suspension hasn’t been destroyed by knee-deep potholes and head-splitting speed bumps.  To do that, most of the people in the know suggest buying a car that has never been driven in Zambia.  Apparently there’s a steady stream of low mileage cars imported from Singapore and Japan.  The one we bought, below, is old (1997) but only has 50,000 kilometers on it and just came off the boat from Japan last week.  It appears in excellent shape and the seller insists that a little old man drove it once a week for sushi since his wife died in 1998, and that’s why it has such low kilometers.  I’m kind of of the mind that if it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true, but Thom had it checked out by his office’s mechanic and consulted with three old-timers here who confirmed that yes, this is standard operating procedure here.  And yes, most cars coming from Japan have very low kilometers on them despite the year of the car and are in very good shape.

It is a very, very nice car and Thom’s already had a few people offer to buy it from us.  After a meeting at his office last Thursday a local chief came up to Thom said, “I want to buy that car now.  How much do you want for it?”  People here say it’s common to get almost what you pay for a vehicle when you sell it and given the interest in it already (even though it’s not for sale!) I guess it must be true.

Getting the car registered and licensed is quite the ordeal. Fortunately, the car dealer accompanied us every step of the way.  First, all of Thom’s legal documents (passport, work permit)  had to be shown to the powers-that-be who approve sales to foreigners.  Then, Thom went to the INTERPOL office where they checked him out in person to make sure he wasn’t among the world’s most wanted criminals.  Then, INTERPOL came out to inspect the car to make sure it hadn’t been used for any known arms or drug deals.  Then, the car had to be taken elsewhere for a “fitness” test to ensure its safety on the road.  Of course, with the exception of Thom appearing in person at INTERPOL no one actually looked at the car due to the charming nature, or perhaps it was the generous tipping, of the car dealer.

Today I took over and first the car dealer and I went to a sign shop where we simply gave them the plate numbers and they made the plates on the spot.  They were having a problem getting their machines to work but again, after the car dealer tipped them, everything worked like a charm and we were out of there within 30 minutes.  Our next stop was the Zambian government vehicle inspection lot (Department of Roads?), where they were to conduct the final inspection of the vehicle before issuing the license and registration stickers.  By this time our car dealer had run out of tipping cash, which I didn’t think would be a problem because this was a government inspection lot full of police officers and civil employees.  When the inspector finally got to our car (which was a bit dusty due to driving on all of the pot-hole-filled dirt roads) he said, “this car is very dirty.”  I smiled and said, yes, it was dusty, there hasn’t been much rain recently.  He failed to smile in return and wrote at the top of the inspection sheet, “dirty car” and said, “we don’t inspect dirty cars.”  (see his comment on the inspection sheet below, “dirty car/v” — I think the “v” is for vehicle)

I thought he was kidding and looked at our car dealer, who said nothing.  The inspector said, “I will not look at this car until it is clean.”  By this time I was sputtering in outrage, “you’re kidding, right?!”  “No, I am very serious, we do not inspect dirty cars.”  He turned and walked away with his entourage of four other persons and they all were laughing.  I couldn’t believe it!  Our car dealer said, “let’s just do what he wants,” and shook his head.  I was really getting worked up about it and said very loudly, “please get his name, I want to report him,” and the car dealer blanched and looked like he was going to faint as he pushed me into the car.  I said I was serious (I was furious at the injustice of it all, especially given lots of really dirty cars were being inspected all around us).    The car dealer said that he comes in almost every day and has given that inspector a lot of money and on this one day that he didn’t, the inspector wanted him to suffer.  I couldn’t help but think there was some racism going on too (i.e., they see a white person, assume you’re loaded with money, and automatically everything costs twice as much) but the car dealer said it was more likely jealousy as the dealer was there every day with 1-3 cars and they knew he was making a lot of money and the inspector thought he should get part of it.

Anyways, the car dealer found a guy who said he’d wash our car for us but he must have had to hike to the Zambezi river and back given it took him about 1.5 hours to get a pail of water.  While waiting for the car washer, I watched dozens of cars getting very thorough inspections.  People would drive in, open all car doors, show their spare tires and jacks. and prop open their hoods for engine inspection.  After a bit of wrangling most inspectors appeared to sign off after about 15 minutes.  Finally our car was semi-clean (we were in a dirt lot mind you) so the car dealer went back to the inspector (who was examining another car).  The inspector glanced over toward our car and I glared at him.  He wrote something on our papers and handed them to our dealer.  The dealer came back and said, “okay, we’re done.”   What???  The inspector didn’t even look at our car!  The dealer said, “he’s embarrassed, he knows he went too far.”  I didn’t want the inspector to change his mind so we left the inspection lot and went to the licensing building, where I waited in the car while the dealer got our final stickers and license.

When corruption and injustices occur I feel so American.   I can’t express how angry it makes me when people (especially government employees) try to take advantage of others and behave illegally.  It’s like they’re destroying the public trust and it brings down the whole society.  I know we have our problems in the U.S. but especially in our little corner of Michigan a real sense of fairness and courtesy permeates human interactions.  When lanes are closed, for instance, people usually get over into a single file lane right away without jumping the line (and if they do jump the line, there’s usually some sort of self-appointed lane guard who straddles two lanes to force them to merge behind them).

I know Zambia is better than almost all other African countries (and better than Italy too!) in terms of corruption, it just shocks me when I come face-to-face with it on such a blatant level.  Thom says I have to learn to smile but that’s going to take quite a bit of practice for this American… 🙂

All in all, it was still a good day — We have a fully legal vehicle!


About Kimm X Jayne

Gravatar Photograph from the exceptionally talented Ben Heine.
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5 Responses to No Licenses for Dirty Vehicles

  1. Mikey says:

    Interesting times, especially the intersection of the two cultures.

  2. Mikey says:

    P.S. The Hillux is big in the Aussie outback.

  3. Mikey says:

    Maybe instead of Thom’s smile approach practice your Italian evil eye, maybe raise an eyebrow, give a really long pause, thrown in a look of disgusted indignation, pause again and say… “Excuse me?… Did I hear you say…?”

  4. lecornwi says:

    Grrr, I HATE corruption. I absolutely REFUSE to pay when someone trys to get money off of me for services they supposed to be providing. Lagos airport is the ABSOLUTE PITS for corruption. Literally couldn’t walk 2 feet without someone else holding you up, wanting to be paid. I didn’t pay…granted it took me 5 hours to get to my gate, but my wallet was intact 🙂 Stay strong!!

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