Wency is famous for his road-side sign just outside the village. “Wency’s Autoworks” in black and white, next to a track which leads into the bush. He was one of the first properly trained local diesel engine mechanics in the Valley. He set up his own business repairing vehicles of all sorts, for people who did not have access to the efficient mechanical workshops of the lodges.
I first met him at the end of my tour of duty in 2014 when he was called in to fix a problem with Phyllis, my previous vehicle. He is a tall, lean man with a ready smile and an oily handshake. He has patchy vitiligo on his lips, with vermillion patches where the pigment has disappeared. There is often a cigarette glued to his lower lip, but the smoke never seems to get into his eyes. With Donald’s help, he fixed the problem in the courtyard of South Luangwa Conservation Society.
There comes a time when vehicles die. They end up in a corner of the compound, rusting quietly away, donating their organs to less decrepit vehicles until they become unsightly skeletons. Bwana told Wency that if he could take the ancient Chevrolet Nomad away, he could have it. It was cluttering up the place, making it untidy. He thought Wency might be able to scavenge some nuts and bolts from the corpse.
Wency had other ideas. He thought he could renovate the vehicle, with cannibalised parts. It took him ten years, but it has been running now for five years. He named her “Natasha”, which means “thank you” in Nyanja. It may also have been the name of his previous girlfriend. Wency drove her to the Johnny Ambrose touch rugby competition at the weekend and parked her at the side of the pitch. She certainly has street-credibility, attracting more attention than the shiny latest model LandCruisers and LandRovers.
I greeted him and we talked about how he came to acquire Natasha. “How have you managed to keep it running?” I asked him.
“She is strong,” he said. “Made with proper steel, not this modern recycled rubbish.”
“Like Liverpool FC?” I asked, noticing the prominent badge of allegiance on the back door. “You’ll never walk alone? With Natasha, you’ll never need to walk again!”
“There’s a bit of rust on the sills at the base of the passenger door,” I said.
“Oh, that’s just for air conditioning. You need a bit of ventilation in the hot season in the Valley,” he replied.
“You have only got three nuts holding the front nearside wheel,” I said. “It looks like the bolts have been sheared off.”
“You’re right. There’s only three on my side, too. Keeps it balanced. Wheel hasn’t fallen off yet,” he told me.
“What’s this arrangement on top of the dashboard, Wency?” I asked, pointing to two metal gimbals behind the windscreen, beside a bottle of Castle lager.
“It’s the housing for a World War 2 machine gun,I don’t have one, but I thought it looked distinctive, making my Natasha unique,” he said.
I ought to ask him if his name is short for “Wenceslas”.