Charles Ngabo, a resident of Remera tells an absurd but common story of how he found two side mirrors and a couple of other parts of his Toyota corolla new model missing when he had parked around the stadium to go and meet a friend for an appointment early this year.
Being a man with enough experience of the city, he only waited for a day and went to Gatsata, a Kigali suburb very convinced that from there he would recover all that he had lost. And yes he did!
This sounds surprising. Doesn’t it? One loses something in a particular part of the city and he neither starts immediate personal investigations nor engages the police but sits back for a whole day, and gently marches to another place with confidence of getting what is his as if he had kept it there.
To people with a substantial knowledge of the city, this is no surprise. Drivers and people in garage business in Kigali know very well that Gatsata is the sure destination of many of the spare parts that are stolen from vehicles in different corners of the city.
It is the norm that almost every day a number of people will show up in one of the various garages in the area not for mechanical services but to look for what was stolen from their cars.
As a matter of fact, if you take a car for a side mirror replacement, chances are that you will be sold the same one stolen from your car.
A close insight into the Gatsata mechanics business
Positioned on the Kigali Gatuna highway, Gatsata is famous for its engineering and mechanical business.
It is a bustling area filled with spare parts shops and garages and buzzing with people and activity.
Off the highway, we manage to get parking for our car beside a bumpy, red-soil road in front of a small commercial building hosting a number of spare parts shops.
A handful of people dressed in blue overalls walk around us in the glaring sun, all eager to seize the chance of making money by servicing our vehicle. They are just some of the very many mechanics who earn their bread from here.
Most of them either have a good command of luganda (A Ugandan dialect) or at least try since they have to forge ways of communicating to the mechanics, a fair number of whom come from Uganda.
A number of vehicles are all around being serviced. Many mechanics are busy fixing this and that but still since there is a bunch that is not working at the moment and they are ready to talk to me.
Kinyoni Rudasingwa, a young Rwandan practicing general mechanics says that when they want to fit a new spare part on a car, they buy it from the surrounding spare parts shops.
He however confesses that he can buy a used spare part when people bring it to him.
“Yes I can buy it especially when I am sure that clients will need it. I buy and put it in my tool box,” he says.
“Have you ever had some negative consequences like being arrested after buying such things?” I ask.
“Well, it has never happened to me but it happened to one of my colleagues. And these things always happen here,” he says.
He tells me that it is very common for people to come to look for what they lost around the city. And in some cases, people even end up in prison.
Why buy black market spare parts?
Johnson Mugabo,a (not real names), a car wiring specialist told me the reason why people go for black market spare parts.
He says he knows a number of colleagues who buy them because they are rare in shops across the country. For instance, car radios and buttons electric window switches cannot be readily found. So, if they get one of these on the black market, they take their chance.
Secondly black market things are very cheap. A black market car radio can cost you only 25,000 RWF instead of the 60,000 you would pay for a new one in a shop.
In my conversation with the car wiring specialist, I discover that besides the mechanics and shop owners, there is a certain group of people in the mechanics business called “Abaseliseli.”
A good percentage of the stolen spare parts are received and sold by these people. And chances are that they might be taking part in the thefts themselves.
“You park your car here,” he explains pointing at a moto stage, “And call out, or you just whistle. They come and you ask for what you want and they tell you if they have it,” he says.
For Nelson Luutu, an owner of a large spare parts shop in Gatsata shop, he sells both new and used spare parts and admits that he buys used spare parts from Rwanda but in a different way.
He buys them from mechanics working within the vicinity of his shop. He repairs them and resells them.
Luutu explains that the parts are functional. They sometimes have defects which are fixed and then resold.
He gives an example of shock absorbers which run out of gas and because the “rich man” is ignorant about this, the mechanics remove them and sell them to a shop owner who refills them and sells them.
Though he buys used spare parts, Luutu advises that if one is to buy, he or she should only buy from mechanics when they have removed the worn out parts.
“Look critically where it comes from; was it removed from an old car or was it stolen,” he says.
He added that one can tell a stolen spare part. It always has no defect meaning it was removed from a healthy car somewhere in the city. He advises that if a shop owner is to buy a used spare part, he should go for the old defect ones removed from cars in garages.
However car owners are not taking any chances in protecting their cars from thieves. Ngabo says that when he parks in Nyamirambo, Nyabugogo or around the stadium, he removes his car radio and hides it under the seat.
“When the thieves peep through the window and they see it, they will break the glass and steal it,” he says.
He also often gets some young boy to keep watch of his car for a few coins.
The parts of the car that are mostly stolen are side mirrors, switches, radios, the jacks, and to a smaller extent, tyres.
How to find your lost spare part
When Ngabo found his car’s stolen spare parts, he paid a little money for them.
I did not want to take a lot of time with police procedures,” he says. Some people get their things back this way.
However, Rudasingwa and the wiring specialist say that it only needs one to insist and claim what is his and he will have it back freely. They say this happens many times in Gatsata.
“You just need to be confident and claim what is yours, they give it to you,” says the wiring specialist.