For a decade and counting, Geoffrey Okwero Ojok, commonly known as Mombasa, has thrived in the world of car mechanics and for him, it is a ‘till death do us part’ thing. He lives this dream through his garage, Ranger Motors in Mbuya, Kampala.
“My first job as a mechanic was at Cooper Motors Cooperation (CMC) Uganda in 2001, and although I was later promoted to Land Rover supervisor, in 2012, I felt the need to go and work somewhere else,” he says.
While his childhood experiences did not paint a bright picture, Ojok was out to make something good of himself. “As a child, I always admired mechanics and whenever I got a chance to escape from home and visit a nearby garage, I would lay down with them as they worked beneath the cars,” he shares about where it all started.
While he had hoped to further his education, Ojok stopped in Senior Four owing to various seasons. “We were raised by our mother, whose source of income was making and selling local brew. While that did not deter her from taking care of us, the insurgence that rocked northern Uganda was raging on and around 1994 and 1995, many people had been scattered.”
So in 1996, after his time at Layibi College, Ojok went to visit his elder brother in Jinja. While there, the effects of the war followed him after his mother stepped on a landmine that almost claimed her life.
As though that was not misery enough, his elder brother was pushed into a pan of hot oil during a brawl with his wife. In light of all the calamity, his brother’s boss, a white man, who was returning to Mombasa, Kenya, asked for permission to travel back with Ojok and his brother so that he could take care of them. “This man was taking care of several orphans and he extended a helping hand to us seeing that there was no help for us at the the time,” Ojok recalls.
After three months, they were supposed to return, but their guardian interested him in enrolling in a polytechnic in Nairobi, knowing that there was not much we would be coming back to at home. At first, Ojok thought of doing carpentry, but with a deep seated desire to operate vehicles, he asked his guardian if he could take on a driving job. “He advised me that without experience, as many companies needed three to four years driving experience, I did not stand a chance.”
Ojok then opted to do a mechanics course at Maglal Polytechnic Mombasa and his guardian was kind enough to get him an apprenticeship slot with Bruce Truck and Engineering Motors. “I went to school in the morning and in the afternoon went for training. Unfortunately, the motor company closed within a year,” he recalls.
His guardian was kind enough to get him another placement at CMC Motors Kenya. “He owned a Land Rover which he serviced at CMC Motors and thus asked the employers if I could be placed there, which they agreed to. I owe a lot to him,” he says.
Ojok later moved to MITC in Bamburi to upgrade in intermittent and advance certificate after attaining a Kenya Trade Test certificate in Grade 1,2 and 3 in automotive. During that time, he would try and come to visit his family, though never going to Gulu due to then ongoing insurgence. It was during one of those visits that he learned that his brother who had been burned by the wife had succumbed to his injuries and left behind two children who automatically became Ojok’s responsibility. Ojok adds that God has helped him take care of the children who are both currently at university.
Back in Uganda
After training in Kenya, Ojok would have stayed on but issues of work permits made it rather difficult. “I was advised by my employers at CMC Kenya to travel back to Uganda and seek employment at their branch there. Therefore, on February 14, 2001, I boarded a bus back to Uganda,” he recalls.
He started work on February 21, 2001, although most workmates feared him, thinking he was a spy from Kenya. Since he spoke fluent Kiswahili, his workmates did not belive he was Ugandan and christened him “Mombasa.” “One of my bosses always referred to me as ‘Mombasa man’ whenever he wanted to assign me any duty. With time, that became my name to date,” he says.
In 2009, I felt I was earning very little money compared to the work I was doing. “On the other hand, I needed to pass on what I had learned to others – more like building a legacy.”
In 2009, Ojok started operating a parking yard in Kinawataka at the weekends since on these days, he did not have to work at CMC Motors. With time, the client base grew that weekends started feeling somewhat short. However, while he was rejoicing over that, word about his weekend operations got to his employers, who did not take it kindly.
“They said I was using their resources to my advantage and when the pressure intensified, I left the company in 2012,” he recalls.
He now concentrated fully on running his business and the only challenge he had was to find a name for it. But as the clientele grew and some in need of documentation such as invoices, Ojok needed to resolve the name issue fast.
With increasing clientele also came the need to look for bigger space as the parking yard could no longer contain their operations. Fortunately, a colleague gave him land, a stone throw from the parking yard. He was also joined by another friend, a mechanic and together, they came up with Ranger Motors.
Although Ojok thought he was fully equipped to handle all his clients, he later realised he had to refer some to CMC Motors for jobs such as engine overhauling.
Stiff competition is another hurdle because most trainees have opened their own Land Rover centred garages.
“We have tried to open up operations for other cars but many have the perception that our fees are exorbitant,” he says.
While the challenges are quite many, there is a lot for Ojok to be thankful for. “I have seen a lot of progress and one of them is that I am now a landlord. I have also been able to build a home in the village and also bought a car.
The garage also currently has a System Drive Diagnostics (SDD) which covers Land Rovers from 2005 to date. There is also the T4 diagnostics which is used for Land Rovers from 1994 to 2005 and the Vehicle Communications Interface (VCI), for the Jaguar Land Rovers. “With that, Land Rovers are covered. That is a whole lot different from what it was when we started.”