Travelling across borders

If there is one thing my experience at Kagitumba taught me, it is the language barrier that lay ahead. At the Rwandan Immigration office, the writing was clear: at the arrivals terminal, that fact was emphasized in not one, but three different languages; that is, the local Kinyarwanda, English and French: “Abinjira. Arrival. Entrée,” it read.
 Travellers clear at Gatuna border before crossing out of the country.  The New Times  / J. Mbanda
Travellers clear at Gatuna border before crossing out of the country. The New Times / J. Mbanda

If there is one thing my experience at Kagitumba taught me, it is the language barrier that lay ahead. At the Rwandan Immigration office, the writing was clear: at the arrivals terminal, that fact was emphasized in not one, but three different languages; that is, the local Kinyarwanda, English and French: “Abinjira. Arrival. Entrée,” it read.

I’m one of those people who believe firmly that travel is only good in retrospect; when you are looking back at the journey through your mind’s eye.

The actual travel itself is never always as pleasant. Well, at least not in my case, especially when it’s travel by bus, like I recently did from Kampala to Kigali. And the bit I dread most about bus travel is not that of incessantly crying toddlers, or the combined aromas of the different delicacies people usually pick from roadside vendors during those famous stops for bites and refreshments.

On the contrary, the thing I dread and hate most about bus travel is the seeming endlessness of most bus journeys. Just what does one do with their time, all of twelve hours, when they are travelling from Kampala to Kigali? Do you immerse yourself in a good book? Which is not an option for me on any given day! Not only am I not a very good reader, I also find it extremely uncomfortable and tough trying to read from inside a speeding and noisy and unsteady bus in motion!

It is for such reasons that I found myself booked on the 3:00am bus. The beauty with night travel is that you can snore off heavily and soundly, only to wake up with half of the journey done! After all, who wants to go through the anxiety of counting down the long hours, then minutes to arrival at your destination? Well, counting down those hours was going to prove a tall order for me, especially since I was itching to see and feel for myself the much-talked about cleanliness and orderliness and exemplariness of Kigali city. Though I’d never been here before, I had been fed many juicy stories about how Kigali is more of a pilot project of a good, clean, fun city.

Now, embarking on a bus ride at 3:00am comes with its own issues. Do you go and sit in the bus early enough, like, say 11:00pm, then wait four hours for departure time? Or do you do what some people prefer to do, that is, hit a bar and “kill” the time while drinking beer? I decided to resist this temptation, knowing the kind of bladder that I have!

As we neared departure at the Jaguar Bus Terminal in Kampala, groups of mostly elderly women could be seen either engaged in subdued conversation, all weighed down by sleep and fatigue, or snoring away softly. The younger travelers were mostly glued to the television, while the men generally kept to themselves. Most men had these looks in their eyes that seemed to suggest that travel is a very intimate thing in their lives. Most would wake up almost by instinct a few minutes to departure, wake up a few more people, then hop onto the bus, definitely to enjoy their sleep in more dignity.

I was no exception, and no sooner had I found my seat, than I was fast snoring away. The misty, early-morning cold over the gentle hills and valleys of Mbarara in western Uganda is what jump-started me back to life. Suddenly, the new day held so much promise and prospects ahead.

From Mbarara on, I was in ‘hills and valleys’ country. Apart from that terrain, which became more and more rugged as we penetrated Rwanda, (the reason the country is called the ‘land of a thousand hills’), I also saw a lot of banana plantations, artificial forests on the wind word side of the slopes to act as windbreakers, and a splattering of paddock farms and small rice fields. Looking at these far-off plains from inside the bus, they looked almost like huge football fields mowed down to carpet precision.

And these were just enough to keep my mind off the usual distractions within the bus; the toddler shoving away its mother’s breast, demanding instead for fruit juice (or something more solid); the one peeing on the bus’s hard, corrugated floor…you name it.

Arriving at the Kagitumba border post, I was greeted with the kind of hospitality that you thought only exists in Spanish and Mexican soap operas; every inch I turned, brisk young men hailed me down, offering to help me in more ways than I needed. All I could do was say to myself; ‘well, if this is the kind of hospitality that awaits me in Rwanda, then so be it and let me start warming up to get spoilt!”

Turns out that their show of hospitality and kindness came with strings attached. The young men in question were all money-changers, and what business has a money-lender got helping strangers find their way around a border check point? From the way they operate, I concluded that they were to be dealt with at my own risk. Or better even, to not deal with them in anyway.

To put off one money-changer, I had to lie to him that I had very petty cash on me, which did not call for his services. To prove it, I pulled out a UGShs1,000 note and dangled it to his face. Ever the persistent one, the man responded with trained calmness and told me he dealt in money no matter the denominations. I had to flee and I did flee!

But if there is one thing my experience at Kagitumba taught me, it is the language barrier that lay ahead. At the Rwandan Immigration office, the writing was clear: at the arrivals terminal, that fact was emphasized in not one, but three different languages; that is, the local Kinyarwanda, English and French: “Abinjira. Arrival. Entrée”, it read. At the departures section, still the inscriptions were in those three languages:  Abasohoka. Departure. Sortie.

I had travelled to Kenya and Tanzania before, and in none of those cases did I face a language barrier as severe as this one. For those two, I could at least gamble with my hap-hazard Kiswahili. But faced with a choice between French and Kinyarwanda, I was as good as dead!

First, getting to my seat number, 52, proved to be a small tug-of-war, since a lady had occupied it, right next to her boyfriend. She spoke French while I spoke English.

I was getting off the bus at Remera, from where I would be picked by a contact. On the approach to this suburb, I asked the lady next to me to remind me when we arrived at Remera. For a response, which I must admit was warm, she just beamed a smile back at me, and mumbled a few inaudible words I did not click. She too was speaking French/Kinyarwanda, and only about 2 per cent English.

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