The climate was very friendly as we sat and chatted away the whole afternoon at Karibu restaurant in Kigali city. The restaurant was the meeting point for several East African students who had braced to travel by road from Rwanda to Tanzania for a two- day summit in Dar es Salaam.
I had been invited by the East Africa Community Students Union (EACSU) to cover the summit. At Karibu, the student delegation seemed to grow every other minute as delegations from Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi thronged the venue.
Little did I know that an hour later we would be embarking on one of the longest journeys in East Africa. From the city centre to Rusumo (the Rwandan border post with Tanzania), everybody aboard the bus seemed enthusiastic to know the people they sat with.
Unlike other busy and noisy border posts like Gatuna, Rusumo is a quite and not so an eventful border crossing. The only remarkable thing about the place was the large numbers of trucks carrying fuel and containers from Dar es Salaam.
Perched on the banks of River Akagera and its impressive waterfalls, the border post is also the gateway for cars being imported into Rwanda. When the Kenyan violence broke out in December last year, the usual Mombasa –Kigali route via Kampala was abandoned.
Rwandan car traders have now resorted to using the Dar es Salaam route despite its poor shape. At the Tanzanian side where we spent the night, the only lodges available were nothing to write home about, but they were better than nothing for a desperate traveller.
They go for as cheap as 2,000 Tanzanian shillings, equivalent to Frw1, 000. The second day of the journey found us on our marks ready to start the close to 2,000 kilometre distance from Rusumo to Dar es Salaam.
We employed the services of two armed soldiers to protect us from thugs who usually waylay travellers in the forests between the border and Kahama. To our surprise, the soldiers who carried SMG rifles on their shoulders were dressed in civilian attire, something that is unique among security forces in East Africa.
“How can armed soldiers be allowed to freely carry weapons when they are not wearing their army uniforms? One student asked.
“What if the same people turn against us along the journey?”
But this seemed usual at the border, and the gentlemen accompanied us until they bid us farewell at Kahama.
Tanzania like some East African countries drives on the left side of the road. The topography is flat and the roads straight with very few corners.
Once you travel along this route, do not expect any shorter distance of less than 100 kilometres to reach a sizeable trading centre. It is a vast country with lots of small water bodies, large swamps and there is a lot of vacant land.
Tanganyika got its independence from Britain in December 1961 and merged with Zanzibar in 1964 to form current day Tanzania. Along the way, you can’t resist sights of men herding large heads of cattle especially from Biharamuro and Karagwe districts of Kagera region.
Along the highway, you only meet a few up-country passenger buses among the many different types of heavy trucks which ply this route. At Singida commercial centre, tired travellers usually relax for refreshments at OilCom petrol station which also has a classic supermarket and restaurant.
Until I travelled to Dar by road, I had never known the reason why drivers who regularly ply this route curse the bad roads. Although it is currently under construction, the distance from Singinda to Dodoma 107 kilometres of dirt road full of pot holes.
There is a traffic regulation Tanzania that doesn’t permit heavy vehicles to drive at night We therefore had to stop in the capital city - Dodoma. My journalistic instincts took me around chatting with local residents when we reached Dodoma.
I found out that not so many of them speak English, but speak the national language Swahili fluently which notably differs from the Swahili Ugandans and Kenyans speak.
For instance in Kenya, when you request for an item in a shop and the attendant does not have it, they will reply that ‘Hakuna’, while Tanzanians say ‘Amuna’.
When Tanzanians greet they say, ‘Mambo Vipi’ while ordinary Swahili speakers say ‘Habari gani’.
“Apart from the Parliament and a few other official structures, Dodoma is known for its farming,” said Epina Mnyangali, a farmer in Dodoma.
Dodoma is the capital city of Tanzania, but it is not known in the outside world like the famous commercial capital Dar es Salaam.
“We think that previous leaders made a mistake. They put more attention to Dar es Salaam and little was done in Dodoma, but I’m glad the government has now embarked on program that will develop it to suit a capital city,” Mnyangali said.
We finally arrived in Dar es Salaam the next day, a very hot town. It is a very large city with new beautiful structures and several other older buildings.
Since ours was a summit meant to discuss issues facing East African students, the University of Dar es Salaam hosted us throughout our stay there.
The words huge’ and ‘distant’ are the words you will certainly use to describe travel in Tanzania. You have to travel about 8 kilometres just to get to the city centre from the University.
The University is a very large, and clean with a well kept green environment. It is one of the oldest universities in Africa, with a long list of African leaders having gone through it.
From the warm welcome of the concierge to the smile of its students, this traditional university did not stop amazing us with its high standard of friendly and hospitable culture.
Having arrived on a Saturday, we did not see enough of the city’s business life. Business in town was dull as many people prepare for wedding ceremonies on this day.
Even at Kariakor, which is arguably the biggest shopping centre in town with the cheapest items, several shops remained closed on Saturday.
The long trek was more than just an adventurous trip for the students. It rejuvenated the integration spirit that the East African Community is aspiring for.
“The journey was a unifying factor. It was characterized by interaction among students from the East African member states. We realized that we all share a lot in culture,” said Seka Steven, the President of EACSU and Guild President of Kigali UNILAK, a private university in Kigali.
“The journey was very tiresome and it needs a lot of patience. We all interacted freely and this was a landmark achievement for us as East African students,” said Nawily Mary Elizabeth, the Guild President of Jinja School of Nursing and Midwifery in Uganda.
The cool breeze from the Indian Ocean that neighbours Dar es Salaam, the nice beaches, the huge vacant pieces of land, gave me a true picture of a country that up today still hosts more than a half-million refugees mainly from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.