Swivs Travels: Uganda 2003 - Part Nine

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Those of you who have been around and reading the Post for the last three years may remember that in 2000 I took myself off to Africa for the second half of my Gap year. This year I returned.

We had known for a little while that Rwanda had a presidential election coming up, but whilst in Kabale we discovered exactly when it was due to be - the day we were planning to leave the country. This led to a swift re-jigging of our plans, so that we would arrive back in Kabale the day before the Rwandan elections. There are some countries in Africa I wouldn't have a problem being in on election day - Uganda would be fine, so in all probability would Tanzania. Kenya and Zanzibar would not. We thought Rwanda would, in all likelihood, be quite safe (everyone we met kept saying: 'but you are white, you will be safe') but we didn't really fancy trying to travel on election day - and we needed to be back in Uganda by then in order to visit Lake Bunyoni, and potentially Kamuronko again, before heading back to Kampala. I think it was a decision my mother appreciated, she likes being able to sleep at night.

We were headed to Kigali - the Rwandan capital - for a couple of nights, and decided to travel there by matatu, as the bus from Kampala left a little later than we wanted to be heading off (in the event it reached the border just before us anyway). It was a most interesting journey. After waiting in the middle of town for the matatu to fill up, the engine was started, and the vehicle headed off, not down the road to the Rwandan border but into the back streets of Kabale and a mechanic's yard.

When we arrived, a box of tins of shoe polish was brought out of the matatu. Kiwi black shoe polish to be precise. The tins were then secreted in a small compartment just behind the front seats, and in the glove box. The box was folded tidily and stuffed into the back of the front seats - the seat in the middle that folds forward to be a little armrest/table - and secured shut with washing line. We then headed for the border. Fiona and I just looked at each other while all this was going on, stunned by the surrealism. We later dissolved into uncontrollable giggles - when we were well out of sight of the matatu. We were smuggling shoe polish into Rwanda.

This fact did, however, make the journey the best we experienced in three weeks. When we arrived at the border, we had to get out of the matatu, do the emigration bit, hike across the border and then do the immigration bit. There was a long queue at emigration - the bus from Kampala having just arrived. Being British we joined the end of the queue. After a couple of minutes the conductor of a matatu came up to us and said, 'no, no, you join this queue'. Um, which queue? Oh this queue, that you're having us start? OK. We were then escorted across the border and through Rwandan immigration back to the matatu. It is entirely possible that we kept to the speed limit for the rest of the journey, apart from when we were driving away from the routine police roadblocks.

Rwanda immediately appeared very different to Uganda, and very beautiful. The hills were not as high as in the Kabale area, and the plains between them were a sea of tea plantations. We later discovered that the further south you go the higher the hills get, the narrower the valleys and, by extension, the more windy the roads. Fortunately, by keeping near the speed limit we didn't spend too much time on the wrong side of the road - although the fact that we were now in a former Belgian mandate and therefore driving on the right confused us ever so slightly. It took us till that night to remember that we should have turned our watches back an hour on crossing the border, which shows how much attention we were paying to time by then.

The country was also obviously much poorer than Uganda or Tanzania, in the same way - according to Fiona - that Kenya is immediately obviously much richer than either. Everything - apart from the roads, which the aid agencies keep in good nick, was more dilapidated and crammed on top of everything else. Kigali was a huge sprawling city - the epitome of an African city, its centre up on one of the hills, with a few good suburbs and many shanties and slums wending outwards.

The matatu took us up into the centre of Kigali - fortunately, as we didn't really want to have to make the half-hour hike up the hill along the main road from the bus park. We found a guesthouse, and established the next useful fact - Rwanda was going to be more expensive to travel in than Uganda. By European standards of course, it was cheap, but coming from Uganda it was quite a shock.

We spent that afternoon finding our feet (and an forex bureau) in Kigali, a city that still features evidence of the battering it suffered during the 1994 genocide and war. We also realised how much Uganda had cleaned itself up by comparison to its neighbours. There are very few beggars on the streets of Kampala, and almost no traders trying to sell you souvenir goodies. Arriving in Kigali, with its masses of street kids, black market money changers and desperate traders reminded me of the chaotic nature of Dar es Salaam. Yet despite the craziness, I never felt insecure. We were warmly welcomed everywhere we went, and quite often looked after without any expectation of return.

Swivs' Travelogue Archive


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