Bonjour, mes amis!
I’m just back from a trip to Rwanda, a tiny French-speaking country in Central/Eastern Africa.
Last week, I realized I needed to renew my 90-day Kenyan visa over the weekend. The way to do this is to leave the country and come back! So, I made plans to visit Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with some friends. Problem is, mid-week the friends informed me that they couldn’t come along – I needed to make other plans for a trip. My host Dad’s brother’s fiancée (that will be on the test) is living and working in Rwanda, so I decided to visit her. That day, I departed on a bus due west!
The bus ride. Hmm….how do I start….well, first off, it was 27 hours long! Here’s the route from Google Maps – ignore their estimate at the trip duration – maybe 15 hours in a perfect developed world, but not here.
The bus was creaky, loud, and smelly. When it rained, a hole in the ceiling allowed drops of water to pelt me in the face as I tried to sleep. Some dude used my shoulder as a pillow a couple of times. Feeling like you wouldn’t last 27 hours? I haven’t even told you the best part yet! At night, cockroaches come out to feast on bits of food left behind by travelers. And these things were huge. AS BIG AS YOUR HEAD! (if your head is roughly 3 inches in length) The guy sitting next to me told me they are a “tourist attraction”.
I had been relaxing with my shoes off – after the discovery of the roaches, I put them back on as fast as I could!
The bus driver pulled off maneuvers most people only have the guts to try in Grand Theft Auto 4. I found the perfect tune on my iPod to accompany the crazy driving.
Why did I chose a bus over a plane? Well, part of it is the scenery. I absolutely love adventure – long road trips included. And I saved almost $200 by choosing this route. It’s a decision I’d make 10 out of 10 times.
And as I envisioned, the drive was beautiful and I had fun chatting with locals on the bus. Southern Uganda – after the capital city, Kampala – was especially pretty. Banana trees were EVERYWHERE!
And those very same bananas were being sold on the roadside.
It got hilly, especially as we got closer to the Uganda-Rwanda border.
This mountain had a dark cloud at the top of it that made it look like a volcano!
These cool-looking palm trees made several appearances -As did never-ending fields of sugar -and tea….
We crossed the legendary Kenya-Uganda railroad line. And I got to see a real-life boma! (hut with grass-thatched roof)
I saw mountain gorillas on the drive! Four of them were hanging out on the road! The bus didn’t stop and honked the horn loudly to make them scatter away. They retreated into a deep forest of trees. Happened way too fast to catch a pic!
A little hard to see, but this is faraway view of Mt. Elgon – East Africa’s largest solitary volcano.
The trip tired me out and made me a little zany. Once I remember reading the label on a bottle of water as “Probably Ugandan” instead of “Proudly Ugandan.” Upon entrance into Uganda from Kenya at 5am, I forgot to get an entry stamp at immigration. And no one checked my passport to verify anything! So, I enjoyed 10 hours on Ugandan’s roads as an illegal alien! The folks at the other end of the border gave me a hard time, but I maintained that it’s certainly Uganda’s responsibility to make sure I get an entry stamp! (Note: on the way back, 3 people checked my passport! I like to think my case fostered some change)
Here’s the Kenya-Uganda border. Literally a gate you walk through.
I entered Rwanda after dark. Upon entry, the bus started driving on the right side of the road. What a relief to drive on the side of the road I’m used to. Rwanda seems very stable to me just because of this!
We drove through hills and mountains and arrived at Kigali, a city nestled in between a bunch of hills.
Kigali is beautiful. Anywhere you are, a gorgeous view is had.
Kinyarwanda and French (in that order) are the languages of choice in Kigali. Which makes it hard to communicate! I had to use the French I know to get by, as very little English is spoken. Ça Va?
Mototaxis, or simply “motos,” are used by everyone, not like in Nairobi where it is a novelty enjoyed mostly by tourists or on special occasions. I took several rides on these things. Driving was actually pretty safe and helmets are a requirement for both driver and passenger. Here’s a pic I snapped riding one.
BREAKING NEWS. Rwandans stop at traffic lights. I repeat. Rwandans stop at traffic lights.
There is a scene you simply NEVER SEE in Nairobi. That’s a group of cars completely stopped and waiting patiently for a red light to turn green. Traffic laws are actually enforced in Rwanda, and driving is safer and jam-free as a result.
I hung out with Angie and her fiancé Michael in addition to Angie’s co-workers. We had a lot of fun over the weekend sharing meals, late nights, and good times.
One morning, Angie, Michael, and I visited the Rwandan Genocide Memorial. Amazingly, almost 1 million Rwandans were murdered within a period of 90 days in 1994. Some of the memorial was hard to process, including bones and pictures of the deceased. What’s worse, the genocide was entirely caused by colonial powers. History says that the Belgians divided the Rwandans into two groups – Hutu & Tutsi upon colonization. The distinction? Wealth. If you owned more than 10 cows, you became a Hutu. Less than 10 and you became a Tutsi. The divide fostered jealousy and hate. ID cards were issued – and decades later these same ID cards were used by perpetrators of the genocide to weed out Tutsis for brutal murder.
One day, I had some time on my own and decided to walk around randomly. I found a dimly-lit eatery called “Fantastic Restaurant.” Now, I think we all know that when a restaurant is has ‘fantastic’ in its name, it’s probably not. But this place was an exception. Delicious, delicious food – and a buffet! I stuffed myself with rice, yams, beef, spinach, and cabbage. All for 1300 Rwandan Francs – about $2. It was definitely not a place a white guy frequents – I had an audience of stares during my meal!
Here’s some currency – a 5,000 Rwandan Franc note and a 20,000 Ugandan Schilling note, both worth around $8.
Rwandans were a little bit shy/rude compared to Kenyans, but maybe I just perceived it that way because they don’t speak English. The friends I hung out with were mostly Kenyan, but most of the Rwandans I exchanged conversation with were nice enough. Angie said that even though Rwandans act like they like everybody, there is a lot of build-up tension, especially between the Hutus and Tutsis.
One lady gave me a hard time. She asked me what I thought was, “Habari?” – Swahili for “How are you?” – so I replied, “Nzuri” – “fine.” She then said – “Nkt! (clucking sound made when angry) I speak in your own language and you don’t understand me!” And curtly turned away from me to complain to her friends. Apparently she had asked, “How are you?” What a cold soul!
My 4-day trip went by really fast, and before I knew it, I was back on another bus. And the second bus was a much better experience than the first. I switched carriers – from Akamba to Kampala Coach. Instead of water spitting on me in the night, I got a free water bottle at the onset of my journey! A welcome difference.
I met a Ugandan rap/hip-hop on the ride. He goes by Akyaman, wore a Rolex, but apparently didn’t have the $$$ to fly! He tried to convince me, accompanied by many f-bombs, that he was a popular household name in Uganda. He gave me his number and wanted to “crash at my crib” next time he was in Nairobi. I told him I have a 2-year old roommate. Just checked out his most well-known song on YouTube – and it has a whopping 34 views! What a celebrity, in his own little world…
The trip back to Nairobi took a different route – through Eldoret – a Kenyan city that marathoners train in year-round because of the high altitude.
I arrived back in time to celebrate the birthday of Tracy, one of my co-workers. I took my first lukewarm shower in a week that night and it felt great.
It felt great to travel such a long distance on my own. I’m feeling much more self-reliant and secure with myself with each step I take here in Africa. My ultimate dream is to take a bus from Nairobi all the way down to South Africa now.
Now to switch gears away from my vacation.
An Al-Shabab update. A week ago, two grenade attacks separated by one day rocked Nairobi. The US Embassy has warned Americans to steer clear of public places, and I’m taking their advice for the most part. A week after all this happened, security has really ramped up in the city. I’m frisked entering any shopping mall or supermarket.
Back in Nairobi, I visited the Kenya National Archives the other day.
Very cool place with a lot of historical artifacts and information. Here is a Maasi warrior’s buffalo-skin shield and wood club.
A Kisii stone carving – just like the ones at my old place of work, Global Village Collection! Can’t verify that this one is certified fair trade, though…
Funny story about these earrings – I asked a museum employee what they’re made out of – and he said, “Let me show you.” He then led me outside of the museum and pointed at a beautiful tree with purple blossoms.
Wood! The first “Presidential Chair” – sat in by Jomo Kenyatta. There were colorful contemporary paintings, too.
Last but not least, I’ll fill you in on my work. I’ve been working a lot refining financial forecasts, donation utilization reports, and business plan stuff, as Maono is getting closer to negotiating a huge amount of investment and donation in our organization. I’ve worked on a newsletter and member survey for AMPK (the Association of Microfinance Professionals in Kenya). This week, I’ve also started work with Scott on his Master’s degree, which will consist of me surveying a bunch of microfinance institutions in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and Ethiopia.
Until next time!