Friday, 17 April 2009

Escape to Uganda

April 4th

OK folks, the holidays start today! It’s the eve of Genocide Week and as many VSOs as possible are leaving the country. We’re not working any more; we’re on holiday, and for most of us it’s the first time we’ve been outside Rwanda and into another African country.

So by just after eight o’clock I’m with Soraya in the Nyabogogo bus park in Kigali, waiting for our “Jaguar” coach to take us to Kampala in Uganda. The Jaguars are huge vehicles, high off the ground, and are driven with single minded aggression by their drivers. They have a grim safety record; there is usually at least one major fatal accident involving the buses each year. But at the same time the number of journeys involved is huge, and the chances of anything happening to us on any given day are pretty slim. And if we want to go to Uganda we don’t have much other choice – flying is expensive, and to go by local matatas is time consuming and uncertain. So there you are!

As time goes by, more and more of our VSO colleagues turn up to take the same bus. Els is coming with us, but not Tina (her fiancé, Austen, is still with her and flies home tonight from Kigali. Tina will get a plane herself and join us in Kampala in the morning). Kerry and Moira arrive, and Sarah and Amalia, and Bridget. Eventually, to my intense relief, Épi rolls up – the last to arrive, but not actually late. She says she had left her mobile phone at her boyfriend’s house and hence hasn’t been able to contact us. We take up almost the whole of the front section of the bus, which by the time we set off is absolutely packed with people, and everywhere knee deep in luggage.

The ride to Kampala is interesting. I already know the road as far as the Byumba turning, but for most of our group it’s the first time they’ve been this far north in Rwanda. After we leave Kigali we go through a lovely wide, green, grassy valley with loads of cattle grazing. It looks so English; it could be a part of Wiltshire until you look further up the hillsides and see the ubiquitous banana trees against the horizon! Then there is a massive area under rice paddy, bright green after the recent rains, followed by an even bigger area under sugar cane.

The road climbs steadily to a pass, where the road to Byumba diverges to our left and climbs even further up to the top of the hills around us. We descend through another valley and the sugar cane is replaced by endless tea plantations. All the bushes are waist high, and they’re rounded so that they appear as little tufts of green. It’s as if someone has sewn green tufts onto an enormous piece of material, and then draped the material across the landscape. At intervals there are breaks in the tea bushes for harvesters to get access, and every now and then we see women with baskets on the backs picking the leaves. Periodically there are structures by the roadside to shelter baskets and sacks of picked leaves before they are taken to the drying rooms for fermenting and drying before packing. The tea cultivation is so intensive that for many miles we don’t see any other crop at all – not cassava, or bananas, or even cow grass.

Despite our route being the main road – the principal road to Uganda – it is not continuously surfaced, and every so often we bounce and joggle along an earth section. This road is used every day by hundreds of heavy lorries and must surely be the most urgent priority in the whole country for resurfacing.

Then we finally reach the border post at Katuna. Just as at Rusumo, this is an unprepossessing, raggle-taggle strip of cafes, shops, insurance offices and a couple of bank branches. It looks desolate and unloved. We stop at the border gate and everyone has to get out. As we leave the bus we are besieged by young men thrusting biros at us. Els, in an unusual lapse of concentration, thanks the helpful young man for giving her a pen, and is jolted back to reality when he demands 300 francs for it (three times the shop price). We need pens to fill in the exit and entry forms. It sums up the economic plight and poverty in Rwanda that these men – at least half a dozen of them and probably more – seem to make their entire living from selling biros to travellers as they enter and leave the country. (On the return journey we find the same occupation followed by Ugandans on their side of the border).

First we have to queue to fill in and hand in our exit forms to the Rwandan authorities, and our visas are stamped with an exit mark. Then we have to walk three or four hundred yards along the main road to the Ugandan side. The actual border is a small river, with a wide marshy strip along each side. It wouldn’t be an easy place to try to rush the frontier without going through all the formalities! As we walk there are dozens of locals passing; women with baskets on their heads, children in school uniforms, men on bicycles, men herding animals, men carrying goods on their heads. They seem to walk through the frontier with no problem at all.

We are assailed by an army of money changers who are desperate to sell us Ugandan shillings. None of us except Soraya has any Ugandan currency on us, and we assume that these men are touts are will either give us an unfair rate of exchange, or will by sleight of hand make some of our money disappear as they count it out. (The first of these turns out not to be true; their exchange rate is easily as good as any of the banks in Kampala, but we don’t discover this fact until a few days later!) We decide not to change money here at the border, and that even though it is the start of a weekend there will be somewhere more salubrious to change our francs and dollars later in the journey.

On the Ugandan side of the border we all have to queue up again and fill in yet another form. None of us has biros with us (just imagine – nearly ten teachers and not one of them carrying a biro!), but we borrow from the people around us. The Ugandans are thorough and slow with their formalities. There is a huge scrum at the border office; one man is trying to keep control, but what he does is to let a wave of about twenty people in at a time. They all charge the three officials at their booths so it’s really chaotic. On top of everything else there’s a sharp thunderstorm just as we arrive at the Ugandan office, with very heavy rain and almost nowhere to shelter.

There are various other muzungus on our bus, but nobody we know. We are reminded that Uganda is an hour ahead of Rwanda (two hours ahead of you in England), so we all change our watches and phones.

Back on the bus we get out our sweets, crisps and share them around. Immediately we’re in Uganda the whole atmosphere relaxes. People can eat in public; you don’t have to be secretive if you have brought food with you.

Uganda is spacious. It’s so much bigger than Rwanda and the population density is much less (though the rate of population growth, at 4%, is far higher than Rwanda’s and dangerously high by any standards). At the moment we are constantly passing tracts of unused land which just don’t exist in Rwanda.

Southern Uganda is really beautiful. Everything is bright green and well watered. There are high, rolling hills, less steep and less pointed than in Rwanda. Not visible, but nearby, are lovely lakes. It’ reminiscent of the Lake District. We slowly climb up one of the hillsides and over a pass, with towns in the valley looking like toy settlements far below us. Every so often we rattle through a town, and every Ugandan town seems to have rumble strips along the main road to make vehicles travel at a sensible speed. The bus bumps and rattles over these, while everything stashed away on the luggage racks bounces about and threatens to fall on those below.

Eventually the rolling hills fade away and we’re into a flatter area of scrubland, looking vaguely like parts of Akagera Park. If giraffe or antelope came into view we wouldn’t be in the least surprised. But there aren’t any wild animals to see here (though there are lots of small wildlife reserves close by, just off the main road).

By now we’ve been travelling for over six hours and to say we’re jaded is an understatement. The seats are cramped and there’s no way to stretch or change position. The bus is too noisy to try to listen to music. Conversation dies away; we just want to get to Kampala. But we have at least three more hours to go! We start seeing lakes to our right; some are small lakes and others are almost certainly inlets from Lake Victoria itself. For one long stretch we pass through an enormous papyrus swamp, with reeds extending to the horizon on both sides of the coach. The land is very flat after Rwanda; the sky seems to go on forever, and it certainly feels a very different country.

A sudden burst of excitement. We’re all half asleep when, in the middle of a nondescript little town, we pass a massive concrete road sign marking the Equator. We’ve just sailed back into the northern hemisphere, folks! Too bad none of us knew it was coming, so nobody had time to get out their cameras and get proof. But there you are – we’ve driven across the Equator.

By now it’s starting to get dark. We have to find our Backpackers’ Hostel when we reach Kampala; Soraya thinks she knows where it is (she’s stayed there before), but if we miss it and end up in the centre of the city we’ll have to walk a long way to reach it. (Remember that we don’t have any Ugandan money, and the bus hasn’t stopped anywhere we could change it).

By the time it is completely dark we are well into Kampala suburbs. Soraya, who is sitting right at the front of the bus because she tends to get travel sick, talks to the relief crewman and to our delight the bus stops specially for us right outside the Hostel. The hostel is sited on the main road and access couldn’t be easier, but you don’t know these things until you’ve been there at least once!

At the Hostel we are welcomed; Grace, the receptionist, remembers Soraya from when she came at Christmas. Now comes the tricky part – how do we arrange accommodation when we are a group of four, with one man and three girls? The other VSOs are staying elsewhere in Kampala, so our little group is just me, Soraya, Épi, and Els. I’m perfectly willing to have a room to myself, but it will make things more expensive and break up the group atmosphere. I needn’t worry - the girls are lovely about it. Of course we’re all going to share a dorm for four. We just have to respect each other’s privacy when changing or washing, and we all know each other so well that nobody wants to make a fuss about anything. And the Hostel has a four bed dorm specially for us!

There’s a quick negotiation over who has the top bunk beds and who sleeps below. I want to sleep below because I know I’ll be up in the night. So Épi and Soraya, the smallest and lightest of us, work out how to climb into a top bunk when both upper and lower bunks are swathed in mosquito nets. (For those of you reading this blog in England I want to point out that getting up into a high bunk, through mosquito nets, and without disturbing the person below you or his netting, and all done in pitch dark, is no mean feat!).

We eat at the hostel, and Grace is lovely – she allows us credit until we can change our money into shillings. There are definitely advantages to being VSOs and trading on VSO’s reputation! And boy, do we eat! Food is cheap in Uganda, and the menu……. Fillet steak for me; real lasagne and suchlike for the others. And all washed down with cold beer. When Soraya came back to Gitarama after her Christmas trip to Uganda, she told us all that she’d left part of her heart in Uganda. We all agree that we know exactly what she means. Ugandans are without exception friendly and welcoming. Everything is cheaper. Things are available which you simply can’t get in Rwanda. There aren’t so many of the silly cultural restrictions that we have to live with in Uganda. You feel you can relax; that you can breathe more freely. It’s a wonderful feeling!

The Hostel has free hot water for showers. It has become a Uganda n travellers’ institution and has rave write ups in the guide books. And it deserves them. There is internet access – slow, to be sure, and there’s always a queue to use it, but it’s there and we make the most of it.

As we strip off for bed and cover the floor with our clothes and stuff, I can’t tell you how nice it feels to be out of Rwanda, on the verge of a holiday week, with three very good friends. Life is good and Africa rocks!

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