This past weekend I took a bus up to Musanze in the northern province to track gorillas with Samantha and Bea. It was a pretty damn expensive outing (permits to see the gorillas cost $750 USD EACH), but it was truly an experience of a lifetime. I put together a slideshow of some of my favourite photos. Click through to view them in full-screen with captions.
Many Rwandans I’ve spoken to say Kampala is more exciting than Kigali. Mind you, they wouldn’t want to live there (or they’re happy to have moved back home after 1994), but they acknowledge that there’s a little bit more going on than in their tidy and well-mannered hometown. The clubs are better, the shopping is better, the restaurants are better.
Picking the first place to travel on my three-month permit was a bit of a strategic choice. I didn’t want to shell out for a plane ticket (like Canada, air travel seems to be a little on the pricey side here) so I wanted to go somewhere accessible by bus.
At nine hours away, Kampala fit the bill. Exciting and bus-able.
My intense fascination with Rwandan busses is well-documented by this point, and the trip to Kampala certainly did not disappoint.
It was one of those hilarious 11-hours-but-supposed-to-be-9-hours character-building experiences that you try to tell people about but it can’t really be described. We paid $12 CDN each for a ticket and got an education in the rutted, bouncy dirt roads of rural Rwanda and Uganda, the some-what confusing exit and entry protocol at the border, the interesting music videos that accompany Ugandan R&B and hip-hop music (big booties are universal!) and snacks. Lots of snacks. I ate almost an entire package of chocolate wafers imported from Dubai out of sheer boredom and felt really ill.
But it was worth it. Here’s what I took away from my time in Uganda.
1. The traffic!
Kampala’s traffic makes walking in Kigali feel like a pastoral stroll. Sidewalks are inconsistent, traffic laws are merely suggestions and rush hour lasts for hours. And you can’t take a moto because they don’t carry an extra helmet and do things like drive into oncoming traffic to avoid a congested lane. We spent most of the weekend in cabs. There was no walking. Actually, we tried to walk once for 30 minutes and I almost got hit by a moto.
2. Have you heard of Buganda?
I hadn’t. Turns out, the Kingdom of Buganda is a subnational, traditional kingdom covering the central geographic area of Uganda, including Kampala. There are 6 million Baganda people who are members of the kingdom, which is a cultural and non-political entity in modern Uganda. The Buganda king has a largely ceremonial role in the modern state, with his own parliament and palace. However, the current king does not actually live in Mengo Palace because it is where Idi Amin killed 200,000 people in a secret prison during his reign of terror from 1971-1979.
3. Speaking of the secret prison…
You can go see it, and it’s creeeppyy. Just look at that tunnel of darkness. Also, if you haven’t seen “The Last King of Scotland,” which is about Idi Amin, it’s a really good movie.
4. Radio, Buganda-style
An unexpected side bonus of our trip to the Buganda parliament was a tour of the kingdom’s radio station. It has two channels, 89.2 and 88.8 FM, and a whole staff of journalists and DJs who broadcast news and tunes 24 hours per day.
5. The National Mosque is a thing of beauty
We paid 10,000 Ugandan schillings ($4.20 CDN) to take a full tour of the National Mosque, which was built by former Libyan president Muammar al-Gaddafi. A welcoming woman provided us with head coverings that were similar to a khimar, covering our head (but not our face), neck, shoulders and arms. She also helpfully extended my skirt from my mid-calf to down my ankle with extra cloth. We climbed up the minaret and took in an amazing view of the city at sunset.
6. Party down
After googling “good clubs in Kampala” extensively, I determined that we needed to spend Saturday night at a place called Ange Noir. Turns out, in true shape-shifting club fashion, that it’s now called Guvernment. Or is it Guvenor? I don’t know. But it was awesome. We went out expecting that we might have to fend off random harassing dudes (just like what happens to women in Canadian clubs, real talk), but no one bothered us. It was actually so refreshing. We danced and danced with Ugandan ladies to Rhianna and Beyoncé until 4 a.m. and I drank a lot of Nile Special beer. The party didn’t even start until 1 a.m. — the Real Madrid football match (a championship game, apparently) had to finish first.
7. Source of the Nile
After three hours of sleep post-Guvernment/Guvenor, we got in a van and headed out to Jinga, to see where the Nile River begins. We took a one-hour boat tour with a guide whose narration left something to be desired, but I got to play with my telephoto lens and take some interesting wildlife shots, such as the one above. The Nile River experience was definitely the most touristy, and most expensive, thing that we did our whole weekend in Uganda.
I’ve been putting off taking the bus in Kigali until I have a sense of the city. I’m not so great at taking the bus in a new place — I nearly always get off too early or too late, or hop on the bus going in the wrong direction. I’d rather walk five kilometres knowing which direction I’m going in than get on a five-minute bus ride that I’m not confident about.
But yesterday after lunch, I randomly decided that it was going to be the day I tackled the bus. Better yet, I was going to take it out of town, by myself. *YOLO!*
The Nyamata Church is a genocide memorial in Rwanda in a small town of the same name about 30 minutes outside of Kigali. It is a Catholic church where the Interwahamwe militia slaughtered 10,000 people seeking refuge on April 10, 1994. The tragedy at Nyamata Church is mentioned in all major accounts of the genocide and today, the church is a prominent memorial site.
My guidebook (the Bradt guide, the only English-language guidebook solely on Rwanda in publication) said it was an easy trip out of town from the Kicukiro taxi stand.
It seemed like a good place to start. So off I went.
I take a 900 Franc ($1.44 CDN) moto trip across town from Simba Café in downtown Kigali to the Kicukiro taxi stand, where the guidebook tells me I’ll be able to catch the right bus out of town. But as soon I get off the moto, I become acutely aware that I really have no idea how to figure out which bus goes where. They all look the same and the numbers don’t mean anything to me and there are people swarming in every direction, adding an extra sense of chaos to the whole experiment.
I wander over to a couple of busses, asking the drivers if they are going to Nyamata. Unfortunately for me, I pronounce it NYE-ah-mata instead of NEE-ah-mata, so several people don’t understand where I want to go.
A young man working for one of the bus companies taps my arm and asks, “Sista, where you going?” I tell him Nyamata and he replies in a confusing mix of English and Kinyarwanda that his bus is going there. I pause and consider whether I should get on the bus because it’s not entirely clear that he’s going where I want to go. But he keeps repeating Nyamata, or at least I think he is, so it seems like a reasonable bet.
I pay 200 Francs ($0.32 CDN) and get on the minibus. I listen to Enrique Iglesias and that really good One Direction song (“You light up my world like nobody else…” etc. etc.) playing over the speakers as we drive through neighbourhoods I’ve never seen before. Everyone sits quietly and people tap my shoulder gently when they need to get off, and I quickly figure out the musical chairs that keeps people moving on and off the bus smoothly (everyone gradually moves to the back of the bus, hello, fellow Carleton students/OC Transpo riders, please observe). This is great.
But I don’t end up in Nyamata. After a 15 minute drive, I’m still in Kigali, at a central bus station that seems to be the meeting spot between the inner-city busses and the busses that go out to the provinces. I later learn that it’s the Nyabugogo bus station — the busiest transportation hub in the whole country. I’ve managed to jump in with both feet without even realizing it.
Everyone gets off the bus and the driver points me in the general direction of “over there.” Noticing my obvious confusion and that I’m the only mzungu in sight, a few young men swarm me, trying to convince me to get on their bus.
This is their job. All the bus companies employ men who remind me of carnival barkers, standing near the passenger door of their bus yelling out destinations and trying to get people to purchase a ticket. The busses don’t leave until they are full, or as full as they’re going to get, and so these guys really hustle to fill their seats.
After walking out of one ticket office because I wasn’t confident the bus was going to Nyamata, I purchase a 600 Franc ($0.96 CDN) ticket from a man who speaks a reassuring amount of English and has helpfully posted a sign in the window of his bus that clearly outlines the destinations. Nyamata is first on the list.
They pack the bus to the gills. I’m sitting in the very back row with three other men and our elbows unavoidably dig into each other for 30 minutes. I don’t get this close to people I already know.
I try to relax on the bus ride and embrace the feeling of discomfort — this is why we travel, right? To stretch ourselves? It feels vaguely miraculous that I even got on the right bus and I focus my thoughts on that small accomplishment.
After 45 minutes of craning my neck to make sure that I don’t somehow miss my stop, I get off the bus in Nyamata and drivers of all kinds swoop in offering rides, “Sista! Moto? Taxi?” I put on my sunglasses, shake them off and march purposefully out of the bus station without a clue where I’m going.
When in doubt, play it cool. You know? Maybe no one will notice this is my first excursion anywhere, alone, in Africa.
I wander up and down the main street of Nyamata for 15 minutes until I concede to myself that I don’t know where the genocide memorial is located. It’s here somewhere and I did not get on two busses to not see it. The guidebook did not elaborate on directions beyond “get on a minibus to Nyamata.” Helpful.
I walk into one of only two motels in Nyamata, the Peace Motel, and ask one of the restaurant servers to point me in the direction of the memorial. She colludes with a local bike taxi (not a moto taxi) and tells me that if I give the guy on the bike 200 Francs, he’ll take me there.
If my first travel motto is “play it cool,” my second travel motto is “know when to pay up.” This was a moment to pay up unless I wanted to wander in the hot sun all afternoon.
I get on the back of a rather creaky bicycle — I have to ask him how to properly sit on (side-saddle or straddle? Straddle) — and off we go. This is a wise choice because it turns out there is no sign on the main road pointing to the genocide memorial that I can see; it’s a down a dirt side road next to a school.
The bike taxi stops in front a quiet, rather nondescript brick building with a large genocide remembrance banner plastered across its gate and a guard lazing in a chair. This is not what I was expecting.
I walk into the church and I’m completely alone. There’s no tour guide waiting for me, which the guidebook said there would be. I can’t even find the donation box (the memorials are all funded by charity).
The memorial is surreal. The pews of the church are stacked with the decaying clothing and personal belongings of people who were killed. I wander around the pews and try to process what I see. I know what happened here but I have a hard time connecting to it or feeling anything at all. I take out my camera and start taking pictures because there is no one here to tell me not to.
I go into the basement and stare at the rows of skulls and bones stacked in a clinical white case. They’re just sitting there. No plaque, no information, glass doors thrown open so you could touch them, if you wanted. Just bones.
I wander behind the church where there are mass graves to bury 41,000 people who were murdered in the church and the town of Nyamata. There are baskets of flowers laid on the graves but some have been knocked over by the wind. Blown leaves are scattered on the tile surfaces. I get the sense that no one has been back here in a few days to tidy up.
As I’m crouched down taking pictures of the tombs I hear a choir singing in the school next door. Music drifts out through the school windows and sounds (to these non-religious ears) like a hymn. It’s Sunday after all. The whole experience becomes even more surreal, as if there is a soundtrack for this moment, and I suddenly feel very alone.
I wander around the graves for a few minutes longer and decide to leave because I feel unsettled. Sad and lonely. Maybe even a little spooked.
After checking out a few main shops it’s clear that there’s not much else to see in Nyamata, so I decide that maybe it’s time to go back to Kigali. I could try to find Ntarama, the site of another genocide memorial, but it’s late afternoon and chances are, a guide won’t be working there either. And if I’m honest with myself, I don’t know if I have the energy for another memorial.
I return to the bus station and immediately a young man, who looks oddly similar to Michael B. Jordan, pops out in front of me, “Sista! Chegiri?” (I’m glad I noticed previously that the locals pronounce Kigali differently than we do.)
He leads me through the rows of busses to a smiling girl selling tickets for a half-empty bus. I’m comforted by her presence. It’s nice to see a woman working on the bus because it doesn’t seem very common. Someone makes a joke in Kinyarwanda as soon as I board and everyone laughs and smiles at me with a friendly look. I feel welcome and less lonely now, even though I have no idea what just happened.
I grab a single aisle seat by the window (more breathing room) and watch the young men hustle to sell the remaining seats on the bus. They whistle and holler and jump on and off the bus, managing to convince about 10 more people to get on board. I chat with one of the ticket sellers about being from Canada.
After about 15 minutes of ticket theatrics, the bus leaves for Kigali three-quarters full. I can see out the window this time. The countryside is so green. Goats graze on the grass next to the road, with one leg on a cord tied to a tree so they can’t wander into traffic. We pass a bar named Face Book and another named Twitter. A woman sits with her family in a line in front of their house; she has one breast out and is feeding her baby. I think about women at home who drape themselves in blankets before daring to breastfeed in public.
People on the bus rap their knuckles on the window when they want to get off and the bus makes seemingly random stops in the middle of nowhere to let people on. I keep watching for the signal from the people on the road for the bus to stop, but I keep missing it.
The bus pulls back into Kigali to the very same bus stop in Kicukiro where I started my journey. At this point I decide I was possibly duped and that I could have probably grabbed a bus going to Nyamata from this taxi stand, like the guidebook said. But then I wouldn’t have enjoyed One Direction with fifteen Rwandans. I grab the first moto I see, feeling suddenly tired from the afternoon and grateful to be back in a place that now feels familiar in comparison.
As soon as I get back to my apartment, I start thinking about where I should go next.
I’m learning a lot about how journalism works in Rwanda and how it is practiced differently from in Canada. Although I’m only finishing my second week at the New Times, I expect the biggest lesson I will take away from this experience is how to adapt myself and the way I work to fit into a foreign culture. Fortunately, everyone at the newspaper has been very kind in sharing contacts and advice.
Here are some of stories I’ve written since I arrived in Kigali and started work at the New Times.
- Rwanda government announces ambitious plan to end malaria deaths by 2018 (May 7, 2014)
- Rwanda meets UN Millennium Development Goal on maternal health by 2015 deadline (May 9, 2014)
- New travel visa announced for expats living in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya (May 13, 2014)
- Performance cards to tackle erratic taxi-moto operators (May 14, 2013)