Arriving at Rwanda’s border town just after 1pm, I ready myself for the unreasonably long walk between Rwanda’s Rusumo and Tanzania’s Rusumo Falls. Border crossings in Africa are done on foot, and can be as little as 10 metres (Rwanda-Burundi or Malawi-Zambia) to as much as a kilometer or more. Rwanda’s border with Tanzania is one of the unfortunately long ones, spanning more than a kilometer of hills and valleys with the beautiful Rusumo Falls in the middle.
The Rusumo River divides the Tanzania and Rwanda and is a main crossing point for the hundreds of transports facilitating trade between ports on the Indian Ocean and central Africa. A new bridge and proper roadway are under construction to ease traffic flow and bear the weight of the many trucks that pass between the two countries. It’s now the start of dry season in Rwanda, making my struggle to drag my rolling suitcase up and down hills through piles of dirt and dust all the more pitiful under the hot midday sun. After some time, I decided to make like a Rwandan and hoisted my suitcase on top of my scarf-covered head to continue the kilometer-long walk, earning me several laughs and cheers of approval from the similarly-clad locals working on the bridge construction.
On the Tanzania side of Rusumo Falls I picked up a cab and set off for Benako, 30 minutes down the road. I was hoping to meet my friend Alfred, Benako’s sole English-speaker and resident tour guide, to thank him for his incredible hospitality on my last trip through the border stopover, but was unable to pick out his ticket office.
With no one speaking English and my now passable Kinyarwanda skills fairly useless, I practiced my best charades and the few Kiswahili words I know to try and locate Alfred. “Rafiki Alfred? Ni wapi bas stendi? Taxi? Kahama?” Two men standing near heard Kahama – the town I wanted to head to next – and ushered me to get into their cab. Knowing the journey would take at least 5 hours, I asked how much. “Free fousand,” one of the men replied. To Khama? It has to be more… “No, go Muzani, Khama.”
Travel at night in most East African countries is impossible, as much for security concerns as for the terrible conditions of the roads. If the roads are even paved at all, potholes can be big enough to swallow a child. Now past 2pm, this connection was likely my only way to make it to Kahama in the same day. I’ll have to find Alfred next week on my way back to Rwanda.
The two men and I piled in to the station wagon with two others – three in the two front seats and three in the back, and set off for Kahama. The men struggled in English to ask where I was from and I asked the same. “Congo,” they said. “Ahh, donc vous parlez francais?” I said, and was happy to finally have a secret language in a foreign land. A few hundred meters down the road, the car slowed and two more jumped in without the car ever coming to a stop. Now four in the front, four in the back, the Tanzanians laughed, “This is Africa,” a common phrase throughout the continent. But the two Congolese scoffed back, “Non, c’est pas l’Afrique, c’est Tanzanie!” (No, it’s not Africa – it’s Tanzania!) “It’s not like this in the Congo?” I asked, a bit incredulous. “Ici c’est disordre,” Daniel replied, and told me that in the Congo, things like this are illegal, and the police enforce the law. He was in the middle of explaining more when the car stopped abruptly and three more people hopped in the trunk of the station wagon. This is Africa, I thought – full of contrast, possibility, and irony.
After arriving in Khama around 10:00pm, I set out for an early morning departure at 4:30am. In public school, the cool kids sat at the back of the bus and coveted the bumps that would send us flying in the air. At 5am on a dusty dirt road in Tanzania, I was none too thrilled to be jostled around. One particularly terrible bump ejected me two and a half feet in the air where I made painful acquaintance with the baggage carriages above, which effectively set the tone for the rest of the 10 hour bus trip.
For hours the bus rumbled and clamored down dusty dirt roads en route to Arusha. I watched the sun rise over Tanzania’s flat savannahs and was reminded of the beautiful sunrises and sunsets I relished in Malawi; brilliant oranges and reds illuminated the horizon punctuated here and there by magnificent baobob trees. This is Africa.
At one point, the bus turned on to a stretch of paved road, and the bus and its inhabitants heaved a sigh of relief. Sadly, our relative comfort wouldn’t last long; after a few kilometers the bus turned once more onto a dirt road. Almost in unison, the women on the bus produced scarves from bags and wrapped them around their hair, mouths, and noses, making the bus once more a sea of colourful African fabrics.
Rolling up to the middle of nowhere, the bus stopped sharply. Most of the bus disembarked in search of an ‘African toilet.’ I walked through a ditch and into a bit of a corn field in search of a spot where my glowing bottom wouldn’t be so much of a spectacle. “Ohhhhh mzungu” (Ohhh white person) several people sighed at me. Assuming it was the usual “wow, look at the mzungu,” I carried on watering the crops. As I spent the next thirty minutes on the bus picking strange and prickly seeds off my clothing, I laughed and realized the “Ohhhh mzungu,” was more of a ohhh silly white person sigh!
Further afield, a clever business person boarded the bus and began selling his wares – a common sight in busses across Tanzania. I was particularly impressed with this man’s choice of product; gravol and menthol muscle relaxant rub… he obviously knew his clientele. Five hours in to an “African Massage” (any sort of bumpy travel in Africa – bike, car, moto, or bus), many were eager to buy.
Having traveled from Khama to Arusha before, I knew the trip shouldn’t take more than 10-12 hours. Several times I asked the people around me what time we would arrive, and always they would reply 10 or 11 pm. Having set out early in the morning, I expected to arrive between 4-6pm, and was thoroughaly horrified at spending an extra and unanticipated 5 hours on the bus. Around 4pm, we arrived in a more industrial looking town and I strained to catch a glimpse of the town name. My seat mate leaned over and said “Arusha.” “We’re here?!” I asked, “I thought we were arriving at 10?” “Yes, 10pm,” he said, showing me his phone, which read 16:04. … Swahili time doesn’t quite work like our time, a good thing to know before setting off on day long bus trips. I happily drank the water I had been rationing as we pulled into the bus station.
Next stop, Dar Es Salam and the Indian Ocean!