by Shayera Dark
The minute the bus that was to ferry me from Nairobi to Kigali pulled up to the front of the bus station, my heart sank to my stomach. Too late now to make changes or demand the 4,300 Kenyan shillings fare ($42) I had paid back. I looked down the narrow street teeming with people, buses, dust, and filth, hoping I was mistaken about the bus, praying a newer, cleaner one would come driving up the narrow, dusty road with a Nairobi-Uganda-Kigali sign. No such luck.
In despair, I turned to confirm from a bus company employee, who had asked earlier if I was travelling to Kigali, whether the dusty, big blue bus was indeed going to Kigali. (I knew it was because I read the sign, but I was in denial.) The man smiled, nodding an emphatic yes before motioning I follow him. We walked over to the other side of the bus, where he unlocked the luggage compartment with an enormous Allen key.
With my luggage in and my travel documents sighted, I boarded the bus. The lady behind me, however, wasn’t so fortunate. She spoke in a language I assumed was Swahili, her tone and gestures indicating she was pleading about a missing yellow fever certificate. The man shook his head, rattled off a string of words while at the same time pointing to a building. I figured he was directing her to where she could acquire a new certificate.
Approaching my VIP seat, a slight frown materialised on my face. Did the bus company double-book or what?
“You’re in my seat. This is number two,” I said to the woman, holding up my ticket.
She looked up at me and said something in Swahili. I caught only the words “seat sixteen” and assumed she was asking where it was.
“It’s somewhere behind,” I replied, then pointed to seat number three and four beside mine and seat number five and six behind mine to illustrate the seating arrangement. “The numbers are on the wall.”
The woman nodded, picked up her bags and vacated my seat. Again, my brows furrowed in a mild frown on the realisation that images of the bus’s interior online were unmoored from reality. There was no retractable table and the seat, a grey, tired cushion of a thing, was lopsided and slightly deflated from use. The only benefits a VIP seat accorded me were ample leg room and no seat mates.
With a sigh, I lowered myself into the seat then peered out of the window, watching passengers get on board. I spotted the woman from before, holding a brand new yellow fever certificate, proof that across Africa some things were the same. With the right amount of cash, processes that should normally take days or weeks can be expedited.
The driver jerked open his door, climbed in, and took his seat. I glanced behind, the bus was almost full. It was a few minutes past noon and I couldn’t wait for the twenty-some hour trip to begin. More especially, I couldn’t wait for the A/C to come and put an end to the dust.
Thankfully, in the last couple of days Nairobi hadn’t been hot but had been dry, and on this day windy. And with the wind came the dust that was slowly turning the placket on my blouse an off white. After wiping dust off my handbag a second time, I gave up. Before long, the bus roared to life. My first wish had come true, the journey was finally starting but to my chagrin the windows remained opened. A twenty hour trip with no A/C? Was this for real? I was saying to myself when another thought butted in: “You asked for an adventure. Here’s your adventure. Good or bad, you’ll look back someday and laugh, especially at the bad.”
The driver’s mate handed me a small bottle of water and a pack of juice which I slid in the seat pocket. With no toilets on board, I knew I would touch neither until I was in Kigali.
My mood had lightened and I plucked my camera from my handbag, taking shots from my exalted position: Roadside markets catering to second-hand clothes and shoes. Click. Crowded bus park. Click. Long stretches of greenery and extensive parks. Click. Click. After a dozen or so shots, the scene grew monotonous and I resorted to just looking until I fell asleep.
We were driving into a rest stop in Nakuru, a city 157 kilometres from Nairobi, when I awoke.
Passengers alighted to either relieve themselves and/or buy food from the restaurants and shops nearby. I got off the bus and made a beeline for the restroom, where a small crowd had assembled. The dimly lit corridor stank of urine. A cubicle opened, revealing a modern pit toilet that harkened back to my secondary school days.
On impulse, I backed out of the restroom and, once in the open yard, walked across the road in search of a hotel or shopping mall. If there ever was anyone who detested public toilets, it was me. A road trip meant abstaining from liquids the day before travel. Clearly, my little ritual hadn’t worked, something I suspected had to do with the plums I had eaten that morning.
Less than ten feet from the road, I found a small, unassuming hotel with a sign advertising its one-hundred plus existence. The security woman at the gate directed me to the reception, and the receptionist, without posing any question, to the ladies. No foul smells greeted me at the door, a sign of cleanliness. I chose the first toilet, cautiously pushing the door open. Never had the sight of a clean WC brought joy that rivalled that of a new mother’s to my heart.
Minutes later, I was back on the bus, relieved and ready to continue the safari. The bus began moving again, and soon—amid the loud African music spilling from the overhead speaker—I fell into a long slumber, waking up intermittently but mostly managing to stay unconscious.
Night had fallen hard when the driver’s mate tapped my shoulder.
“We’re at the Ugandan border,” he said. “Immigration needs to stamp your passport.”
I rubbed my eyes, not caring if I smudged my eye makeup. At this point, keeping up appearances was the least of thing on my mind.
The immigration office was a small, bright room. A TV hung high on wall, broadcasting local news. I joined the line for the Kenyan exit stamp. It moved quickly and in less than ten minutes I was on the Ugandan queue.
“You’re Nigerian?” a young immigration officer asked through the glass barrier. “Where do you work?”
I would answer a bunch of standard immigration questions before being directed to another office for “verification purposes.”
A huge man with a jolly mien ushered me into a smaller room. He stretched his hand and I handed him my passport.
“So what brings you to Uganda?”
“I’m transiting to Rwanda.”
“Why are you going to Rwanda when there’s so much to do in Uganda?” His eyes were fixed on the form he was filling on my behalf.
“What’s there to see in Uganda?” I asked.
The driver’s mate popped his head through the lone window. “We’re going to let you go,” he announced. “There’s another bus coming from Kenya that you can join.”
Mortified, I replied, “He’s almost done.”
“We’re almost done,” the immigration officer said, and the man vanished into the night.
Completing the form in its entirety would have taken less than a minute if only the immigration officer wasn’t pitching Uganda as a tourist attraction and focused solely on it. When his pen hovered a few inches above the form, I wished I possessed telepathic powers to will him to keep writing. After another minute, one that seemed like five, the form was filled. The man wished me a safe trip and I returned to the glass barrier to have my passport stamped and biometrics taken.
Back on the bus, with the driver absent, I informed the passenger ahead of me I was making a quick trip to the john and alighted. At the intersection separating the female and male toilet sat a man behind a desk. He mumbled the admittance fee in Ugandan and Kenya currencies. I was twenty Kenyan shillings short in coins but he accepted my money without drama.
As the only occupant with several toilets at my disposal, I walked over to the fourth door, a calculation based on the proximity to the exit. Too near meant frequent use. Too far also meant frequent use by people—which happens to be many—thinking they’re rarely used. The middle, like the little bear’s porridge, seemed just right. With a slight push, the door gave way to a clean pour-flush toilet fitted with a steel SaTo pan. In other words, a pit toilet with a steel bowl. An instantaneous decision had to be made: Return to the bus and wait till the next stop—whose distance was unknown and where the toilet situation wasn’t even guaranteed—or use this one. Damn those plums, I thought, stepping into the cubicle.
“Why did they ask you to go to the other room?” the driver’s mate asked, referring to immigration incident, minutes after we started moving.
“You’re not Kenyan?” he said in a surprised tone. “Where are you from?”
I expected him to say something pertaining to Nigerian movies or music as most people did, but he turned to the driver and they began conversing.
In the distance, millions of brightly lit dots, some merging, others divergent, coloured the black canvas of night.
“We’re crossing the River Nile. But no pictures,” the driver’s mate quickly added as if he’d read my mind. “They don’t allow pictures.”
I looked out the window for “they,” soldiers yielding AK-47s were stationed at intervals on the bridge. Africans were an apprehensive lot. Visitors from all over the world could take pictures of the White House, the residence of the world’s most powerful leader, but doing so on the continent was to court danger.
Following countless minutes of riding through sparsely populated towns, we entered Kampala, which announced itself with large billboards, larger buildings, and a raft of street lights. The man behind me nudged my seat.
“Are you dropping off in Kampala?” he asked, after I had returned my seat to the upright position.
“Aaah. So you work in Rwanda?”
“No, I’m just visiting.”
Surprise poured into his voice. “Woah, you have a long trip ahead of you. So you work in Kenya?”
“No, I toured Nairobi and I’m visiting Kigali.”
“And not Kampala?”
I laughed at the man’s mocked indignation. “I’ll be sure to include Kampala on my next trip to East Africa.”
“You should. You’ll enjoy it. Uganda is safer than Kenya. If you noticed all the police checkpoints were on the Kenyan side.”
I hadn’t noticed, but then again I was asleep for most of the journey. Our exchange was reminiscent of the one I had had with the immigration officer. It amused me how citizens often promoted their country by subtly or overtly taking their neighbours down a peg. For instance, Nigerians would brag about Nigeria, claiming it was better than, say, Ghana and vice versa, and prove their point with a list of infractions.
The bus weaved through a series of narrow streets, finally stopping at the designated bus stop. It was a few minutes past 1 a.m. local time. The man behind me wished me a safe trip, alighting with rest of the Kampala passengers. A few passengers came on board and the bus continued on its journey.
It would take another seven or so hours to get to the Rwandan border but in the interim we stopped, yet again, to stretch legs and pick up a few passengers. It must have been an hour or two since our last stop.
I felt a slight pressure in my bladder, the kind one feels when it’s 80 percent empty, prompting a dilemma of the Shakespearian variety: To go or not to go? Aside from the bus company’s office, the other open business on the strip was a convenience store. I hopped off the bus to try my luck.
“Can I use your restroom?” I asked the two guys chatting at the checkout counter. One of them pointed to the back of the shop.
Approaching with caution, I didn’t even have to touch the toilet door to see it was filthy. The slit offered a view of used toilet paper on the floor and beside the raised pit toilet. I couldn’t tell between the pungent stench of ammonia and horrid sight which caused me to flee, but flee I did. There and then, I decided that if it came to the worst and we were surrounded by nothing but trees, the forest was going to have to do.
Back in my seat with nothing but darkness to watch, the soft background music soon lulled me to sleep. Several hours had passed when I regained consciousness. It was cold, and as I reached for my cardigan in my bag it dawned on me the A/C was on. That we had done most of the trip sans A/C seemed untenable considering the dust in Kenya.
“Ah, you’ve woken up.” The driver’s mate chuckled with the driver.
I smiled. “I’m tired of sleeping.” Dawn had broken, a soft light dispersed over the verdant carpet that covered the landscape. “How many hours are we from Kigali?”
“Three hours,” replied the driver.
By now, the journey seemed endless, and having lost my Kindle on the flight to Nairobi, this was the longest I had had to sit with not much to do besides watching the scenery and hankering for the final destination.
I retrieved the camera from my bag and began shooting the lush, ubiquitous hills and tea plantations that looked like they had been divided into perfect rectangular strips with a ruler. The mist hadn’t lifted but men, women, and kids were bent over, working the land. After a series of far and near shots, I retired the camera, settling for quiet observation until we arrived at the border.
The Ugandan line moved just as fast as the Kenyan one had at the Ugandan border. With my passport stamped, I crossed the road over to the tiny outpost housing Rwandan immigration officers. A discoloured poster of wanted genocidaires promised monetary reward in Rwandan francs on the wall outside.
I completed the immigration form, joined the queue but then left it after I spotted my suitcase was out in the open. I grabbed and rolled it towards the wooden table customs had set out for luggage checks, watching as polyethylene bags were confiscated from the suitcase before mine. Mine would face the same fate.
Miffed that my shoes were no longer separated from my clothes, I zipped my suitcase, rolled it to the bus, then returned to the immigration queue that had grown longer since my departure. Twenty minutes later, I was back on the bus. The plastic bag confiscators had also wreaked havoc on board, emptying my cardigan, and the plums I bought from Kenya onto the seat.
The rest of journey went by quickly, and two hours later we reached our final stop in Kigali.
Tired but exhilarated to have my feet on terra incognita, I collected my suitcase from the luggage compartment and hailed a taxi that charged 5000 Rwandan francs ($6) for a ride that didn’t even last five minutes. I thought it was a rip-off until I discovered that was the base taxi fare in Kigali.
My Airbnb host welcomed me at the gate with a friendly smile, and helped roll my suitcase up the steep compound.
“Oh my god, you must be so tired,” she exclaimed after I narrated the nano-condensed version of my trip.
I nodded. “I am. I really am. But what I need right now is a bathroom.”
All images via Shutterstock