So I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side… but one can never know that until he or she has actually crossed the fence. This became a reality for us in the truest way possible this week. Sr. Anna was very generous to give Emily and me a few days off of school to travel for “holiday” while we were here. She only gave us a few conditions: don’t go to Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, DRC, or Burundi. So that left us with just about ZERO options to travel outside Rwanda. While we absolutely love this country, it was a bit disappointing to spend the entirety of our time in only one landlocked nation the size of Maryland. We simply wanted to explore beyond the borders. So despite the fact that Sr. Anna gave us strict orders not to travel to Kampala, we made up our own little compromise to travel to Uganda, but decided we would stay along the southern border near Lake Bunyonyi instead of traveling far into the country.
A few weeks ago, we met an American college student named Connor who wanted to work with us for a few weeks and he joined us on the trip. The three of us established a strict travel plan of adventuring for five days with a general intended route and no schedule or specific activities whatsoever. So we got on a bus to Nyabugogo, Kigali’s largest bus station, exchanged some Rwandan Francs for Ugandan Schillings, and hopped in some random taxi to the northern border of Rwanda. The taxi could not cross into Uganda, so it let us off at Rwanda customs and we wandered aimlessly into the 100m strip of no-man’s- land (I like to call it Rhineland) between the countries.
Our introduction to Uganda probably could not have been worse. Two policemen greeted us to check bags and passports, and sent us on our way with no instructions or questions asked. As soon as we passed the cops, we were barraged by about ten taxi drivers looking for customers, while we simultaneously walked past the customs office on accident. A third policeman came up to us lightheartedly exclaiming, “I am about to arrest you! You have not gone to customs!” So we narrowly escaped being locked up after about thirty seconds in Uganda. At this point it is easy to imagine how we wished we had listened to Sr. Anna more carefully.
Long story short, Uganda was slightly terrifying compared to Rwanda due to the lack of public transport, non-regulation of anything by the government, even more widespread poverty than I could fathom, and dirty, crowded streets. We ended up staying at a beautiful little hotel on Lake Bunyonyi, where we enjoyed a peaceful sunset, a night sky with a clear milky way, and a morning canoe ride in a hollowed out tree. However, we ran out of Ugandan Shillings much faster than we thought, so we paid for the hotel in American dollars and hired a taxi (unfortunately our only way out of the country) to bring us to the Rwandan border. Though it was comforting that people in Uganda spoke much better English than the average Rwandan, we were more than thrilled to be back “home.” We crossed Rhineland #2, and found a bus to the nearest city… when Connor realized his wallet was in the back of the taxi… in Uganda. Luckily the driver gave us his business card so we called him up and he was able to drive back to the border. At this point we realized that it takes no fewer than ten Ugandan men to figure out every possible money or transport situation, so we crossed into Rhineland again and a small crowd helped us figure out how many Euros and Rwandan Francs Connor could barter for his wallet back.
The next stop on our journey was a remote village in the Northern Province where Connor’s friend lived. His friend was a middle aged American man named Tom who now lives in this beautiful mountain top village and works for an NGO to help Rwandan students attend top American universities. I’m quite bitter that my camera died while I was in this village that still goes without electricity, but in a certain way I think it helped draw me into solidarity with the people who live without power all the time.
Our day in the village was inexplicably one of the best days here. After watching the sunrise over the lake a few hundred metres below, we walked down to the primary school. Along the way, many children who were dressed in their tattered uniforms started following us. They seemed to have nothing to do, so our mere presence was entertainment enough, I guess. The school house consisted of 8 classrooms with enough wooden desks for 60 students to crowd into each room. Other than desks and blackboards, the school had nothing. Really, nothing. The ceiling was full of gaps and when I asked what happens during the rainy season, the response I received was, “Oh, we just move the desks to avoid the rain.”
We met some incredible young men in secondary school (who are able to attend thanks to the help of foreign sponsors), most of whom grew up in the village. They quickly became our friends and tour guides. We ended up playing football and basketball with them, and they even brought us on a hike through banana trees and cassava plants down the mountain side so that we could teach them how to swim. I can’t summarize their attitudes better than to quote the oldest student, “I used to beg for money, now I beg for knowledge.” They get it.
(For more info about what Tom does, here is the link to his work: http://www.bridge2rwanda.org/)
We ran out of clean water that night, so we decided to continue on our journey to Gisenyi, since we liked it so much the first time. I’ve written way too much already, so suffice it to say we traveled simply and cheaply (2500RWF per night hostel… yes $3.50 USD! It may not have had toilet paper or running water… but who needs that anyway?) We just relaxed, went for some beautiful runs, experienced a real African market for the first time, and enjoyed some Rwandan brochettes and beer on the border of DRC. It was a trip I’ll never forget.