Bunyonyi to Kigali

We had a bit of a leisurely start to the day as we are just making the drive from Lake Bunyonyi to Kigali, Rwanda today. This morning’s breakfast consisted of the same sausages and beans we’d had yesterday along with small Spanish omelettes and a small assortment of cereals and fruit along with tea, coffee and juice. The juice -papaya we think – was not a hit… in fact the most commonly used adjectives were disgusting and terrible…

After breakfast, everyone returned to their rooms to finish packing – and removing any and all plastic bags from our luggage as Rwanda has a complete, nationwide ban on them. We’ve heard conflicting reports about ziplock bags being acceptable so they had to go too… Once the bags were packed and everyone was squared away, it was time to load up the van and pile in. Thankfully, Patrick (our driver) was feeling much better after a couple of days of malaria treatment and IV fluids.

The drive from Bunyonyi to the border passed pretty uneventfully… the van was pretty quiet this morning as everyone was a bit tired despite the later wake up time… must have been due to all the exercise we got the day before! The border is about 60km from Bunyonyi and we were there in no time. The most noteworthy part of the drive was seeing the many polling stations and people lined up to vote in the first local council elections held in Uganda in almost 20 years. Patrick explained that these local councils actually have quite a bit of influence on people’s lives as they appoint officials who control a lot of documentation (drivers licences, etc) and other local administrative stuff… The government of Uganda had declared the day a public holiday so people could vote and they seemed to be taking full advantage of the opportunity.

Once at the border we had to exit the van and leave everything but our passports, wallets and yellow fever cards on board. We left the van parked on the side of the road in “no mans land” (the 600 or so metre stretch of road between the Ugandan and a Rwandan borders that belongs to neither and is home to a couple money transfers and exchanges, a “restaurant” and assorted customs brokers, etc. And a whole bunch of trucks, vans, etc.). While Patrick started the paperwork, etc. to bring the van across, we headed into the Ugandan immigration building to get our exit stamps… We had no problems here and were soon walking through no mans land (there’s no sidewalk or pedestrian paths – you just walk up the dusty road) and made our way past the Ugandan checkpoint where we sort of waved our passports at the armed officers and continued to the Rwandan side of things.

We approached the Rwandan immigration and emigration building and handed our passports to the smiling (sort of…) officials who asked the usual questions before stamping our passports with our entry visas (we already technically had visas as we had purchased East Africa tourist visas on arrival at Entebbe but they still need to be stamped with a valid entry stamp). After that we waited while Craig negotiated with a money exchange to convert our Ugandan shillings into Rwandan francs… satisfied with the rate, we all exchanged our currency (140,000 shillings converted to about 31,000 francs – about $37US) and settled in to wait for Patrick who was still navigating his side of things with the van. Eventually, Patrick and our stuff arrived and the next steps started. This involved Patrick moving back and forth between customs, immigration and police getting various documents stamped… he has clearly done this before as he dodged and weaved through the various lines like a pro. Eventually we were told to unload the packs from the van for a customs inspection… The customs inspector was very thorough, going through the packs pretty intently… especially when her search of the first pack turned up a couple of wooden spoons wrapped in – gasp – a plastic bag…. she was not super amused but understood that the spoons had been wrapped that way for transport and would be going home and that the plastic wouldn’t end up in Rwanda… but she made sure the rest of the packs were clean… Patrick managed to convince her that it wasn’t necessary to make us unload the packs tied to the roof racks and we were soon on our way… to the next checkpoint about 200metres further along. Here we passed all our passports to a Rwandan officer who took a cursory look at one or two of our passports and waved us through… in all the process took just over an hour – the fastest time Patrick or Craig could remember.

On the Rwandan side, the most noticeable change was the blessed absence of speed bumps, humps and mountains… and the relative absence of litter (due in part to a once a month mandatory cleanup that all citizens are expected to participate in). The terrain also changes rapidly once you’re in Rwanda – quickly becoming quite mountainous and very scenic. We passed a whole lot of tea fields… Kigali is about 80km from the border and with the mountainous terrain takes about 90 minutes or so to drive. Eventually, we entered Kigali and soon became snarled in construction related traffic tie-ups (not quite full traffic jams but close). We made our way (somewhat slowly) to a pretty upscale part of town heading for a restaurant (Shokola) Patrick and Craig had been to with previous groups. It was pretty similar to what you’d find in Vancouver or Victoria… aside from the fact they were out of a number of items we tried to order (something we’ve seen happen pretty often). And their wifi didn’t work. On the way to the restaurant, we were all struck by how clean and orderly Kigali is… an impression that only deepens the more you drive through the city. It is very, very different than Kampala (more on that in a bit).

After lunch we made our way to our guesthouse (MuBwiza Courts) where we were warmly greeted and shown to our various rooms. The girls were particularly pleased with their 10 bed room and huge patio. We dropped Marie and the kids off at the guesthouse while Craig, Patrick and I went back into town to get SIM cards and to exchange US dollars for francs. We ended up at a fairly upscale mall in an upscale part of town – so upscale that we were stopped in traffic for a while when the president of Rwanda’s convoy brought everything to a standstill as he made his way home. Getting SIM cards is infinitely more efficient in Rwanda and Uganda than in Canada and considerably cheaper.

Once we’d gotten our SIMS and cash, we headed back to the guesthouse for a delicious dinner of beef stew, fried chicken, rice, peas and carrots and French fries… while we ate, we were joined by Steven – friend of Craig’s and a genocide survivor who spoke with us about forgiveness and about life in Rwanda post-genocide. After dinner a few stayed up to watch World Cup while the rest headed off to bed.

Not many pictures for this post as there is no photography at the border and I didn’t really take many pictures today. I will finish with a comment about Kigali and the reforms under the current president Kagame… It is impossible to reconcile the modern, organized, affluent city we see today with the reality 24 years ago. There are traffic police on almost every corner – they are smartly uniformed, fit and very professional looking. There are stop signs, street signs and traffic signals (they even count down the time remaining for the red and green lights. There are lanes painted on the streets and people stay in them (sort of). It’s busy but organized and purposeful… and 24 years ago, Kigali was ground zero for one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century… Much of the success of modern day Kigali can be attributed directly to President Kagame… who is not a democratically elected leader and who has suppressed dissent and critical journalism quite ruthlessly and who has orchestrated changes to the constitution to allow him to remain in power longer. Which should outrage everyone… but it works. In many ways he may be the quintessential embodiment of the benevolent dictator whose vision and ability to implement that vision are essential for Rwanda to move beyond its incredibly difficult past… As we’ve noted many times, it is very hard to argue with the success of his approach when you see Kigali… And see it you really should… it will change every preconceived notion of Africa – and Rwanda in particular – that you might have.

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