DAY 85 MONDAY 12th FEBRUARY 2017. KABALE, UGANDA
The weather is worrying me. Admittedly, I am fairly high up amongst mountains, but motorbike tours in rain don’t have much attraction. My day has been rather unfocussed, starting with wet riding clothes from yesterday and ending with more damp clothes after I was caught by a very heavy shower somewhere up the valley. I have to make decisions about the direction of my journey.
As I write, in the White Horse Inn hotel bar, with a fellow lighting the fire beside me, the rain hammers on the roofs above and the temperature has dropped dramatically. I managed to get enough power from the hotel internet to glance at the weather from here on: thunderstorms and showers throughout Rwanda and much of Uganda for the coming couple of weeks. That doesn’t bode well; nor do the other forecasts around. I may have to remain flexible. Ironically, Ethiopia seems to be basking in sunshine.
And there you see my problem. I had planned a tour of Ethiopia, and find myself repeating a good deal of last year’s journey, with a month still to go. How do I make it novel? Or do I just accept the consequence of the Ethiopian embassy decision and meander a bit aimlessly, hoping for occasional days like yesterday, with inspiring experiences occurring now and again? But a ride like that of yesterday would be unadulterated hell on a dismal wet day, with the dirt tracks turning to grease and slipperiness. Why, today, I set off to ride the lakeside trail, but turned back because I couldn’t trust the weather…
Suddenly, there was a line of rain across my road, after I had turned to scurry back to Kabale. I quickly spied out an overhanging veranda on a roadside building and skidded into an already wet muddy yard and jumped quickly from the bike. The rain was cascading down; I was instantly wet, just from a couple of hundred yards of riding. When it rains, here in equatorial Africa, it pours. Within minutes my shelter was splashing and the sudden wind billowing giant raindrops onto me. I scuttled for an open door nearby. It opened into a small, local drinking bar. Not a bad choice, I suppose, for shelter: at least they were used to strangers barging in. An elderly woman sheltered on the end of a bench and half a dozen men sat on the low forms in front of the mesh-covered bar. The bargirl kindly offered me a Chinese plastic chair. No one seemed to speak English: it’s sometimes the way in less educated hamlets, but they all laughed at my predicament and appeared sympathetic. I wish I could understand the conversations that take place at such times! What are they saying about the mzungu who has just blown in? How do they look at me? What are the jokes? How I wish I could have a babelfish – the ‘Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Universe’ translation device that sat in the ear and gave simultaneous translation in any language of the universe. I miss so much. But it’s also fun to be the centre of these obviously kindly comments and observations, and the not-unkind butt of their jokes. They cheerfully waved me off, having watched the performance of my donning waterproofs with the greatest curiosity. I may have been the most exciting thing to happen in that crude drinking bar all day.
If I have to be stuck in the rain, at least the White Horse Inn is comfortable and friendly; so much better than so many of the dumps in which I have had to hole up on past journeys. Lovely Angela, who prepares my room, says she hopes I will stay a month! I am friendly, she says, and she gets bored with her work. She’d like to go back to study, but her family is poor, although she only has two siblings – considerable restraint in Uganda. She comes from Kumi, a small town I passed through a couple of weeks ago – I remember using an ATM at a small branch bank as I passed through. Oddly enough, she worked for a couple of years in the People’s Guest House in Soroti, the very hotel in which I stayed on the first of the month. Angela is cheerful and bright and has a wide, prettily shaped mouth and the whitest teeth, with a central gap (common in Africa) in the top gleaming row, unusually reflected in the lower teeth too. She’s a beauty, with a warm, light-hearted manner to match. I hadn’t even unlocked my room on arrival before I had requested her photo!
DAY 86 TUESDAY 13th FEBRUARY 2017. GISENYI, RWANDA
So to Rwanda again. I didn’t expect that when I set off over twelve weeks ago. I thought that about now I’d be in northern Ethiopia. Oh well, such is the travelling life… Well, I have the visa for Rwanda; the Mosquito requires no more papers, except £20 for insurance, and, well, it is here. And now, so am I.
I was in Gisenyi just over a year ago, renting the same bed in the same guest house; so there was no reason to look further, for I did my research, such as it is when I look for a place to stay, last year already. I have a tiny room but, as I told Sandrine, the receptionist who showed me the room, I don’t intend to hold a dance so there’s absolutely no reason to pay £36 for the room next door, when this one is £14! It includes a three-quarter bed, a compact shower and lavatory corner and a delightful triangular window. I noted last year that the breakfast was good.
It was with some despondency that I set off this morning: fog filled the hotel gardens and it was pretty chilly – not on February-in-Britain levels, but requiring-a-jersey level, you understand. As the sun eventually beat its way through the thick cloud and mists, everything took on a bit more colour. Africa without sun is like a portrait without a smile: dull and lifeless. Watching the skies anxiously, I rode west into the hills on that most lovely of roads over to Kisoro, in the farthest corner of Uganda. Should I just give up and turn back towards Kampala and Kenya, where I could be surer that I wasn’t in for a rainswept continuation of my safari, or should I carry on and see what happened, knowing I can turn round at any time and head for sun and dry skies? Well, I am nothing if not obstinate, I acknowledge. I hate to be beaten – so I rode on, an eye on the dense clouds and the dim slaty blue beyond the hills.
Breasting the highest ridge, I looked down into the valley where Kisoro spreads at the foot of the great volcanoes, and saw patchy sunshine. The clouds rolled back, except for wraiths clinging to the tops of the high volcanoes. The air warmed up such that I could remove my jersey, and my spirits lifted: I was going to another country – even if it’s one that doesn’t hold a lot of novelty any more. Rwanda is a beautiful country, high, mountainous and lovely, although it doesn’t have the attraction of novelty that it had a year ago. Doubtless, I will find interest and things to see and do – and it does have the best beer in East Africa! Turbo King, a sweetish, dark beer.
Lake Kivu swishes noisily before me, a big thunderstorm having recently passed over, without dropping rain on Gisenyi, but dramatic clouds and slashes of rain reveal only glimpses of the Congo shore, twenty miles away as the sun goes down. I’m sitting in a beach bar, waiting for a fish jambalaya and drinking my Turbo King. I remained dry all day and have had a gentle, easy day. I’m relaxed, despite my despondent start. I’ll make the most of it.
The lake beside which I am calmly sitting (and my room’s only fifty yards from the shore) is sitting on an atomic bomb quantity of methane. It actually could blow – but then the volcanoes aren’t dormant, either. One of them blasted Goma, the Congolese town contiguous with Gisenyi to kingdom come only fifteen years ago. Various mysterious disasters occurred in Cameroon, some years ago, that turned out to be methane leaks. This lake has a vast reserve of the killer gas, vented by the volcanic region. Happily, someone realised that methane – carefully extracted – could generate electricity. I’m looking out now at the well-head. I hope it remains under control for the next forty eight hours!
It’s dark now, the sun creating a brief mauve light-show in the thunderclouds. The far shore is a deep silhouette and the minor waves still noisily wash on the beach below my table. The fish jambalaya was probably the best dish I’ve eaten in the past three months: a delicious mixture of fresh fish – presumably from the lake beside me – fruit and a sort of sweet curry with coconut flavour. I might stay another day and come back again!
The border crossing is simple: my visa, bought long ago in Nairobi airport, is valid for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. All I have to remember is to cross over and drive on the right side of the road; to set my clock back and hour to Central African time and to be aware that far less people speak English – in this once Belgian colony (were there any worse colonisers?). But I think that French is being quietly discouraged in favour of English, now the world language. But for many older people, English is perhaps the third language.
Soon away from the border, having found Francis, from the national tourist office, to get maps and pamphlets – I remembered that last year I was met at immigration by a tourist officer – Marachal – the first time in my considerable travels that I have EVER been welcomed at an international border by officials from the tourist authority, keen as mustard to promote tourism in their country – soon away, I was on a narrow road through a succession of virtually continuous small villages, the roads lined – as always in Rwanda – by walking people. Every child waved and gesticulated at the mzungu. So did many of the adults. Yet this is a road from an international border, where you will see more white men than anywhere else. Boda-bodas are much rarer and well regulated in this organised country: helmets for riders and passengers, often a bucket-like helmet balanced on intricate hair weaves. There are, however, bicycles everywhere, most used as freight transport. How can anyone pedal or push such vastly loaded machines on these hills? It’s harvest season and bicycles are dwarfed by enormous sacks of carrots and potatoes, and at the roadsides, men pack intricate loads, the carrots towering in rolls about five feet high, contained by sacks and straps. A cyclist can take three of these weighty sacks on his carrier. I saw two cyclists carrying two 50 gallon oil drums each, balanced apparently precariously on their carriers.
I forget how accustomed I become, over the weeks, to the grot and filth of Africa – until I enter its cleanest country. Rwanda has made efforts that should shame my homeland in cleaning up its environment. One of the first to outlaw plastic bags, it has encouraged its population to the most extraordinary levels of cleanliness. It’s cleaner than any other country I have visited – including Switzerland! Once a month, everyone – everyone – must perform three hours of public service on Saturday morning, mainly used in cleaning up around their homes and villages. How much we filthy British could learn – if our cultural arrogance and sense of entitlement allowed us…
The White Horse Inn actually seemed sorry to see me leave, but that’s the difference between a good hotel and the usual grim lodgings I have favoured all these years. Gardeners pushing hand mowers over the acres of lawns; elderly women raking; numerous attentive breakfast waiters who assumed I was incapable of pouring my own coffee from the pot; the accountant in her log wood booth; the receptionist behind his half-tree counter; even Lillian, the loomingly efficient manager – they all knew my name and expressed their hope to see me again. Very professional, rather more than I am used to! I spent five nights, had five dinners and I think ten beers. My bill was £115: one night in a shitty, faceless, snob-named chain ‘hotel’ in America.
No one, no banks or forex bureaux wants Sterling here. I couldn’t remember if I had included Rwanda on my list of countries in which I might use my credit card when I told the bank; fortunately, it turned out I had, as no one would accept my cash. Dollars or Euros welcome; Pounds? No interest. This will be another inconvenience after disastrous Brexit, when the pound becomes a ‘soft’ unreliable currency of a third world nation…
That one hour time change is disturbing me. It’s only 7.45 Rwanda-time, and I am yawning. 8.45 body-time. About now, at home, I’d probably just be going out for a pint, not heading to bed.
DAY 87 WEDNESDAY 14th FEBRUARY 2017. GISENYI, RWANDA
Sometimes it’s good to leave the bike and take to my feet for a few hours. I have walked until my feet are sore – which may be because I should have relegated this pair of shoes to work shoes BEFORE I started out, rather than after, but I am too mean, and I couldn’t bear the idea of bringing new shoes to my African travels. Haha! What a cheap idiot?
Gisenyi town continues almost directly into Goma, in the Congo, separated by a few fences and walls and a large ‘one-stop’ border post: the East African initiative that combines both sides of the border formalities efficiently into a single location. I walked there because Rico had heard of people crossing to Goma for the day from Gisenyi, and I liked that idea. But of course, there’s a wrinkle… Yes, I was welcome to go to Goma for the day, but if I did, my visa was invalid as soon as I leave the East African Community: Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. I could go, but I’d have to buy a new visa to come back. “You go, your visa expire!” Well, at US$100, it wasn’t worth it, for a cup of coffee in Congo! Nice idea… It does make we wonder how I got away with going back through Tanzania last year, for it didn’t join the agreement and I should have had to buy a new visa to get back into Kenya. Oh well, I didn’t – although there was a bit of flak as I went back into Uganda afterwards, something about there being no stamp in my passport… But I seemed to get away with it. I remember some fast talking and a lot of smiling at the Uganda border.
So it’s been a slow day, pounding the streets of this rather well maintained town that feels a bit like an Italian Lakes town, or somewhere a bit French, to the extent that it has a tree-lined, lakeside beach avenue actually called a corniche. The town is well kept, has pavements, has many women sweeping the leaves and dead blossoms from the streets, is tidy – and, ultimately, rather boring. The people, as I found last year, are basically friendly, somewhat reserved, and never initiate contact – unless they intend to try their luck, with the upturned palm and ‘give me money’. This is a habit here; unlike in Uganda and Kenya, where so few people ask that it is notable when they do. Here it’s a reflex on seeing a white skin. Funny, how this is endemic in the French speaking ex-colonies. A young man walked a mile with me this evening. I suspected, as soon as he joined me, that it would end up in some proposal that I help him: it did. He has to pay fees ‘tomorrow’ and ‘didn’t know how he could do it…’ Unsympathetically, nor did I, I’m afraid. This trait of Rwandans irritates me.
My day began rather early. Sandrine was tapping at my door at seven. It seemed breakfast was ready – in the middle of the night. Well, it WAS a good breakfast, with plenty of fresh tropical fruit, a Spanish omelette and the usual awful white sheets of sweet bread. The coffee was good and I took it sitting on a wooden chair in the garden, surrounded by flowering roses, hibiscus and other bright flowers, including a poinsettia tree – not the Christmas pot plant that dies in January: but a magnificent tree. The hedges and shrubs were filled with noisy, brilliantly plumed and ornate small birds – flashing reds, yellows and iridescent blues. The dawn chorus was more disturbing than Sandrine knocking at my door.
I watched the sun set over Congo from a beach bar again with a couple of Turbo Kings, but it was the end of a not very interesting day, on the whole. Better luck tomorrow..?
Rico emails that he and Adelight travelled down to Eldoret to pick up the Mosquito logbook today. It hasn’t arrived yet, but it has now been printed ‘already’ – in Nairobi. I doubt I’ll see it this trip. I really want Rico to have it for the eventual resale of the Mosquito.
DAY 88 THURSDAY 15th FEBRUARY 2017. KIBUYE, RWANDA
Perhaps you shouldn’t go back… It is one year yesterday since I was in Kibuye and took a memorably tranquil walk out along one of the headlands, watching large catamaran canoes paddling out to the fishing grounds, their evocative chanting floating up to me in the setting sun. This afternoon I repeated that walk but, where there were meandering tracks through the trees, are now twenty and thirty foot wide gravel roads, soon to be tarred, scarring the once pretty headland landscape. Rwanda has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. If I were to come back in another 52 weeks, I reckon this will be the Kosta del Kivu, for innumerable ‘guest lodges’ are being erected, hideously unsympathetic to the lovely hills and inlets of Lake Kivu, with over-designed street lighting to get you there. From a distance the scars are horrible; from close up, it’s worse. Soon half of France will be booking online for winter holidays Rwanda. It will be the new ‘exotic’ destination: the place to be able to say ‘I was there’ (in French, of course).
I’m out of sorts today. Sick to screaming of “give me money” from seven out of ten children: the French colonial disease. Where does it come from? French tourists must just hand out coins, pens and sweets and have a paternalistic attitude to their ex-colonies. For it really IS so noticeable that the greetings change as you cross into ex-French (or Belgian) from ex-British countries. In French West Africa the commonest greetings are, “Bonjour, bon-bon? Bonjour, stylo?” and “Bonjour, cadeau?” Here it’s just, “Money!” It irritates me so much.
I’m going back to Uganda! After the weeks in Kenya and Uganda, this place just isn’t working for me. People aren’t UN-friendly, just apparently uninterested. They look at me without reaction or facial expression, making my progress so much less fun. So what’s the difference? It seems to be culturally deeply rooted to ask for money of white skinned people. It HAS to be a habit of colonial influence and different attitudes by the French and Belgians to their dependents, more paternalistic perhaps, than the British colonisation? I wish I could explain it.
There are VERY few independent travellers visible in Rwanda, but a lot of booked tours: often individual ones, just a couple of mzungus sitting in the back of a safari vehicle with a local driver. Sadly, I have to allot Rwanda the wooden spoon in the friendly stakes for Africa (Botswana comes close, but they’re so rich they are arrogant). Yes, I need to get back to cheerful, outgoing Uganda.
Rwanda, though, is very lovely scenically. Alongside Lesotho (still top!), it’s splendid. And, like Lesotho, it’s mainly mountainous and quite high. Lake Kivu, beside which I am sitting with tonight’s Turbo King, is at about 1400 metres, and my ride today was lovely, through high tea estates and wooded hills, with fine views down to Lake Kivu with all its convolutions, and Congo shimmering across the water, thirty miles away. It was a short ride, but the lake creates a hot humidity, although the threatening rain dissipated today and left me with high blue skies.
Thinking back to the same journey 52 weeks ago, I appreciate that the Hunan Bridge and Road Construction Company have done a good job, even if almost no one uses the road they have built from Gisenyi to Kibuye. I remember the effort and struggle through half-built road surfaces; deviations across deep muck and slippery filth; being dusty, muddy and tired. Today, I spun along the new tarmac, occasionally recognising the challenges of the last time I rode this way.
Once again, I didn’t have to hassle to find a room: I stayed in the same lakeside hotel, hideous though it is, before. At less than £14 I have a room with a balcony (on the side of the hotel, it’s true!) and all the facilities I’d have if I paid three times as much, including this small beach on the bay.
But I miss the exuberant cheer of Uganda and Kenya. I will hasten through the capital, Kigale, probably the day after tomorrow. It held no attraction last time, and I doubt it’s added any. Perhaps I have been alone too long, have seen all these beauties before, and am getting introspective and irritable? I know the antidote is laughter and smiles, greetings and excitement back in English-speaking East Africa. Rwanda IS beautiful, but I exhausted its wonders a year ago.
Then, to confirm my decision to go back to Uganda, in comes a text message from Sipi. Alex had phoned earlier but the line cut:
“Our dear, lovely J. We proudly want to say that we love u so much!! We lack a correct word to express our love for you actually. Thank you very much for the help ure giving us. We got the money. Thank you Jonathan for that… Work still continues. I was cut off during the day. I wish u safe journey back home. Pliz take care of ure self. U mean a lot to me. Ure loving Alex and Precious. WE MISS U SO MUCH. Safe journey.”
Yes. Back to Uganda! Pity about those bloody Ethiopians…
DAY 89 FRIDAY 16th FEBRUARY 2017. NYANZA, RWANDA
The problem with travelling in Rwanda is that I am getting lonely. This doesn’t happen much in Kenya, Uganda or any of the southern African lands. I always find someone to talk to – and just occasionally, make friends. But Rwandans, apart from the fact that very few speak any English, and I doubt I’d do much better were I fluent in French, are just not very interested in any interaction. Many just look at me with no facial expression, while others are irritating the hell out of me by being initially friendly then: “Give me money!”, and some of them even bypass the initial friendliness and go straight for the “money..?” In Uganda and Kenya, I have constant conversations – and not all of them the usual questions; sometimes I meet educated people who actually value talking to an outsider, sharing opinions and finding out about other parts of the world. Rwandans appear introspective and disinterested, and I hear many a joke, obviously at my expense, something that NEVER happens amongst the more respectful neighbours. I don’t THINK it’s just me, getting paranoid and lonely! My instincts, after all these years and countries, are pretty well honed. I have always said that curiosity (and compassion: and the two are inextricably connected) is my most rated human quality; I don’t feel much of it here.
Last year, I had suspicions of all this, but the novelty and beauty of the landscape were enough to keep my attention for ten days or so. It was fascinating to investigate the recent history, and how a nation makes peace with itself after wholesale slaughter and unimaginable atrocities perpetrated by one half of the population on the other only 25 years ago. I came to a profound respect for the way the small country has dealt with that (I’m not writing about it: it’s all in last year’s journal), but I did find the people reserved and distant. If the neighbours weren’t so gregarious, maybe my reaction wouldn’t be so extreme. I wish I understood more of the Rwandan national character to know if the genocide was cause or effect, or even if it’s related, to my general antipathy to the population… My only responses are superficial and instinctive.
The country is, however, very beautiful. Today’s journey is a repeat of one I took (twice, I think) a year ago, and it didn’t pall with a third viewing. Southwards from Kibuye, the road sweeps and curves, smooth tarmac, through the convoluted hills and the twisting bays and inlets of Lake Kivu – it’s a grand motorcycling road on a brilliantly sunny day with cotton wool clouds in the African skies. For fifty miles I leaned and swept the little Mosquito through the empty curves. It’d have been more fun on a BMW, this road, but the little bike, with its knobbly trail tyres and its insipid food-processor engine, has to make do. And I am busy watching the views unfold below the road anyway, so I don’t really need the excitement of speed! I swished and swept south alongside the deep, methane-soaked lake enjoying the ride and the sunny views, before turning east again, towards the bottom of the country, and climbing into the hills and the wonderful Nyungwe National Park, one of the finest African rides. It’s another smooth, empty road that sweeps through the thickness of the equatorial forest, on a high shelf cut into the mountainsides. Vegetation presses down to the roadside. There are animals there somewhere, but all I see at the roadside in the midday heat are a few monkeys, their white tipped tails flashing as they scamper away from my puttering engine that disturbs the intense quiet up here. When I stop and sit on a rock the silence wraps itself around me: just insects whining and the gentle breeze disturbing large noisy leaves. Around me are all manner of ancient species: ferns and aloes, parasitic plants and creepers that look like things from prehistory. Butterflies dance on the breeze and I can gaze far below into the canopies of the thick green forest.
The national park and the dense forest lasts for a magical forty miles or so, then, as always in Africa, it is instantly back to legions of people at the roadsides and agriculture – in this happy case, tea estates, for I am high in the mountains by now. Tea carpets the steep slopes, intricately terraced and such an unnaturally tidy crop. It has the most vibrant green and contrasts artfully with the blue leaves of a million eucalyptus trees, graceful, wraithlike forms dividing the tailored tea bushes into a patchwork of the greatest beauty.
Slowly, the road descends towards Huye, a small city in the centre of Rwanda, with wide boulevards but of little interest to me: I stayed last year. I rode on to the north, to Nyanza, a small town in which I also stayed a year ago. But now the hotel that gave me a bargain room for £15 asked a non-negotiable, stony-faced £25, the receptionist more concerned with her mobile phone than a potential customer. I found a place for eleven quid up the road; quite adequate for my needs. I need a comfy, quiet sleep tonight: last night my bed had a foam mattress about a foot thick. As soon as I laid in the middle the sides curled up like a deep hammock! I woke with a stiff neck.
I don’t know what to make of Rwanda this year, but I know it’s not working for me. Maybe it’s my mood too? I recognise that I am getting tetchy (surely not!!!) and some of that’s to do with being on my lonesome for too long. And there’s no novelty to make it fascinating… But I am used to travelling alone, and I usually bounce back quickly, with just a friendly contact. When people ask me of my last trip here, I tend to describe it as beautiful but not particularly friendly. I doubt that assessment will change.
“Give me money!”
This ‘motel’ is also a bar. It’s Friday night. It will be noisy. I am irritable. Not a good recipe. I asked for food (it does say ‘restaurant’ outside). Only chicken and bloody chips. No Turbo King. “Oh, forget it. I’ll walk to town,” says the irritable foreigner petulantly. Off I go and get supper and my beer half a mile away. Then I walk back later. The shy fellow who’s been left in charge of the bloody foreigner (his colleague, who spoke English and promised me, ‘no, Friday is not noisy here’, (Huh!) has gone) finds me. “Your command…”
“Quesque se, ‘command’?” I ask.
He’s prepared the disgusting repast. And it’s now ME who feels an absolute heel for losing my rag earlier. Travellers should have infinite patience. I just took him £2 in embarrassed contrition. “I no spek ‘glish…” No, I know. And, really, should I expect you to..?
Time to go somewhere else.
DAY 90 SATURDAY 17th FEBRUARY 2017. KABALE, UGANDA
Well, look where I am tonight. Finding myself 25 miles from my favourite hotel and town in cheery Uganda, I thought, ‘that’s it. Why struggle? I’m going back to Uganda!’
I’m so stubborn that I hate to feel I failed, and had I not seen so much of Rwanda last year, I would probably have persevered, but my irritability was making me tense and cynical; I’d stopped enjoying myself. The last couple of young men, who were ostensibly helpful when I stopped to ask directions, and then resorted to “give me money!”, a demand rather than a request, I told to ‘go away’ in terms I would despise in myself as an experienced traveller, were I not so uptight. I tried, I really did. I even told myself that through my ear plugs I was hearing “bonjour, welcome!” Shouted from the roadside, but I know I wasn’t because the upturned palm often gave away the actual translation. Many people were ostensibly friendly, waving and smiling – until they got the opportunity to gather round my bike if I stopped, at which point the demands began. A few, I admit, were cheerful and exuberant in the East African style, but I found my self thinking they must be ex-pat Ugandans! Most returned my smiles with a blank stare, and many an inquisitive look; but not the sort to which I become so accustomed here, that breaks into wide smiles when I react. I travel in Africa to react with the people. We don’t have to share a language (although of course, the communication is deeper and more fun when we do): I’ve enjoyed that sort of human interaction without language – the smiles say as much as anyone could wish. We just need to share curiosity. These four days I have been returned so many blank stares for my smiles.
Perhaps this country has had more aid than many, after the events of 1994 – but that’s 24 years ago, more than a generation in African terms, so why does this dependence persist? Statistically, I believe Rwanda has one of the fastest growing economies on the continent; okay, so much of this doesn’t make the peasants rich, but the infrastructure is hugely developed, with the opportunities that brings: getting your produce to market, improved strains of seeds and fertilisers, better access to education – so many of the things the polite, generally optimistic, cheery neighbours lack. Yet here, this begging is endemic. Why do nations differ so much? A hundred yards away from the last importuning Rwandan, I was in happy conversation with the Ugandan customs man, David and his colleague, who were immediately intrigued by my journey, where I was from, why an old bloke like me chose a motorbike, which must be hard work; we were shaking hands, exchanging views, laughing. And people crowding the Ugandan border area were caring for me: “your pocket is undone; you will lose your passport!”
I’m pleased too to find that it’s not just me. Coming back to the warmest welcomes at the White Horse Inn (where else would I go?), in moments I was joking and conversing with the staff. “Sometimes we don’t even want to serve these Rwandans, but we know they bring money, so we must… My brother, he was offered a job in Kigale, but he didn’t take it as he knew the character of Rwandans,” says Isaac, the bar waiter in his plaid waistcoat and bow tie.
One of the managers offers an explanation that may mitigate some of this Rwandan national malaise. He says that Rwandans are indeed very poor. The government of Paul Kagame, who arrived on the scene in 2000, after more unrest, now rules the country with an uncompromising totalitarian regime. “The people have no freedom; no ability to earn freely,” he says. “They are very poor, the Rwandan people… They can’t earn. The government controls everything.” So it seems that they have little free will or self expression and the apparently paternalistic government, so admired by outsiders, is in fact repressive. Kagame has brought stability and is much favoured by the West (no corruption, strong central control, good security – hence, huge investment), although whispering doubts increase about his rule, and whether he will become the next African life president. But after the events of 1994, maybe this is the best control to prevent any repetition? When you see the horrors of the genocide memorials, with their bashed skulls of adults and babies, crushed bones, and heaped ossuaries, it does make you wonder if that is where self expression got the country, and wonder if this oppressive regime is, for now at least, better, despite the fact that severe limits to individual rights and freedoms may have left the people poor?
Rwanda IS very beautiful, although much of the land is heavily cultivated and populated – and intricately terraced. It’s a mountainous kingdom, well cared for, and in parts quite splendid. In a country developing so fast, the map printed by the tourist office in 2012 bears little relation to the actual topography. I picked a route from Nyanza, through the small capital, Kigale, to the emptier north eastern parts of the country. The road from Nyanza to Kigale is fine, sweeping through the mountains, with habitations becoming denser amongst the thickly cultivated hills. Thankfully, a signpost directed me on my road to the north before I entered the city. The next twenty kilometres were astonishing, climbing higher and higher onto ridges that seemed to be on the very top of the country. I wondered just why it was necessary to climb so high; surely there must have been other, lower routes? Perhaps not. I’m frequently intrigued how road designers choose their routes through mountains.
Back at ground level, so to speak; I suppose I must have passed up and over into a deep valley inaccessible from Kigale any other way, I looked for the turn to Gicumbi, my destination, imagining, as the map indicated, another fine national highway. This road turned out to be no more than a rough track sketched across plunging mountainsides. It was magnificent! I do enjoy those rough trails through the beauties of East Africa. This one was a rough track indeed, with views down into deep valleys filled with neat tea bushes, from my narrow earthy shelf. It wound through small villages and over wooden bridges, huge, steep drops off to the side. It was only a pity that children and young men greeted me so often with their palm-up pleasantry. I tried to ignore the shouts for money, but at last, back on tar after 20 miles of this punishing reward, seeing that Kabale was only an hour away on a decent tar road, my decision was made. Uganda it was.
Really, someone as mechanically inept as me shouldn’t be allowed to ride motorbikes through Africa. The Mosquito began to run a bit irregularly a few days ago; a problem, I diagnosed, with the petrol/air mixture. I had a young man clean out the carburettor in Gisenyi (for £1) and several times checked the air intake, choke and so on. It was back-firing rather dramatically (I saw one poor woman with a load on her head, leap off the road in horror!) and running roughly. I sit there in fear of breakdown day in, day out. Shuddering up a hill and exploding down the other side, soon after leaving Nyanza this morning, I remembered that I fitted a new spark plug back in Kitale and had put the used one in a bag pocket as a spare. How about trying the old one..? I am always immoderately thrilled when my repairs work! It did. It’s pretty pathetic: I ride five or six thousand miles a year in Africa these days, and I still have no aptitude for mechanics.
I’m glad to get back to East Africa time. That extra hour in the morning made the last four days very long. Maybe, though, the disappointments of Rwanda were more to blame for my tiredness. I am back in smiling, cheery Uganda and feel so much more stimulated and less grouchy within a couple of hours.
Happy to be among friends again. “Eh! Our friend, Mr Bean! How was your journey?”
DAY 91 SUNDAY 18th FEBRUARY 2017. KABALE, UGANDA
Lake Bunyonyi is one of Uganda’s acknowledged sights. I made a brief visit last year but found it to be extremely touristic, with all that implies: ugly ‘lodges’, boat rides, salesmen and all things commercial. However, my map – the same one that sent me on last Sunday’s magical ride on that remote road almost along the country’s border – shows an insignificant red line that leaves the fine mountain road at about the same point, at the end of the lake, where the boda-boda boys wash bikes and lorries in lake water, but wriggles back to Kabale alongside the lake. This was another wonderful ride.
The track was dreadful – and the usual fun. How I used to enjoy trail riding with my friends 30 years ago: muddy or stony tracks a mile or two long in Yorkshire. I still enjoy it, in tens of miles, even by myself, on these far-flung scratches across the African landscapes. This track began four or five feet above lake level and climbed, over the next twenty miles, high, high into the mountains with fabulous vistas of crumpled hillsides and tortuous sinews of the calm lake, twisting and weaving into the steep clefts, and dotted with many little romantic isles. Blue-grey eucalyptus waved in the breeze, setting off the green terraced meadows and the dark coniferous forests. The morning’s rain receded, bringing that inimitable equatorial clarity that makes the panoramas seem endless. There’s an intensity to the light here, probably the ultraviolet, that extends the sweep of landscapes far beyond what seems possible. Above, arches the limitless African sky: so big, so blue; the clouds so stark and white. The sun, overhead by the time I set off, makes a sharp chiaroscuro on the dried pink mud and pitted rocks of the trail as it passes countless spindly eucalyptus. To my left rise jagged outcrops where the track has been hacked through, and to my right precipitous drops that concentrate the mind on the ride. I stop often; the camera bag rides all day over my shoulder – for quick access, but also to reduce the vibration. The wonder of digital photography is that I need not limit my shots: in the days of colour slides at 50 pence a picture, it was different.
Way, way up the mountainside I came back to a better gravel road: the one the tour vehicles use to reach the fancy resorts of the developed part of the lake, eight kilometres from Kabale. I had greeted and waved to dozens of people along the trail. Yes, a handful asked for money (education levels were low, where I was riding) – but they were just chancers trying it on, and seemed sanguine about my dismissal. The vast majority just laughed to see me there, with a smile on my face, enjoying myself and reacting with a certain equality, for we shared the moments, however briefly. There was NO blank face. This was another lovely ride.
This region of Uganda is without doubt my favourite. Tomorrow I will begin the ride back to the east. My safari ends in just three weeks. One more night in this amusing hotel and then a few nights who knows where? I will return via Sipi to visit Alex and Precious of course.