Monday, September 24, 2012

The Bakiga Window Vol. II: The World at the Border

A view of the border looking momentarily sedate, Uganda.
I think that border crossings in East Africa have a lot in common with central London railway termini. A complete cross-section of society, in reality a miniature society in itself, seems to exist around the sequence of barriers and guards delineating the invisible divide between two nations.

It is Sunday 1st April 2012 and we’re crossing from Gatuna on the Rwandese side of the border, to Katuna on the Ugandan side of the border. The sun is trying to break through the clouds, and is finally beginning to win its battle over darkness.

After the drive from Kigali, the border provides us with our first sighting of bazungu in a few days. My students, seemingly forgetting that they are foreigners here, start pointing and staring at the small group of tourists – they're apparently feeling at home after just a couple of days. 

The bazungu we see look slightly worn out and in need of a wash after travelling on a coach from Kampala. I overhear one of them discussing that they should have travelled to Kigali via Tanzania. It sounds like many years later the roads through Mbarara and Ntungamo haven’t got any better. They grudgingly shuffle over to the window at the Rwandan border control and their faces drop as they realise that they need to fill in yet another visitors' card.

Our group, ignoring instructions to wait together, begin to snake their way across no man’s land towards the Ugandan side of the border. This is a land populated by trucks that look too large for the twisty roads of northern Rwanda or too clean for the deep potholes of southern Uganda. In between the trucks, like oversized meerkats, a menagerie of currency hawkers, beggars and bored looking truck drivers spring up to observe our incongruity to the setting.

Of the different members of the menagerie, the hawkers are the most forward. The braver ones will attempt to truculently thrust handfuls of Ugandan shillings into the unsuspecting hands of my students. The others will trail the group for the five hundred-metre road crossing across the base of a marshy valley, until the point of entering Ugandan jurisdiction. Having built a good relationship with a muhindi in Kabale, any rate that the hawkers could offer would be insignificant by comparison and I shepherd the students away from any poor exchanges.

The glory of arriving on the Ugandan side of the border is the immediate contrast with the regimentation and order of the Rwandese. Gone are the orderly lines of vehicles, the clearly marked out official buildings and the neat line of forex offices. Instead there are cars all over the place competing with Horizon intercity buses and articulated trucks, vendors milling around in-between the gridlocked traffic and a free-for-all at the immigration office. A fed up border guard, armed with a baton, attempts to keep order, but the look on his face betrays the fact that he’d obviously rather be anywhere else.

In the queue, whilst juggling pens, visitors’ cards and trying to recall passport numbers, I begin to reminisce with Ugandans about a simpler time. Sounding like elderly, world-weary travellers, we talk of how much quicker the whole process of crossing the border used to be before the Ugandan government brought in the fingerprint sensing equipment. In this instance, modern technology hasn’t made life easier.

Finally in the office, a familiar face greets me from behind the counter. The passport official looks up and says, “hello again!” He seemingly remembers my Irish passport, and cowboy hat, and asks, “so is this your third or fourth time?” I reply that it is in fact my fourth time in his country. He jokes, “I thought so. No matter how hard we try, we can’t stop you coming back,” and a broad smile breaks across his face.

Standing on the veranda outside the office I look across to where an enormous green, white, yellow and red bus has pulled up. Off it jump a number of old faces from Kigezi High School. It looks like we’re home again.

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