With my friends Thierry and Juko, I took an 8 hour bus ride from Rwanda to Kampala in Uganda, crossing the equator northward on Friday and crossing back south on Monday; it was essentially a weekend break in the northern hemisphere.
Continuing the series, Letters from the Heart of Africa.
We arrived early at the delightfully named Nyabugogo Bus Station in Kigali and boarded an air-conditioned coach, complete with all necessities like a loo and Nollywood movies played at full volume so that the people at the back could hear. Having to sit there for 8 hours, I wasn’t sure what would go first, my prostate or my ear drums but I needn;t have worried – the RN3 was a perfectly smooth road, and we soon reached the small border town of Katuna where most imported goods arrive in to Rwanda from the port of Mombasa.
I’ve never been a big fan of borders; firstly you can’t see them from space, just like you can’t see large letters in an ocean spelling their name; nature’s borders, turbulent seas, wide lakes, icy mountain ridges are that little bit easier to fathom; migration is older than passports, travelling on foot or boats since ancient times, respected human necessity to follow the herds of animals, or the inborn curiosity to see what lay beyond the horizon; so far from being penned in by the red lines of some cartographer’s pencil.
And the second is because border areas are often peopled by odd characters, shifty money brokers, extortionists, shady dealers or officials with huge egos, eager to lord their gate-keeper status.
Could it be that borders are an in-joke shared only amongst those humourless border officials, in the comfort of their booths beside those road barriers. What if it was all a big show, a charade, a contrived ceremony of theatre. To walk 5 metres, flash a passport, get it stamped and then board the bus again to drive through a red barrier. Et voila! Or as we had now crossed in to Uganda, Anglophone Africa, there you are! Suddenly a new language, a new currency, a new people. A gradual transition would seem so much more natural, like the landscape itself, where driving from the hills of Rwanda down to the plains of east Africa, its wetlands, its heat, its flora and fauna all make their appearances in a rather more gentle fashion.
Could it be that borders are the ‘emperor’s new clothes’? As soon as you leave the check-point and the ink stamp has had a chance to dry in your 32 page booklet which we defines us because of its fancy golden logo on the front, they they all go back in to the booth, back-slapping, releasing howls of laughter. ‘We fooled them again, did you see his nervous face?’
Yes I jest in part, because borders are the ties that delineate the territory of a country, they are the skins of nation states that hold its organs together; sovereignty, passports and national identity are all bound together with borders. Rwanda’s squiggly borders were defined in 1884 at the Berlin Conference where the European powers divvied up Africa like greedy boys that had just broken in to a school tuckshop and were now deciding how to share their ill-gotten sweets and fill their pockets; this was known as the ‘scramble for Africa’. The bizarre bit about it all was that Rwanda was given to Germany (and later to Belgium after the First World war) yet no European had ever set foot there – it would take nearly another decade for that to happen. See I told you borders were bizarre things.
As we descended the mountain fortress of Rwanda, her hilly spurs unclasped to make way for plains of banana plantations. We crossed in to south western Uganda, an area of land which I have never been to but it felt familiar – this wasn’t just an ordinary border crossing from one nation to another, it was a border from Francophone Africa to Anglophone Africa. And the evidence was there before us, driving on the left, signs in English.
I enjoyed the banter with Thierry and Juko so much that I forgot this was the first time I had ever crossed the equator by land. It’s a curious known fact that you weigh less at the equator. This is because the earth is slightly fatter at the equator, it’s not quite a sphere (it’s called an oblate spheroid) , so you are further away from the centre of the earth. And because gravitational force depends on distance a tad bit lighter.
Another scientific phenomenon acts to help this weight-loss along – a centripetal force at the equator which makes you go round in a circle at the equator and not fly off (at the poles this isn’t needed)
Both these forces mean you are about half of one percent lighter at the equator than at the poles. It was a poetically beautiful realisation when I found this out – the earth, due its podgy midriff was being magnanimous to those with podgy midriffs.
Scientists interpret this phenomenon as in the formula four times pi squared times the radius of the earth divided by the period of rotation squared
I interpreted this with my own formula:
‘I can eat a kebab.’
That bearable lightness of being, of being lighter by 0.5% was by calculations, precisely 300 grams – and by coincidence, this was weight of a local kebab. (The kebabs in Rwanda are called brochettes – in Uganda they are called muchomos. I preferred that word. It sounded practically onomatopoeic, the sound of someone munching through chunks of chargrilled meat.) The heavens parted. A light shaft shone down across the Ugandan hills. I was sure cherubs were singing. It was meant to be, and I made up for this serendipitous and undeserved weight loss at our next stop in the little town of Kabale.
The muchomos sold on the sides of the highways in Uganda are not just fast food – they are faster food. These skewered kebabs are delivered by runners, young athletic men holding several in each hand, as if they were long twiggy fingers, like Edward Scissorhands, risking life and limb to be the first to sell their still-sizzling wares before the bus has even had a chance to stop. Soon Thierry, Juko and I were enjoying long steamy skewers of grilled chunks of goat meat mixed with peppers and onions on the sunny Ugandan roadside. Even now my nasal sensors recall fondly that delicious smell. The smell from a grill still sparks off that Ugandan nostalgia.
The muchomo took as much time to get down my gastro-intestinal tract as the bus did to get down the highway. We passed Bukinda, Rubaare, Rushenyi, Mbarara, Bukoto, Kinoni, Lukaya – and before the driver could put on a fourth movie, thankfully, we arrived in the chaotic grid-locked traffic of one of East Africa’s largest cities, Kampala.
The second part of A Weekend in the Northern Hemisphere will be posted next week. This is part of a longer series of blog posts on Rwanda called ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’. For background and to access further posts please click here.