About a week and a half ago, someone from Peace Corps Rwanda called to see if I was interested joining a team of two-year volunteers who were editing the new curriculum for Rwandan public schools for week-long workshop. The project sounded interesting and, since there were still no students at my work site to teach due to problems that the college was having getting their accreditation, I packed myself up and got ready to head for the bus station on Sunday. However, there was one glitch, this was my first trip where I was taking a small suitcase instead of backpack. I couldn’t carry it the distance myself, and I knew that the wheels would not survive my dirt road, and I am not allowed by Peace Corps to ride a moto (motorcycle) taxi and, of course, there are no “car” taxis in my town. So my tutor, and now good friend, Djoha (pronounced “joha”) and I concocted a plan whereby she would come to the house by moto, take the suitcase to the station on the moto, where she would by the ticket and await my arriveal on foot. I allowed 15” for get ourselves there for a 2:30 bus. But, much to my surprise, the plan went so well that we were there, ticket purchased, ready-to-go, just after the 2:00 p.m. bus left, with 30 minutes until the next bus.
Rwandan bus stations are a world unto themselves. There are two major bus lines, Horizon and Volcano. Each has an office at each bus station, and each company hires runners who greet newcomers to the bus station and offer to buy their tickets for them. They will even carry your luggage and help get you settled on the right bus, although it took me several bus trips to figure this out. I prefer Horizon; I am always reassured when I see one of their cheerful orange shirts coming my way. The Ruhango station is not big, unlike the Nyagubogo station where I would arrive in Kigali. In Ruhango, there are never more than 3 or 4 buses there at one time, sometimes none as all buses operate on a similar schedule, leaving on the hour and the half hour. Regardless of where you are, Rwandan buses all follow the same departure schedule. Although the buses do not leave exactly on time, they usually manage to depart within 15″ of their anticipated departure time. Arrivals are, of course, a different story. You get where you are going when you get there.
In Nyagubogo, travelers are greeted by a dizzying number of buses and taxis all crammed into a huge car park, with arriving buses continually entering though the big entry arch on one side of the park while departing buses slip and slither though the spaces between parked buses and taxes to pour out on the opposite side onto the main road which then leads, eventually, to roads headed north, south, east, and west. Kigali itself is like the hub of a great wheel, the spokes of which lead out to towns and villages all along routes that eventually lead to the outer edges of the country, and Nyagubogo is where it all begins.
At any bus station in Rwanda, except Nyagubogo where street sellers are forbidden, there are a predictable collection of people. In addition to people arriving, those waiting to take a bus, and the bus company runners, there are numerous abacuruuzi (merchants, in this case, street sellers). Each carries a round colored plastic tub filled to the bring with every snack a traveler might want – candy, cookies, soda, juices, water, peanuts, crackers. Not only do they follow you right up to the door of your bus trying to persuade you that you need something, they will go from window to window checking to see if any of passengers who are already seated therein have changed their mind. There are also beggars who move from person to person begging for spare change; they too will come up to the window of the bus, extending their hands and, unlike the abacuruuzi, they will sometimes stand outside your window for quite some time in the hopes that you will relent and deposit a reward for their time into their waiting palms. Of course, in big stations like Nyagubogo, pickpockets also lie in wait for any inattentive traveler. Nyagubogo is apparently quite famous for its thieves although, so far, I haven’t had the dubious pleasure of encountering one. Of course, midst this teeming sea of humanity and buses, you can always find the ubiquitous moto taxies and, in bigger stations like Nyagubogo, imodokaa (from “motorcar”) taxis whose drivers are there to greet every arrival in the hopes that you will choose their services to deliver you from the melee.
Inevitably, bus stations also host a variety of young men who appear to be idly standing around and chatting. However, as I discovered on my return trip, some of these are actually entrepreneurs of another type. Had I traveled with a suitcase before, I would have realized that some were abakarani (luggage carriers) eager to hoist my suitcase onto their head and carry it to my house for me for a mere 24-36 cents. On return trip, my umukarani tried to overcharge (60 cents) me but, instead of bargaining with him, I paid him more than he was asking (84 cents). Given that my bag was laden with such delicacies as popcorn and cans of ghee, I was barely able to lift it, let alone carry it. Furthermore, he had managed to get me home just before the black clouds hovering overhead released their daily torrent of drenching water. He left me in obvious delight, showering me with the blessings of god as he ran out into the oncoming storm. I know that the next time I need a umukareni, he will be my johnny-on-the-spot, assuming he is at the station when I go looking for him.
In the middle of all these aspiring enterprises at the bus station, a lone umuzungu (white foreigner) is an object of some fascination. Usually, when I travel on my own, I am surrounded by abacuruuzi and beggars, all of whom see me as a potential source of income. It takes a lot of energy to turn them all away because I know that, if I responded to one, there would be even more and, unfortunately, I learned that if I say anything in Kinyarwanda, I become even more of a curiosity. Sometimes, I even have to push them away if they are grabbing me. I really don’t like it. So I have learned to stay to myself, and only talk to whatever Horizon runner is helping me.
This time, my departure from Ruhango was different because I was there with a Rwandan woman. No one swarmed around me when I arrived. Everyone minded their own business as she and I stood waiting on the steps outside the Volcano bus company office. For the first time, I could sit and watch what goes on at the bus station without having to worry about defending myself simply because of the color of my skin. Two women, each with a small child sat on a bench behind us; other people sat on benches further away. One umucuruuzi had set his bin of delectables on the ground near us and then disappeared. I was not really aware of the bin until a tiny little boy, not more than 2 years old, came up to me and solemnly extended his hand to me to give me his 50 Rwandan franc coin so he could buy something from the bin at my feet. To him, the color of my skin didn’t matter. In fact, if he was aware of my “foreignness”, it was unimportant. All that mattered was the fact that I had a bin containing his object of desire. It was obviously a very big deal for him to have ventured out on his own to buy a treat and to find the right person to whom he could give his coin. Of course, I accepted it, while Djoha started calling for the umucuruuzi. The umucuruuzi eventually returned and off the boy went clutching his prize, a small piece of candy wrapped in a brightly colored plastic. He made his way back to a man, whom I presumed was his father. I don’t think he ever knew that the bin had not been mine.
As I stood looking at all the exciting things in the bin, none of which I would myself eat due to their sugar content, and thought about the little girl on the bench next to us, who had not been given a coin, I decided to throw caution to the wind. Since I had my Rwandan “buffer”, perhaps I could get something for the two children next to us, without calling attention to myself. Rather than buy them candy, I bought two packages of cookies, for 100 francs (12 cents), wrapped in shiny yellow and silver paper. We asked permission of the two mothers and then gave each of the two girls a package.
The packages of cookies were probably ten times the size of the tiny packet containing the one piece of candy that the little boy had purchased for half the price. I remembered his face as he had me entrusting me with his precious coin, and I wanted to do something more for him, in honor of his innocent trust. I handed the umucuruuzi another 100 francs and Djoha asked him to take the third package over to the little boy. I couldn’t see him behind the people on the bench next to his father, but I hoped he was happy. I never expected to see him again.
The bus finally arrived but it was already almost full. As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, Rwandan buses are like long mini-vans, with two columns of fixes seats down one side and three columns down the other. Fold-down seats in the middle fill the aisle and are definitely the least comfortable seats in the bus. When the bus pulled up, all the fixed seats were full and there were only two fold-down seats in the center row and there were more than three of us waiting to get on. So the driver had to wade through the center aisle to the back of the bus to check everyone’s tickets. Finally, enough center seats were available for us. Since I had a suitcase, I had my eye on the seat just in front of the door which had a nice space in front of it. I also wanted to make sure that the young pregnant woman waiting behind me, with a small boy in tow, got the last seat behind me. So I got my suitcase in, and then helped her get settled. The boy had to stand between her legs since her pregnant belly was too full to leave much of a lap. My seat was incredibly uncomfortable, leaning to one side from too many heavy people having sat in it before me, and the metal bar of the back of the seat dug into my back. But after squirming myself into a reasonably comfortable position, I settled mysefl fo the 2-hour journey in what was, undoubtedly, the worst seat in the bus.
As I sat gazing out of the window watching the land of 1000 hills unfold before me, a crackling noise caught my attention so I turned, much to my surprise, and saw one of the packages of cookies I had bought for the children at the bus station clutched in the hand of the little boy standing just behind me. I realized then that he boy who was accompanying his pregnant mother was the same boy who had offered me the coin to purchase a piece of candy! I asked his mother yaitwande (who is he called) and learned that his name was Moses. Apparently, his father had been at the station to see them both off because, now, he was nowhere to be seen. It was just the three of us, joined in a common bond, by a small silver and yellow packet of cookies. As the bus rumbled along the road, passing the rollicking green hills of rainy season, speckled with all my beloved ihene (goats), I could hear Moses playing with his package. He hadn’t opened it, nor did he appear to have any interest in seeing what was inside.
Sometimes Moses would pat his package of cookies with his hands. Other times he would hold it and gaze at it in rapt attention, turning it carefully over in his hands to see some hidden delight in the design on the label that I could not see. It shined brightly and continued to make a lovely crackling sound. When he stopped playing with it to look out the window, his little fingers still held it tight. Clearly, he had no intention of letting go of it for the entire journey to Kigali. It was his. For more than an hour, the package of cookies entertained him. And as long as I could hear it crackling, I knew he was happy. And I remembered the long-forgotten family tradition of my mother buying small games and snacks to put in separate bags for her children’s entertainment before we embarked on a vacation that involved traveling a long distance in the car.
At one point, I felt the warm presence of Moses‘ head leaning against my shoulder while he struggled to stay awake. Even then, the packet did not leave his fingers. Finally, he fell asleep, nestled under a blanket, squeezed in the space between his mother and the woman sitting on the fixed seat next to her. And although I could no longer hear the crackling of the wrapper on what appeared to be his most prized possession for the day, I had no doubt that it was still clutched in his tiny hands under his cozy blanket. I don’t even know if he ever actually ate the cookies.
I remembered all the possessions that I have, both in Rwanda and in the U.S., and wondered whether any of them ever given me the pleasure that the shiny little package of cookies had brought to the little Rwandan boy named Moses.
Moses gave me two gifts that day: First, he reminded me that we are born into this world color blind, that our fears and prejudices about people who somehow look different are all learned. They are not who we are. Who we are is open and curious, willing to see one another as familiar companions on this journey we call life. Second, he showed me what it really looks like to take pleasure in the simple things in life. Without a doubt, his sparkling, crinkly packet of cookies was the best 12 cents I have ever spent.
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