The specifics of travel in these times are standard. We know our way through the border controls, airports, transfers and how to arrive at hotels in new cities. In most parts of the world this is straightforward. The discomfort about the unknown begins beyond this point when the guidebook is not taken, travel forums are not searched for country threads and when flying is not chosen mode of transport. One begins to then touch, engage, feel and participate in the everyday rhythms of the place and its people. This participation comes about despite not knowing the language. This is the addictive feature of travel – that it satiates the desire to participate and temporarily be a part of life strikingly different from his own. Africa is a rhythm. Here, each country hums its own rhythm and dances to its own music, with highly original expression and lifestyle. It is refreshing, to say the least, in these times of homogeneity. This originality isn’t a romanticized reading of a traveler but appears a genuine aspect of daily life on this continent.
I traveled without a map in East Africa. I worked with the memory of how the countries in eastern region are arranged around a big lake. One moves east until Kenya and then southward to Tanzania. This was enough. I wanted to navigate with bus routes, highways and names of places that I had heard of – Kigali, Mbarara, Entebbe, Kampala, Jinja, Arusha, Dar Es Salaam… I got on a bus that moved through these places and watched how life goes about, what’s sold, what’s eaten, what goes on… Then, reached the destination having learnt a few things about people, places, geography and languages encountered in between. The saturated blue colour of Nile’s water at Jinja, the landscapes of the Maara, the safari vans at Arusha, the rush of tourists around the little branch roads in Arusha and Ngorongoro, people along the highway from Kigali to Kampala, from Nairobi to Dar Es Salaam, the cargo moving through this region and the many men and women along the highway who tended to their herds of goat and cows, leaning on their long sticks.
It had to be done this way to experience moving through cities and countries of this continent. Roads are a lifeline and nothing drives this point well than dependency of African countries on the roads as elsewhere. It isn’t surprising to read of the enthusiasm that many governments have about the Chinese government building roads in their countries. In the two weeks that I had, only East Africa could be seen at the pace of road transport in the region. Within this time, a minimal exposure to the countries and their cities was all one could manage. By the end of this journey, what I have are mere impressions of what was seen – some off the mark, some commonplace and some emerging from a position of plain fascination. The fascination of watching people break into a spontaneous dance anywhere, absolutely anywhere – from police station to streets to the parliament hall.
Should the collective ‘Africa’ be used for such a diverse group of people and countries? African leaders, academics, people, diaspora and advertising agencies, all of them seem to use it. What besides the common continent and a brief slice of shared history of colonization does this collective refer to? The diversity encountered in just about five countries of east is substantial. I read Mandela, Wangari Mathai, Nyrere, Barak Obama and business leaders like Mo Ibrahim who refer to Africa. They know better. However, it seems to be flattening out so much about the region and specificities of its people, tribes and culture. The question is likely to remain not attempted even after several visits to the countries here, not just one. Until the start of this journey over land across four East African countries, I had no sense of distance, landscapes, people, cultures, diversity or pace of life and travel in this region.
I got on a bus in Rwanda’s quiet and clean capital of Kigali. Uganda’s capital Kampala is about a ten hour drive. The vehicles drive on the right side of the road in Rwanda. Our bus crossed over the border into Uganda and switched to left side of the road, as one must in Uganda. After a day in Kampala, with the sole intention of changing buses to continue onward, I booked a bus from Kampala to Dar Es Salaam via Nairobi, where another bus change was scheduled. Seeing Kampala was kept for a later time. This first pass was all about cruising through. Over the next thirty five hours on the road to Dar Es Salaam the unraveling began, of ‘micro-nations’ as Wangari Mathai calls them. Africa as a land of micro-nations which ended up being packed into nation-states born out of hasty and absurd borders.
In her book The Challenge for Africa, Wangari Mathai writes:
The modern African state is a superficial creation: a loose collection of ethnic communities or micro-nations, brought together in a single entity, or micro-nations, by the colonial powers. Some countries include hundreds of micro-nations within their borders; others, only a few. Kenya has forty-two; Nigeria, two hundred and fifty; Cameroon, at least two hundred’ Mozambique, more than ten; Gabon more than forty’ Zimbabwe, fewer than ten; and Burundi and Rwanda, three. The largest of the micro-nations can have populations in the millions; the smallest usually number only in the thousands. With a few exceptions, it is these numbers that determine political power.
It isn’t the size alone that overwhelms a visitor. An Indian traveler is used to expansive land masses and to the enormity of the Indian subcontinent. This region was stretching that perception too. It is the political and cultural complexity of the region, and the manner in which religion, tribe, culture and lifestyle come together in these countries. All through my time here, the fact that African states have had several years of violence and civil war history was on my mind.
In the next 35 hours from Kampala to Dar Es Salaam, I was to get a crash course into Africa’s regional diversity, where a Ugandan from just over the border, struggled speaking to a Tanzanian and busting of all stereotypes about Africa. Flying in the region is expensive in comparison to Asia and Europe. Here, people take the road. Out of Kampala, through the town of Jinja where another marvelous journey of a river begins – Nile, the road is undivided double-lane and with heavy cargo traffic. This seems to be vital for Rwanda and Uganda which being landlocked countries, connect to the world through the port city of Mombasa in Kenya, besides other ports in Djibouti and Eritrea.
Those who choose to move between these countries tend to choose buses as it is cheaper than flying. This means that at any given time, there are nationals of at least four countries in a Dar Es Salam bound bus. This is a massive piece of land and long stretch of roads for buses to chew on. All day. Crossing borders and the many micro-nations.
We passed through the Kilimanjaro region at Moshi, the site of Ngorongoro crater around Arusha and the expansive Maara region. On the left was a long chain of Usambara mountains. In the constant slow movement of the bus, the passengers settle into a pensive, passive state of their own. It is quite a unique one. People gaze out. They show remarkable patience with everything. Nothing frenzied. Every action of people on the bus appears as though they have gone independent of time and the necessity of time keeping. People look out, close their eyes, recline, sit back up, gaze some more and the act continues. It is one long tunnel that we seem to have had entered.
‘Why cannot you believe in Jesus’, asked the Congolese passenger sitting by my side. This was during a spurt of conversation that the bus entered into, after a small town or stop had passed. He is heading to Congo, and will change for another bus from Dar Es Salaam, after taking rest for a night in the city. A day’s journey from there would take him into Congo. He adds that ‘there are many gold in Congo’ by the way of introducing his country to me. ‘Do you not want to?’, he continued, probing my faith. To him, the other alternative was to be a Muslim. After learning that in India one also has the possibility of being a Hindu, he asked about the red mark on forehead that men and women have. And what Hindu faith thinks of life after death. Is there a judgement day? I was not prepared for these questions.
We approached our first stop of the day since 6 AM, at Mombo in Tanzania. It is striking how the bus doesn’t stop for food breaks or any other break except taking on a few passengers from the towns on the way.
Standing outside the bus during the break, a Ugandan passenger speaks of these bus journeys. He takes the route often. He adds, ‘I like bus travel. It makes you venture out’. I agree with him without seeing a need to reason this view. He and his Ugandan friend struggled speaking to Tanzanian shopkeeper. Their languages were different. English wasn’t uniting them. The Congolese passenger spoke French at home. His English, he said, was bad. Yet we pursued a conversation about religion and faith in English.
Back inside the bus, the Congolese passenger asks, ‘Are you a tourist? That is your work? I have seen you take pictures.’ I am intrigued by these questions and the way people in the region think, understand and frame their sentences. Or is it just limited skills in English language. I am not sure if he thinks to be a tourist is work. But I certainly fancied this kind of work – to be a tourist!
In what looked like a rather late round of introductions, the passengers spoke to each other as we all boarded, satisfied with our food. Fish and chips is popular here on the highway. We were twenty-four hours into the journey. People like to dress well here, unlike an average India who isn’t always well dressed. An old man sitting behind, smiled. He runs a telecom business and was traveling to Tanzania for work. It seemed that he was a regular too, on these marathon bus rides. He was home, so to speak. I asked, ‘How long for Dar Es Salaam, Sir’. He smiled, nodded his head and left me with these words for which I lacked a reference in Africa, ‘long, long, long’. This wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Happy in the realization I settled into my seat for more of the Tanzanian landscape passing by the window. From that moment, there were eleven hours more to go, as I figured after getting off in Dar.
We enter Dar Es Salaam a little after midnight. By this time, the hours had ceased to register. Fatigued yet excited, I notice the first advertisement in the city, ‘Bet now. Best odds guaranteed.’. The framing. One is urged to bet yet odds are guaranteed. I take in the midnight look of Dar Es Salaam, the city by the sea. The city that my geography textbook indicated on the map of Africa. Of which I knew nothing, besides the Persian sounding name and its meaning. I was finally there, living my geography textbook!