An unpleasant road trip from Bujumbura to Kampala via Kigali

The first stretch of the trip, from Bujumbura to Kigali, was perhaps the most unpleasant one for me. I was unlucky that my travel date coincided with the time when the only three bus companies that ply the Bujumbura-Kampala (via Tanzania) route had decided to take a two-day break.

I either had to stay in Bujumbura for two more days or transit through Rwanda — an unpredictable journey that involves using multiple means of transport.
Due to the frosty relations between Rwanda and Burundi that have persisted for close to five years now, there are no more public buses servicing the Kigali-Bujumbura route. The two countries fell out when a domestic political crisis unwrapped Burundi in 2015.

Now the only Kampala-bound buses available in Bujumbura transit through Tanzania, which is a quite long and exhausting journey. In fact, it’s such an excruciating journey that even the few buses that service this route cannot operate daily.

Bujumbura to Akanyaru, the Rwanda-Burundi border

It all started from Kotebu, a bustling market-cum-bus park that is located on the northwestern edge of Bujumbura, Burundi’s largest and former capital city.
I was vanning in an old five-seater which, I had earlier been told by my ‘transport broker’, was Kigali-bound. But I later learnt that even these small vehicles don’t go past Akanyaru, the Rwanda-Burundi border where a two-year impasse between the two countries has paralysed cross-border travel and trade.

The road to Akanyaru took us through an avalanche of steep hills that cascade Bujumbura city, offering us clear, enchanting views of the city’s Gothic skyline and the legendary Lake Tanganyika — the world’s second-deepest lake — looming in a distance.

As we rode further away from Bujumbura, glaringly evident were the full-fledged Rwanda-Burundi tensions arising from the persistent accusations and counter-accusations of one country’s government supporting armed rebels fighting against the other country’s government.

Police roadblocks abounded almost after every 20 or so kilometres, and all of them had keen interest in the contents of our luggage. I couldn’t tell what exactly they were searching for, and neither could I ask due to language barrier — the downside to travelling solo in a French-speaking country when you’re from an anglophone country.

Several roadblocks and about three hours later we made to Akanyaru, a tranquil border town that’s evidently lacking the kind of vitality that greets you at other major border towns in eastern Africa.

It’s been over fours years since the Rwanda-Burundi border impasse and the once busy border post of Akanyaru now shows no signs of serious business going on. Some shops on the Burundian side are deserted while the brand new market on the Rwandan side is completely empty.

There are no long queues of vehicles or heaving lines of travellers to crowd immigration offices as used to be the case in the past. At the Immigration offices in Burundi, we are only three people exiting Burundi, all of us holders of Ugandan passports and evidently leisure travellers.

To our advantage, though, crossing the border was smooth and swift save for one rogue Burundian security officer who intimidated me into giving him a few dollars lest he stopped me from crossing into Rwanda. And he had no legit reason for stopping me, he unequivocally admitted.

Even though my first instinct was to protest Mr Rogue Security Officer’s illegal and utterly preposterous act, I gave in as soon as we locked eyes: this was an uncouth soldier — a real tough guy.

I grudgingly crossed over to Rwanda with some damage in my wallet.  

Akanyaru to Kigali

Once on the Rwandan side, I boarded a Volcano bus and it was a smooth ride from Akanyaru to Kigali, the Rwandan capital. From riding in old vehicles on the rickety roads of Burundi, it was a relief as I comfortably rode in the air-conditioned world of the Volcano bus.

Rwanda has some of the smoothest roads in the region and almost all public buses are new and modern, a plausible feat for the country’s public transport sector that has been achieved in just under 10 years and under the leadership of President Paul Kagame.

Back inside the bus, some Rwandan gospel music gave us company as we savoured the beautiful views of the terraced hills that characterises Rwanda’s countryside.

Devoid of the kind of annoying security checks I had encountered in Burundi, the Akanyaru-Kigali installment turned out to be the most pleasurable on this trip — so much that I never felt a tinge of exhaustion at the end of the four-hour journey.

Kigali to Kampala via Katuna

In an almost similar case with Burundi, the Rwandan government closed its borders to Ugandan goods and Uganda-bound Rwandans, citing harassment of its citizens by Ugandan security.

The border shut down, which was effected about one year ago, led to a drastic reduction in the number of buses that ply the Kigali-Kampala route — from an estimated 14 to only four buses per day (not official stats, of course).
So, it was not surprising that when I arrived in Kigali at close to 8 pm, most Kampala-bound buses were already fully-booked and I had to use my wits to get myself out of Rwanda.

I pleaded with the bus staff to squeeze me anywhere, that I wouldn’t go past the Rwanda-Uganda border, and they reluctantly let me in and I sat in the aisle between the back seats. I decided that I would gamble my way to Kampala once I crossed the border.

We arrived at the Uganda-Rwanda border post of Katuna at around 12:30 am Kampala time, smoothly cleared with the Rwandan side of Immigration and quickly crossed over to Uganda.
But as I confidently walked towards Immigration to announce my homecoming, I was stopped in my tracks by an uncivil voice from behind: “You!” a man hollered. “What’s your problem?”

I was about to reply along the lines of, “Hey look, I think it’s you with a problem…,” only to turn and realise that the voice that accosted me was coming from a mean-looking Ugandan soldier.

I quickly changed my mind and instead replied politely, “Yes, sir.” He told me that I was not allowed at the Immigration office, at least not yet. In the meantime, I was free to go anywhere apart from where I wanted to go.

Apparently, there was a impasse at the border as Ugandan security and Immigration officials were in the middle of an exercise that has become commonplace here (according to some media reports) in recent times: deportation a group of Rwandans for reasons that could only be fully-fathomed by the country’s security officials.

A day later I read in a Rwandan publication about the nine Rwandans’ outcry when Uganda evicted them after “years behind bars”.  

When the dust finally settled, we were allowed to clear with Immigration and continue our journey to Kampala. But that was not after the mean-looking security officers had ransacked our bags, and I could only wonder what on earth they were looking for. The message on their hostile faces was loud and clear: don’t breath a word.
Back on the bus, I found myself a seat this time. Maybe some passengers had been stopped from proceeding to Kampala for not complying with immigration rules. Maybe they were just not meant to go past the border.

Whatever happened proved to be none of my business as I soon fell asleep in the comfort of my new seat, only to wake up at around 8 am as our bus was struggling to weave through the heavy traffic jam of Kampala.

And it was the heavy traffic jam, dusty streets, nauseous clouds of fumes and head-crunching wails of temperamental car alarms that summed up the end of my three-country trip: welcome back to Kampala.