Nyabugogo: Navigating the Sweat and Dust

Ah, bus stations, for second class citizens of travel who cannot afford luxurious private transport (aka “cars”) or airline tickets. Do I love thee? Absolutely not.

I’ve been to enough countries to know that bus stations aren’t so different from North America to Europe to Africa. Uncomfortable waiting areas, cranky attendants who pretend not to hear you as you hurl money in their face and dash toward your departing coach, strange smells left over from drunk/high/slightly filthy humans who have barfed/peed/sweated onto the floor/walls/plastic seats. Bus stations are the redheaded step child of urban planning: every city needs one, but architects don’t seem to give them much love. After all, who has risen to international acclaim by designing one of these glorified shanties? Pretty sure that isn’t how Frank Lloyd Wright began his career trajectory: Atlanta bus station, Falling Water. Kielce, my home for year in Poland, wins the award for the most awesomely awful bus station known to mankind. It’s like the authorities chose the design via a elementary-aged art contest… which was summarily won by a paranoid LSD tripper who thought the little green men would make Kielce, the West Virginia of Poland, their first destination when coming to destroy us all. Buildings of the Cold War: underrated for their creativity.

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Don’t give up; you’re in Kielce!

In Africa, bus stations tend to look different. Mostly because there isn’t a station, at least not in the two African countries where I have gotten on coaches or longer-haul buses (not the city variety). In Namibia and now Rwanda, the case is similar. The bus station is called a “taxi rank” or “taxi center” or “coach center” or “coach rank” or “taxi stand” or “coach stand” or, possibly, “bus stand.” And it’s typically a large cacophonous parking lot, like a traffic jam and a mall and an outdoor market and an auction house all slammed together and sprinkled with dust. So. Much. Dust.

photo 3  One of the Virunga Express buses… where your seat is truly your seat

Rwanda has earned a reputation as one of the most well-behaved African nations, thanks in part to a (mostly) benevolent authoritarian regime that has clearly embraced order. Throughout the nation, even in the wide avenues of crowded city centers, streets are clean. People don’t litter. The gutters aren’t full of plastic bags (since they are illegal) or used bottles (since most bottles are glass and returnable for a deposit – then are washed and reused). Street vendors are outlawed, and I rarely get hassled to spend money outside of the market area. People are, as a whole, fairly respectful of your space and attention. Even crime is low and pickpocketing uncommon. I don’t ever feel unsafe here. Sure, I stick out in my town like a giant white sore thumb, but I don’t feel as though I’m a target for violence or theft, and most other visitors to Rwanda will back me up on that one.

But the bus stations? Something of a different story. It’s intense. There are no other words for it. In Kigali, the main area is called Nyabugogo Bus Park, and moving through it feels like something running the gauntlet at freshman football tryouts. When you enter the arena, as it should be called, you are immediately surrounded by one or more (Kigali: three to four) gentlemen who would like to usher you toward their bus service. They often don’t ask where you are going but offer suggestions. One day, I’m just going to pick the one that sounds the best. Kampala? Gisenyi? Victoria Falls? Bing! YES! Take me to Victoria Falls! See you in a week, Kigali! Unfortunately, that’s not an option. Plus, I’m always going to Musanze from Kigali, and that tends to confuse them. Often they repeat the name like maybe I said it wrong, as if to question why I would go to… Musanze? Yup. Musanze.

You can choose to ignore them and just go buy your ticket from one of the ticket areas, each belonging to a different company. You buy your ticket from a counter and then you have the fun task of figuring out which bus is yours sometimes they are very clearly labeled with painted signs (which often have the name and number of the artist on the back of them, in case you too wanted a wood sign that says “Musanze-Rubavu!” in rasta rainbow calligraphy) but often it is a game of getting on a bus, asking a friendly face, hoping you understand the answer, and continuing your game of bus roulette. I have taken to just getting on a bus, flagging down the guy in a moderately-official looking shirt, handing him the cash, and waiting for your ticket to come back. Works every time- I’ve always gotten the correct change back. It might be chaos, but it’s still honest chaos.

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Citrus fruits + baby who clearly wanted a bag of his own

Then you wait. Well, if you are me, you wait and you sweat profusely. Something about these buses- windows jammed open, surrounded by a hundred smoke-belching vehicles, idling and waiting their turn to get out of the mechanical zoo/arena, makes me perspire as if I’m doing something more physically demanding than sitting on my butt and waiting for a bus driver to take me home. As you sit there, stewing in your sweat and gently peppered by the dust coming in through the open windows (but heaven help you if you close them), vendors come by. A fun selection of vendors, some more persistent than others. Women with babies strapped to their backs, with bags of limes and other ambiguous citrus fruits.

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Others with boxes on their heads, filled with bottles of juice, water, and that strange malted beverage for people who like the yeastiness of beer but can’t be bothered to drink it. Sometimes the bottles are properly sealed; other times, if you look closely, you will see that they’ve been refilled and screwed shut. BYO Water- best way to avoid a ride on the diarrhea express. There’s other sellers: SD cards for cameras, chewing gum, plastic bracelets and necklaces clearly manufactured in China, magazines. Those are my favorites. The magazine/newspaper sellers look at me and try to pick my nationality, reaching into the open windows to show me The Economist, Time, Le Monde. If I shake my head at one, they understand that they have chosen the wrong nationality and thus the wrong news outlet, and try again with another magazine.

There are also beggars, a sad sight that isn’t all that common in Rwanda. According to A Thousand Hills, a recent book by Stephen Kinzer that slants strongly pro-Kagame, Kinzer indicates that one change made in recent years was that police “ran off” any undesirables from central city areas. That’s why you don’t see street children, beggars, or vagrants: they get picked up by the police to be detained or sent back to where their home regions. The bus arena is one place, and really one of the only places in Rwanda, where you don’t see police officers toting AK-47s. Rwanda is a developing nation, and the bus arena reminds you of this: there is still poverty, malady, and deformity- a legacy of war and strife. In the States, I’ve never encountered a person who suffered from polio. We have access to vaccinations to make sure that diseases like polio, measles, and even the various hepatitis strains stay out of our population. Here? You see the effects of polio. Men with shriveled arms, blind women, children unable to walk. Some from disease, some from the horror of the genocide and the following waves of violence.

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When it is time to leave, the driver starts the engine. In America, this means that people scurry like mice away from the sides of the rumbling vehicle. Here? Not so much. There’s not enough room in the bus arena. People barely flinch as the bus lurches forward, miraculously pulling into the dusty thoroughfare. People are still centimeters- centimeters– from my window. The bus moves, and they more alongside it. The bus comes within inches of the buildings- I could stretch out my hand and touch it with my elbow still bent- it creeps up on the bumper of other buses so it seems that they are touching. You have to hand it to Rwandan bus drivers. They have some crazy driving skills. Sometimes it takes ten minutes to get out of the bus arena, gingerly moving forward, accommodating oncoming vehicles, dodging vendors and children and other clueless travelers like me. Yet, somehow, I haven’t seen a collision here. I haven’t seen a scrapped bus or even a dented finger. Though, in this era, it would probably be whisked from sight. Drive on, bus men of Rwanda. My sticky, sweaty life is in your hands.

Peace and love, from Musanze… yes, Musanze.

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