Little children crowded around me touching my hands and chattering. I took off the helmet, one of those worthless shells with a clasp that will probably rip open the moment you need it for cranial protection. I handed it to one of the children as the motocycle driver took off his own helmet and shoved into my hands. Only a minute ago, we had been speeding down a red road in the east of Rwanda, not far from Akagera National Park and the Tanzanian border, following another moto with my American friend. We were heading toward a small rural village where she had visited a youth enrichment program that provided additional classes to children who were in risk of failing the national secondary school exams. They had requested that she do teacher training workshops, for which she had recruited me. I was happy to see another corner of Rwanda, especially one so far from city civilization. Her moto was long gone, disappeared in a cloud of sienna-toned dust as we slowed, the motor choking and finally cutting.
I wanted to whack the moto driver on the head. Are we out of gas? It didn’t need to be said: it was quite obvious. I looked around as the children emerging from the small houses that dotted the side of the road, began to appear. This is the true bush: no petrol station for miles. I tried my phone to call my friend and let her know what happened: out of gas. Middle of nowhere. What happens next? I ponder my options for a moment. I could start walking up the road. I could stay here and move into one of the houses and become the weird muzungu auntie to this wonderful group of smiling children who can teach me the water-pump dance, a strange hip shaking, up-and-down movement needed to efficiently operate the see-saw like water pumps. It will all be fabulous. I looked back at the moto driver, still wearing his Sunday church clothes with a yellow MTN piney over his oxford button-down. He was shaking the bike with his hands still clutching the handlebars.
Moto drivers are the engine of Rwanda: they can get you anywhere, as this journey suggests. It’s not uncommon to see business men in full suits and Italian wingtips clutching their briefcases while riding through Kigali or pregnant women in full katenga wraps straddling the back of a Suzuki racing down the road in Musanze. And before someone chides me for unsafe behavior like slinging myself onto the back of a motorcycle captained by a stranger who talks while driving by shoving his cell phone into his helmet, please know that the options for transport in Rwanda are profoundly limited. When your options are sardine-packing yourself into a combi van with at least 20 other people, the moto looks pretty fabulous. Fabulous, windy, dusty, and free of the sweat of other humans smeared all over you.
Apparently the shaking was not doing the trick, so my driver did something that made all of the children squeal and cheer: He picked up the bike above the back tire as if picking up a large dog, and shook the entire bike forward, willing the remnants of gas to trickle down. He did this several times, one of the children laughing so hard she was fell onto the ground, and then righted the vehicle and kicked the motor into starting. They clapped and cried things at him in Kinyarwanda, to which he gave them a cross look and motioned for me to hurry up and get on the bike before his luck—and the fumes—ran out. We puffed up the road a spell, the children running along side for a few moments, and met up again with my friend and her more conscientious, gas-tank-observant driver, waiting for us on the other side of the hill. A man emerged from one of the small shops with a water bottle filled with yellow liquid: fuel.
And then we chugged on, winding in between eroded canyons, further and further into the bush, passing children and mud-stucco homes and fields of banana trees. Everything, for those moments, was strangely perfect.