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Kigoma – Ruhengeri

On the further adventures of Tim traveling alone and how he would finally meet Fabian again:
Leaving Kigoma was quite a hassle with lacks of communication, scammers, exortioners and most of all beginning symptoms of culture shock.
One would think that making your way slowly into different cultures will help keep culture shock low. This is, at least while cycling, not the case! In contrary, cycling probably makes it even worse but to be honest: That’s also what we’ve been looking for.

I had to hang around Kigoma for a few hours until it finally turned 12. That is because LP-Guide stated that the Lake Taxis depart from Kipiri between 12 and 2 p.m. I had been there the day before and asked about the schedules which left me with 2 p.m. but I didn’t want to risk getting there at 2 and realizing the boats had already left. Also I had nothing left to do in Kigoma anyway, so I waited in Kipiri for two hours.

The problems started with finding the right boat. There where three with all the same people apparently manning the all boats and everybody was yelling in Kisuaheli and whichever language they might else use (except for English) and me with the phrasebook in between trying to figure out which boat was the correct one.
It worked out, they helped me heave the bike on to the boat and charged me 20000 Shillings in beforehand. My wallet fell into the water but praise be to the inventor of waterproof bills!
I know you’re not supposed to be the ferryman before you reach the other size but in that occasion, with the people yelling in Suaheli, gesturing like wild and waving with documents the pressure was just to high. Also due to the lack of communication when I tried to bargain on the price they thought I hadn’t understood the correct price (which by that time I had) and thought I wouldn’t pay at all…
All in all it wasn’t a very pleasant situation and I gave them their 20000 after a while just to get rid of them. That was the quadruple price that you would normally pay for the passage from Kipiri to Kabunga.
Time passed and eventually we, that is me and some 30 other people boarded the boat. Those boats are what you would imagine when talking about refugee barges. They consist of a hulk and a outboard engine which seems way too small to move everybody and that’s it.
All the luggage and cargo is thrown into the hulk, the boat lies a meter deeper in the water and then everybody sits on top of the cargo.
Naturally there’s no guardrail or other safety measures.
The boat on the water is just as crowded as the trucks on the streets.

And then it starts and you’d sit fixed in your position for 5 hours, in my case next to a boy who was totally flattened by the presence of a Mzungu. Touching me to see how I feel like, taking pictures and trying to talk to me with some weird voice which I think was the attempt to imitate American gangster slang. Funny enough he used his normal voice when talking Suaheli with the other ones on board. To do him justice: He was trying to be friendly all the while and actually shared the shade of his umbrella with me. Still I experienced it as rather irritating.
Then everybody kept talking. Talking about me which I assumed from their constant use of “Mzungu”, looking and laughing at me.
I rarely felt so alien as on that boat and it became worse when people started leaving the boat, arriving in their idyllic lake villages.

I would like to note here that all the experiences concerning alieness, hassle from the people and the usage of “Mzungu” where heavily influenced by my growing symptoms of culture shock. I am describing them here the way I experienced it all the while knowing that they are not as bad as I perceived them. Please keep that in mind while reading on and don’t draw the wrong conclusions on the normally very friendly people along the road.

So the levels of annoyance were constantly rising that day and I couldn’t wait to get off the boat and isolate myself from the world. After dark it arrived in Kabunga and a man from the boat who spoke some English offered me to help me find my way around, to the immigration office and a guest house. As said by that time I just wanted to be left alone and although annoyed I kept friendly and did appreciate his help a lot.
Since it was dark already I would have never found my way around that village which is muddy, clay huts and stretches over several hundred meters along the lake.
We walked that way, all the long with Mzungu cries coming from all sides. Finally we arrived at the border, a guest house right behind us, but the man who helped me wanted me to talk to the border official.

The officer was drunk. He smelled like alcohol from a meter a way and that didn’t exactly lift my spirits, things got worse when he wanted to see my passport. I obeyed and just hoped for the best and although drunk the man was – I must admit – very friendly.
In fact he was so friendly (and talkative) I followed a sudden intuition and asked him whether I could perhaps spend the night in his office since this would probably be the safest place in town. I didn’t feel safe in that town at all.
To my surprise he accepted without a second of hesitation and invited me in. He showed me the shower, gave me from their supper and even wanted to free a bed from somebody else for me which I could reject hastily by unrolling my mat on the floor in the office.
With that turning in events I couldn’t help but discarding my general bad mood and be grateful. I had a great night in that office, all the while feeling entirely safe and in the next morning I was the first to leave Tanzania (since I had slepped next to the desk…).
The last thing that happened in Tanzania: I asked the officer where I could change my remaining Shillings. He said there was no bureaux d’exchange but he would call someone from the market. – the black market? – yes. – Oh…
That particular person was still asleep so he advised me to try the black market in Kabonga (the Burundi side of town) and proceed and so I left Tanzania in great spirits.

Do you remember that (joke) picture we uploaded concerning the border post on reaching Malawi? The one where there was that house built of sticks with the immigration sign on it?
If you do you now know how the Burundi immigration office in Kabonga looks like. No kidding.. a hut built of branches, actually no sign, three police officers and a book in which they would write who entered the country.
Since I had the Visa already there were no further complications to entering the country and although my french is fairly limited I enjoyed practicing a little with the officers.
Then I continued, highly expectant of what awaited me in Burundi.

I had heard a lot about Burundi and Rwanda from other travelers, cyclists amongst them, in before hand and it was exclusively positive. I will just give a few quotations here: “You will love Burundi, the people are so kind there. The kids will actually push you up the mountains!”; “People in Burundi are so friendly. The trucks literally invite you to drag you up the mountains.”; “Burundi and Rwanda is only up and down but you can hang your self to the back of the trucks like the locals do”.

After my first euphoria about reaching Burundi, a completely unknown place to me, settled, resignation came. None of the quotations seemed to be right. Testoterone levels seem to be very high in Burundi. Everybody kept yelling at me, especially young men. Ey Mzungu! Ey Muzungu! Ey Whitey! Ey Blanco! For a change they would whistle or hiss. It’s densiley populated. You won’t get out of town for long, there are people everywhere. Ey Mzungu will go on for all day long.
In the morning you keep smiling placidly, waving back and trying to take it as greetings. Later you still know it’s greetings but you can’t help but feeling annoyed. Then you get angry. Why the hell is the only thing people see in you a fucking white guy and then they are even open enough to yell it in your face all day long? I don’t go around shouting Ey black man all day, do I? The constant yelling, partially aggressive, and as sad mainly the being lowered down to the color of your skin really messes with your mind.
I did a 160km that day from Kabonga to Bujumbura, it was tough due to heat and partial head wind, but the worst of that day were those first symptoms of culture shock. I simply couldn’t force myself to take it positive anymore. I tried accepting it as greeting, it didn’t work. I tried what Dennis suggested before (it’s just another way of saying “Tim”) but having your name shouted at you all day long isn’t very pleasant either. I tried ignoring it and thinking of something else but that made things just worse. People then just tend to yell louder and more persistent until you look at them.
I do take a certain pride though about never getting angry at any particular person. Only once I told one educated looking guy who addressed me in english as “white man” he shouldn’t be fucking racist. Oh well…
Anyway. That day hat exhausted me physically as well as mentally and gave me a really bad start with Burundi. I hated it and wanted to get out again as quickly as possible. That said: Especially the lake side is extremely beautiful, the nicest part of Lake Tanganyika so far and although not set up for independent travel there are some high class hotels on the white sand beaches.

Getting out of Bujumbura was way harder than expected. My French by that time was hardly sufficient to take directions from people here, there’s close to no English in Burundi and Kisuaheli and Chirundi are even less on my behalf. Then there’s of course no signage and for the first time not one major road but several separations in town which eventually will join all together again in a giant roundabout on the other side of town. It took me two hours to figure that out and find it finally so – in spite of my original plan to take the first ascend in the early morning while it was still cool – the sun was already burning when I started climbing out of Bujumbura.
The mountains start right at the edge of town and they go directly from some 750m altitude on my map up to 2000m altitude on my map (that’s the lines and therefore not absolutely accurate). Then the road will fluctuate on a height of around 2000m. There’s soldier’s everywhere because, as I later heard, those northern regions are a rather volatile area.
After ten minutes I was literally dripping with sweat. I had already drunk one liter, people passing by stared at me as if I were crazy (but they didn’t shout), the weight of the bike seemed to drag me back down and I caught myself trying to estimate how far I had gotten after not more than two hundred meters.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I wouldn’t get anywhere that day if I continued like that and I started turning back, looking out for approaching trucks.
They came but in most occasions they were too fast for me to catch. Still at the back of every single truck there were four local cyclists hanging on, no matter how fast it was going.
It’s a little scary to see those people sitting sideways on their bike, one hand holding some grip at the truck, the other one free or on the handlebar and the truck will just rush up the hill.
Finally also a truck arrived at which I felt comfortable to hang on to. You’ll shift into higher gears and have a small race up hill with the truck. First you try to keep its speed, then you slow down a little so you get behind it and then you’ll sprint to catch back with it. You’ll ride so close your front wheel is almost touching the truck, you’ll bend over lean forward with the entire body to try find a hold and then finally you’ll get it. All the weight of you and the bike is on your arms then, you’re out of breath and have a hard time catching it again because you’re in the exhaust of the car.
But you’ve finally made it and are rewarded with three cheering locals around you that will start babbling in Chirundi with you.

It was the first time I’d been hanging to the back of a truck. I’ve been clinging to car windows and pick up backs before but the back of a truck is something totally different. Especially in the manners the drivers drive.
I managed to stick there for not longer than five minutes. Then we passed a smaller peak, the truck accelerated and my bike got unstable. I stabilized it again but it got unstable again and I almost fell. I could just manage to let go of the truck and aid with my second hand. But it was close, too close to be honest. Especially since I wasn’t wearing a helmet then.

That was a scary experience and I swore myself to wear helmet as well as gloves the next time I’d try hanging to a truck. I didn’t.
To wear a helmet while cycling up hill at noon is probably as suicidal as it is to hang to trucks without. You get so hot under it that you’ll start sweating even heavier and if you don’t suffer heatstroke you’ll go blind from sweat and fall off a cliff ;-) . So if you want to wear a helmet at a truck you’ll need a certain head start to prepare, which due to all the bends you usually don’t have.

I forgot which truck the next one was in particular but I had learned my lessons: First it’s the most efficient mode of “cycling” in the Burundi mountains. Second it’s way too dangerous. Third if you’re holding the handlebar with your right hand (always use your strongest) and the truck with your left never ever under any circumstances let your arms cross. You’ll fall.
So we continued on and the next lesson I learned: Even if a truck accelerates to a speed where it gets tough that usually only means there’s a steeper passage ahead for which it’s gathering momentum. Don’t let go. You’ll regret it.
Lesson number five: If you go down hill behind a truck let go but don’t fall behind or try to take over. You’ll never get back on again.
In most cases you’re fast than trucks while going down hill but their momentum is higher as soon as it goes up hill again.
So what happens is you fall behind or take over and the truck will just rush away from you and you’ve got no chance of ever catching it again. You’ll have to stay right behind it and grip hold again the moment it starts outrunning you.

In the end (is a truck actually a he or an it?) I got pretty got at hanging on to trucks. I could even continue on gravel roads and the last truck I let go was after half an hour when my arm was about to be torn out of my shoulder – or at least it felt so.

The day I was talking about ended after 105kms in the last “town” before the border whichs name I have already forgotten. It wasn’t a particulary pleasant place but I was in an extremly good mood then.
As I had said I started suffering from culture shock upon leaving Tanzania. I really felt bad because people only tried to be friendly and all I could give back was a frown.
I kept pleading for something great to happen to change my mind and that day it actually did. On one very steep hill once again kids started running with me, endlessly yelling “Good morning Mzungu” (although it was afternoon). I didn’t even look at them. I just tried to breathe smoothly which occured to me very hard on that particular hill.
Since I didn’t react the kids thought of another way to catch my attention: They started pushing me up hill!
I never would have imagined it, neither the stories being true, nor those kids actually being of any more than symbolic help, but they were. Half of the weight seemed to be taken off me within seconds and we were literally rushing up the hill with the kids panting behind me while pushing the heavy bike (and even heavier cyclist).
I felt so embarrassed for my arrogant behavior, gratefull for their amazing kindness and within seconds everything seemed to change again. The world seemed lighter, I could finally greet back again and wave to people. I discovered that all the yelling was far less if you waved at them before they yelled.

I slept extremly well that night. I had been totally exhausted, there was a thunderstorm raging across the peaks of the mountains and it was cold. Freezing cold. I had to take a cold shower but then I could cuddle into the fleece blankets and the world was just great.
My positive attitude stayed the next day. Although I wasn’t as euphoric anymore I could still appreciate the people around me and then I finally left Burundi.
I left Burundi with entirely mixed feelings. Firstly it is a beautiful country – extremley densely populated, mountainious with a beautiful lake and tons of great bananas. As for a shortage of flat land the Burundians seem to be close to inventing vertical acreage.
Then the people are kind, especially in the mountains (For some reason I don’t know mountain people always seem to be nicer than those in the flat lands… no offense!). Then on the other hand people – especially at the lake tend to be very yelly. I really don’t know what to think of that country.
It’s definetly not set up for travel and I probably wouldn’t go there again too soon. But it wasn’t entirely bad either, no actually there were some great experiences and people were very honest. Not much bargaining, nobody tried to sell me anything or rip me off.
Well… I don’t know. Mixed feelings, as said. There’s definetly nicer places but also worse. And my opinion is biased by the culture shock.

But enough of Burundi. It’s definetly been worth the experience and I know a lot more about a country I’ve rarely heard it’s name before.
The crossing to Rwanda was once again managed by my passports on it’s own. I don’t know whether I stated that before but my French is only sufficient to ask for prices, directions and tell people I don’t know which document they’re talking about.
The latter is exactly what I did when I reached the border. The official thought for a while, went through my passport, stamped it and I could proceed. We are so amazingly privileged with being German.
Entering Rwanda was still no problem, the officer actually spoke quite decent English. I later discovered that Rwanda had officially changed it’s second language from French to English some two years ago… which resulted in huge chaos in schools and universities.

Rwanda greeted me with a beautiful beautiful road, an eucalyptos alley actually, clean and broad, no traffic no peasants. I had heard that Rwanda was the second most densely populated country south of the Sahara but that was hard to imagine because villages were at least ten Kilometers apart.
I just cycled pleasantly up and down, enjoying the beautiful scenery and once in a while chasing away begging kids. Yes kids started begging here again and in contrast to Malawi they seemed to know exactly what they want. But begging wasn’t too bad and it didn’t disturb me much.
What disturbed me more was that beginning in Burundi you would see “real” poverty. Dirt covered children with clear signs of undernourishment. But what can I do about it? There’s no point in giving them food, especially if they don’t beg, because that won’t give them long term relief and will only result in even more begging.
It helped to comfort myself with our fund raising campaign (that was a hint..) which also provides help to undernourished children in their respective programs.
That said: It wasn’t as if the whole population was starving. Those sights (i.e. undernourishment) were rare and most people are looked more or less well fed.

Later that day I arrived at Huye. I was confused because I wanted to go to Butare and not to Huye and even worse Huye wasn’t even on the map. After a while I discovered that Huye was the old name of Butare and I was in the right place.
It’s a great place: Ice cream, chinese food, hot water, fast internet.
I decided to spend a day there and rested from the intense cycling of the past days. The Rwanda National museum proved to be a disappointement. At least in what I had been looking for (i.e. information on contemporary history). It had great exhebitions on pre colonial times but I know from various german museums how people lived in the iron age and Rwanda was a tropical adaption of that, although iron age lasted here until the 1950s…
The exhibition on colonial and postcolonial time was half a wall with 5 pictures and dina4 vitas of the presidents. That’s it.
I also met Sue and Sandra there, two US citizens who volunteered/worked in Rwanda as English teachers.
Sandra lives in Gitarama, my next stop and invited me to stay at her place which I gladly accepted. They also told me that if you’re looking for information on the genocide you have to visit the genocide memorial in Kigali.

By the time I reached Gitarama the next day and after some confusion had found Sandra’s place it was already afternoon. She showed me the university where she worked and eventually we decided to go to Kigali together the next day to visit the genocide memorial.
We did and it was.. intense. Very very very intense.
Now coming from Germany I’d say I’ve been exposed to quite a lot of post holocaust memorial works, seen many of the pictures and exhibitions and I’ve heard the stories.
Still that exhibition shocked me. It was so good. It could have kept up with every single memorial in Germany easily, perhaps it’s even better than most of them. It’s so intense it it seems to creep under your skin and really touch your soul.
I felt physically sick at times watching the interviews of survivors, seeing the pictures. It is so..
The exhibition is very details in the causes and results and what happened during the genocide. And allthough it gives you all the preconditions it’s still unbelievable how something like that can actually happen. How that switch in human minds can be turned from normal mode into bloodfrenzied monster mode.

Two more things struck me being remarkable about that exhibiton. Firstly there was one extra exhibition on other genocides in history (e.g. Red Khmer, Nazi Germany, Armenia, etc.). And then.. the one that really brought me to the edge of crying: There was an exhibition dedicated to the children who died in the genocide.
Parents had sent the last photographs of their children (not the corpses but the living children) to the memorial together with a short profile.

So you would have the picture of a shily smiling girl or a crying infant enlarged and printed on glass above the profile.

And below:
Age (at death): 8 months
Favorite Food: Mother’s milk
Character: Weak and small child
Favorite Family member: Sister
Death: Smashed against wall.

There were perhaps 15 portraits of that kind but at the end I was close to crying and glad to get out again. A very very intense experience which I would highly recommend to everybody travelling to Rwanda.

Then the final day to Ruhengeri. Or almost.. the road was long and still mountainous. Worse than ever actually. It also was the most beautiful road, it wound up the long slopes of the 2500+ mountains above fog filled valleys, through bamboo forests and past steep cliffs.
I had to truck driver friends who regularly waited for me at the bottom of hills and so I managed to at least reach the junction of the Gitarama road with the Gisenyi – Ruhengeri road. By that time the sun started setting, it had been some 90kms (although the map had stated 87 to Ruhengeri) and according to the street signs 27kms remaining.
I decided I couldn’t make it if the road continued the way it had been all day long and found a place in a sleazy guest house.

The next day I got up very early to finally meet Fabian in Ruhengeri. I had missed him a lot, culture shock had been returning in Rwanda and I was looking forward to once again cycling and sharing all the experiences with Fabian.
The 20 remaining Kilometers (I had cycled some 7 or so from the junction) took me 30 minutes.
It was only down hill for the entire way … but never mind. I went to the hotel where we wanted to meet the evening before and asked for a Mzungu with a bicycle. They seemed to know immediatley whom I was talking about and actually woke poor Fabian (who was after a night of partying still sleeping) up for me.

We both enjoyed being reunited again and sat for quite a long time in a cafe chatting and exchanging stories and news. Then we started doing our buiseness in Ruhengeri… but that in the next report.
This one is too long already (almost 4,500 words).

I’m sorry for taking so long and posting such a confused and long article. I wrote it in at least 4 different sessions and never managed to finish it due to various reasons. Still… it’s done now and I hope you enjoy it.

Since I’m still trying to recover from diarrhea (which I think I haven’t mentioned here) which has been following me more or less uninterrupted since Kigoma, I’ll be uploading the article on reaching Kampala (where we are now) hopefully in due time.


  1. Leo

    Hello Tim,
    Maybe your Mzungu problem could be solved by Wikipedia:

    “The etymology of the word stems from a contraction of words meaning “one who wanders aimlessly” (from swahili words zungu, zunguzungu, zunguka, zungusha, mzungukaji-meaning to go round and round; from Luganda okuzunga which means to wander aimlessly ) and was coined to describe European explorers, missionaries and slave traders who traveled through East African countries in the 18th century.
    Mzungu is preferred because Central and East Africa people do not link people of European origin to the “white” color. This is because the concept of color coding ethnicities is not a part of their culture. Actually they consider people of European origin to be reddish or pinkish.[5][6] For instance in Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, European people are also known as rutuku which means red.”

    So be happy not to be rutuku, and think of the origin, meaning exactly what you are, an aimless traveller, travelling only for the travelling itself, without any business in Kairo. And what else should they shout, seeing the rare sight of someone on a bike, coming from the side of the world?

  2. Sebastian

    Thank you again for a great report! What an adventure! There’s so much that deserves a comment, but for now I’ll only pick out one detail. It was really nice by the truck drivers to wait for you at the bottom of the hill, since that’s normally where they would speed to get a running start, isn’t it?

  3. Tim

    That’s quite interesting Leo. I didn’t write it in that report but I’m over the culture shock now but still that helps to know.
    We were thinking about printing the front sides of our shirts with “Mzungu”.

    As for the trucks: Yes it is! Especially that extremly heavy transporter that almost didn’t come up the hills itself. Amazing, plain amazing.
    And from the few kilometers I spent IN Trucks I know how stressy that buiseness, especially in hilly terrain, is.

    We’re in Kampala waiting for Iran Visa. Details will follow on Thursday or Friday or so with a new report.. and btw. I finally turned out victorious over my diarrhea. It was intestinal gastritis “with a little bit of yeast” and they gave me a drug and that’s it.