Mark Kaigwa

Buses, Busia and The Border

In Happenings, Perspective on July 27, 2009 at 4:45 pm

So far, so great in Kampala. I love it here. It’s green like The Hulk and what Al Gore wants the world to look like. Weather’s great too. People are great too.

The trip was equally as ‘enlightening’ I took the night bus with fellow screenwriter and Maisha Finalist Bernadette Otieno for company. We took an Akamba bus to Kampala, and left on Friday at 7 PM. Bus wasn’t that full, which was weird. I soon found out that it would get weirder, people started getting off the bus as soon as Uthiru sides. What I haven’t mentioned is the mad rush I had to make for the bus. I left South B at 6 PM to hopefully get to Lagos Road by 7 PM. During rush-hour. On a Friday. On a rainy evening. *What was I thinking?* Well, God made a way, and I made it on time.

So how it works is that the Akamba bus to Kampala acts as a bus for all the other stops on your way to Kampala. So we also had passengers from Nakuru, Kisumu, Siaya and Busia. We were going to use Busia as our point-of-entry into Kampala. I had nothing to worry about, never been to Western Province in general, so was looking forward to the ride. I also tried to keep people updated via tweets and status updates. Funny thing I noted, though. At 2 A.M in Kisumu, everyone on board looked like a washed up extra on Lost or Pirates of The Carribean…All they needed to say was “Where’s Lock?” or go “Aarrgh, Matey!” It was too funny, obviously I might have been saying this because I was nowhere near a mirror, but that was besides the point.

I slept a good part of the way, something I’m thankful for. But our stops in Nakuru were cool. I’m not a fan of diuretics when travelling, but seems everyone else was – with people having coffees, teas, cokes etc. It was an interesting ride though. Was nice to stand in places I’d never stood before, didn’t eat anything at the stops, though, heard too many stories of  ‘that guy’ and trust me, I don’t (and neither do you) want to be ‘that guy.’ You know how the stories are “ Hey, did you hear about that guy who ate… at the bus stop at… it totally left him… and his road trip ended up being… all because he…” Feel free to fill in the gaps. And I had my chances, dozens of guys shouting “Njugu! Njugu! Njugu! Njugu Karanga! Njugu Chemsha! Njugu Patisha!” (Njugu are groundnuts or as you might call them – peanuts) and plenty other foods you might want to taste on an ordinary day. But this was no ordinary night, so no chances. Stomach trouble on a 12 hour bus ride wasn’t what I signed up for.

The border is probably the most hilarious bit of the story. So the bus stops. It’s 4 AM and we have no idea where we are. We hear a loud voice shout from outside “Passports! Everybody with their passports!” So I had mine safely zipped up in my jacket. Heard plenty of stories from friends who’ve travelled to dozens of countries, the general rule of thumb is that you don’t let go of your passport. Ever. Especially in African countries. At the border. You didn’t just travel all the way to the border, just to get your passport stolen. Nope. Don’t think so.

The Busia Border Post - Yellow Jackets and All

The Busia Border Post - Yellow Jackets and All

I get off the bus, groggy like everyone else and coming to with my new surrounding. The guy in front of me is quickly ushered away by a guy chanting ‘Passport, Boss. Passport.’ He gives the stranger his passport and is led to what could only be the Immigration office around the corner. His accomplice had been eyeing me and the second before my big toe had touched the ground off the bus, he was hounding me. He seemed pretty legit (for 4 A.M – he had a blazer on…), though I only stared at him for half a second before he got my hand and began to tug for my passport as we walked toward the Immigration area. I gave my passport to him, but followed him awkwardly close as he zipped off, quick to put a brother in a choke hold if he tried anything…Politely, though (You know me). He led me to a window with some light and in lightening speed, began to fill out a yellow sheet of paper – my immigration papers. I was surprised, to say the least. “Occupation – he asked me.” I was still in a daze to his ‘hustle.’ It was 4 in the morning and he was as perky, chirpy and zingy as a …tangy pickled pepper served right after some orange juice. In my half-asleep-yet-awake-enough-to-put-a-brother-in-a-choke-hold-if-he-tried-me kinda daze, I muttered Journalist as my foggy memory thought what I was doing at the Busia border (I was going for a Screenwriters Workshop – My mind got as far as Writers Wor…*end of transmission* hence ending up on Writer, Writing, Journalism…Journalist!

Strange but true.

So in (I kid you not) in less than a minute, he pointed me to where I was to stand, and had a good laugh at my passport picture (No, you don’t want to know why.) I stood in line, gave my passport, got a stamp on it and received a blue paper in return. He quickly got my attention and drew me back to where we filled the original one. I stood again in awe as he asked me how long I would be in Kampala, I said 24 days, he put down a month. I was a bit awestruck. He quickly looked at me and with a cheesy salesman smile and beamed “In case of emergency.” I chuckled anxiously. He then smiled and said “ I’m sure you’ve got something for me. You know, for the trouble…” I chuckled again and went back to queue with the same bunch of people. I was confused though. Everyone still had the yellow form and I had a blue one now – all filled out too. I began to circle around the lines of people like a lightening struck moth – looking for a light. This guy, (gosh, I don’t even know his name, we never even got that far) saw me looking confused walking the people and called me. “Mark…Mark! Come here.” I approached. He pointed me to the other side of a gate i.e. The border to where I was supposed to go next. “I’ll take you,” he said. Like I had any other choice.

We approached a policeman who I showed the passport and blue form. He nodded, and sent me through the gate to the Uganda Immigration Office about 50 metres away. I walked with my good friend, thinking of the convenience he had saved me, and how I admired his hustle – for 4 in the morning, he made my day. I gave him something ‘for the trouble.’ He quickly told me he had to get back, he couldn’t get as far as where i was going. I knew he was going to get another ‘customer.’ I didn’t mind. He was good help.

I went on to queue at the Ugandan Immigration Office, a small office, akin to the Busia one. This time, I had company – from the other side of the border. They had yellow jackets – exactly like the City Council Officials in Nairobi – only the City Council officials have ‘Corruption is Evil – Parking Attendant’ on theirs. These fellows each had a wad of cash that if it was in it’s Kenyan equivalent, would have them far from the border at 4 AM but in some lavish hotel in Nairobi. Ugandan Shillings vis a vis Kenya Shillings retail at the ratio of 26:1. Still getting over that. I look at it like the math lesson I never asked for, paying back for any I missed 🙂 These were some dodgy fellows who I’m sure could pull a fast one on me, and from what I heard  now, they pull stuff that ought to be in The Real Hustle.

I forget to mention, as I took in all these sights, Bernadette was on the other side of the border with her blue form wondering where to go. She gave me a call, and I went over to get her. She wasn’t as fortunate with her Immigration Writer Companion or IWC (I just made that up…they need an official name though.). He was a rather dicey character, while he filled out her forms, he chased after a fellow IWC who had a debt of his.

Note to IWC’s: That’s not a good look with the customers, so take notes: Chasing after debtors is a no-no.

(Back to regular programming)

And after helping Bernadette out with the forms, he quickly named his price… 200 Shillings – $2.7 …needless to say, she had to cough it up. He wasn’t smiling. I paid my guy less than half that – which is still quite a bit, but I had some change so I didn’t mind.

Note to IWC’s: Always smile, you can do it, if you’re that perky at 4 A.M. You can do it.

We went on to have the bus searched by ‘Customs Officials’ and trust me – whatever high tech approach you might be thinking now, it was a guy with a flashlight who walked through the bus and combed through luggage. Simple, but effective.

It was an experience I just had to share; too funny and special to keep to myself. So now you have an idea of what to expect when you get to the border…at 4 A.M.

If you have any border stories, I’d love to hear them…

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  1. I Love Uganda, i hope you get to club Kla stlye. Try out porko(pork) at Zanze, a rorex at Wandegeya basically have a good time. Border is always interesting only be cautious of the walking forex guys they can be sly.

    Have fun.

  2. Nice! Kulikayo Kampala munange. Isn’t it nice here, though? I loooove being here.
    I’m getting tired just thinking of the K’la-Nbi bus ride I’ve to take this Friday. It will be my 3rd such trip.
    You’d have to go to a blog post I did in October last year to see my first Nbi-K’la return trip by bus.

  3. Njugu patisha be what? Please update me. All the other njugus I get although I’ve never heard of njugu boiro.

    I think I know why he had a good laugh at your passport picture. He would laugh at mine too.

  4. Oh I loved this, never been far enough west as UG but Kakamega via Kisumu sounded a lot like your trip at least through the stops, and njugu, and weird looking fellas getting on and off the bus, and smiling big afriendly familiar like I used ta go to school with you when they somehow find a way to help you.

  5. Hehehe. well told, now i know what to expect when i crash into the border at some odd hour of the morning. 🙂 find the IWC without debtor IWC’s or something to that effect. 🙂

  6. Ahh, it’s so nice to hear some stories about that little old place again!
    I went through the border (same one) from Nairobi through to Kampala but jumped out at jinjya to get to a camp on the river… NRE? anyway, great place but being my first border within Africa, I wasn’t exactly on the ball despite the fact that we were passing through halfway through the day. We, me and a friend were travelling with a couple Kenyans who were friends of the friends we were visiting in Nairobi, the Savages who run an extreme sport programme on the Tara.

    Anywho, we get to the border and I decided as soon as I got off the bus I wasn’t going anywhere near the foriegn exchange ‘officials’ – I was content with my coke and cookies. We went over to the Kenyan immigration and all was well, but as we crossed over to the other side of the (very impressive) gate, we neglected to notice the was a UGANDA immigration office we were SOPPOSED to approach. well, we were last back on the bus anyway but it was a bit of a shock coming back a week later to hear that we were illegal immigrants for our short (and truthfully amazing) stay on the Nile.
    We pairs our 50 dollars each and we were on our way with ‘correctly’ dated stamps. 16 year olds find ways to get luck eh? 😛
    great times.

    AMAZING ARTICAL!
    I’ll be looking for more after reading this… 😀

  7. Hi Mark, just stumbled upon this all this years later. Brought back all the memories and it was scary for me then, but looking back it was one hilarious ordeal. I remember that I left the bus with my laptop, I was too paranoid about it going missing during the checks. You forgot about how long we had to wait for our bus to get to the other side of the border and I found the luggage check frightening coz I remember hearing people saying that sometimes traffickers drop off their stash in other people’s luggage just in case. Anyway thanks for the wonderful memories.

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