The inhabitants of a terra-cotta mud cabin come out to see what the fuss was about and excitedly shriek Muzungu Muzungu when the rusty door creaks open to reveal a white body perched awkwardly in front of their house
I sit down on the red earth next to the road, open my pack, fish out my and map spread it out on the ground. I stare at it intently. I know where I am, and have a good idea of where I’m going, but I stare at it all the same. The kids that have been following me stop, and regard in silence. There are 8 or maybe 10 of them, bright-eyed and dressed in rags. They were playing on football with a ball fashioned from plastic bags bound with twine when I passed, or pushing thin strips of metal with a stick.
My journey started two weeks earlier at 1,500m on the shores of Lake Kivu next to the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’d followed my nose east over the steep hills of Western Rwanda, down the wide landscaped Boulevards of Downtown Kigali to the dusty road to Akagera national park 15km east of Kibungo.
The human traffic on the road slows to a halt and a curious circle encloses. Young men stop their bicycles loaded high with branches of green bananas, women stand with their hips cocked to one side, steadying the basins balanced impeccably on their heads. The inhabitants of a terra-cotta mud cabin come out to see what the fuss was about excitedly shrieking Muzungu Muzungu when the rusty door creaks open to reveal a white body perched awkwardly in front of their house.
I need head space, I stare intently at my map, it provides a simple and sensible picture of the world giving solace from the claustrophobia of my position. I’m sitting on the road side in a village of twenty huts, their walls cracked to expose wooden ribs, small windows for light, and rusty corrugated iron doors. The green vinyl of the banana leaves look all the more glossy and verdant next to the sandy texture of the russet brown walls.
I’ve been following the red dust road, baked hard by the equatorial sun since breakfast and now I need a drink. My brow is encrusted with a fine film of salt crystals and my tongue sticks awkwardly in my mouth. I’m sure I smell, but that doesn’t matter here. I dearly want a few sips of the sweet water hidden in my bag. Each time I look up from my map someone outstretches their hands and dolefully mimes eating.
It is rude to eat or drink in public here so, after a long pause I fold my map and I shoulder my pack and start walking again. Fifteen or so, people follow, some tug at my pack, they ask for money/food/water/my shoes again. I’ve spent the last two weeks walking across the country, so I know most of my followers will get bored after a km or two. I know that the best thing to do is ignore them, but knowing what’s best doesn’t make it any easier.
The countryside opens out and becomes less populace. I walk pass fields with long horned cows. Miners overtake me on heavy black bicycles, their artisan tools; pick axe, pan and gallon drum, strapped to the back with straps fashioned from old tyres.
Fearghal O'Nuallain walked across Rwanda as research for his MSc thesis in Environment and Development in Trinity College Dublin.
Previously he circumnavigated the globe by bike: www.revolutioncycle.ie
He tweets; http://twitter.com/#!/Revolution_ferg
And will start blogging soon at www.fearghalonuallain.ie
For respite I talk to myself with whatever accent springs to mind, Scouse, Scots, Yorkshire, Cork or Nordie. Its comforting and familiar. I ask rhetorical questions in Irish, anything to interrupt the polyphony of Rwandan voices asking “what is your name?” then demanding; “give me my money”. It seems, the kids know only those phrases, or else they feel only those phrases are relevant when an Irishman walks through their village carrying his silly weight on his back not on his head like everyone else. Once they’ve got the formalities out of the way they’ll just keep repeating “give me my money”, “give me my pen” “give me my shoes”... I can only ignore.
The countryside opens out and becomes less populace. I walk pass fields with long horned cows. Miners overtake me on heavy black bicycles, their artisan tools; pick axe, pan and gallon drum, strapped to the back with strips of rubber fashioned from old tyres. Eventually, I loose my entourage, the last boy tiring of me and turning for home. I stop and have a drink in the shade of a tree. I gulp and guzzle my tepid water and deep fried bread rolls hungrily. Sated, I fall asleep in a mild stupor, hungover and dehydrated from my day’s exertion. I’m awoken by a doctor, Theodene. Chipper and enthusiastic he tells me he studied in Uganda, and South Africa. He’s coming from a hospital an hour’s walk down the road, where he was delivering blood samples. The hospital is staffed by American doctors. It’ll be dark in a few hours so I hope to camp there. I say thanks and hoick my pack on my back again and march on.
The hillsides are stained with the tailings of colonial mines, grey tear drops on the face of a burnt red and dark green landscape. The Belgians mined tin here in the thirties. I walk past a decaying industrial building and imagine a colonial scene. As the sky turns orange behind me and the setting sun throws long shadows on my path, I see a bright new building on the hill. Built of concrete and aluminium it looks like a space ship, transported from sometime far away. It’s a hospital, built by the venerable dollars of the Bill Clinton foundation. As I walk up the flower lined path I meet Chase, a pediatrician from Montana, I ask if its ok to pitch my tent next to the hospital. He says he can do better than that and finds me a room for the night in the bunkhouse. That night I eat good food with wide eyed and earnest American doctors and sleep on fresh cotton sheets. I doze off while reading Heart of Darkness and dream of Kurtz. My shoes caked in rusty mud sit beneath my bead on the white tiled floor, my clothes starched stiff from sweat lay in a bundle next to a commercial bible on a wooden bedside locker.
I wake at dawn to walk the final leg to Tanzania through Akagera national park. I enter the park with my heart in my mouth and a large stone in both hands. The park is full of big game, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, hippopotamus- the lions left during the genocide in 1994. A few miles into the park I throw my stones at a group of baboons sitting defiantly in the middle of the road, hoping they can’t smell the sweet bread roll in my pocket. A few of the males are the last to get out of my path, they look in my direction yawning with an impressive display of fangs I try not to be scared.
I feel exposed and vulnerable again, this time to the animals. I’m walking through a place where people are advised not to leave their vehicle. I tell myself that this is just to discourage hapless German tourists from petting the wild animals. After my encounter with the baboons, I break into a run. I’m scared. I mull over what I should do if I come across a herd of buffalo. Throw stones, run, make myself tall/small? I round a corner and I see a buffalo’s rump disappear into the acacia scrub on the fringe of the road, the fresh smelly dung dolloped liberally on the road a reminder of the near miss.
Adrenaline is a powerful stimulant, and to my surprise I find sturdy legs to run the final 10 km to the rangers’ lodge where I’m chastised for walking alone through the park. The buffaloes they tell me, are not friendly. We sit and chat and they soften, and offer smokes- pall mall blue. To my relief I they refuse to let me walk the final few km to the lake but offer a lift. As a thunder storm closes in I crest a hill and there it is a hippo and croc filled lake, on the other bank; Tanzania. I celebrate walking alone across a fascinating country with the sweaty bread roll from my pocket and a long slug of warm water.
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