A Tale of Endless Highways and Magic Grass – hitching from Tanzania to Burundi

My CS host in Mwanza on lake Victoria, in Tanzania, had Marshal Zhukov’s portrait above his bed, a wardrobe full of bulletproof gear and other things from the time when he had worked for the UN, and he told some wicked stories every evening after dinner, including how he once got hammered at a Ukrainian wedding.

I started early that Sunday morning from Mwanza, hoping to actually get all the way to Bujumbura, Burundi, the land of the best African coffee, on the same day. Never have faith in African roads if you are Cinderella and late for the ball.

Why did chicken cross the road?

The first driver brought me as far as a small dusty village in the middle of nowhere, from which he was going towards Dar-es-Salaam and I had to catch another truck to Burundi, the land of the best coffee in East Africa. One great thing about Africa and Asia is that you are allowed to hitchhike anywhere, even on a ‘busy’ ‘highway’, and there are many spots along the way where truck drivers stop for their chunk of ugali with beans and a cup of liquid. Ugali is a famous traditional food in this land, made of maize flower and some other crap, and it is as tasteless and plain as the surrounding landscape.

The next driver brought me to another town, still quite far away from the border of the land of perfect coffee, and at this moment I started seriously doubt the probability of reaching Bujumbura the same day. I texted my location updates to my CS host Aude and carried on. The driver followed me for a while, probably hoping to buy me some ugali with beans, but the time was ticking and I still had to get at least as far as the border.

Traffic

I was walking along the town road, full of matatus, moto-taxis and just guys hanging around with no particular occupation. The majority of men in towns and villages here are like male lions: while females are working there asses off, men just f*ck around. I’ve never seen anything quite like it outside of Africa: even in such crowded places as India, people in the street are always busy with something: selling roasted sparrows and rats, selling bangles and bracelets, selling tours and tickets, inviting you to a new cheap guesthouse, scamming you. In Africa, you see crowds of guys who just hang out on the road all day long, waiting for something entertaining to happen. So, here happened I. Having declined several taxi offers I came across yet another dusty-looking dude who grabbed my sunglasses and fitted them on his nose. ‘Nice glasses!’ he said, as if I didn’t know myself that my fashion taste was awesome. Luckily, no punching was necessary this time, and I skillfully landed the sunglasses back in my hands and made a ‘don’t mess with the mzungu’ face.

My ride finally came along, and I got into the truck with a guy from Tanzanian Mafia island (the island I never visited because of bad weather conditions) by the name Ahmed, and his buddies. Now I already told you about miraa. Miraa (or khat) and I had been formally introduced on my very first hour in Tanzania, the land of shitty coffee, by another hitch-driver.

‘Have you tried miraa?’ he asked, driving me and my travel companion Kristina from the Kenyan border, the land of simply good coffee.

‘No, what is it?’ I asked.

‘Well, it is the grass that makes the sleep go away. It grows everywhere in Kenya so we get it there. Here, chew a shoot,’ and he handed me a thin green shoot (I suppose the stuff that grows in Kenya is far far worse than the nice green leaves in Ethiopia).

It tasted weird and bitter. And it really makes you stay awake.

‘By the way, in Tanzania it is illegal. But everybody gets it from Kenya anyway,’ my journey in Tanzania began with chewing some illegal magic grass.

So, going back to Ahmed and his friends, they had a bag full of miraa right by the driver’s seat and never stopped chewing it. They were driving for 24h straight from Dar to Kigali and had to stay awake just for the sake of it.

‘No point going to Burundi border now, it is closed at night and it is dangerous,’ said Ahmed. ‘You can go with us to Kigali, Rwandese border is safe and open overnight’.

But I still wanted to see Burundi for at least a few days. We reached the border of Rwanda, the land of great coffee, around 8pm, in pitch-black darkness, and Ahmed stopped the truck to find me a place to stay overnight. He brought me and my luggage to the guesthouse at the border and insisted on paying for it.

‘That’s what my father taught me. And you, stay safe,’ he then instructed me on ho to get to Burundian border the next morning, how to get in touch with him if I ever get to Mafia and how to contact him in Kigali. Random kindness from strangers is one thing that will never stop surprising the hell outta me.

Next morning started with some excruciating headache, several cups of milk tea and slices of inedible bread, and soon afterwards a local man accompanied me to the taxi stand to get driven to the Burundian border, which is located about 1h from the Rwandese border.

Another strange thing about that place is that the distance between Tanzanian border patrol and Burundian immigration office is quite big, so I was lucky to get a ride instead of walking for an hour or so.

Between the borders

As soon as I went through the immigration and exchanged some cash, I was left alone on the empty sand road under the crazy sun, waiting for any vehicle to pass by. Some sketchy characters were walking around, and soon I was approached by a random man in a suit, accompanied by a woman with a baby. The guy started by asking me how am I doing, then where am I from, and finally said that he is police and he needs to check my passport.

‘Haha,’ was my answer. ‘Where is your ID please?’

‘I left it at home,’ he slowly inspected his own pockets and shrugged.

I never understood what was all this about, and luckily, at that very moment I finally saw a petroleum truck approaching me from the border. It stopped and I was picked by two Tanzanian drivers who saved me from the harassments of the passport-scammer.

Unfortunately, time was ticking and the truck was moving slowly. Which was good, on the other hand, because the green hilly landscape of Burundi, the land of the best coffee, was like a balsam on my eyes after the ugly dusty plains of Tanzania, the land of shitty coffee, and I couldn’t keep from thinking once again, how amazingly lucky I am, to be travelling like this, completely broke and happy.

The truck broke down in the next town. I am not sure what exactly happened, but one thing I saw was that the driver got off, lit up a cigarette and started making some repairs right next to his vehicle that had ‘PETROLEUM’ written on its side. I got off and politely bid my farewell, and then the whole crowd of locals helped me catch a bus to Bujumbura.

By then, because of the heat, the early start and no food, I was feeling like shit. I was also smelling like one. I remembered a lesson from my once-travel-companion Kelsey: ‘When you feel that you smell, don’t worry – so does everybody else around you’.

I seemed like all the people on that bus were a giant family – everyone was talking and laughing, I suspect mostly looking at me. The ticket guy, of course, tried to charge me the double price, but I must have looked more hungry than all of Africa and seemingly green in the face. The next thing I know is – he brought a box full of muffins and started distributing it to the passengers, along with bottles of water. The guy next to me watched me hungrily eat the nasty tasteless piece of dough and laughed. ‘Take, take,’ and he handed me his own muffin. I think I almost cried. Suddenly I crossed the border and everyone became so nice to me.

I played a song or two on the ukulele for the ladies across the aisle. They were dressed in the most marvellous orange and green clothes and probably didn’t hear a thing because the rattling of the bus was much louder than me. And then I passed out.

We actually got to Bujumbura in the evening, just before the sunset. And, of course, I was lost, trying to find my way downtown to meet with Aude.

A local woman came up to me and for the first time in my life I regretted that I’ve never studied French. Of course, more regrettable is the fact that I’ve never studied Kirundi. The lady tried to use as much English as she knew, I tried to use as much French as I could deduce from Italian, Spanish and Catalan. Half an hour later, we finally made it to Café Gourmand – the local oasis of expat life, where I insisted on treating my saviour to coffee and cake.

Bujumbura was a city with a character, no supermarkets, no functional ATMs, nighttime gangsters, hippos right at the lakeside and other wonders.

Hippos swim around Cercle Nautique café every day around 4:30pm
Hippos swim around Cercle Nautique café every day around 4:30pm

Did I mention that Burundi has the BEST COFFEE in East Africa?

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Laura Cole says:

    Brilliant, glad to see more girls keen for hitchhiking!

  2. excellent am happy abuts u 🙂 wish from srilanka 🙂

  3. Jon Sinclair says:

    I could never turn down magic grass. Actually, my last couchsurfer smuggled a bag of religious Indian holi festival candy and I was in my own Bollywood movie for about 10 days. Church. Jon Sinclair

    1. caorarua says:

      Awww dude, how come you’ve never been on big screens in a real Bollywood movie? Next time we meet we should make some magic muffins.

  4. Hannah C says:

    That was fantastic. I did feel a little worried about the passport scammer, how do you deal with those people if they don’t back off after failing to produce their id. A lovely ending though with the coffee shop and hippos. Were they right by the coffee shop?

  5. @lpha says:

    Miraa is not grass, but young treeshoots

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