The moto driver passes me a helmet and gestures for me to hop on. No problem, he says, the price is right. I climb on, feeling the machine shift under my weight. I slip the helmet on, unsurprisingly unable to tighten the broken strap. We make a slow turn onto the road and head off into town. Our destination is not far, only a brisk 10 minutes drive along a winding shoreline, honking and dodging cars, pedestrians, bicycles and other motos. The driver is calm, he does this so often you feel he could do it in his sleep. Me, I’m not so relaxed. My hands snake their way behind me to grip the bars just behind my backside. I note that I’m the only passenger who seems to be concerned. We pass mothers with their young children wrapped to their backs, men in suits who are lost in their SMS inboxes, women whose sense of balance is nothing short of impeccable. Not a single person is holding on for balance, for comfort or even (in my case) for the perception of safety. This is Africa. Everything is different here, so don’t bother holding onto your hat.
We pass by many people making the 5km walk between Rubona and Gisenyi, a seemingly endless stream of people who seem in no hurry, yet anyway walk with a slow purpose I couldn’t even begin to guess. Some are walking alone, others two-by-two, others push bicycles fully loaded with sacks or containers. Bicycle taxis also make their slow way up and down the hills, but the people here seem to prefer (or can only afford) to walk. Some bicycles are so heavily and awkwardly loaded with bizarre cargo – often it will be a bag of potatoes (or other crops), or containers of oil – but every so often you’ll see long sheets of corrugated steel or long planks of timber balancing precariously over both ends of the bicycle. At no time does anyone ever look twice, except of course at the bewildered mzungu (white person) hanging onto the back of their moto, as they speed along through the scene. The moto driver makes a continuous hymn-like hum as it speeds up and down the roads, punctuated only by the shifting of gears or the warning beep before overtaking. Anything is fair game for an overtake, it seems. Even the horn itself, a sound of annoyance or anger in Sydney, is used as a considerate warning for those on the side of the road. The driver beeps to let you know that he’s coming past, and the people respond accordingly. It’s all very natural.
I was surprised to discover the remarkably democratic approach to the concept of road. Unlike the roads of Sydney – where the cars rule the road and anyone else had better make space – here the roads are literally for everybody. People casually wander up the road, sharing the way with cyclists, cycle taxis, lots of motos, others carrying produce to market, the (very) occasional car or truck and the wonderfully irregular buses. There are no lanes, no footpath to speak of, no real sense of organisation and yet it still sings with a level of order I can only put down to culture. Everybody seems to just know what to do, and how much to worry about the heavy metal objects whizzing past. Which is to say: not a lot, it just works. I don’t get the sense that there are many traffic accidents here. I would be interested to learn how accident prone these streets are, although of course it’s also hard to say how much of it would go unreported. The people don’t seem concerned though, which really is the most lasting impression.
We wind our way into Gisenyi, whistling past the football field, packed with young men jostling for the ball, for space to watch the game. It looks like a training session, or perhaps a tryout for the coming season. We pass the tiny supermarket (with both french and english signs), the much larger petrol station, the highly expensive lakefront hotel complete with guarded walls and spiked fences, the women lounging on the roadside presumably waiting for something to happen. The moto chugs up the road into town and I cast my glance up to the hillside hotel that we had initially booked before arriving in town. We’d cancelled almost immediately, noticing the place lacked character, light and most importantly, guests. One of the perils of traveling in places without Internet, or traveling with an absolutely sub-par guidebook (the East Africa Lonely Planet, I’m looking at you), is that you occasionally find yourself arriving in places that are less than ideal. You can never know this before you arrive, but you base your decisions on word of mouth. Recommendations are the same in person and online, only with the internet the element of chance is greatly reduced. The chances that you’ll bump into someone who has been to your next destination, that you might happen to ask them about where they stayed, that they would have a recommendation and that you might actually manage to make a booking. The internet removes a lot of this happenstance, so in many ways that’s helpful, but for now we’re managing to just go with the flow.
We continue past the hotel, still curiously empty, and make the left-hand-bend turn into town. With this last turn my moto driver gives the bike one last spurt of gas and so it purrs down along the main street. We point to one of the five banks in town, and he pulls over to let us off, whilst simultaneously offering to bring us back to Rubona (it’s quite normal, actually, for taxi drivers and moto riders to offer you their mobile numbers, for the return leg). We say “no” in Kinyarwanda, the local African language, and dismount. Aside from the barrage of people offering moto/taxi/hotel services, the main street is fairly friendly, with people sitting casually near the entrances of stores, banks, hotels and such. A few guards with large guns eye us suspiciously, but nothing much comes of it.
After we sort out our international finances, we head back down towards the lake. This is where the magic happens. The Africans we meet have Stoney faces, silent and unmoving as you approach. It’s hard to read, it’s hard to imagine what going on underneath. Aside from the occasional “mzungu” calls, or the offers from moto drivers, the Africans are inexpressive to the point of appearing annoyed or angry. That is, until you say hello.
The standard greeting in Kinyarwanda is “amakuru”. It means ‘how’s the news?’, and is appropriate at all times of the day. The standard greeting is “nimeza”, meaning ‘it’s good’. You might sometimes get a “sawa sawa”, which means “it’s ok”, if they’re not having a good day, but this is much more rare. Especially when it’s you saying hello. The Rwandan people approach you stone-faced, perhaps not really looking at you or paying much attention, until you say the right hello and everything changes. Their faces light up, dominated now by smiles larger than you thought possible and they chuckle their way through the response. Saying hello in Africa is so important, but before you do, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s not so important. A well timed amakuru will transform an unreadable and impassive face into an open and animated face, smiling and laughing at this unexpected and pleasant surprise. They love it, and it really does let you connect beyond cultural and language barriers, going someplace neither of you really expected to go. It’s lovely.
We stroll on down the busy road out of town, towards the unusually good Thai restaurant on the lakeside, greeting as many people as we can. Not everyone responds the way we hope, some really do have no time for us, but those who do make up for that in style. Each new smile is like a match being lit right before your eyes, lighting up the space we share, in that brief moment of connection.
Featured image taxi moto by Adam Cohn on Flickr.