Roaming in Rwanda

Today, I’m ultra-excited to have Amma Bonsu as my guest commuter! She’s the host of The Ammazing Series, and she’s traveled around Africa to profile stories that highlight the beauty and resilience of Africa. That’s how I met her, when she wrote about jetting off from her Toronto base with her baggage and equipment and headed off to Africa to explore.

This is an excerpt from her book-in-progress, “An Immigrant’s Dilemma”. Indeed, it’s a story from an international trotro patron. Enjoy.



To get to the village of Ntamara I had to stand in a long line at Bugesra bus depot. About 40 of us managed to cram ourselves into a yellow mini-van. I tell you, if you are ever in need of entertainment or irritation, you need to find a seat in a local African bus.

To start off, there were more bodies than seats but nobody seemed to mind, except me. There was the guy in the front row who felt the whole van needed to hear his radio play Whitney Houston’s ‘Greatest love of all’. His neighbour was a man shouting into his Nokia cell phone like he was at a shooting range. There was the baby crying his lungs out to a mother who seemed deaf to the jarring sound. Then there was the hissing coming from a couple having what can only be described as an exhausting lover’s tiff.

Despite the internal chaos, the van made an S-shaped progression up a hill, its suspension clanking over the dusty red road. The higher the altitude, the dustier the roads became and the louder the spare parts clattered. I doubted we could go farther; the engine was stuttering, the aluminum sheets plastered on the sides of the rickety vehicle rattled, but the van soldiered upwards, revealing an unobstructed view of Kigali. Along the valley where vegetation was sparse, clusters of plywood houses were stacked next to each other like boxes in a warehouse. Higher up on the hill, all I could see was corrugated roofs and brightly-colored kiosks.

The van struggled towards the peak. When it made a left turn, all the bodies swayed to the left, when it turned right, our bodies helplessly tilted in that direction. Suddenly, the driver slammed his foot on the brake. The force of the foot jolted us forward. He stopped in front of a large woman and gestured to her to enter quickly. The woman wiggled her largesse between me and a guy wearing a T-shirt with “Guchi’ written on it.

“Excuse me, Ma,” I said, rubbing her elbow to get her attention. “I can’t breathe. Please. Move forward.”

She turned to look at me. Her eyes were swollen like she had been crying. “Kizimagani*” she replied.

“Sorry, I don’t speak Kinyarwanda.”

“Kizimagani,” she repeated, cheeks streaked with tears.

“Sorry, I really don’t understand what you are saying. What do you want? Money for the fare? Water…? What happened? Why you are crying?”

Visibly agitated by my lack of an adequate response, she began to cry afresh pointing at my handbag. I was flummoxed. All heads turned to our direction. The guy playing Whitney Houston, the crying baby, the irritated mother, they all stopped to look at the woman beside me. She started speaking in Kinyarwanda. As she spoke the passengers punctuated her sentences with a collective gasp. When she paused, they began to speak at once.

“What did she say?” I asked. I felt strangely cheated. I was the first person this lady spoke to, yet everyone knew her story but me. “Does anyone speak Francais or English. Can someone please translate?” I tapped the guy in the Guchi shirt, he faced the woman and they started to talk, sharpened voices joined the conversation. This was not fair. She spoke to me first, if anyone should know the story, it should be me.

I tapped the guy again. “English please. Tell me what happened. What does she want?”

“Bandits,” he replied, “take she bag… run…”

I pieced the broken English together. The woman had just been mugged and the thieves ran with her purse. I finally understood why she was upset.

“I am sorry,” I told her in English, hoping my eyes would convey my sympathy.

“Kizimaghani,” she said once again pointing to my handbag.

“My dear, I don’t speak the Kinyarwanda, but whatever you need take it.”

I unzipped the bag and put it on her lap. Her fingers dove in and came out with my Mac compact mirror. She flipped it open and looked at her tear-stained face. Who knew “Kizimaghani”* meant “I need a mirror”? I had 4000 Rwanda francs in my purse. I counted 2000 and placed it in her palm.

“I am sorry you had such a bad experience.”

“Murakoze” she whispered. You are most welcome.

Two stops later, the conductor called out Ntamara. He slid the side door open. I stumbled out of the van and onto the dusty curb, narrowly missing an open gutter by inches. My lady friend was peering through the window trying to will my eyes to meet hers. I smiled at her and waved until the yellow van was no longer in sight.


*This is not the actual word she used but that is what it sounded like to my untrained ear.

About Kwaku Dankwa

By day, I'm an advertising copywriter. That's what I've done all my working life (National Service doesn't count). Husband of Esther, father of Jesse and twin boys Mark and Andrew, and servant of Christ. I previously wrote a blog on the dramatic side of public transport in Accra, "The Daily Commute: From Bridge to Ridge." Enjoy.
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7 Responses to Roaming in Rwanda

  1. florence says:

    wow. I thought she just needed a mirror? ….yep, life is stranger than fiction.

  2. Entertainment or Irritation…’ammazing’ how sometimes they blend into one! Thanks for that story Amma…and when are we actually going to do that coffee in T.O?

  3. Titbits says:

    Dear Kuks, I missed last week’s blog. Was I off your list or something? Are Trotskis the same all over the continent? “Always room for one more” is what they say about the Matatus in Nairobi.

  4. Amma says:

    Kwaku, thank you for the opportunity. You are a great writer. Doc, please check your email, I would love to meet up for coffee

  5. sue says:

    Great piece. Indeed travelling by buses in Africa is an experience all its own!

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