“We climb into the bus and sit down. At this point there is a risk of culture clash, of collision and conflict. It will undoubtedly occur if the passenger is a foreigner who doesn’t know Africa. Someone like that will start looking around, squirming, inquiring, ‘When will the bus leave?’
“’What do you mean, when?’ the astonished driver will reply. ‘It will leave when we find enough people to fill it up.’”
Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Shadow of the Sun
Kapuscinksi, though prone to hyperbole, was right about African buses. They leave when they’re full. And ‘full’ doesn’t tend to mean when all the seats are filled. The aisles need to be filled, plus the steps by the door. Even then it’s usually possible to fit a couple of other people in. But that’s not how buses work in Rwanda.
I got to the bus station in Kigali at 12.40. It was little more than a yard off the main road with three 24-seat minivans parked up in a line. Four people sat on a bench, crumpled paper tickets in hand. A young guy with a handful of Rwandan francs and a small ticket book stood behind a desk, writing sums on a scrap of paper.
When’s the next bus to Ruhengeri? I asked. He turned to the guy next to him and they spoke in Kinyarwanda for a bit. He turned back: Treize heures.
He wrote it down on the scrap of paper: 1300
I looked at the four people sat on the bench, then at the 24-seat bus.
He was lying, I knew, but I wasn’t in a rush so it didn’t really matter. The old man on the bench squeezed up a bit and I sat down next to him and opened my book.
Fifteen minutes later everyone on the bench stood up. A kid picked up my bag and placed it in the luggage compartment at the back of the bus.
We’re going now?
I smiled. I knew we weren’t going. I got on the bus and took a seat near the back.
A couple of minutes later the driver got on and turned on the engine.
There was a knock on the window. It was the ticket guy.
Bon voyage! He waved.
I waved back. The bus was more than half empty. We pulled out of the yard and into the lunchtime Kigali traffic. It was 12.58.
Paul Kagame is either a benevolent, far-sighted leader who has revived a small African country crushed by genocide or he is an autocratic strongman who crushes dissent and has a somewhat hazy relationship with democracy.
Or he’s a bit of both.
There is one thing that all can agree on: he appears to make the buses run on time.