In Rwanda, you’re not allowed to eat in public. I’m told that this edict isn’t really about food, but avoiding divisiveness; those who have should not flaunt their prosperity in front of those who “have not”. For this reason, Rwanda does not permit “street food” in the traditional sense. nowhere will you see carts brimming with sausages, deep-fried vegetables, salads, or other dishes– and this is a shame.
What we have instead are “hawkers”, who will run up to matatus and try to sell their snacks to the passengers inside in the scant few moments the bus is idling. You can get things like goat-meat brochettes, boiled eggs, or roasted corn; and if you do, you’re welcome to eat up while within the confines of the bus, but not on the street once you disembark.
Many of the general stores I frequent will have an eating area: simple chairs and maybe a table, off in a corner, and generally protected from prying eyes with hanging sheets or another kind of partitioning. Eating is practically taboo. It’s something almost shameful, which people hide away.
Because street food is not a thing in Rwanda, it was all the more exciting to see on the streets of Kenya. When our matatu made a brief lunch stop an hour or so from the border, Sarah and I climbed out to see what our options might be (especially hungry since we had forgone food on the trip in order to ensure we’d have the money for our visas) and right outside of the bus was a small street-eatery. A man stood behind a grill, a display case next to him filled with fried things. Sarah and I bought some deep-fried potatoes, and she also got a few donut-hole-type treats. We still boarded the bus and sat back down before eating, but the fact that we were able to get such foods was exciting for me.
Our friend Jane took us to various nearby villages for sightseeing or errands, and we’d stop at some of the local joints. The food was always delicious, and always cheap. One time we got chapati and beans in a high-ceilinged, ramshackle one-room restaurant that evoked a certain California gold-rush feel. We’d tear tiny strips of the warm, flaky flatbread and scoop up the sweet beans, washing it all down with chai tea. Another time we ordered cabbage and chapati from a man who everyone referred to simply as “boss”. This meal was cooked with perfection, and we almost wanted to get second helpings. Keep in mind that these meals cost us less than two American dollars to feed the three of us.
I wish that Rwanda had restaurants that served such simple, delicious fare. A small restaurant serving chapati and a cheap bowl of beans or cabbage would probably be very well received in the land of a thousand hills– after all, people eat all of these things. If a restaurant opened up charging 300-400 RwF for a meal, I think it would do a lot of business. Most places in town charge at least 700 RwF just for a plate of chips. We can do better than that.
Kenya’s rural landscapes are breathtaking. I took these pictures while hiking out to see a tree nursery and a well project that Jane helped with during her service.
In Kwa Kolumba, villagers fetch water from the river which is dry for part of the year. People must dig into the sand bed in search of the water below, and transport their water home in carts pulled by cattle.
Sarah and I helped scoop water from the shallow pool into some jerrycans, much to the children’s amusement.
Sarah and I enjoyed warm showers at the hostel, then headed down the busy Nairobi street in search of a matatu to take us to Machakos, where we would meet up with one of her friends and head back to their village.
People were very aggressive with their “where are you going?!” demands, but were quite friendly once we told them, and they’d subsequently point us in the right direction. We stopped at a pastry storefront and got a few breakfasty items, then found the matatu we were looking for. The hostel had told us to pay 150 shillings each, the bus staff asked for 400. Sarah negotiated down to about 200 or 250, but when we went to get in, the driver refused this lower price, saying that the other guy didn’t know– we probably got muzungu price, but who knows.
The bus took a long time to fill (and thus, head to Machakos) so Sarah broke out her breakfast pastry… and somehow, we had ended up with an extra. Closer inspection suggested we may have ended up with three extras! Weird. We aren’t sure if we paid for them or not, but we certainly didn’t ask for them. It was a pleasant mystery.
The bus left the stop and careened down the busy streets, parting pedestrians just in the nick of time as it headed out of the city. Sarah and I were amazed at how no one got hit, but magically survived. There were a few close calls, though. We enjoyed watching the scenery for a while, and listening to the music on the radio… until the radio failed.
Okay, I guess the matatu itself is what failed. They got it to the side of the highway, and attempted to restart it. No dice. A few people climbed out to make room for lifting up the front passenger’s seat to reach the engine, but it was still tricky, so they had everyone get out while they tinkered. Periodically, they’d close things somewhat back up, the driver would get back in the seat and try the starter, but there were many false-attempts like this which got our hopes up.
The sun beat down on us, so Sarah and I took refuge in the shade of a huge luxury bus, next to some of the other passengers from our matatu. A mom and her little baby were there, the baby bundled up in the wool winter clothing that so many of the babies in East Africa seem to wear. The baby didn’t complain once while we waited– it’s amazing how self-centered American babies are, always whining and crying.
Eventually the bus was fixed! We all boarded, and continued on the path– about forty-five minutes to an hour later, we had reached the Machakos area. It would have been a lot quicker but it seemed that something akin to a Machakos state fair was taking place, so the streets were choked with buses and cars and people making balloon art to sell to said cars. It was nuts!
We got off the bus and tried to make sense of Sarah’s friend’s instructions– she had mentioned in a text that she’d be near a tall tree so I steered us in the direction of the tallest one I could fine. There was a muzungu coming toward us, waving– was this her? It was! We all grabbed some beet/ passion fruit juice blends in town, then found a matatu to take us back to her village. The adventure continued!
Sarah and I observe the gridlock and bustle of the Nairobi streets from the roof of the Neo Kenya Lodge.
Sarah had initially wanted to fly from Rwanda to Kenya, but I talked her into taking a bus. Shortly after she agreed, I started worrying that maybe something would happen, and that I would be personally responsible for anything which might happen to her. I imagined elaborate disaster scenarios in which I would have to protect her from harm, and while I didn’t *expect* trouble, I worried how I would come to terms with it should it find us.
Our tickets were pretty cheap– about forty bucks each. We boarded our bus around 5:30 pm and were really excited once we saw the inside of the vehicle– it had quilted plush walls and ceilings, as well as shiny red metal panels in the ceiling, and golden colored tassels hanging down. It was an opulent matatu that in another life could have fit in at the Moulin Rouge, or perhaps a maharaja’s palace!
Unlike many matatus, this one chose to keep the aisle in between seats totally empty– and there were very few stops, period. Sarah kept remarking how interesting the dearth of stops was, as she imagined people might have need of a bathroom (when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go). However, like many matatus, this one drove a little wilder than passengers of American buses might expect. Luckily I’m used to African transit.
A family sat in the seats in front of us, and they had a small toddler who would periodically wander back to our row to shake our hands or high-five us, fascinated by our white skin. He never said a word, but smiled a lot and waved from his seat while his mom held him. He was super cute.
The bus ride was fairly uneventful at first, but that all changed once we reached the Rwandan/Ugandan border. Everyone disembarked from the bus and went to the exit desk, where we filled out paperwork and got an exit stamp in our passports. Sarah went to use the bathroom and I tried to get back on the bus– but I was stopped by the driver, who asked if I had gotten my visa at the Ugandan side. Wait, what?
When we booked our tickets with the bus company, we specifically asked about visa fees. Did we need to get a visa in Uganda? No, they told us– we would drive through Uganda without stopping. Great. We went to the ForEx bureau and exchanged our amafaranga for Kenyan shillings, since we didn’t need Ugandan money.
Unfortunately, this had not been accurate. When we got to the immigration desk and handed the agent our papers, he asked for 130,000 Ugandan shillings– could we pay in USD, electronically, or in Kenyan shillings? Nope. The man told us to go outside and find one of the money changers in no-man’s-land. Would they rip us off? No, the man said: they’ve been doing this for years. We complied, even though it sure felt like we were being scammed. We paid our fee (even though we weren’t even staying in Uganda), got back on the bus, and continued on our journey– now worrying that what little money we still had would not be enough to pay for our Kenyan visas.
We decided not to buy food until we could figure this out, and hoped we’d make a stop right by a bank with an ATM so I could replenish our funds. We worried we’d otherwise get to the border and have to collect our things and get off the bus in order to find one. Sarah considered that we might have to ask the driver to make a special stop for us in order to avoid this fate, but we decided to wait and see.
Occasionally we’d hit a speed bump at a speed the bump was meant to reduce, and Sarah and I would fly up a little into the air, as we were seated just over the rear wheel. We were later informed that these bumps– particularly where there were three to five of them all at once– were installed by communities in the wake of an accident where someone was hit. Obviously the solution is to make fast-moving vehicles bounce up and become even less controllable. Logic takes a backseat to reactionism, i guess.
We slept a little. When I woke up it was early morning and we were going over a small bridge over a river. The Ugandan greenery was beautiful, and I remember thinking that this must either be a camera’s dream or a camera’s nightmare– everything was so lush! Cranes and storks abounded, and the landscape was a vision. The bus was quiet.
When we got to Kenya’s border, miraculously there was a bank right there. I got money from the ATM, then Sarah and I got our exit papers processed on the Uganda side. We navigated through no-man’s-land and got to the immigration office, filled out the paperwork, and waited in the long line. Just as we got to the window for international visa holders, someone came to sit at that desk and processed us swiftly. Sarah then went to exchange the Ugandan money I had procured for Kenyan shillings, and got a snack. We boarded our bus again in the strangely suddenly oppressive heat– it was like the mere act of crossing the border made the world hot.
We stopped for lunch an hour or two later and got some street food– deep fried potatoes. Sarah also got a little donut-hole like thing. A former RPF soldier (who declared himself to have been a rebel) talked to us, warning us about the dangers of Nairobi: “If you wear a ring, they will cut your finger off to get it. If you wear an earring, they may tear it from your ear. If you wear a necklace, they can rip it from your neck.” We were warned.
The man also informed us that Sarah was the most beautiful muzungu girl he had ever seen. Back on the bus, he asked if I wanted to trade her– in exchange he’d get me a Rwandan girl as a bride. I told him that Sarah was not mine to be traded. “Neither is mine,” he countered. Touche.
The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful, but LOOOOOONG. We had been told by the bus company that the trip would be 24 hours, but it ended up closer to 30. We left at 5PM day one and arrived at 11:30 PM day two. The final hours were dark and every time we saw distant lights, we thought that surely this must be Nairobi. Nope. But eventually we got there, got our bags and disembarked from our majestic matatu. We went in search of accommodations for the night, not wanting to be out on the road with all of our belongings this late in Nairobi (which some call “Nairobbery”. We found a hostel about a half-block away, booked a room, and went to sleep.
Sarah and I had plans to travel to Kenya to visit a friend, and a week before our anticipated departure, we heard about an attack:
Our parents emailed us asking us if we were sure it was safe, and urging vigilance if we still decided we were going to go. Naturally, this had not cancelled our plans, but we were definitely going in with our eyes open…