Kigali: I can no longer count the number of times I have had to board a bus to travel and travel for hours before crossing the Rwanda-Uganda Gatuna or Katuna border depending on which side of the crossing you are coming from. I have been a passenger of numerous bus companies that have come and gone. My preferred spot is usually among the back seats but on a few occasions, I have sat close to the driver, getting a better view of what the driver sees during the journey.
Every such trip offers valuable lessons as far as the integration of the East African countries is concerned. In fact, before I proceed, I advise anyone who has never taken a bus from one East African country to another to add this on their bucket list now.
In the first place, it is on such rides that one gets to meet 'real East Africans.' These are people who are difficult to place in one particular country thanks to their linguistic flexibility. And I am not talking about the immigration fellows who are expected to speak several languages to work effectively.
I am talking about the medicine dealers who hop onto the bus to sell drugs they claim can heal all your pains and diseases. To get your ear, they are known to offer a soothing medical lecture in English, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Luganda name it. By the time they get off the bus, you are not sure whether it was a Ugandan, Kenyan or Rwandan speaking to you.
Then you have the 'money changers' often found at the "No Man's Land" section of the border crossings. These ones will quickly employ an array of languages until they get your attention and hopefully your money.
The lingering memory I have of these people, is the guy I found at the Kenya-Tanzania border of Namanga on the Tanzanian side in 2007. After finding out that I was Ugandan, he asked me whether the Ugandan army would find Joseph Kony in South Sudan. His interest and knowledge about something that was happening several miles away awed me.
While on these buses, one is certain to meet someone from another East African country and any engagement will offer very priceless lessons on the East African region. I have learnt so much about Kenya's history and even its future from conversations with my neighbours on the bus.
During these conversations I have also had to answer tough questions like the time my Rwandan neighbour asked me why Uganda's security officers had so many different uniforms. The one I failed to answer was when he wanted to know why Ugandan police officers were "too fat."
There were days when I used to board buses that had several Burundian citizens. It was always interesting to listen to the small differences between Kinyarwanda and Kirundi. Then on other days I would get a chance to listen to what God meant to different people when the defunct Gaso Bus would do a suicidal turn and passengers would call out their God in the different languages.
Talking of defunct there are reports that regional transport giant Akamba Bus services has suspended its operations due to accumulated debts, conflicts among the management and loss of business to competitors. This sad news got me reflecting more on the whole bus industry.
Often, when we talk of regional integration we fail to see the role these buses play in a region that has failed to add an extra kilometre of rail on the ancient Uganda Railway. To me this is such a huge shame and we are better off working on the railway problem instead of whining about Non Tariff Barriers in different countries.
Akamba which has been in the business for over 57 years, is now on its knees while in Rwanda Onatracom seems to be just waiting for its death certificate. In Tanzania, the once very comfortable Scandinavia Express buses are now a thing of the past.
Uganda's Gaso Bus Service, one of the first to do a Bujumbura service did not even wait for its owner Hajji Kamulu to be laid to rest before his children tore it apart. Burundi's Otraco bus that used to go to Kampala didn't even last a year on the route.
And how come the luxury coaches are a reserve of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda? Don't other East Africans deserve comfort too? The obscene cost of air travel within the region will be a topic for another day.