The blazing Sun assaulted my Celtic skin as I stood in a queue in a Kampala bus station. Slowly, slowly my fellow passengers divested themselves of the many bags, boxes and suitcases that accompanied them on their travels. As each was loaded into the bowels of the coach, its owner was given a numbered ticket and I wondered whether I had made a mistake.
Carrying a small fortune in camera equipment on a journey I’d never made before, I’d bought two tickets, one for me and one for the gear, hoping to minimise the risk of losing it in transit. Now, as I observed the unexpected security measures, I thought I’d wasted my money. It was to turn out, however, to be a fortuitous decision indeed.
I was on my way to Kenya to make a film for a woman, Becky, who I’d only met once before, about a hospital, Dreamland, that I knew even less about. Now I was about to board the only bus I could find that went anywhere near my destination. I had ruled out taking a matatu (minbus taxi) to the border because of the quantity of kit I was carrying.
Having checked at the ticket office, and at the check-in desk, that I would be able to get off the bus at Bungoma, and that it would stop at Jinja for me to pick up a package from my son and daughter-in-law, I boarded the coach thinking that everything was under control. Fortunately the Kenyan lady sitting in the row in front of me knew otherwise.
As I manoeuvred my kit into the window seat, she set about discovering what I, the only mzungu on board, was doing on this coach.
“Where are you going?” “Why?” “Who are you seeing?” “Is she your girlfriend?”
In response to the last of these I said, “No! She’s married. [Pause] And so am I. [Slightly shorter pause] And not to each other.”
“So she is your girlfriend!” she riposted with a cheeky grin on her face.
I knew I was beaten.
The conversation, however, did have its benefits. She made sure that the driver knew to stop in Jinja (this would not have happened otherwise, in spite of the office’s assurances to the contrary).
At an unusually prompt 3pm, the bus set off and wound its way through Kampala’s back streets in an effort to avoid the city’s traffic jams. These had been made worse by the apparently random road closures that happened to prevent opposition rallies in the run-up to the country’s recent presidential elections. I realised that this was going to be a long journey.
As we approached Jinja, I rang my son to let him know where we were so that he could get to the bus stop before us. By now the heavens had opened and it was raining in a way that you normally only see on film or TV. As we pulled in to the stop my son and daughter-in-law, who were very wet indeed, greeted me and handed over the package of reusable sanitary towels. Emily and Calum are based in the town and run Irise International, an NGO working to find a sustainable solution to menstrual health management in East Africa, hence the pads that I was taking for an orphanage in Kenya.
The bus continued eastwards and I tried to work out which border crossing we would use. On the one hand, Malaba (the red pin on the map) seemed the most logical, it was on a major road all the way to Eldoret, the coach’s first scheduled stop. Any point on the road from Malaba onwards could be reached by Becky, so this would suit me best too. On the other hand, this had been the only bus that I could find running on my route (others do too, but their agents denied it when I rang them up!!), and I had been told by some that it used the more southerly Busia crossing but nobody seemed certain.
Soon darkness fell and I gave up trying to work out where we were on my hand-drawn map.
As it turned out we did go to the Busia border post. Not knowing where I was, I followed the rest of the passengers through Emigration and then down the road into Immigration. As the only traveller requiring a visa for Kenya, it took me longer to be processed than the rest and by the time I emerged none of the others were anywhere in sight. Neither was the bus.
Not sure what to do, I started walking further into Kenya, my 20kg camera bag digging into my shoulder and bouncing off my hip. [Note to self: buy a rucksack before the next trip]
Some 500 metres down the road I found the bus, locked and empty, or at least I thought it was my coach. I stood there, alone, for about twenty minutes, growing more and more anxious, before a border guard came and checked the vehicle. As the lights were turned on I saw the rest of my equipment and could confirm, at last, that I had been waiting outside the correct vehicle.
My solitary vigil continued for some time. Then, slowly, my fellow passengers emerged from the surrounding gloom, carrying hot, cooked food for the rest of the journey. So that’s where they’d been, the local take-away!
Shortly after the border we turned left and headed north up a narrow road. This wasn’t on my hand-drawn map. Never mind. I had been assured that the bus would pass through Bungoma, which was close enough to Kimilili for Becky to be able to pick me up.
This part of the journey was tortuously slow. Every village, and there were a lot of villages, had built a series of enormous speed humps designed to rip the sump off any vehicle, no matter how large.
After an hour or so, our progress ground to a halt as we hit a traffic jam. Not to be stopped by this, our driver joined other vehicles in driving up the wrong side of the road until they too came to a halt. At this point he decided to test his off-road skills and we bumped and skidded along the verge at a perilous angle until we found the source of the jam.
A sugar lorry had overturned and shed its load across the road and surrounding countryside. There was no way through and it didn’t look as if this was going to be sorted out any time soon.
I rang Becky and tried to explain where I was. Another passenger had told me that we were just outside Bungoma, was there any chance that she could find me? Apparently my description matched two different roads so I tried to explain all the turns we had taken since the border. This still didn’t help but she said she’d try the nearest first and then, if necessary, the other.
While I was waiting for her, my fellow passengers kept getting on and off the coach, I assumed, to try and find out what was happening. How wrong I was.
Finally Becky rang back to say that she was the other side of the stricken lorry. I picked up my things, grateful that I hadn’t loaded them into the luggage compartment, told the Kenyan lady to let the driver know that I wasn’t coming back and then … tripped, falling headfirst down the stairwell. As I pushed myself back up the steps, I struggled to get back on my feet because the floor of the bus was moving. It was then that I realised that my fellow passengers had been helping themselves to sugar cane and it now covered the aisle of the bus. I had lost my footing on the cylindrical canes.
After circumventing the unfortunate truck, the hazards of an African verge, and the unwelcome attention of some of the locals, I found Becky and her driver a couple of hundred metres down the road. The rest of the journey was uneventful and I reached Dreamland shortly after midnight.
After a successful three days filming, I used private hire taxis for the return journey.
You can find out why the hospital’s called Dreamland by watching the film I made there. Warning: It contains some scenes in an operating theatre that some viewers might find difficult to view.