The Romance of the Road
Our daily commute from Kigali up into the hills, to where we are filming in a remote village, is the most grueling aspect of my current job. We spend two hours traveling each way, of which only a quarter is on paved roads. Even this comparatively civilized stretch has its perils.
Landlocked and without oil, Rwanda, Burundi and the vast eastern Congo all depend for their fuel upon the constant arrival of vast, plodding tanker trucks. This rust-bucket brigade of petroleum begins in Mombasa, more than a thousand miles overland at the Indian Ocean coast, traverses the great inland expanses of Kenya and loops over the north shore of Lake Victoria and into Uganda, before finally turning south towards the Virunga mountains. Rwanda is known as the "land of a thousand hills," and the rafts of tankers seemingly need to go up and over ever single one of them en route west to Burundi and Congo.
Traversing a variety of countries, with a variety of driving regulations based on distinct colonial pasts, the long-haul trucks advertise where their driver is sitting: LHD, with an arrow, painted on the back grill, means "left-hand drive."
Already on their last legs when sold on the end-of-the-line used Chinese trucks market, these rickety, dieseling monsters positively creep up and down the Rwandan hillsides, bottoming out at between five and ten kilometers an hour on the worse ascents while collecting a wake of impatient vehicles behind. In a haze of black exhaust we jockey with the pristine Toyota Land Cruisers of the countless NGOs that ply their trade here, and with kamikaze minivan drivers, their HIACE buses stuffed to overflowing with Rwandan travelers. The winding switchbacks make it perilous to pass these behemoths, and it is almost with relief that we reach the turnoff onto the rutted, kidney jarring dirt track that will bring us the rest of the way to work.
The license plates send my imagination swirling. SK, for South Kivu, one of the most strife-torn regions of the vast Congo, implies lawless, bribe-smoothed border crossings and the cresting of the mountainous Nyungwe Forest, a mist-shrouded jungle where monkeys forage on the verges beside the highway, on the way there. BA plates are headed for Burundi, where I have never been; Bujumbura is said to be a hot and pleasant city on a spectacular lake shore. Perhaps I might hitch a ride there to see it.
Local traffic: a truck brings bagloads of charcoal to market in Kigali while advertising an even more carbon-intensive mode of delivery.
How much time, how many days, might it take to reach here from Mombasa, or Dar es Salaam? What dusty spot is the favorite roadside café of the long-haul driver creaking his way across the savannas of Kenya? Where does he sleep, this man, blamed for spreading AIDS along the corridors of Africa? What looted minerals travel back in the emptied trailers, and where do they go?
All Photos from: Vehicles of the Rwandan Road