Walking across the Rwanda-Burundi border

I walked from Rwanda into Burundi this morning. A few steps across the border, the road was nearly empty. There was a soldier with a rifle under a tree, with a woman wearing an orange dress, a green and blue scarf over her head. She spat on the ground as I neared. I think it was a coincidence. There were a couple of guys cleaning up two rattletrap cars and three guys on two bicycles.

The road was flat and paved, leafy trees and flowers on both sides, bird trills loud and insistent. Hills and farmland peeped over the tops of the trees but even when I stood on my toes, I couldn’t see much. Cows in the distance. Small houses made of clay and wood. Green. The sun was hot, and I’d left my hat in the car, along with everything but my phone, my passport and a few francs.

I only walked about 750 metres and turned around. I’d promised my driver I’d return in quinze minutes. Just a lark, walking across the border from Rwanda into Burundi and back.

There had been a bit of polite and helpful wrangling about visas — crossing into Burundi meant I was leaving the East African visa zone, so the carefully pasted in $125 visa that allowed me to re-enter Rwanda and then later today, by air, Uganda, would be invalid. But, the helpful first guy explained, because I was Canadian, I don’t actually need a visa for Rwanda. (No one had explained this when I spent the $85 for the e-visa, direct from the embassy. They also tried to sell me COVID insurance). So leaving would invalidate my east Africa visa, but I could buy a $40 Burundi transit visa, come back to Rwanda and then get another $100 visa on arrival in Uganda. Okay. $140 for my lark. Plus what I am paying my driver to chauffeur me around, chatting in my primitive French. All knowing that I sail on a little cloud of the protection that money and whiteness and Canadian citizenship bring.

So I crossed. Mostly, because I could. What’s $140 to me? Not nothing, but certainly not what it is to everyone around me. Maybe a week’s wages for them, if it’s a decent job.

Walking, I let go of the gentle border wrangle and listened to the quiet. Burundi is a lot less prosperous than Rwanda, but where I crossed is just nature. The men with their bikes and cars looked more ragged than the women walking in Rwanda with their brightly coloured kitenge, more weathered even than the wiry Rwandese pushing bicycles heavy with water jugs, firewood, pineapple crops up hill.

My first time in Uganda was in 2008. Since then, I’ve traveled enough in Uganda and around east Africa to recognize degrees of poverty, the lines of strain and worry and hunger. The lines that the kids in our project had when we met them, as small refugees or kids who’d been shifted into the hands of relatives because of parental incapability of looking after them.

Last night, I had dinner with a group of siblings, graduates of our project, who’d surpassed those weathered lines. Refugees to Uganda after the genocide, our project had supported them through school, leadership training, university. Now, adults with good jobs and sharp suits, the money to pool funds to build their mother an excellent house, to donate money back to other kids. The leisure to run on a treadmill and learn to swim and watch football on a TV in their own home.

Always this question of privilege, the randomness of luck combined with structural forces that bestow “luck” on different groups disproportionately. Our privilege brought “luck” to this family and the other 47 “kids” in our project.

Walking mere steps into Burundi, I’m contemplating the meaning I make of my own privilege. I mentally try to count how many countries I’ve now walked steps in — or cycled, or dived, or run, or trekked. More than 70. The privilege of a Canadian passport, of legs and lungs that work, of English and enough French, of money, of a culture where the gender constraints are more elastic than almost anywhere else. Of an upbringing that encouraged adventure.

I re-enter Rwanda — passport duly stamped — and Regis drives us to a nice little hotel for lunch. We sit by the empty swimming pool and I briefly lament out loud not having my swimming costume with me. Five minutes later, a man is handing me a well worn pair of red flip flops and says come with me. He takes me to a steel changing room where a skirted swimsuit is hanging and hands me a towe;. Change here.

It’s not a bathing suit I would choose in a million years, but it fits me better than the two dozen I tried on in MEC last year. Regis takes my photo and I dive in. I swim until lunch is ready. It costs me 3000 RWF — about $3.

Privilege. I merely think about swimming and bam, I’m in the pool. Outside the hotel gates, people are pushing bicycles bearing heavy burdens in the same hot sun. I’m reminded of the time I was in Myanmar and wanted a puppet show and suddenly, there I was, alone in a hall with a warm gin and tonic, watching a puppet show just for me.

When I first started traveling by myself, I worried about being A Woman Alone. But I learned so quickly how easily white, western privilege smoothes paths. And how easy it is to mistake those smooth paths for something you deserve.

I’ve had my fair share of impatience or irritation at wanting something while traveling, at feeling disappointed when the path is the tiniest bit bumpy, at frustration when despite google translate, I can’t make myself understood. And I’ve been on bike trips with others who whinge about discrepancies between what was promised and what they got, about guides not paying enough attention to them, about patchy wifi.

But the more I travel, the longer I live, the more my body holds out against time, the more aware I am of the miracle that seeing this planet is. That when we navigate the earth aware of and grateful for our privilege — pure dumb luck at being born into this place and position in time, not that one — the more moments of grace emerge. Like a ridiculous, random bathing suit that appears just so I can dip into the water.

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