The Land of A Thousand Hills // A visit to Rwanda—the traumatized heart of Africa

It takes about two days to get from Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to the neighboring country of Rwanda. It might not look that far on the map, but on the ground, driving along the rutted road, it takes longer than it should. Each hour in the vehicle was an assault on our bones as we bounced from pothole to pothole.

Stalls and peddlers overwhelmed the road, selling everything imaginable, from grilled beef skewers to roasted corn on the cob, bags of charcoal for cooking, hollowed-out gourds filled with cheeses, roasted bananas, local flat breads and much more. Add swarms of flies for good measure. Should you stop your car for even a moment, the hawkers will surround you, offering their wares in a riot of noise, colors and smells. Maybe their food is tasty, but I couldn’t tell you.

Along the roads were ubiquitous white-painted concrete columns with the inscription “UNRA,” indicating where the Uganda National Roads Authority had built a road. It seemed that this was only a concept as the markers had mostly been swallowed up by the stalls and sometimes by the actual villages that we passed through. Some towns had absorbed the UNRA roads and rerouted them into the ditches and fields outside of the town because that suited them better.

Along the way, we stopped to rest at the bird-filled Lake Mburo National Park, a quiet preserve where herds of zebra crossed before us, giraffes sauntered by and a rhino tried to ram our car. Later in the day we arrived at Lake Bunyonyi, which sits in the crater of a volcano, the only freshwater lake in Uganda whose water you can drink without fear of bilharzia or other diseases. It is a beautiful lake that is said to reflect a thousand pink sunsets in the evening.

But the rough road continued and our bodies shook in every direction. I pictured my bones shattering and left scattered along the road. I might have said something to this effect out loud.

“You don’t have roads like this in Israel?” the driver asked.

“No, we don’t. Out roads are smooth and paved, and get us easily from one point to the next.”

“That’s very interesting,” he answered, “because this road was built by the Israeli Solel Boneh Company.” From that point on, I stopped complaining about the roads.
Due to intensive Israeli involvement in Uganda, past and present, many Ugandans are certain that Israel must be at least as large as the United States, or perhaps like Britain. When I explained to the driver that Uganda is eight times larger than Israel, he did not believe me. In addition to interest in Israel, there’s a pretty high level of awareness of the Jewish religion in the country, if not an accurate understanding of it.

At some point we stopped to pick up water and bananas in the town of Mbarara. I stayed in the car because the driver warned me not to go outside. “You are white,” he said. “If anyone sees you, there will be a war in this town about who will rob you first.”

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