WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (11) FINAL / by Mariam Harraz

Booking Rwanda was stressful, especially that I didn't know the length of my stay or how I was going to get to Uganda but I was determined. I hoped to continue my travels by road but unfortunately it was more complicated then that and so i booked a flight. I booked to stay at an art gallery, the walls covered with stories of the artists and a view I couldn't resist, it could also possibly be a way to meet people.

I arrived at 12am at the Kigali airport and I was greeted by a driver the owner of the flat sent. I didn't know what to make out of it except it was an act of kindness, they waited up for me to open the gates and show me around. 

The first thing I noticed when I got to the airport was how developed Rwanda was compared to all the countries we've been through. The roads were so sleek and so modern, the buildings were beautiful, it was extremely clean but also deadly quiet. But most importantly the street lights and traffic lights were working.

As I got out the taxi and put my backpack on I struggled to not fall down considering I couldn't see anything, I waved goodbye at the driver and said hello to my two new friends: a Rwandan guy named JMV and a Canadian women named Ivy, I didn't know how to react so I said hello and as soon as they showed me my bedroom and how to lock the doors I did exactly that, dumped my bag and went to sleep.

I thanked god I no longer had to wake up at 5am but that didn't make a difference I woke up starving for food as well as adventure, I got ready and rushed out to see if anyone was in the gallery I could potentially befriend. I then bumped into Ivy and asked her for advice. 

My dad has been to Rwanda before me and told me many times how much I would fall for it, the first day there and I was curious to go visit the memorial he warned me against, saying it's very emotional and painful to see, but I've already read plenty and knew the consequences. 

Now that I was alone I also had the adventure of getting from place to place and so it began I walked out the gallery to find a 'boda' (a taxi motorbike) The name boda boda was derived from when the border between Rwanda and Uganda was closed, passengers could only take buses to the border and then take a motorbike all the way to the bus stop to where they headed. So the name defined from border to border.

The only two languages I know were English and Arabic so I had to make use with it, but one word I knew was "WAPIIII" (it is said whilst you do flying hand gestures)  and I used it as soon as the boda driver gave me a ridiculous price to go to the memorial even though he was judging me in every way possible whilst haggling he laughed and said alright come on. Waaaapiii said in a loud and humouring way means no in Rwandan slang.

My first experience on a boda in Kigali - also named as the city of a thousand hills was compelling, as we drove up and down and my heart skipped a beat or two every time the driver turned sideways or just missed a car, I still felt free as I have ever been, powerful in a sense that I was alone, I was travelling and I was on a back off a bike in less then 12 hours of being in Kigali.

The memorial was no doubt just as my father and many Google reviews have said, aching yet enlivening how they've moved on , a subject that is no longer been spoken about due to how recent it is and how much it has affected this generation.

My parents always told me how important it was to be able to spend time by yourself, "you have to love your own company to love being around others." And they were right, I learnt it when I first moved to London and till this very day it stuck with me, as I went around the city and spent my lunches companionless and delving into the city by myself I was fulfilled. 

Rwanda's art scene was blooming, recently they've opened many galleries and as I went to visit the best rated gallery in the city, I was guided around by one of the co owners and right before I left I could see in the corner of my eyes a group of girls and guys chatting to the owner, I thought to myself "God I don't know how to do this! How do I talk to people I've forgotten!" And decided to act like I'm taking photographs for a while till I build the courage to talk to someone. Luckily a girl named Sarah came right then and introduced herself, we got talking and before you knew it we were going to meet for coffee in a bit, so I anxiously sat in the cafe facing many hills and greenery pretending to write my very overdue diary until they came. I think I am probably the most socially awkward person to exist.

They were amazing we chatted for ages and laughed and I didn't feel like I wasn't part of their group even for a second and the trip in Kigali continued to be like that, I engaged with the Rwandans and their culture more than any country I have been to yet. I was surrounded by people who have gone through so much and use art to express it. It was astounding, I couldn't see past their peaceful and open hearts and most importantly they saw past my headscarf.

And so it was time to say goodbye and get on a 14 hour bus ride to Uganda on an East African bus company which I would suggest to every sane person out there NEVER to do. When I was buying my ticket the man asked me if I wanted to pay 5 more dollars to be seated in the VIP section. You know what the difference was he said? "Madam you will be able to breathe" how lucky am I that I had that extra 5 dollars to be able to breathe on a 14 hour bus ride.

We picked up strangers and we dropped of strangers, we stopped when the bus broke down and continued even though there was a horrible smell. We watched African TV series and tried to sleep to raggae music blasting through the speakers. We raced with other buses and almost killed a few kids playing on the street (no joke) we drove on the wrong side of the road three quarters of the time and waved at the police when speeding. It was a nightmare as well as an perspicacity into their lives I will never forget. Sorry mama and baba you had to hear the truth through here.

Yet I loved every bit of it, Ugandans were nuts, literally insane, their energy blasting through the streets rubbed off on me.

A good friend of mine was taking care of me there, his family opened their arms as if I was one of their own, his dad boasting told everyone I was his daughter, and provided me with a real Ugandan experience. 

Hot full fresh cow milk with toast every morning for breakfast - the breakfast of men, it without a doubt made my stomach upset. I had to put so much sugar and chocolate powder to make it taste ok but it made us stronger and bigger (hopefully not if you have it only for 8 days.)

My friends family owned a farm and one day we headed there to pick up mangoes and fruits, we got stopped by a couple of police men asking so casually "do you have anything for us today?" I didn't pick up but David answered "no not today" the man then answered so casually saying "well tell the madam we're expecting something soon" and all of a sudden I was reminded by the corrupt government in a country I have fallen for.

But my last day was soon approaching and my trip had to end with a boda boda tour, the best way to venture around Kampala. In six hours I saw Kampala from the apical of Gadafi mosque that has provided Muslims a place to pray, I ate a Rolex; a meal that keeps the working men going, we drove through Nakasero where I discovered that grass hoppers being eaten alive is a luxury and saw Amin's dungeon that once murdered thousands and thousands by locking them up in a dungeon that had no ventilators and caused them to suffocate to death. 

My heart ached every time I thought of going back home, I didn't want to leave, I connected so well with Africa and I was worried because I didn't have that with home. 

And whilst I waited at the airport for my extremely delayed flight back home, I looked back on who I was before this trip, and I patted myself on my back "I survived and I even continued" a place I never imagined I could tackle and come out of it, I thought it would swallow me and my parents would have to come pick me up. I remember leaving and panicking about insects and all the silly stuff which was once the very reason I was struggling to make a decision. I dealt with it all and I experienced it all: loosing my pillow a week in my trip and sleeping without one for 33 days was hell but I got through it, a millipede walked on me with its countless tiny legs whilst squashed in a tent - I got through it, my last pair of clean clothes soaked in the rain because we had to move our tents so it doesn't flood - I got through it whilst wearing my pyjama and colours no one should ever combine, Buffaloes within metres - I got through it, envying my friends wearing shorts and shirts whilst I wore full sleeves and trousers and a scarf in high heat and humidity - I got through it. Walking at night in the wild pitch black to the toilets and praying to God nothing comes at me - I got through it. Being so dirty to the extent that your feet and hands were black and wouldn't come off even when showering and scrubbing - I got through it. I sky dived, I swam in the largest waterfall in the world, I slept under the stars, I camped for 40 days and I endured 40 days of driving from one end of Africa to the other. 

I was proud that the very reasons that once stopped me, I conquered them even if I was crying or laughing or saying the shahdah under my breathe at times, I made it. 

Suddenly my heart was at ease, if I could do this then I can now go back and fight for a place in the documentary world, a world I thought I would never make it in because of my fears. I left with a heart of steal, a thousand tales and a mind blossoming with ideas. 

I never knew I had it in me but one thing you should know: We all have it in us. 

For the Arabic version: 

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/-_5609_b_10052138.html?utm_hp_ref=ar-blogs&ncid=fcbklnkarhpmg00000001