Transportation abroad: The perils of the Kigali bus system

Katherine Carnevale


The fastest way to initiate yourself to the city of Kigali is to attempt to navigate the bus system. One of first activities here was called ‘drop-off.’ Our leaders gave us topics to gather more information about while in Kigali and told us we were to report back in about four hours. Size wise, Rwanda is comparable to Maryland and Kigali is a little bit smaller than Austin, Texas and is covered in hills. So “walkable” is not the word that comes to mind. Our group made our way down to the closest bus hub while all manically reciting the name of our separate destinations in Kinyarwanda. The possibility of mixing up Kacyiru for Kicukiro is very real and extremely inconvenient.

While the buses here do have numbers on them, we had been advised to not pay attention to them, as many times they are irrelevant. The buses in Kigali are essentially reconfigured vans. They have four rows with four seats each, which cram five people. Usually at least one of those people has a small child on their lap or back, and two seats by the driver. If I am crammed against the side I usually end up sticking the top half of my body out the window. There are other slightly larger buses but this is the typical style.

There are two workers on each bus, the driver and another man who for all intents and purposes we are going to call the collector. This person will sell their soul in order to fill their bus. When a bus pulls into a large hub, it is either empty or empties out. As the bus pulls in, the collector is smacking the side of the bus and yelling its next destination as loudly as possible. Sometimes if they see a look of hesitation in your eye, you could get pulled on to a bus to god-knows-where. They continue to yell the destination even if the bus is chock full, something I still don’t understand. Maybe so the driver remembers? There are always a few smaller stops in between the larger hubs and if the bus loses a few people on the way the collector will hang out of the bus while it races down the windy streets screaming the destination. I still get startled when that happens, but the locals hardly react. The collector also makes sure everybody pays their fare and gets exact change. When people are waiting for the buses, very rarely is there a line and even if there appears to be, it is still a mad house attempting to get on. I’ll admit it, elbows have been thrown, hips have been checked and toes have been stepped on. Everybody else may be on Rwanda time but I am not. It is not uncommon to see a few men almost get into fisticuffs over not making the bus. Another thing that baffles me about the whole event is the part when we get off. When the buses are this full and a person needs to get off, basically everybody in front of that person needs to move. The riders often react as if making them move is a personal affront to their character. This usually results in having to literally climb over people with my backpack, which only serves to further disgruntle them. This seems to be the custom for everybody though, not just the wazungu (white people, muzungu in singular). Though the system may look very different than the über fast trains in Tokyo or the shockingly punctual metro in Paris, the propensity to be a breath’s length away from somebody but barely acknowledge their presence still stands.


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