Christmas ‘pilgrimage’ underway as East Africans travel to their rural homes


(Posted 23rd December 2013)

As East Africans count down the hours to the Christmas holiday and do their final preparations to travel to what we call here ‘upcountry’, visiting their rural homes and extended families, like every year the paradoxes of the cost of it all become once again apparent.

In the shops, discounts are offered and special deals advertised to induce spending – a tough proposition as by and large inflation has again eaten into the available household incomes and left less than a year ago in terms of disposable money, leaving many with the stark choice to spend, in addition to the December salary, and those who are lucky with a good employer, an end of year bonus even their January salary. It is the time for many to take out loans or ask those they loaned money to over the year to get it back – in most cases a lost cause of course. Still, those prone to last minute gift shopping can be sure to get good deals now and find bargains in the stores or perhaps hear ‘sorry, sold out’ as a reminder to start the gift shopping in November already.

The resorts and safari lodges – for the holiday period – add a surcharge to their tariffs but in turn provide a bag full of goodies for their guests, from little gifts to ladden buffets, enhanced entertainment programmes and more, so there is value for money in having to pay a little extra.

International airlines too offer excellent deals for travel on specific dates, something most East Africans however cannot take advantage of as they need Visa, and those places are now in winddown mode till the New Year. That leaves expatriates and those with long terms Visa in their passports, but then, who wants to fly into the cold – perhaps the reason the airlines give such deals to sell an extra seat or a few.

In contrast, local airlines at this time of the year charge full fares, especially when it comes to flying to the resort areas like the Kenya coast or Zanzibar,potentially leaving a deep hole in people’s pockets and the special packages travel agents put together, are long sold out of course. Last minute deals? Not in East Africa, not yet anyway.

And then there is of course the annual drama with the busses and public transport in general. Fares are hiked almost at will, in some cases twice of what the normal fare was, and yet, across East Africa are people grudgingly parting with their hard earned money to buy their tickets just to be sure they get to their home areas. The exodus started for those lucky to have days off on Friday last week and over the weekend, and those who still have to work this Monday and part of Tuesday may end up paying an added premium when they finally manage to travel on Christmas Eve. The annual trials and tribulations of the Christmas holidays … when those in the villages expect their city children to come home, with boots full of presents and hence, those who have cars, will very likely pack them up, every last seat occupied, the boot packed to the point where it takes a rope to hold it down and the passengers still having packages and plastic bags full of things on their laps. Many cars, barely holding on during their daily trips in Kampala, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam or Kigali to make it to the offices, will huff and puff along the way and those inside them better have spare cash to pay for a tow truck or some unexpected repairs, to fix a broken fan belt or worse.

For all of them, my best wishes for a safe journey, to and from wherever they go. Travel safe and be alert to your surroundings as this is also a time when those with mischief in mind may try to find holes in the security dragnets our police forces are now spreading out to make sure nothing untoward happens.

And a word of thought dedicated to the suffering people of South Sudan and those expatriates still there and the Ugandans and Kenyans still trying to get out – perhaps those who started all this mess may mellow under the Christmas Spirit and declare a ceasefire, not that I have much hope for that though.

Happy Holidays to all my East African brothers and sisters – and don’t touch that rent money, the school fees and the shopping budget for January or 2014 may start not nearly as well as it should, says yours truly.

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