ACHOLA ROSARIO’S TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS AHEAD AND DURING HER TRAVEL TO UGANDA
(Posted 14th November 2020)
Have you ever gone through a border without getting into some kind of trouble, especially in this post-COVID period where we are re-opening our countries to new ways of living? Crossing becomes a gauntlet of uncertainties, where the slightest side-glance behind your mask can convey an unintended sense of nervousness to what we assume to be an already high-strung and keenly observant immigration official.
For the last 8 months, many families have been trapped in separate countries, and are now finally able to re-unite and check on each other after worrying in either a simmering or overt fashion about the health and mental state of their loved ones. The toll has not been purely selfish; isolation breeds a fair amount of unanswered questions and anxiety about those on the other side of the wall or ocean. Whatsapp and Zoom video calls were good but not enough. Touch, smell and hugs were what were really needed.
On October 1st Uganda opened its borders and traffic ostensibly resumed with super-tight S.O.Ps. Many of the major bus companies still have not resumed their routes one month later, leaving the market open for new entrants and matatu-taxis. The prices of COVID certificates in Nairobi have sky-rocketed to $140 in some hospitals if you want it in 48 hours instead of the usual 72hours, for which the cheapest you can get tested is $70. Nairobi hospital has run out of testing kits and is referring clients to Kenyatta hospital, where testing is only available from 8am to midday on most days and where staff laugh when you ask if you can get the results within a couple of days. Embassies stress that you must get a certificate only 72 hours before you travel. Therein lies the conundrum: what happens when you cannot afford the $140 for receiving your COVID results within 48 hours. Add to the fact that the certificate is only valid for 14 days and has to be renewed if one’s stay exceeds that timespan.
Borders exist to screen people coming in and out of a country and within a pandemic it difficult to overestimate how cautious one should be. Travelling in curfew is also a concern as buses stop at 10pm and travellers fold themselves into their chairs and hunker down for the cold night, only to resume the journey at 2am to reach the border by the light of the first rays. They say it is always darkest before the dawn and with it comes the possibility of doing things differently and seeing people in a different light.
I am hoping post-COVID barriers will see better access to documentation for travellers as borders become less porous and more difficult to breach. People have to remember the border communities and their indigenous right to be on that land. It can no longer be referred to as No-Man’s Land, a reminder of colonial demarcations that split families and left the buffer-zones they couldn’t agree on with reputations of dens of thievery and the birthplace of smugglers. Entire communities not counted in the identity national cake that so protects others are sitting on the edge of borders. Documentation and bio-data cannot be the preserve of an interior few. This is especially true for one East-African country that shares borders with 5 other countries and counts a total of 156 different tribes, most of which are offshoots of others. And I am happy to report that this country’s officials are finally responding.
Uganda’s COVID border response was considered harsh by regional and even global standards, but that lull in traffic has given the country the chance to get things right. Officials are listening to individuals’ motivations for travelling with more of a sympathetic ear than usual, and the tools for bio-data collection are functioning and in place. The sky is pink and lilac when the sun rises and you enter the space where your family lives, squeeze hugs, smell hair and check eyes once the tears of joy have dried, making sure that the darkness that was covering the light, has now gone for good, or even for the meantime. But for now, the spirit of cooperation and help is alive and well.