Low life

The joy of a Rwandan airport

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

Our plane touched down in Rwanda at 7 p.m. Stepping outside on to the metal steps, I smelt that unmistakable peppery, earthy, decomposing smell that says you have landed in tropical Africa and that for the foreseeable future things will be different. I crossed the tarmac to the arrivals halls and, sweating already, lined up to show my passport and visa.

Stupidly and inadvertently I had applied for the visa via a private online company called the Rwanda Visa Service, which charges a handling fee of nearly 200 per cent on top of the normal visa price. Four weeks before my departure date, I had successfully gone through all the online hoops and was informed that my visa was ‘pending approval’.

Three and a half weeks later it was still the case. I wrote an email. No reply. Two days later I tried again. This time a Rwanda Visa Service official said that he was very sorry, but owing to unforeseen difficulties his company could not supply me with a travel visa by the date required. If, however, I wrote down the following seven-figure number and showed it to the immigration officer on arrival, all would be well.

I stepped forward and showed my passport to the Rwandan immigration officer, who was young, decent, unassuming, calm, modest, patient and thorough. He was so unassuming that I wondered whether he had committed his heart to the Lord Jesus Christ. His name tag said his name was Rukondo, which means ‘love’. He asked me a lot of questions about myself as they occurred to him, as though he was satisfying a curiosity that was warmly personal rather than bureaucratic.

Finally he asked the question I was rather hoping he wouldn’t. ‘You have a visa, Mr Clarke?’ he said. ‘Thank you. This is your visa? This piece of paper?’ I drew his attention to the seven-figure number handwritten in Biro. His smooth clear honest brow furrowed. It furrowed more deeply as I related the story of my dealings with the Rwanda Visa Service. While I explained, he gripped the little scrap of paper with both hands and studied it closely as though giving me the benefit of the doubt that it was indeed a document of some importance. ‘I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to help you, Mr Clarke,’ he said finally.

Then he summoned a colleague, who took away my piece of paper. ‘She is going to check it,’ he said. ‘Please stand over there.’ And about five minutes later he called me back, stamped my passport with a high flourish and said that everything was in order and he hoped I would have a wonderful time in his country.

It wasn’t until I was standing beside the luggage carousel that I realised I had left my brand-new iPad on the plane, which after refuelling was flying on to Entebbe with the remaining passengers. It was leaving in an hour. I wanted to execute myself.

Sitting in a booth next to the door where ‘arrivals’ debouched into the welcoming arms of friends, relatives and drivers was a policeman. I walked over and told him in deceptively measured terms about my hopeless mistake. His name tag said he was called Turatsinze, which means ‘We are the champions’. Gravely he picked up a telephone receiver and had a long and very serious conversation with somebody on the other end, interrupting it once to ask me what was my seat number.

While we waited for an outcome of this conversation, I told him I was grateful for his even trying. He said that in Rwanda if a visitor needed help it was every Rwandan’s duty to offer to help as much as he could. Noting my agitation, he told me that I should remain calm because I will almost certainly have my property returned to me. Then he asked me how much the iPad had cost. I told him 1,500 quid with the keyboard. After translating that into Rwandan francs, he observed that he could buy land with that sort of money. Then he said he had once visited Birmingham and everyone he met there had been very helpful to him and that he supported Manchester United. I commiserated with him over their recent loss of form. He said that supporting Manchester United was like having a handicapped child, ‘but instead of killing it, you love it all the same’.

Then a female police officer bearing my iPad came along.

Once I’d proved that it belonged to me by opening it with my face, she handed it over with a wide and happy smile. My intimation by subtle gesture of a reward was decisively nipped in the bud. Her name was Giramata, which means ‘has milk’. Grasping my new iPad, I stepped through the sliding doors into her country.

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