The Journey to Turkey
The journey from Rwanda to Turkey was a real test of endurance for me. There was actually a direct flight from Kigali to Istanbul, but it would have cost £2,000 and I did not consider it worth the extra money – it was cheaper to go the long way around. The cheapest way that I had found of getting to Turkey from there at the time was to take a 12 hour daytime coach back to Kampala (Uganda); sleep there for a few hours and then fly to Nairobi (Kenya) the following morning; have eight hours in Nairobi and then fly from there to Brussels; fly from Brussels to London; then fly on to Istanbul from London. It would take just over three days in total – and wouldn’t cost much.
So I set off from Kigali coach station, and the journey to Kampala was not dissimilar to the journey from Bujumbura to Kigali. The driver again appeared seriously intoxicated, laughing loudly and shouting a lot; speeding and swerving very close to the edges of the road, closely missing other vehicles as we passed. Perhaps this is normal for such coaches, but I found it rather nerve-racking. When we crossed the border from Uganda into Rwanda I discovered that I needed a multiple entry visa in order to return to the country – which I had not considered. I was the only non-African person on the coach, and the only one who did not speak much Kinyarwanda or Luganda – so I did not quite understand what was happening.
Everyone had to get off the coach at the border and take passports and documents to a small outdoor booth. I followed their lead and went to the booth, but on arrival there was told that I did not have a multiple-entry visa so needed to pay a sort of entrance fee even though I was only passing through the country and not really stopping. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough Ugandan money left. I had some Ugandan shillings, some Rwandan francs and some Burundian francs – but not quite enough of either Rwandan or Ugandan money to be able to pay the total sum of the entrance fee in one currency.
Thankfully a friendly man on the coach said that he would pay my entrance fee and then I could withdraw more money at an ATM and pay him back on our arrival at Kampala. I felt very slightly concerned about the idea of being indebted to this man until our night-time arrival at which point he would follow me to an ATM in the middle of an unknown place – but I presumed that there would be easy access to one in or near the coach station and would not be a problem. In any case, it seemed I had no other option as the border guards would not take the price in a mixture of currencies, nor would the one who offered to pay my fare.
When we finally got to Kampala coach station, I wandered around for a long time looking for an ATM, with the kind stranger in silent pursuit. We finally found one and I was able to pay the man back, but it took some time and took us to a dark and seemingly very solitary place. I was very tired, and frustrated, and felt desperate for a shower, and did not particularly want to be in an unknown place at night with money and a bank card on show, but it worked out fine and I was able to pay him the correct amount and head back to a main road unaccompanied.
Then I had about eight hours in which to get to the airport. By this point it was quite late at night, probably gone midnight because the coach trip had somehow overrun despite the driver’s speeding. Perhaps we had taken a detour. Anyway there were no boda bodas or buses around at this time and so I slept on the steps at the coach station until sunrise. At first I felt a little worried about my safety, sleeping out in the open in a public space where there were no people around, but I was so shattered by this point and my body was aching all over from the coach trip, that I stopped worrying and went to sleep with my rucksack as a large and very solid pillow.
I had not arranged to meet anyone there because I had planned to go straight to the airport from the coach station and snooze on a chair there until the flight, based on the assumption that transport would still be available on my arrival at the coach station. What’s more, when I got to the coach station I was well aware that even if my phone had any power left in it (which it did not), everyone I knew in the country would be long asleep by this point anyway, so I was stranded for the night.
After sleeping out in the open there for four or five hours, I awoke to the sound of the early-morning boda boda taxis driving past and whistling at me. After a short while the sun began to rise and the little buses started going past too – the ‘buses’ that look like those little white vans that are common in the UK, but full of many people squeezed in like sardines. Knowing that these are significantly cheaper to ride even than the boda bodas, I waved at one and asked the driver if he would be going to the airport – and he said yes. There were still about four hours before my flight was due to leave, and I was aware that it wasn’t too far to the airport. Over the next hour and a half or so I realised that the driver didn’t appear to be doing a set route as I had thought – he simply went where the passengers requested. After my third time of asking if we were anywhere remotely near the airport, he said ‘OK, I will go there now.’ Had he forgotten, I wonder, or was my journey last on the waiting list? I didn’t particularly mind – I wasn’t in any urgent hurry. For some reason, the driver didn’t quite go to the airport – he took me as far as the end of a large road leading to the airport, and then left, instructing me to ‘go that way’.
So I walked for half an hour or so, passing some solitary camels grazing at the side of the road, and wondered whether I had passed the airport without realising – or how much further I had to go. Eventually I waved at a passing boda-boda who stopped and offered to take me to the airport for a fairly high price. I bartered a little and then a price was agreed. I was still reluctant to pay what felt like a very high price for travelling down one road, but I agreed, not knowing how long it would take to walk the rest of the way, and knowing that by this point I needed to be there pretty soon and I did not know when the next boda-boda would pass. On the boda-boda I realised that there were still several miles to go – so I was glad that I had been able to catch a ride even though it did use up almost all of the Ugandan shillings that I had left!
When I got to the entrance of the airport an official said, ‘come with me’, and asked where I was flying. I told him Nairobi, and he walked me to a gate with a very long queue. Thankfully I had no bags to check, just my rucksack as hand luggage, which he insisted on carrying for me. I felt a little patronised, as if he considered me unable to find the gate on my own, and unable to carry my own bag. But then he escorted me to the very front of the queue, said something to the flight attendant who was about to begin checking people in, and gave my rucksack back to me. The flight attendant looked at my passport, printed me a boarding pass and waved me through as the first one to board the flight – on economy class, too!
I asked somebody why it was that I had received such special treatment, and the man laughed and responded, ‘Mzungu’ – their word for a white person. I became quite upset at the amount of racial prejudice and preferential bias that I had encountered throughout my time in East Africa, and especially in Uganda. I had assumed that in the airport at least I would be treated simply as human – but since I was the only ‘Mzungu’ on the flight I had been treated differently to everyone else. I felt a little angry, and wished that there was something I could do to reject this special treatment and combat the racism. I had told the officials that I was more than happy to queue and to wait my turn like everyone else, but they simply laughed and shook their heads.
By the time I arrived in Nairobi I was very hungry. The last time I had had a meal was back in Rwanda – though I had brought some snacks and water with me from there. I had finished those at the outdoor coach station in Uganda, where I had slept for a few hours. That was now several hours ago. I wandered around until I finally found an ATM, once again in a somewhat dark and secluded area, outside the Nairobi airport. I then realised that I had no idea what the exchange rate was – and I could see no clues anywhere around me (nor any smartphone or computer access) – so I simply withdrew the second-lowest amount that the ATM offered, hoping that this would be enough for a meal and drink.
I wandered around until I found a small outdoor restaurant and café within the airport grounds. It is a large and beautiful airport, and if it wasn’t for my tiredness and hunger I would have really enjoyed walking around there and admiring the place, with all its lovely plants and artwork. On my way to the little restaurant I had passed several taxi drivers who had shouted and whistled to get my attention. One of them shouted out an offer to show me all around Nairobi – a four-hour tour – for an amount of money that I didn’t understand. I thought about it, though without stopping or making eye contact. I was quite tempted to go and see the sights – I had seven or eight hours there, after all – but in the end decided that it was possibly unwise to get into a stranger’s car, alone and with no awareness whatsoever of the country or culture or language, quite unsure who to trust. I reasoned that although it was very unlikely that anything bad would happen to me, it was probably better not to take the risk. Anyway, my stomach was calling me.
After buying a very refreshing meal and a large bottle of water, with no idea how much I had spent but assuming that it had not been too expensive, I remained in the small restaurant for a while. I was tired and content, but really wished that there was a shower available. I went to the public loos and spent some time trying to wash as best I could from the sink while remaining modestly clothed, which was a struggle. Eventually I went to the gate, ready to board my flight to Brussels (from which I would fly to London and then on to Istanbul). I was notified that the flight was delayed by an unspecified amount of time, which disappointed but did not particularly surprise me.
It turned out that the flight was delayed by over three hours, which meant that by the time I got to Brussels I was only just too late to board my flight to London. And, frustratingly, I discovered that to be able to claim on travel insurance for missed flights I needed to have allowed over six hours for changeover time and so could not claim any money back from the flight that I had missed. Disappointed and a little stressed, I realised that unless I could get an immediate flight to London I would also miss my flight from London to Istanbul. So, unable to find an affordable immediate flight to the correct London airport, in the end I wandered around Brussels airport asking at the different airline desks for their best offers regarding last minute flights to Istanbul.
While I was wandering around Brussels airport trying to find a flight to Istanbul, I bumped into an American man whom I had briefly met in Burundi a few days earlier! On that day he had said that his plan was to stay in Burundi for at least three years, and then perhaps return to the USA after that. It seemed that for some reason he had changed his mind over the three or four days that followed, and had got a last minute flight back to the USA via Brussels. This gave me hope that I would be able to get on a last minute flight to Turkey!
In the end one airline did offer me a seat on a flight leaving within the hour, for under €100! I was very pleased. I managed to contact my hosts in Turkey, letting them know that I would be arriving at about the same time as we had originally arranged (!), but at the other airport, on the European side of Istanbul rather than the Asian side. Having done little research I seriously hoped that I was correct in thinking that those two airports are not too great a distance from each other… When I arrived at the gate most people had already boarded and there was no queue, so I went straight to the desk and showed my passport and boarding pass. The lady at the desk looked at my passport and back up at me, and then said that although my boarding pass clearly stated Economy Class, I had been upgraded (for free) to Business Class, and she printed a new boarding pass for me, with a new seat number on it!
I boarded the plane and felt very comfortable and fortunate. I had never travelled business class before, and had never dreamed that I would. I also felt extremely out of place: I was still in my dusty African flip flops, skirt and t-shirt, still feeling smelly despite my best efforts and with very greasy hair, and with huge bags under my eyes. As I settled in my large and comfortable seat, surrounded by people in very smart suits with their laptops and iPads, I was given a glass of Chardonnay and a stylish menu! It felt incredibly surreal after all my horrible coach journeys between the three African countries. I did enjoy that last part of the journey to Turkey.
I have never appreciated a shower more than when I at last arrived at the house of my host family and was shown to their beautiful, clean bathroom. Such luxury. That night I slept better than I think I had ever slept before – the bed felt like the most comfortable bed in the world, and I dropped off immediately.
I had been invited to Turkey to volunteer at a church there. I was staying and working in a suburb of Istanbul, on the Asian side. Since I didn’t speak much Turkish, I was limited in the ways that I could get involved in the work – but I did help with a toddler group; led the music on guitar (singing in Turkish!) in the house-based cell group meetings; did a lot of childminding so that parents could attend meetings and services; and helped with administration. I had come at an interesting time – I was told that during my first week there was a four-day ‘sacrifice festival’ in which people meet together to worship Allah and sacrifice animals in order to purge themselves and their families of evil. The wealthier families would buy and sacrifice cows; others would sacrifice sheep; and the poorer families would buy and sacrifice doves.
The smell in some of the streets was almost overwhelming and I lost count of the times it made me gag and almost throw up. Along the edges of some of the streets streams of blood were flowing, attracting the interest of countless flies and other insects. The festival was supposedly a huge celebration – but I did not sense it in the deserted and blood-soaked streets, probably because people were celebrating in their homes with their families. I was told that on the first day of the festival immediate families would gather together; then on the second day they would gather with their grandparents; on the third day with aunts and uncles and cousins; and on the fourth day with more distant relatives and close friends.
In the church where I was working, the majority of members were people who had converted to Christianity from Islam. The time of this festival was a genuinely terrifying time for some of them, who felt that their families would feel obliged to seek and kill them during the festival for abandoning the family religion – so, several church members who had come from more strict religious families went into hiding that week. Part of my role during that time was to help with groceries and other jobs so that these people had no need to leave their houses, in case of danger in the streets from people who had known them as Muslims and now considered them traitors, or people who might send details of their whereabouts to feared family members.
It was a very dramatic time, and not the sort of situation that I had ever considered that I might come across or find myself involved in. It was also very moving, considering all that these individuals had sacrificed by their conversion, and thus how much it must mean to them. It was distressing, realising that some of these people were in very real danger and genuinely feared for their lives throughout that week. It was heartbreaking, knowing that some of them had had no contact whatsoever with their families since leaving Islam, and what a huge daily burden that must be for them – alongside the fear that somebody who might during this week be seeking to harm them may have somehow discovered their address. It struck me how careful these individuals would have to be on a daily basis, even in such a modern and ‘liberal’ or ‘secular’ city as Istanbul. It was, as I say, something I had never thought I would come across.
The church planned to try in some way to recreate the family atmosphere and sense of celebration throughout the time of the festival, just as the Muslims were doing but without killing animals… So part of my role involved helping to transport church members to each other’s houses so that they could share fellowship together as ‘family’, and celebrate without fear.
I don’t know to what extent the church achieved this aim. Although they did manage to get people together to eat together, drink huge amounts of tea together and generally spend time together, and they managed to keep people safe and hidden where necessary, there was still a noticeably tense atmosphere a lot of the time, because people still feared for their lives. I felt honoured to be able to help out in some small ways, and felt very humbled by the situation. Thinking about the implications of conversation to Christianity, for these people, made me realise how fortunate we are in the UK to have freedom of belief and freedom of speech. Spending time with these people who had risked their lives to know Jesus, some of whom had had to completely give up their relationships with their relatives, somehow really inspired me in my own faith. It made me wonder, if they are willing to risk all this, and to make such huge sacrifices for the sake of calling themselves Christians, how much am I willing to give for the sake of knowing Jesus?
During the second half of the trip I was staying with a different host couple, because the host family from the first week had unexpected family visitors. The couple that hosted me during my second week were English teachers in a local language school, and had lived in Rwanda for several years before moving to Turkey. They had decorated their spare room with many Rwandan decorations. Several times I woke up quite confused as to which culture I was in – this happened many times throughout the year but was intensified when I was staying in that room. I kept somehow getting Kinyarwanda words into my Turkish sentences by accident, especially in the mornings. The host couple were amazing to talk to, though – they had some incredible stories of things they had experienced all over the world.
During this second week I was doing more or less the same sort of work as the first week – childcare, music, administration etc – though since the festival was over I was able to spend some time in the homes of some of the people that we had helped in hiding the previous week. I experienced such generous hospitality there. I also was able to spend my day off that week seeing some of the sights of Istanbul, by recommendation of my hosts and of Turkish people I’d met. I got hopelessly lost in the spice market for quite some time – fascinating place, and great fun! The fact that I understood some Turkish by this point was very helpful in Istanbul and I had some interesting conversations with people I encountered.
One of those was a lady selling things at a small stand on a street corner. She asked what I was doing in Turkey, so I told her that I was volunteering at a church, but that I didn’t really speak enough Turkish to understand the services or meetings. She looked very surprised and asked why it was not in English. I explained that there were only a few English speakers in the church – that everyone else there was Turkish. She said, ‘that can’t be true! Turkish people are Muslim!’ I found that funny… It is such a deeply ingrained part of the culture that to be Turkish is to be Muslim, that people cannot understand any other reality. In a similar way I have found that many cultures consider that to be British is to be Christian, as this was very much the way a century or so ago.
One day when I was taking the train to the church as I did each day, I heard someone speaking English (with a Cambridge accent, it seemed) on the train – so, excited to see a fellow Brit, I went over to say hello. I also thought that I recognised her, but couldn’t think where from. It turned out that she used to be in a girl band that I was into when I was about twelve years old! I had had posters of them on my bedroom walls for a year or two – never expecting to actually have a conversation with one of them, and on a train in Turkey!