East Africa: What Our Borders Can Teach Us About Closing Our Minds or Daring to Dream

image Photo: The New Times

Trucks await clearance at Gatuna border post (file photo).

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The first time I drove across the Malaba border crossing into Kenya I spent about 15 minutes stuck behind a long queue of stationary trailer trucks, muttering unprintable thoughts under my breath.

Other motorists drove past, on the wrong side of the road, while I waited patiently, cursing their lineages for not respecting road rules and having the decency to wait. I would have been there the whole day if a Good Samaritan, walking by pushing his pregnant wife on a bicycle, hadn't tell me to follow the 'mad' motorists.

It was then that I discovered the trucks I was waiting behind were in for the long haul, so to speak. Their crews were either lying under them passing wind and time, or in various stages of undress in the roadside houses of ill-repute.

It took me a few more crossings to figure out why the road across the border was deeply gullied, and why going across was one complex bureaucracy: the chaos was the way the border worked, not the way it failed.

The road was allowed to fall into such disrepair to ensure that truckers and other motorists could not speed through the border without their wares being inspected or paying their dues. The bureaucracy and slow clearance procedures ensured that truckers spent several days at the border, supporting local businesses; the byzantine processes and lack of signage created employment for 'brokers', who dragged bewildered but grateful travellers from one window to another, filling in forms on their behalf and separating them from their money soon after. And the complexity, of course, invited bribes for customs officials.

I recently drove through Malaba after a long while. There are new buildings meant to put immigration and customs under one roof but the spirit of the border - the terrible roads, the bureaucracy, and the brokers who drive one bonkers - remains.

This spirit is easy to see but hard to define. If you are travelling by car or by plane you need visas, car documents, boarding passes, vaccination cards, and then have to go through security checks. Yet locals on foot or boda bodas zip through with nary a question asked, never mind that they are more likely to be smuggling weapons, Ebola or Yellow Fever.

With a few exceptions, borders reflect the confidence a State has in itself and its neighbours. Europe is a good example; the EU, when it was still overly optimistic about its place in the world, threw open its internal borders in one of the most progressive moves on migration. Inversely, economic uncertainty and the rise of rivals, such as China and India, have forced a primal instinct to protect territory, with countries like the United States and Britain now adopting the foetal position on migration.

This is easier to do for countries with geographical barriers, such as islands, although there are exceptions to the rule; Seychelles will let you in unless you turn up with vials of the plague in your checked-in luggage.

Borders also show the imagination of a people and their leaders. For a long time, the land border crossings in East Africa closed at 6pm and opened anywhere between 6am and 10am.

Motorists drove recklessly to beat the deadline, or spent the night at the border - yet aircrafts continued to take off and land throughout the night.

Then small but plucky Rwanda said it would keep its borders open around the clock. Travellers started piling up on both sides of its border and, before long, forced Uganda and the rest of the East African Community to allow 24-hour operations.

Today, an intrepid bus traveller can have breakfast in Kigali, a late lunch in Kampala, evening tea in Kisumu, and breakfast in Nairobi. If they still have any feeling left in their limbs and decide to plod on, bless their souls, they could have dinner in Mombasa.

In a way, therefore, the 'spirit of the border' is the pull of backwardness. It is the instinct to hold back trucks and shake down drivers instead of hurrying them through and making a small buck over a large volume. It is the timid and unworthy approach, for instance, to taxation, where we milk the few dry instead of making everyone pay their small but fair share.

Our potholed and clogged borders, in many ways, are a metaphor for our ponderous decision-making and lack of imagination. If we want progress, we must start to imagine how things can work, not how they can fail or be held back. How would East Africa without borders look like?

Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist.

Authors: All Africa

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