This week the Katuna (Rwanda)/Gatuna (Uganda) border opened to passenger traffic after three years following closure in the wake of a big diplomatic fall-out between the two previous bosom allies.
It first re-opened at the end of January, but for commercial trucks and Rwandans returning home. There really was never a 100 percent border closure, as the further and unpopular Kagitumba, remained open but for very restricted traffic. Katuna/Gatuna, however, is the big daddy of Rwanda-Uganda border crossings.
This time there were extraordinary scenes, as the humble border folk hysterical celebrated as the first passenger buses crossed the border. Many non-border people were surprised and puzzled by the merrymaking.
Few people are as intriguing as border folks. Many are like faithful polygamists, patriots who love their land with their heads, but whose hearts love the country across where their relatives live, divided from them by colonial borders that the post-independence African rulers inherited and enshrined in stone.
You cannot keep them away. They will subvert every rule and jump every imaginable hoop to trade with their kin across the borderline, and if they can’t do even that, their minds and emotions will still cross.
Rwanda runs a tight ship on its portion of Lake Kivu which it shares with DR Congo. Last year during a boat trip across the lake, a law enforcement officer who spoke happily of the job they had been able to do, threw his hands up in despair as we passed by a village up in the hills.
“They are impossible those people up there. No matter what we do, they are still able to smuggle to and from Congo”, he said.
In West Africa, they are even able to smell each other out. In Niger, a Fulani selling his cows at a cattle market will offer a trader from across in Nigeria a “tribal discount”, as he sells to his fellow citizens at a higher price.
But it runs deeper. An article last year by Gloria Atuheirwe, who is Director Gender, Inclusion and Women in Trade at TradeMark East Africa, cited a study that found that the border is a life and death matter for an extraordinarily large number of East Africans.
By far the most common profession East African women are employed in is informal cross border trade (ICBT). Around 70 percent of ICBT in the region is conducted by women.
However, the eye-popper was the finding that 43 percent of the population in Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, are supported by cross-border trade. That is nearly 50 percent.
When a restricted or closed border is fully opened, it is more than about being able to cross the border to attend the burial of a favourite aunt, attend a first cousin’s wedding, or drink the cheaper beer on the other side.
It is a bumper harvest. It is an opening of the granary. It is money in the purse. It is a ticket to live into the next year.
Those celebrating folks at Katuna/Gatuna do something the rest of us can never quite comprehend; they actually eat the border.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3