Crossing Namanga, Vaccines, & Medication


Kenyan countryside

Our trip to East Africa was mainly driven by our desire to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. When we did research on flights, it quickly became clear that flying to Nairobi was far cheaper than flying to the airport near Kilimanjaro. Another quick search revealed that there were several shuttle services that could take us from Nairobi to any of the nearby towns where the trekking trips started.

We booked a shuttle service with East Africa Shuttles, but actually Riverside Shuttle picked us up (the story of using one company to book but having another company actually delivering the services is going to be a recurrent theme and another post). They arrived at our hotel, La Maison Royale (we moved to a different hotel because it was a lot cheaper than staying at Villa Rosa) 45 mins early. All throughout breakfast we wondered how reliable the company would be. The previous day we called and they assured us quickly that it was no problem picking us up between 8 and 8:30 am.

At 7:15 am I happened to look out the window and saw a shuttle outside the hotel. I wondered aloud if it was for us. Ben didn’t think it would be but he headed down anyway just to make sure. A few minutes later, he burst through our door saying it was our shuttle.

Luckily we were already mostly packed anyway. UNLUCKILY, I had no idea where my money belt was (Spibelt large pocket). On the floor of the hotel lobby we flung our dirty laundry in a frantic 15 minute search for our precious money belt that held ALL of our cash and cards. Finally we found it in a pocket of Ben’s jacket. Then we hastily shoved all of our clothes back into our bags.

The shuttle ride to Moshi, Tanzania was uneventful thankfully. The shuttle was a large van. The condition of van was one of that had seen better days, but it worked and ran well. No air conditioning though. Luckily it wasn’t hot, so it wasn’t bad not having air conditioning, but it would be miserable on a warmer day. The ride was $30 USD each (Mzungu price, it was much cheaper for Kenyan residents).

We crossed the border at Namanga, which was one of the most confusing border crossings that we had ever experienced. First we got dumped at one side of the border with all the other passengers. We would have been concerned about the driver taking off without us, except everyone got off and seemed unconcerned, and the driver repeated assured us that he would see us on the other side (sounds more ominous than it actually was).

Upon exiting the shuttle we were immediately accosted by men who wanted to sell us nuts and soft drinks and Maasai women who wanted to sell us beaded jewelry. We waded our way through the throng of sellers to try to find where we needed to go. We got our exit stamps in Kenya without realizing that’s what we were doing. We figured out what was happening when the guy was not interested in our Tanzania visa forms. Finally someone pointed to the direction where we needed to go so that we crossed the border on foot.

We found the line where they checked to see that we got our yellow fever vaccine. Ben and I had some difficulty getting our yellow fever vaccine before the trip. If we had been going to Tanzania directly from the US, we don’t need the vaccine, but since we were coming from Kenya we did. There’s been a shortage of yellow fever vaccines in the US, so for a few days in December we had been calling different travel clinics to see if they had any.* Many didn’t and didn’t know when their shipment would come in. The few clinics that did were charging $250 per shot (not covered by insurance since it’s optional). Finally Ben found a Walgreens in deep Jersey that had the vaccine for $150. Even with the longer drive and Holland tunnel toll, it was a lot cheaper to get it in Jersey. We had our precious Yellow Card in our hot little hands. They stamped our visa form to indicate that we had our immunization and we went to go pay for our Tanzania visa ($100 for Americans and $50 for EVERYONE ELSE).

Several days later we learned that we hadn’t gotten our vaccines we could have bribed the officials for $50 to get a Yellow Card stating that we did get a Yellow Fever vaccine. We met one American guy who actually didn’t have to pay anything at all. The official gave him a hearty slap on the back and said, “You look like a healthy boy,” and let him go through without any trouble. There was a Finnish-Chinese woman we met who had a friend who frequently traveled to Tanzania so she paid only $16 for her Yellow Card.

Once we made it through, we walked some more until we found our shuttle. Eventually everyone got back in the shuttle and we were off once more. Ben thought that an official would check our passport to make sure that we got a visa, but no one ever checked once we were back on our shuttle. Theoretically it would be possible to get into Tanzania without ever paying for the visa. A guy on our shuttle later said that they do random checks and that the last time he was crossing the border, a woman tried to do that and she got caught.

Two weeks later we took a different shuttle to go back to Kenya. Even though we had gone through Namanga before and knew what to expect, the crossing was still chaotic and confusing. A guy helped us by showing us which line we needed to go in and leading us to all the correct officials for visas and such. Strangely going back into Kenya, we didn’t need to show anyone our Yellow Card. We thought the guy who was leading us around was someone from our shuttle company but he was actually just a random guy who finds lost tourists. This became clear when he asked for a tip after we got our visa and were ready to get back into our shuttle. We were annoyed because honestly we didn’t need him, even though he made the process easier, we could have figured it out on our own. We gave him a lousy tip. He was kinda mad about it, but there wasn’t anything he could do. I wish they would just be upfront about helping us in exchange for a tip.

Because it was Sunday, traffic was light from Nairobi to Arusha, so we arrived quite promptly. Riverside Shuttles ran three shuttles from Nairobi to Arusha and then from Arusha, all the passengers who wanted to continue to Moshi would go into a single shuttle to our final destination. The first two shuttles made it Arusha at the same time. We sat around waiting for two hours in Arusha for the third shuttle to arrive (I have no idea why it took them so much longer when we all left Nairobi at the same time). The third shuttle had no passengers going onto to Moshi. Finally we could leave. I queried why couldn’t Riverside put all the passengers going to Moshi in one shuttle and then just have us go directly to Moshi instead of waiting needlessly in Arusha. The same guy who told us about the woman who was caught without a visa shrugged and said, “This is Africa. That would make too much sense and be too efficient. Everything has to take a long time here.”

We finally arrived in Moshi at 4 pm. The travel took all day, but it wasn’t too bad. There was a stop somewhere in Kenya for us to use a restroom and buy a drink or a snack. You could also use a restroom (squat toilet) for pay at Namanga and another one was available at the Arusha stop. Ben and I brought water and snacks with us for the long drive. We napped and talked to a few other people in the shuttle, which helped to pass the time. We were perfectly happy to spend a day traveling in a shuttle for $30 (and coming back we found a cheaper shuttle for $15) in exchange for saving hundreds of dollars that we would have spent if we had flown to Arusha instead of Nairobi.

In addition to our yellow fever vaccine, Ben and I got vaccines for Hepatitis A because it can be passed through contaminated food and water. We decided that we didn’t need vaccines for Hep B and C because we weren’t intending to have unprotected sex with other people nor are we IV drug users. We didn’t get immunization for typhoid fever (for which a doctor whom we later met scolded us for, but she agreed we didn’t need Hep B & C shots). We did get malaria pills (Malarone) that we took every day while in Africa, despite the fact that most of the time we were in Kenya and Tanzania, there was no malaria transmission. We also took Diamox while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to prevent altitude sickness. I felt like my mother because of all the pills that I was taking. I joked to Ben that I was a “little old lady.”

*I joked with Ben that it was too late for him because he already had yellow fever. Also it was strange calling each clinic and asking, “Do you have yellow fever? I need yellow fever.”

12 thoughts on “Crossing Namanga, Vaccines, & Medication

  1. Fascinating! The policies and bribery at the border crossings sound crazy, especially with the vaccination records!! I’d still want to have the vaccines just to be safe. 🙂 Also, I totally would have given that lost-tourist-helper a bad tip too!!

    • It’s really annoying because you’re never given the option of declining their help. They force themselves on you and then you feel obligated to pay them.

      We have lots more stories coming. 🙂

  2. Reading your post is a solid reminder of just how little I’ve seen of the world. The idea of bribing someone to look the other way re: vaccination is making me feel all O_O but when I think about it I’m sure it happens a lot.

    This is all fascinating. Thanks for taking the time to write it all out.

    • Bribery is so normalized that it’s not actually presented to you like “Hey, you need to pay me off.” They simply tell you that you need to pay a fee, which you do as a tourist because we know that we need to pay fees, but then it’s only afterward that you realize it was a bribe.

  3. Thanks for the info. I’m flying from USA to ASIA and staying there for two weeks before flying into KILIMANJARO, JRO to climb. I plan on taking a bus shuttle from Moshi to Nairobi. Would I need a yellow fever certificate? You mentioned in your post that you didn’t if you traveled straight to Tanzania.

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