When Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Yoweri Museveni opened the improved border crossing at Busia in February last year, they said they were implementing their commitment to expand trade by freeing movement of people.
Known as the Busia One-Stop-Border Post, the crossing cost about Sh1.2 billion, with facilitation from the Trade Mark East Africa.
But away from the dignitaries, media, pomp and colour, the Nation spent time with border communities to get a peak on what regional integration means for them.
At Buyengo village, deep in Busia on the Ugandan side, 67-year-old Alfred Mang’eni tells of a story of mixed parentage and a life unhindered by borders.
Mang’eni is, technically a Ugandan resident. But he is Kenyan.
His father is a Kenyan from Luchululo village in Samia Sub-County of Busia but he bought land in Jinja, Uganda where he was born with other six siblings.
“Long time ago we could visit our relatives in Kenya without many restrictions. We used to cross via the lake using boats,” he told the Nation, as he massaged his beard.
“At the moment a lot has changed and we have to produce documents to relevant authorities. At the main Busia border [crossing], we were never issued with permits to grant us entry to Kenya or vice versa,” said Mr Mang’eni in his native Samia, a language also spoken in Funyula Constituency in Busia County.
For the Samia, the border between Kenya and Uganda at Busia cut their villages right in the middle, dividing families and clans as colonialists went about ruling the African land.
Today, it is common for kids from one side to go to school in institutions across the boundary.
When the permits were introduced early in 80s, he said they had to check on their movements.
Locals had to adjust to the sudden restriction of being in the country for a maximum of a week for each entry.
Mang’eni says they struggled with that culture change. Then they defied it. Authorities had to change tack and do what the people want: to move freely.
Today, authorities demand that visitors must have at least a national identity card and a yellow fever certificate to cross. Still, there is favourable treatment for border communities.
One is allowed to cross to either side as long as it is within 10 kilometres from the border point.
Uganda’s Busia District Resident Commissioner Hussein Matanda said administrators’ intention has always been to strengthen integration beyond border points.
“In the interest of fostering integration, we at the border have already implemented many bilateral arrangements that have enabled our people to move freely in a radius of 10km with only an identity card.
“There are so many Kenyan students schooling here in Uganda and some of our people also seek healthcare services across the border,” he said.
“Kenyan is our biggest trading partner and this can only get better if we stump our feet on the ground and foster integration. People are forming economic blocks and military alliances to make sure they are a force to reckon with. Remaining fragmented is a sign of weakness.”
For local communities, regional integration is not just about a border post. They do it through intermarriages.
“During our time, we had very few encounters with smuggled goods sneaked through unsanctioned entry points,” Mr Mang’eni said.
The Samia, Iteso, Banyala, Acholi/Japadhola (a mirror community of the Kenyan Luos) and the Abagissu who mirror the Kenyan Bukusu have often intermarried. The result, as Mr Mang’eni explains, is that one can wake up speaking one language and go to bed speaking another.
Locals told the Nation that East African Integration has, nonetheless, enhanced the relationship between communities living on the border.
Mukasa Hakim, a Ugandan money changer based at the Sofia slums just a stone’s throw away from the Busia border post said they now enjoy more free trade and movement compared to yesteryears.
“We can cross to Kenya any time without restrictions. We interact with our Kenyan colleagues freely. Previous trust concerns between us constrained our interactions,” said Hakim, who has been forex currency trader for the last six years.
But integration has come with its own challenges as Mukabi Alushula, the Busia County Referral Hospital Medical Superintendent reveals.
“Our resources are being constrained because we are not able to cater for medical needs of huge number of patients visiting this facility every day. Some Ugandans have acquired Kenyan IDs and sometimes it is very difficult to deny them access to services,” he said.
Kenyan clearing agents and those in the hospitality industry said commissioning of the improved border crossing is slowly pushing them out of business.
The chairman of Kenya International Freight and Warehousing Association Busia branch Joseph Ouma said they are the big losers as a result of integration.
“The number of clearing agents has dropped from 300 to 100. More than 300 trucks which pass through Busia customs now park on the Ugandan side. The creation of the border point has resulted in the shutting down of companies which were handling export goods.
“We are appealing to the government to review the customs laws so that we don't lose our jobs because of the facility,” he said.
Mr Geoffrey Waswa, a manager of the popular Nalongo Pub located on the border, said integration has boosted business and interaction between the border communities.
“We receive over 70 customers every day, most of them Kenyans. They are attracted by our affordable prices on key Kenyan brands available here,” he said.
But Kenyan hotel and bar owners complain of heavy taxation, saying the playing field is not level.
Francis Kubebea, the Busia Tourism Association chairperson, appealed to both the county and national governments to intervene with legislation that will foster level playing ground on key commodities.
“We support the EAC integration fully but we are disadvantaged by the price structure of some the key commodities and services. For instance, a Kenyan beer brand in Uganda is very cheap at less than Sh100 compared to Sh200 back home.
“The difference in pricing between Kenya and Uganda has caused a serious market dichotomy. We appeal to the government to review tax rates on beers, especially those ending at the border,” said Busia Tourism Association Chairperson Francis Kubebea.