As I continued to read, I learnt more about Rwanda’s beautiful lakes. I’ve also been magnetised by the enigma that is the Congo. So after a few days in Kigali, I headed west to Lake Kivu, which dominates the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the closest I could safely go (an Ebola breakout with WHO advisories meant crossing the border into Goma was risky). The mammoth Lake Kivu surrounded by tall mountains with several islands make it an explorer’s heaven. Particularly so if you’ve got access to a boat. From there I headed north to Lake Ruhondo, the less popular of Rwanda’s northern twin lakes to read, relax and stay in a Foyer de Charité – a Catholic mission focused on offering spiritual retreats, not quite sure of how they’d react to me. Both regions reinforced the quiet and level-headed image of Rwandans I already had, and what a calm oasis Rwanda is compared to its neighbours.
Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Western Rwanda
On myths and legends
Lake Kivu is among the 20 deepest and 20 most voluminous freshwater bodies in the world. A long time ago, this area was just a dry, grassy plain. There was a kind man who lived there who did many good deeds to fellow villagers. Impressed, Imana (a mythical, revered being in Rwanda) gave him a cow whose udder yielded millet, peas and beans in addition to milk. But under one condition – no one else could know.
One day the man was called to work in the King’s court. Anxious, he asked Imana what to do. Imana responded saying his wife could be told and could milk the cow, but she could tell no one else. His wife however, had a young man stay over who was curious as to the source of the endless food. She yielded to his relentless questioning and the young man told the whole village, saying they needn’t work anymore. Imana was angry, and to punish the wife, that night when she went to empty her bladder, she never stopped. The flow drowned her and the whole village. Her utensils broke away and floated off and became islands. In the morning, the sun️ rose over what is now Lake Kivu!
There are 3 main towns bordering Lake Kivu on the Rwandan side – all about 3-4h from each other. Kibuye (also known by its new name, Karongi) is slightly prettier than the others with its eucalyptus and pine-covered hills and also has convenient transport links to Kigali, so my decision on where to go was simple.
Emmanuel (my boat guide, whom I found while walking to the guest house) took me to an island with a family of monkeys having blue private parts in the middle of the lake. The papa monkey being the boss came to inspect the new arrivals as we arrived on the boat (while the rest of his family stayed hidden). He came to greet us, got an avocado from the boat captain and ate it on the boat with great dexterity. After he was satisfied with his snack, he walked away, signalling approval for us to walk around the island. I sat and listened in amusement as the boat captain relayed this well-practised ritual to me, and nodded slowly. After all, we were the guests on their island.
Can cows swim? Apparently so.
I stared out of the boat while we pootled along the lake. And then rubbed my eyes as I tried to focus on what I thought was my imagination. But no, they were real. There were cows grazing on a tiny island. In the middle of Lake Kivu.
Emmanuel mentioned that apparently cows, like most other quadrupeds, can swim short distances comfortably as long as they don’t get too tired. The island which the cows were on, is in the middle of Lake Kivu – a good 5-10 minute boat ride from the mainland. The owner brings the cows (who swim across) on most days to this island to graze and get some rays. Learn something new every day.
On angry lake spirits and their malicious work
Residents on the lakeshore mysteriously dead, with a pungent smell in the air: Cameroon, 1984. Apparently the only other lake this could happen at is Lake Kivu. Malicious work of an angry lake spirit?
Under deep volcanic lakes like Kivu, CO2 escapes from volcanic activity and dissolves in the deep layers of the lake. Over time, pressure builds up. It can be as much as 3 times that of a Coke can (highly concentrated CO2 in the bottom layer of the lake). All it takes is a small nudge – volcanic activity, or a heavy storm – to result in the CO2 rising to the surface. The lake effectively “burps” a massive cloud of invisible carbon dioxide than can spread for 25km+ killing all organisms dependent on oxygen. So not quite work of the evil spirits – just another fascinating element of nature: Limnic Eruptions.
A painful past
Karongi (or Kibuye as it used to be called) has come a long way since 1994. Life moves peacefully in this lakeside town, which sprawls over several hills weaving in and out of Lake Kivu. It’s not as touristy as Gisenyi further up north, so has an atmosphere of solitude. Plenty of opportunities to walk alongside the lake and stop for a bite to eat at a restaurant with sweeping views.
Hard to imagine this peaceful town experienced the most comprehensive slaughter of Tutsis in all of Rwanda during the genocide. While daily life carries on today with the sun shining, children laughing, and birds chirping, the atmosphere was very different here 25 years ago. With 60,000 Tutsis in the Kibuye prefecture before the genocide, an estimated 90% were killed. Whole communities were erased with no witnesses.
Standing in the Genocide Memorial Church, I slowly tried to absorb what took place here. The Tutsis sought refuge in the church, while a drunken mob hurled grenades through the windows. The mob then ran in, clubbed and stabbed all the people who remained alive. It was over in three hours. After a period of being abandoned, the church has now been rebuilt, with a memorial added by the relatives of those that died. A moving place to reflect with the gentle voices of the choir rehearsing in the background. Here’s to learning from our past and never repeating the same mistakes.
#Gettingthere: I took the Capital Express intercity bus which costed 2,800 Rwandan Francs ($3) one way. All buses leave from Nyabugogo Bus Station in Kigali which is quite manic and can make unaccustomed outsiders feel a bit vulnerable. Being scarred by previous experiences in Argentina, I went straight to the police stand by the entrance and they very graciously escorted me (they’re very friendly, but must have thought I was completely nuts). Each bus operator has their own stall where you can go to inquire about timings, availability and buy tickets. I sat and waited inside the stall until departure to be safe. Board ASAP as you see the bus, to snag a window seat. Otherwise you’ll get stuck with the foldaway connector seats. There’s nothing worse than sitting there – your back will be in agony. I learnt this the hard way.
#AccommodationInfo: Home Saint Jean: A true gem of a guest house. The view is definitely a winner and for that alone I’d go back a 100 times. Solange, at the front desk, was most helpful. While I booked what I thought was the cheapest room with a shared toilet for 11,000 francs per night B&B, she saw that my preference was to have my own toilet, so gave me a smaller room with a single bed higher up the hill (less nice view) that had its own toilet and was cheaper at 10,000 francs ($11). What great value! Bedsheets were clean, towel was sparkly white, and the bathroom for the first time was spotless – I felt comfortable not wearing slippers. WiFi is slow but existent. Breakfast was super simple – I had vegetable soup with bananas. A first!
Joyce Restaurant: Great value lunch buffet at 1,000 Rwandan Francs ($1.1) for the vegetarian option
Sailors Restaurant and Bar: Nice view of the sleepy town of Kibuye from the balcony. Coffee is slightly expensive at 2,000 francs ($2.2)
Macheo Eco Lodge: Quite a steep walk up to reach the lodge, but well worth it for the quiet verandah overlooking the lake. Lunch was 3,600 francs ($4) for spaghetti and a soft drink
#TopTip: Tour of the Islands: If you’re ever in need of a boat ride in Lake Kivu, Blue Monkey Tours was fantastic. Emmanuel (whom I met while walking back to my lodge) took me out solo. We saw three islands (Monkey Island, Bat Island and Peace Island) and rode around the lake for 4 hours for just 15,000 RWF (~$17).
Lake Ruhondo, Northern Rwanda
I was lucky to have met a warm German-Rwandan couple at my guest house in Lake Kivu. After chatting at length over breakfast, we discovered we were headed back to Kigali on the same morning and they very kindly offered me a ride. I gratefully accepted and chatted to Reinhard and Françoise as we drove to Kigali, about life in Rwanda pre- and post-1994 and their lives now in Germany. From Kigali I hopped on a bus headed to my new home for a few days: Foyer de Charité Remera by Lake Ruhondo in the north. This lake together with its twin (Lake Burera) exist in the lush green surroundings of extinct volcanoes. Best part? The lack of hotels and guest houses in the area mean fewer visitors venture this way.
Foyer de Charité Remera
The Foyer de Charité was a place I accidentally stumbled upon. Lucky for me, because it turned out to be my favourite place in all of Rwanda. Started in France in the 1930s, their main mission is to offer spiritual retreats to everyone and are open to all – the religiously minded and those that are not. In the Foyer live a community of men and women with a priest (Father of the Foyer) who share a simple, fraternal life together. They work to make the Foyer a place for nurturing spiritual renewal of others. They also open their doors to respectful lay visitors who make advance arrangements (I was the only one here).
I came to this religious retreat for 2 days. Apart from being tranquil and a wonderful place to walk and reflect, it also made me realise how many things I took for granted that I am grateful for. My excitement at having my own (clean) bathroom with a hot, high pressure shower lasted for a whole hour. I had 3 showers that day! And a sturdy, comfy bed that I could sleep solidly for 9 hours in, together with a balcony that had panoramic views of Lake Ruhondo made me never want to leave.
It’s a place filled with light and love. I’ve often read that you feel a tangible difference when you walk into an area with good vibrations. This was one occasion in life where I felt this. I was so glad to hear there are 76 of these Foyer de Charités across the world. They are definitely on my list to hunt for as I continue on my travels.
Rwanda is full of extremely friendly children, and Lake Ruhondo was no exception. I was walking in the grounds of the Foyer de Charité when suddenly across the fence, tiny voices called out – ‘Bonjour, bonjour!’. Despite my extremely limited Kinyarwanda, and their limited French, they told me they studied at the primary school nearby and asked if I was staying at the Foyer. Beaming with excitement to have their photo taken, they then waved goodbye and headed off to eat lunch.
Later that afternoon I hiked downhill to reach the lake shore. After hearing a few giggles and chuckles behind me, I turned around to find two children beaming at me. I waved. A few minutes later my entourage had grown. With language being a barrier, I gestured to ask if they’d like to have their photo taken. Nodding eagerly, they posed, and giggled some more when I showed them the result.
Half an hour later, a shifty man started shouting after me despite me yelling no to whatever his request was. With memories of being mugged in Argentina coming flooding back, I literally jogged up the hill as I was being followed (chased?) by this man. En route, I crossed the same group of children who looked highly amused by what was going on. Luckily, the man wasn’t physically fit and kept stopping periodically on this sharp ascent. I managed to run past the gates of the lodge and dodge him. Vin – 1, Shifty man – 0. Score.
The Spirit of Rwanda
“We sat together and decided we needed to move on. We realised we cannot always be angry at each other. We have to weave. We have to make our lives better.”
Weaving became so much more than just art after the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. Women, greatly outnumbering men, took this craft to not only build bridges between the Hutu and Tutsi communities by looking forward and weaving together, but also to gain financial independence by selling these baskets both locally and abroad.
The attitude of the people in this country and their resolve to move forward continues to blow me away. It was the first country of four in the month I spent in East Africa, and it definitely spoiled me. The moment you leave Rwanda and step into one of its neighbours, you’ll never take its quietness, safety and cleanliness for granted ever again!
#Gettingthere: I took a bus from Kigali’s Nyabugogo bus station to Musanze (Ruhengiri). Several bus companies serve the route, which takes about 2 hours and costs ~2000 Rwandan Francs ($2.1). About 30 mins before reaching Ruhengiri, ask the driver to stop at the junction where the turn off to Foyer de Charité Remera is. From there, I took a moto-taxi all the way, and made arrangements with the same guy to come pick me up 2 days later – and he came back, true to his word! I then took the bus back from Musanze (Ruhengiri) to Kigali.