Sunday, 27 July 2008

Seeing the sights of Cyangugu

July 23rd

Breakfast on the terrace at seven o’clock sharp! This is an Anglican Guest House; the driving force behind it and a lot else in the town is the former bishop. Right next door to us is a girls’ school named after his wife, and most of the new commercial and administrative centre of Cyangugu is on a hilltop which is church land and which has been planned by this energetic churchman. Africa needs more like him!

While we’re breakfasting, all the fishing boats are coming in to a point a few hundred metres beyond where we’re sitting, but tantalisingly out of sight. There are simple dug-out canoes – hollowed from single tree trunks. There are the characteristic graceful trimaran fishing boats, with enormously long poles projecting from bow and stern. These are the boats whose lights we saw last night. There are bigger canoes with planked hulls; very high, sharp prows and blunt sterns.

And across the calm, grey waters of Kivu you can hear the fisherman calling to each other and singing as they paddle in unison to bring the heavy canoes in to the shore. It’s an absolutely characteristic sound of this particular lake, and very romantic at a distance.

It is another one of these grey, murky, hazy days. Long distance photography is going to be all but impossible; everything looks dull and flat – grey sky, grey lake, grey mountains behind it. What a pity! Kivu should be blue and sparkling!

The distant (Congolese) lake shore looks for all the world like something out of the Italian mountain lakes. There are lots of little islands all round the lake’s perimeter, including a wooded, uninhabited one only a few hundred yards offshore from the guest house. The shore is further broken up by dozens of little inlets and promontories, so there are literally thousands of places where you could build a lakeside summerhouse for that idyllic getaway!

The Congolese side really is becoming quite urbanised (more so than at Goma). There are huge mansions so big they’re clearly visible across several miles of water.

In the middle of the lake a couple of passenger launches are chugging their way northwards from Bukavu, presumably en route to Kibuye or Gisenyi. (I don’t know of any big towns on the Congolese side except for Goma in the extreme north and Bukavu in the extreme south).

We decide that the first thing we need to do is go back up to Kamembe and book our return bus tickets. We try our hand at stopping matatas, but all are full, and we end up walking the mile (all uphill) to the town centre. It’s not an arduous walk, and there’s plenty to look at. Every few yards gives you a new perspective on the lake, and the air is fresh and cool. After spending most of yesterday sat on a bus, we need the exercise!

Well, we never do find the Onatracom office, despite asking bus drivers, but there are several other operators and with return tickets in our pockets we can relax about the journey home.

There’s not that much to see or do in Kamembe; the market is small but busy; there are the usual slew of forex places and banks, and it’s very much the office and administrative centre for the south west corner of the country. There’s nothing in it which is remotely historic or picturesque; on the other hand it’s as perfect an example of a Rwandan town in all its chaotic, mucky glory as you’ll find anywhere! But by mid-morning we’ve walked up and down the main street about four times, and are ready to leave it and go down to Cyangugu proper and the Congolese border.

We go to the bus park to get a minibus, but, of course, minibuses to Cyangugu don’t go from the bus park. That would be too simple. They go from a corner of the market place. Back we go for a fifth time up the high street. We seem to be the only muzungus in town, and Tu Chi especially attracts looks from everyone. While Chinese men are not that uncommon in Rwanda and are everywhere associated with road building, Asiatic women are so rare they really do rate a “come to a dead halt and stare and stare until she disappears” response.

We squeeze into the bus (and this time I really do mean squeeze). I have one buttock firmly on the edge of one fixed metal seat, and the other barely on a little tip up seat. Every time the bus goes over a rut in the road (i.e. every couple of seconds) the two seats jolt apart and then together. I’m glad we’re only going a few miles…..

We arrive in Cyangugu and jump out to explore it. Five minutes later we really we’ve seen pretty well all there is. There’s nothing here to see. The old part of Cyangugu consists of a couple of hotels (the Hotel du Lac in its faded glory and expense, literally right on the physical border with Congo, and the Home St François which we wanted to book in to but was full). Neither of these has the lovely view that we have at Peace Guest House. There’s a couple of petrol stations, a despondent little row of dilapidated shops, and a half hearted market. And the frontier post and customs house. And that, folks is it. OK, so there’s a lot of residential areas up on the hill behind it, and the Bishop’s new administrative area on the top of the hill, but they’re not exactly tourist magnets.

Cyangugu, in other words, is a place you go through, not a place you go to. Épi told me it was ravishing, and I must on all accounts come here. Cyangugu actually looks better the further away you are from it! All the modern development we could see from the Guest house – and I really do mean ALL of it – is on the Congolese side. As at Goma, it seems as if the rich Congolese are building their mansions on a three-nation border crossing (Burundi’s only just an hour or so down the road), so that they can make an easy getaway in times of civil unrest. And some of the Congolese houses are simply enormous. I wonder what (illegal) means has financed them. Diamonds? Smuggled uranium or the other rare metals that seem to plentiful in Congo?

The actual border crossing sums up the whole place. A rickety, temporary looking metal bridge, painted grey, is strung over a straight stretch of river about a hundred yards wide. The river is the Rusizi, and it is the actual border. You could easily lob stones from one country into the other. You’d think twice about trying to swim, because the water is cold, deep and fast flowing. On each side of the bridge is a bare, gravel wasteland. It’s right on the edge of the lake, at the outlet of the lake – a prime site for development, or some sort of park. Instead, it’s just neglected and abandoned.

People are queuing for the crossing into the Congo; Tu Chi wants to get a photo taken right on the border bridge but a Rwandan official isn’t having any of that and we get politely but forcefully moved on. We walk down the “High Street” (you’re joking!) and take photos in a patch of grass where a house or shop has been knocked down and the site left derelict. The Congolese side of the river rises steeply in such a straight line that the hillside looks artificial, as though the river was a canal. People are hacking terraces out of this steep slope (it’s about a 45 degree angle, so not for the faint hearted) and building more houses. The excavated waste is just being chucked into the river. It’ll probably foul up the Rwandan hydro station a few miles downstream…

The river Rusizi is a geological oddity. Once upon a time, about 20 million years ago, Lake Kivu was much shallower than it is now, and the Rusizi flowed north from Lake Tanganyika into Lake Kivu. Then Nyiragongo and the other volcanoes at the far (Goma) end of the lake threw out so much lava that sometime in the last 2 million years or so it completely dammed the lake. The level of water in Lake Kivu rose dramatically, so the Rusizi reversed its direction and now flows smartly out of Kivu and back southwards into Lake Tanganyika. There, end of geology lesson!

I can’t tell you how embarrassed I feel – I’ve dragged Tu Chi all this way on the promise of seeing a lovely lakeside town, and what we’ve ended up with is not much better than a slum! The Bradt guide talks about “Colonial languor” and uses words like “intriguing”; “an almost cinematic quality – coming across rather like an abandoned film set used years ago to make a movie about some colonial West African trading backwater”. The only words which don’t break the trades description act in that lot are “abandoned” and “backwater”! Whoever wrote the guide must have had several pretty strong gins, plus a hell of a lot of poetic imagination.

Never mind; we’re here and the lake itself is pretty. If only the cloud would break and give us blue sky, then the lake would be blue and even more beautiful.

There’s a little promontory on our way back to the Guest House; we set off to explore it. On the way we discover the deepest, biggest potholes I’ve ever seen even on African roads. One is so deep that someone’s planted a tree branch in it to warn traffic at night. If you drove even a 4x4 straight into the hole it would be wrecked.

On the promontory there’s a women’s centre which has a bar and restaurant. It has a magnificent view across the lake and we decide to have a mid morning Fanta and chill out. There’s a strong wind blowing, ruffling the lake’s calm and making it hard work for the canoes still paddling across from inlet to inlet. Cormorants are fishing within twenty yards of where we’re sitting, and black and white birds are diving onto the surface of the water to scoop up any sambasa rash enough to venture too close.

I’ve been looking for evidence of earthquake damage all morning, but haven’t seen a thing. If you’ve been reading my blog for a long time you’ll remember we had a couple of quite severe earthquakes in February; the epicentre of these was around Cyangugu. A lot of people were killed here and homes destroyed. Well, I couldn’t see any evidence, except in the little hut where we had our drinks. There was a neat, prominent crack right through the middle of it. Worth a photo, anyway.

The little promontory we’re on shelters a small harbour where some of the biggest boats on the lake call in – this is what passes for a port at Cyangugu. There’s barely a hundred yards of quayside, but several steel vessels tied up and at least two new ones under construction. It seems funny to see a shipyard with welding in progress and piles of steel plates among the banana trees around an equatorial lake! The only two cargoes which we can identify as coming by lake are beer (of course) and gravel. One boat, presumably with engine trouble, is being moved for repair by a man poling from the deck and another trying to push it from inside a canoe. They stand no chance against the wind; there’s a grinding sound as the hull grates against lakeside trees, and the boat finally ends up blown aground on the lake shore.

The next thing we find is the fish market, where all the canoes we have seen in the early morning are tied up on the shore. Rows and rows of racks hold piles of tiny lake fish no bigger than whitebait. A general market has attached itself to that for fish and is doing far more trade than the official market in Cyangugu centre. Flocks of egrets wheel around, perching and pinching fish when the market traders eyes are distracted by us or by other customers. We aren’t allowed to take any close-up photos (and I’m not getting into the game of paying to take pictures), so I have to be content with a couple of rather distant shots.

And so onwards and upwards all the way back to Kamembe again. We dine in style in a market café, huge portions of mélange; clean and filling. Then amble back down the hill to the Guest House. By now we are rather in a dilemma – it’s too late to cut our losses and go back home today, but we’ve “done” both Cyangugu and Kamembe and there’s nearly an entire day before our booked bus.

In the event I think we make a good choice. We sit on the airy terrace overlooking the lake and relax. I help Tu Chi translate some French handwriting in questionnaires she’s trying to analyse as part of her work here; we chat for hours; we read. I realise I know absolutely zero about Vietnamese culture, especially that of the north (Tu Chi comes from Hanoi), and I at least end the day a lot wiser than I started it. There’s always a boat crossing the lake somewhere. It’s just a pity the grey clouds never lift.

I must borrow some of Marisa and Stéphane’s pictures from when they came here.

In the evening a group of young English people arrive; they’re a Tear Fund party on a project somewhere in the western province. We order pizzas; when they arrive it appears the kitchen has run out of yeast. Instead of pizza dough with a topping, we’ve got pastry with a filling. It looks odd but tastes fine. Being by the lakeside we want to eat fish, either big tilapia or the little sambasa. But, in Rwandan style, this Guest House within a stone’s throw of both lake and fish market has no fish whatsoever to serve us!

During the evening we walk yet again down to the promontory in Cyangugu, back to the bar we visited in the morning. We want to take some night shots of the lake. The bar serves a wine made from pineapples, so we try it, agreeing that if necessary we’ll prop each other up on the way home. It’s smooth and quite tasty – infinitely better than the banana beer I had at Marisa’s. The Guest House, by the way, is dry – no alcohol. This is the rule in Rwanda. It makes me laugh when I think of Europe, where virtually every monastery seems to have a history of commercial winemaking or brewing strong beer….. Why can’t Christianity get its act together as regards alcohol?

It’s a beautiful night. There’s just a gentle breeze. The fishing canoes are all out with their lights; we can hear the fishermen singing as they paddle out to the middle of the lake. Congo is all lit up and looks civilised – you could be looking across the lake to Geneva or Stockholm. And despite the disappointment of Cyangugu, I’ve certainly had a good day.

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