Friday, 12 June 2009

Rubona in the heat

June 6th

The men’s dormitory at Gisenyi Presbyterian Guest House is not the ideal place for a restful night’s sleep. There are at least fifteen people staying in it. Rwandans think nothing of ringing each other up in the middle of the night, and so all through the dark hours people’s phones are going. If someone rings them, they have a conversation at normal volume, which in Rwanda often means shouting down the phone as if you had to reach the person miles away with your naked voice. The outside door squeaks and bangs like something out of a horror film when people go out to use the toilet. Then there’s the folk who are leaving at three o’clock, four o’clock; five o’clock. There are vehicles outside which are being warmed up while it’s still dark; warming up in Rwanda means revving the thing at full throttle for around five minutes and then constantly pumping the accelerator to see if the engine sounds right. So all in all the Presbyterian Guest House makes even my Gitarama flat feel like a haven of peace and quiet!

Breakfasts at the Guest House, however, are very good. While we’re eating there is a large group of young people collecting up for a church conference, and we watch half an hour of Congolese television in the dining room. Congolese TV on a Saturday morning consists of fitness videos and wholly inappropriate American children’s’ cartoons. With all the violence going on in Kivu North province right next door to us, you’d think they would be a little more circumspect in what they show on their screens!

We pack up and take our leave; it had occurred to us to ask if they really were full tonight, now that they know we are father and daughter, but we decide we’ll find somewhere else a bit quieter. Maybe the “Motel La Bella” whose owner spoke to us yesterday.

The lake looks wonderful in the morning light. There’s barely a cloud in the sky and its clear today is going to be a scorcher. Gisenyi has more flowers than anywhere else in Rwanda and today all the gardens along the lake shore are a riot of reds and pinks and purples, with the bougainvillea especially brilliant against the green grass and blue water. We slowly drift along the tarmac road up to the Congolese frontier, with people passing us going to and from Goma to market. The traders seem to be going in both directions, but with a majority of young men coming from Congo into Rwanda to work or to buy things. (The effect of the fighting in Goma has been to drive up prices sky high; even Rwanda looks a bargain compared with Goma prices).

We stop at the border, and come back along the promenade to the Serena Hotel. All along the swimming beach there are hordes of teenagers in the water; few are actually swimming; most are jumping around, throwing a football to each other and just horsing about enjoying themselves. As usual there are very few girls involved.

We breeze into the only four-star hotel outside Kigali and take ourselves down to the beach and install ourselves ion sun loungers. These cost us RwF3000 a time, but they’re worth it. There’s quite a breeze blowing, and there are some serious waves crashing onto the sand and gravelly strand in front of us. A woman is sweeping the beach – making sure that no twigs, empty plastic pots or other flotsam and jetsam drifting past the hotel will annoy its guests! Other servants are cutting the lawns, watering the flower beds, and a security guard is always present along the hedge that separates the Serena from the public beach, keeping the town riff-raff from invading our privacy and ogling the western women in bathing costumes.

The Congolese far shore looks close enough to swim to, even though the lake here is nearly as wide as the English Channel at Dover. Every few minutes a plane drags itself into the sky out of Goma airport; the usual flight path takes outgoing planes at very low altitude straight out across the centre of the lake. Many of the planes are U N flights bring materials or people into Goma which is the headquarters of the biggest single UN operation in the world at the moment.

There are few other people using the beach, and only one British couple in the water besides us. In marked contrast to last summer, the water today is pleasantly warm and we swim around as much as the waves will let us. About twenty feet offshore there’s a shingle bar, and the waves rear up on this before smashing down onto the beach proper. You can almost surf on this section of Kivu!

Some lads are out on sailboards, and from time to time a motor boat passes in front of us. A very rakish looking military boat passes close in; this is the Rwandan Navy in all its glory. Their main job is to intercept smugglers, or to prevent unauthorised seaborne landings by armed rebel groups from the Congo. I think they mainly operate at night.

We take coffee on our loungers and generally chill out and enjoy the sun and luxury. Just as at Kibuye a month ago, I get horribly burned in just a few minutes without realising it. We are so full of breakfast that we decide we’ll give lunch a miss and eat early tonight.

We amble back through Gisenyi town to the bus park where all is frantic confusion and shouting among the grey lava dust, and take a matata out to Rubona. The usual road is being resurfaced, so we’re directed along a deviation n which runs like a cornice all round the headlands. The views are super, including the only place in Rwanda from which you can get a panoramic view of the full size of Goma. (It’s much bigger than I thought; a lot bigger than Gisenyi). Nyiragongo volcano towers above the town. It is so obviously a volcano, and so obviously active, that it makes you wonder who in all their wisdom decided to plonk a city of a hundred thousand or so people right at its base. Anyone could see that putting loads of people next to one of the most dangerous mountains in Africa doesn’t make sense. Why on earth not use one of the other bays and coves along the lake?

When we arrive at Rubona it is the hottest part of the day and the heat is really intense. I’m determined to make the most of this little excursion, and we walk through the brewery and up a little hill opposite from which you get a panoramic view of Rubona itself. The trimaran fishing boats are all there waiting for us, bobbing about on the lake swell. The morning waterside market appears to have finished. There is a big new lake boat loading gravel on one quay, and a couple of beer boats waiting to be loaded at the brewery quay. Just behind us on the hillside is a health centre and a couple of schools, and as we’re looking across the water and trying to cool down in the shade there is a constant procession of people from the village up the hill. At least of half of them ask for amafaranga. It’s like a reflex – if you see a white person you automatically ask them for money. It’s such a shame because it’s ruining any prospect of building a proper tourist economy in this beautiful little place. Rubona looks beautiful even in the stultifying heat. The intense blue of the lake and the vivid green of the banana plantations on the sore make it look unmistakably tropical, and the dramatically steep hills add to the effect. Houses, shops, earth tracks are scattered higgledy-piggledy across every available. Even the massive brewery building is half hidden in the bottom of the valley; at this distance it seems almost benign.

We return to Rubona itself and look for somewhere to hide out of the sun until late afternoon. It’s just too hot to be outside in this heat – we feel like mad dogs and Englishmen, even though most of the locals seem not to be bothered by the heat. In one house close to the waterside there’s a wedding feast in progress; everyone’s dressed in formal robes or their best frocks; loud music is blasting through the afternoon torpor and rivalling the sound systems in the little lakeside stores, and tops of banana trees line the route to the bride’s house.

We eventually descend on “Mama Chakula” for a cold drink and a rest in the shade. Every other bar close to Rubona centre is full or people with the same idea as ourselves. We get a little booth right by the lake edge. In the water are grotesque plastic crocodiles and a plastic whale, while an animal that is supposed to look like a hippo is emerging out of the water. If that really is a hippo it is the most emaciated one we’ve ever seen!

We stay here for a full four and a half until the force has gone out of the sun. Getting a bus back to Gisenyi is child’s play – one of the big green “Onatracom” jobs has just arrived in Rubona centre and the crew are desperately trying to fill it with passengers for the return trip.

In Gisenyi we start walking towards “La Bella” to find somewhere for the night. We’re half way there when a man starts talking to us, and asks us if we are looking for accommodation. I say yes, but somewhat warily, thinking he’s a tout for some low-down dive in the middle of town. It turns out that he’s on the staff of the “Gorillas” hotel – the newest and one of the smartest in town, right by the lakeside and with views across the water to die for. We say we’re on a budget of twenty thousand; he says he has a twin room for thirty. Catherine, of course, is overjoyed at the prospect of a night of western comfort, and in the end even I decide that perfect plumbing and western comfort win the day. Thirty thousand – fifteen each – is the going rate for a very ordinary B and B in Kigali, so it’s an extremely reasonable rate for this degree of comfort. And breakfasts are included.

Having got accommodation sorted, we venture out to eat. It is dark, and though the moon is up there are deep pools of total darkness in the shadows of walls and buildings. We’re walking up an extremely rough track towards the town centre when disaster strikes. There’s a fair amount of traffic using the road. The vehicles don’t drive on the right; they drive wherever the potholes are shallowest. That means that we pedestrians have to get out of their way and we’re constantly jumping out of the easier parts of the road onto the sides where there are big, loose blocks of lava. Catherine accidentally steps on a block which moves, and then tips her, all the while in the dazzle of full beam headlights from an oncoming car. She twists her ankle badly; for a couple of minutes we think she might even have broken it. There’s no question of going on into town; we have to return to the hotel Gorillas and make a beeline for the bar. As well as a drink we get ice cubes and a cloth and put a cold compress on the ankle. After half an hour the swelling has reduced considerably. It isn’t broken, and it is just about possible for her to hobble.

So we eat in at the hotel, and Cat goes back to the room to rest up. After all the heat and excitement of the day she’s very tired. I take myself for a walk back to “Bikini Tam Tam” in the moonlight and have another good look at the glow from the lava lake on Nyiragongo. The glow isn’t as good as last night, but it’s still highly impressive. It’s one of the memories of this place that I definitely intend to stay with me a long time!

Best things about today – the good light and views; the hot sun. Gisenyi is a lovely place.

Worst thing – the incident with the ankle reminds us just how fragile we are here; any accident can put your plans in extremis.

1 comment:

TrailsWeb LLC said...

Hi Bruce,
I'm writing because my 28 year old daughter Luellen Kazan is in Goma, DRC right now. I saw you beside Lake Kivu and read your blog. Great stuff. Thank you. She graduated from Columbia University in May and went with her boyfriend to Goma. He has a job with UNOPS, a division on MONUC/United Nations. She has a few applications pending, but no job. Her degree is called "International Curriculum Development with an emphasis in Humanitarian Issues". She has three years of classroom teaching kindergarten and first grade in Medellin, Colombia and spent last summer in Ethiopia at the Awassa Children's Project for Aids orphans. Since you're an educator, I was happy to find you and ask you if you might have some advice or some contacts for her in that area. You can email me at I look forward to hearing from you. Keep blogging!!