Above: Roundabout in Gisenyi. Copyrght Rupi Mangat
Published: 21 September 2019
Gisenyi in western Rwanda is the other half of an urban landscape that includes Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. So like Goma, Gisenyi is perched on the edge of the gas-filled Lake Kivu that is one of the African great lakes.
Gisenyi is the opposite of Goma. Whereas Goma is the proverbial ‘rough diamond’, Gisenyi is polished. I’ve checked in at Lake Kivu Serena that is the only hotel on the lake and enjoying everything that this genteel town has to offer.
It takes a few hours in the morning to drive through town. It’s clean and orderly, quiet and people so fine. Until we reach the Petite Barrier. It’s the border crossing for the local traders and families on both sides. It’s bustling with life but still orderly. Past the barrier, Goma’s a pel-mel of people, people people…
It’s an interesting drive along the lake edge that’s a popular circuit for tourists along the Congo-Nile basin. I had never associated Africa’s two mighty rivers in one breath. It’s always been Victoria that is the source of the Nile. But when you explore deeper, the rivers that feed Victoria also have their source from the heart of Africa.
From Gisenyi, Nyiragongo’s peak looms on the clear day and looks so easy to scale. That’s the illusion of distance. Unlike Goma that has flags dotted around to warn the citizens of the temperamental volcano’s moods for the last eruption in 2002 went through town and literally brought it to a standstill, Gisenyi seems not to be in the path of danger.
It’s a picturesque drive through the hilly terrain lined with villages and emerald green plantations of tea. On a high brow, the bay is busy with the country’s largest brewery, Bralirwa on Kivu – a strategic placing for the factory to have easy access to water. The favourite beer is Primus.
My Rwandese guide, Egide Hakorimana from Serena parks the car on the side of the road to tell me a bit about the memorial which a newcomer could easily miss.
It’s painted cream – an unpretentious slab with a cross chiselled in the middle. It marks the spot where on one afternoon at 2 p.m. in 1997 180 people were killed in a bus – both the Tutsi and the Hutu. “The militia asked for the people to separate but they did not.” He’s talking about the Rwandan genocide that lingered on after 1994 against the Tutsi.
It seems unreal that this atrocity happened in a countryside that is so quiet and beautiful. Hakorimana brings me back to reality. He shows the gash on his arm. “The militia slashed me with a machete.” So many people carry scars of that cruel episode in history but that’s the past. The present and future is a unified people building a strong nation.
A sound so soft wafts up through the air. It’s the fishermen setting out for the night, singing in rhythm to their strokes. The boats are unusual – three pirogues saddled together with long poles attached to their bows and sterns. It’s an amazing scene. From the high ridge of a hill, the pirogues light the lake with the lanterns and begin to cast their nets to fish for sambaza the finger-long silver fish that’s fried whole and eaten with plantains. It’s really delicious and of course there’s tilapia too. The lantern-lit lake reminds me of Kenyan fishers on Lake Victoria.
Driving back into along the beach-side road to the hotel, it’s busy with people jogging and even doing press-ups in the middle of the road that’s as smooth as silk. On the sandy public beach Rwandese have their workout groups and it’s a busy evening with young and old working out.
“Every last Sunday of the month is sports day organized by the local authority,” explains Duncan Lewa of Lake Kivu Serena.
Across the road l drop in at a centre for youth called Vision Jeunesse Nouvelle. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, physically challenged or not, it’s got something for everyone. I watch orphans do taekwondo and men paralyzed below the waist playing netball.
And then the lake draws. Cheryl the niece drifts out on a paddle board while boatmen woo people for a sail to the islands, the medicinal hot water spring and the border between the twin towns.
Go to Gisenyi
It’s a charming lake side resort. Stay at Lake Kivu Serena which is the only hotel on Kivu’s shores.
Make it part of your gorilla trekking safari to or after Volcanoes National Park which is only a 90-minute drive and closer than Kigali. Continue to Nyungwe Rainforest for a canopy walk through the rainforest. More adventurous – drive across to Goma where you can scale Nyiragongo for the lava lake in the summit crater or go in search on the greatest ape on earth – Grauer’s gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park.
Kenyans don’t need a visa to Rwanda – but carry your ID card. For DRC, Kenyans need a visa.