Above: Boy practising acrobatics by Lake Kivu in Gisenyi, Rwanda. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: The East African Nation Media 26 June 2019
Goma and Gisenyi echo Charles Dickens’s novel, A Tale of Two Cities, based on a peaceful London and a Paris dogged by unrest before and after the French Revolution.
Goma and Gisenyi share a horrific history — the Congo wars and the Rwandan Genocide Against Tutsi.
Recently I spent a few days in the two cities separated by an international border, Goma in DR Congo and Gisenyi in Rwanda. Gisenyi is genteel while Goma is a work in progress after being dogged by years of unrest — wars and a volcano eruption. Both cities straddle Lake Kivu in the Albertine Rift. The lake is a source of methane and carbon dioxide gases that have the potential of being hazardous.
The lives of the people are intertwined, as they cross the border at the so-called petite barrier to either direction in their thousands each day, for trade and family visits. The grande barrier is for tourists and other international travellers. The latter is not as busy as the former but the size entitles it to its name.
Goma delights. I didn’t know what to expect in a city that is listed as being dangerous. To my surprise, I’m treated to public wedding shoots straight out of novellas — brides in lavish gowns accompanied by bridesmaids in haute couture and grooms in cars so posh, it could be anywhere in Africa.
The name Goma is derived from the volcanic Mt Nyiragongo’s drumming. The last it erupted was 2002, and the lava flowed sluggishly down the mountain sides and reached the airport’s runway, through the poor part of town and the central business district before pouring into Lake Kivu. Luckily the lava did not disturb the lake waters deep enough to penetrate the carbon dioxide layer, otherwise the gas cloud would have killed residents like Lake Nyos in Cameroon did in 1986.
Goma has a gentrified suburb, where former president Mobutu Sese Seko had grandiose houses. A smooth tarmacked road passes through rows of new houses on the beautiful lake front, including an amusement park.
Goma has long been home to Africa’s longest serving peacekeeping force, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Monusco, and their heavy presence can be seen in the number of blue helmets (also an informal name for UN peacekeepers). The blue helmets keep the city safe from militia. While it’s safe in the city, travelling to other cities like Kinshasa or Lubumbashi means taking a flight.
I spent leisurely days at the home of distant Congolese relatives. We swam in the lake, enjoyed lunches at beach front restaurants like Nyumbani, visited family friends whose children were busy with school projects seemingly in the middle of the year.
“We follow the Belgian system of education, which is more demanding than the English system,” said 19-year-old Cheryl Mangat.
Driving through Goma’s rebuilt downtown, the scenes are typically African, with street side hawkers selling everything under the sun. The city is pulsating with life, with the chukudu, a wooden two-wheeler, being the backbone of the city’s transport the way bodaboda is to Kampala and tuk tuk to Mombasa.
We cross the grande barrier into Gisenyi, and the scene changes. The city is quaint. It is Sunday, and at the public beach by Lake Kivu Serena, everyone is working out. The Rwandese government encourages physical fitness. I’m told l can walk around town any time of day or night, alone. Security is guaranteed.
It’s 8 p.m. when l return refreshed from a leisurely stroll along the promenade. The lake resort boasts hiking and biking trails along the Congo-Nile Basin stretching along the length of Kivu and tea and coffee clad hills. A drive through town reveals smooth roads and safe driving. Pretty pirogues drift on the lake trawling for fish like sambaza. High on the hill is the country’s largest brewery Bralirwa with its signature brand Primus.
Two cities – both with a past so horrific that history must not repeat – the Congo wars and the Rwandese genocide.
Goma Serena – the first five-star hotel in Goma is opening soon – setting a precedence for international tourism. It’ll be the time to scale to Nyiragongo’s boiling lava in its crater – one of the four in the world – and hike for the endemic subspecies of Grauer’s gorilla in the Kahuzi-Beiga National Park across Lake Kivu. At this point it’s the cheapest place to see the great ape – USD 200.
Route to Goma and Gisenyi
Fly Rwandair from Nairobi to Kigali. Then catch a local bus for USD 5 to Gisenyi driving four hours through the land of a thousand hills. To cross into Goma, Kenyans and foreigners need a visa USD 50 which you can get at the Grande Barrier provided you have your vaccines.
Everyone is checked for Ebola and it is statuary to wash hands.
Do A Serena Safari
In Kigali, stay at Kigali Serena – a treat in the land of a thousand hills.