Above: Approaching Bukavu from Lake Kivu – Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: 6 July 2019
Spending lazy days in Goma with family and discovering Congolese cuisine like the famous fish sambaza and the plaintain lintula, sipping coffee in smart restaurants like Nyumbani for eastern Congo people speak Swahili unlike Kinshasa where Lingala is the lingua franca and French spoken widely, the gorilla painted on a gate caught my attention. It was a Grauer’s gorilla and endemic to DRC.
I’d never heard about this sub-species of mountain gorilla unlike its more famous cousin in the Virunga mountains. A visit to the office inside revealed that Grauer’s gorilla is found only in Kahuzi-Biega National Park not far from a town called Bukavu that’s 195 kilometers on the southern end of the lake. The researcher at the office was heading that way. He was happy to take us with him. My excitement shot through the clouds.With a single-entry visa to DRC, it meant that l could not use the good road via Rwanda into Bukavu. Smart-niece Cheryl Mangat booked us on the Kivu Queen for a three-hour sail across the lake to Bukavu. Kivu Queen is a fast boat where complimentary snacks are served. Life was looking good. The gentleman on the adjoining seat greeted me with a smile and a ‘bonjour’.
I decided to go outside on the deck to watch the picturesque islands and pirogues which are the local fishing boats. At the two ports that Queen Kivu stopped at, men on smaller dugout canoes sailed to the Queen to sell fruits and fish. Finally we were in the lake-shore city of Bukavu. It boasted of having had art-deco buildings from the colonial days. But that was a long time ago.
In the even more bustling town than Goma but without a single pot-hole free road, the taxi wove its way through town to stay with family friends before setting off to Kahuzi-Biega for the ‘only to be found in DRC’ gorillas.
Suddenly on the road, l saw posters of Dr Denis Mukwege, known as the ‘man who mends women’ and the 2018 Nobel Peace laureate. Bukavu is his home-town where he has set up Panzi hospital that treats women who are victims of war crimes in DRC where brutal rape is used as a weapon of war. DRC has seen little peace since independence in 1960 from Belgium. This amazing man has seen women whose sexual organs have been blasted away by the trigger of a gun. I now understand what the Vagina Monologue is all about. In 2002, a few houses away from the house we’re staying at, he narrowly escaped an attack on his life, in which his guard was killed. Traumatized he left the country but the women brought him back. He now lives under protection of UN peacekeepers at the hospital.
We try calling the hospital for a visit which is housed in the City of Joy that opened doors in 2011, a phenomenal project that helps the traumatised women with therapy and life skills to move on. It was started by a local woman, Christine Schuler Deschryver with Mukwege and Eve Ensler of the Vagina Monologue fame. City of Joy is even on Netflix and a must-see. It’s too short a notice to visit the safe-house for women.
Bukavu on the southern side of Lake Kivu is built on five peninsulas and once described as ‘a green hand, dipped in the lake’. It’s hilly, and busy with designer shops competing for space with the local kiosks. There’s energy everywhere as local vendors ply the roads with their wares. I see kids paddling on the lake on what l think are kayaks. Reaching the shore, they are street-kids in rags paddling gunny sacks filled with empty plastic bottles and using plastic lids as hand oars. On the other side is a party that is so opulent that the children on their floating sacks watch in bewildered daze.
Bukavu like Goma has seen the worst atrocities committed against humanity. Joseph Nkunda, the rebel leader of Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) gave a free hand to his soldiers which resulted in 16,000 women raped on a single weekend. On June 3, 2004, protestors in several Congolese cities took to the streets to demonstrate against the United Nations for failing to prevent Bukavu from falling to Nkunda’s RCD.
There’s peace now in town with heavy UN presence.
Then the gorilla researcher calls from Goma – he can’t make it. I have to find a way to get to Kahuzi Biega if l’m to see this DRC’s unique gorilla.
Fly to Kigali – the airfare with Rwandair is very affordable. You can catch a bus from the bus terminal to Gisenyi on the border of DRC and Rwanda. It’s less than USD10 and a four hour drive through stunning mountainous landscape. You must have a visa and Yellow fever to cross into Goma where there are many affordable hotels. It’s totally safe in Goma but if you plan on travelling out, you catch a flight for roads are bad and ruled by militia. Sailing on Lake Kivu is safe.