Tag Archives: rubona

It is like paradise. Almost.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 4 – March 24

Two years ago, in Tanzania, I was marooned for three days in the little fishing village of Lagosa, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. I was waiting for the MV Liemba – a venerable old World War I-era ferry – which, on its return passage from Zambia, would scoop me up and carry me back to the scruffy port town of Kigoma. The Liemba had already given me fits: a week before, its departure from Kigoma had been delayed – first a few days, then a full week – when it had been commandeered by the UN to return refugees from Tanzanian camps to their homes in Congo. I caught it the following week for its southbound passage; when it deposited me in Lagosa, there was a parks department speedboat waiting to take me to nearby Mahale Mountains National Park. I had timed my visit to the park, with its large population of chimpanzees, to coincide with the Liemba’s weekly voyage. If all went well, I would be able to catch the ferry as it made its return trip up the lake.

Of course, all did not go well. There were delays in Zambia – no one could say why. Each morning I would stand on the beach, squinting toward the horizon on which, I was sure, the figure of the MV Liemba would slowly come into view. I was great sport for the locals of Lagosa. Here was a village with no electricity, no phone towers – a place that, even by rural Tanzanian standards, was almost entirely off the map. And yet somehow, each day, word had already reached Lagosa through some mysterious bush telephone about the delay of the Liemba. “It will not arrive today,” a fisherman would say with assurance early in the morning. And sure enough, despite my frantic efforts to conjure the boat from the little wisps of cloud on the horizon, the Liemba would not come chugging down the lake until it was damn well ready.

The good ship Liemba, on Lake Tanganyika

Passing the time at a, um, bar in Lagosa.

In the past two years, I have drawn many morals from the story of my stay in Lagosa. The most relevant today, though, is the utter unreliability of lake transport in central Africa. Though steamships and pirogues and great cargo barges are the lifeline of the countless little villages along the shores of Kivu and Tanganyika and Malawi and Victoria, it takes endless stores of patience to negotiate their prehistoric passage. Thus another morning spent in an anxious purgatory of packed bags, waiting for word from John on the fate of my Bralirwa boat.

Luckily, Gisenyi is no Lagosa, and I can soothe my spirits over a cappuccino at the lakeside Serena Hotel. Where would Africa’s whites – the journalists, the diplomats, the aid workers – be without the comforts of our luxury sanctuaries? The tables at the Serena are populated thusly: an Indian expat (soon to be replaced by an American executive), your intrepid reporter, two American aid workers (with matching Macs), and a pair of white tourists – one American, one ambiguously European – along with their Rwandan guide. The hotel is charmless, possessed of the upmarket corporate blandness of international chain hotels the world over, but the coffee – at just Rwf 1,200 a pot – is superb. It is also, after a few busy days in Gisenyi, a concession to my need for personal space. In the market, or the crowded garden restaurant at the auberge – its Rwf 1,500 lunch-time buffet the only bargain in the joint – I feel the constant weight of bodies, the stares of curious, solicitous eyes. Coffee at the Serena is about both caffeine and equilibrium. It is for this reason I understand the distant, abstract reverie of other Northerners lost in their laptops and iPods and Therouxs at hotels across equatorial Africa. It is the familiar look of a tribe not at home in the tropics.

Two tables away the American and the German, or Swede, are having a very low-level discussion of Great Lakes politics. Minerals, Nkunda, MONUC. It is as unsatisfactory as picking up last week’s newspaper. Then the conversation turns to tourism. Always the same line: how these Africans should do more to develop the tourism sector, how with a little vision, etc. It is a very First World way to look at things. Show me a beach in Africa and I’ll show you a line of white men waiting to put hotels on it. “It is like paradise, almost,” says the Swede, or German, taking in the coastline with the expansive view of a man who sees great profits on the horizon. Already he is planning to sell Gisenyi’s charms on the Rwandan tourism portal he is developing online. “No one knows about this place,” he says, by which he doesn’t mean the Rwandans who have been coming to this resort town for decades.

And what about his vision? In the three days I have spent in Gisenyi, I would estimate the hotel occupancy rate at somewhere under 10 percent. This, of course, takes into account the fact that I arrived on Sunday, when most weekenders will be packing up and heading back to their homes in (most likely) Kigali or Goma. Still, I have seen few foreign tourists – the holy grail of the travel industry – and the largest crowds – the wedding parties who flocked to the beach on Sunday – had most likely driven to Gisenyi for the day of the celebration. The problem for Gisenyi, and any plans to develop it even further, is the fact that it already seems to have reached its tourist potential. There are far more beds than there are bodies with the available resources to fill them. And this isn’t likely to change dramatically, unless: a) Rwanda becomes substantially more popular among foreign tourists as a stand-alone destination, instead of just a gorilla-oriented add-on for a larger East African package; or b) the country continues to develop its growing middle class, so that there are greater numbers of Rwandans with disposable income, leisure time, and all the things we take for granted in the West. This is something you’ll find in Kenya, where hotels and safari camps will aggressively pursue Kenyan clients for their holiday packages. But Kenya is still light years ahead of Rwanda in terms of economic development. Despite great gains in recent years, Rwanda remains a minnow in the East African sea.

At the Serena, the Dutchman or Dane looks admiringly toward the border, where the Congolese frontier offers another enticing opportunity for local businessmen. “To me, Goma is the closest you can get to the disaster and the chaos without pushing yourself,” he says. “You can cross the border, and if it is too dangerous, you can come running back.”

He pauses and turns to the waiter. “I am trying to decide between the chicken curry and the tilapia with chips,” he says. And then, turning back to his companions, approvingly, “It’s almost like a little visit to hell.”

The horror! A little visit to hell, in Goma.

If Goma is hell, Gisenyi has been my own private purgatory. By mid-day John is again full of assurances, but this time, I decide to take the fateful step of bringing my things to Rubona. Better to wait at the ready in that little port town – the Bralirwa brewery and its tall chimney columns in clear view – than to sit on-call in Gisenyi, hoping for word from John. If nothing else, I’d like to feel like I’m a step closer to Kibuye.

In Rubona the arrival of a white man with an oversized duffel bag stirs the town’s listless hang-abouts to life. Whatever my story, it’s sure to add an interesting wrinkle to an otherwise uneventful day. Soon I’ve drawn the attention of a young man named Abdul, who, having heard my plan, has decided to become the custodian of my star-crossed fate. Unprovoked, he begins demanding details of the Bralirwa boat’s passage from passersby, and offering to conduct a thorough investigation at the brewery. I explain that my friend John is already on the case, and Abdul seems wounded. “I want to save you,” he says. I didn’t know I needed to be saved.

The town skeptics and philosophers are out in force. Abdul engages a young friend in soiled overalls who launches into a long monologue, like the ancient mariner. The only two words I recognize – “mzungu” and “polici” – do not bode well. Abdul sits thoughtfully beside me, weighing our options. “Why don’t you take the bus?” he says finally. It is not an easy question to answer. Mostly it’s an ill-defined spirit of adventure that’s made this Bralirwa boat so appealing. But I can’t, of course, ignore the irony that when a white man in Africa talks about “adventure,” he usually means forsaking his iPod, wearing ugly convertible pants, and generally living under the sort of conditions that 700 million or so Africans – whether out of necessity, custom, or both – live under every day. Why go through all this trouble, Abdul implies, when a perfectly good bus can get me there in a fraction of the time, for just a few more francs?

When John arrives he wears a look of affliction. Why did I come to Rubona without telling him first? Lord, spare me these sensitive African souls! After some nervous minutes of hand-holding and reassurances, our friendship is back on solid ground. We take my things to the Bralirwa brewery, which, despite John’s fears over “prohibitions,” seems to be as secure as a public park. There are women walking their children, and others carrying bundles of sugarcane on their heads, and still others selling pineapples out of a basket. Goats are everywhere. Somehow, though, we manage to find the only secure gate in the joint, on the other side of which idles my ride to Kibuye. John sidles up to the fence, greets the guard on duty, and begins talking in clandestine tones from the corner of his mouth. It is a Hollywood performance. This goes on for some time, before we’re shuffled off to wait, stage right. Minutes later the guard returns with a man in slacks and a neat polo shirt – the captain of the S.S. Bralirwa. Again, after greetings and small talk – you’d think they’d known each other for years – John lowers his voice and pleads my case. The need for secrecy, I suspect, is just a token measure of propriety (or else John has a theatrical spirit): by this point, there aren’t many people in Rubona who haven’t seen the white guy with the duffel bag on his way to the Bralirwa brewery. If subterfuge is necessary to get me on this boat, then the boat will be leaving without me.

Finally John and the captain agree on terms, shake; we take my things back to the beach, where we’ll await the captain’s signal. (Another ambiguous, theatrical touch: can’t he just call me on his phone?) We sit for an hour as the daylight dwindles, John struggling to tune into the BBC on his cellphone. A kingfisher dive-bombs into the water, and a magnificent fish eagle swoops from the top of a tree. Fishermen – donning bright orange life jackets, as required by law – begin pushing off from the beach in their rowboats, lashed three together with long, bending poles. Across the bay we watch crates of bottles getting loaded onto the boat, stacked a dozen high. The wait is endless.

The Bralirwa boat prepares for the journey.

The rusted husk of a boat in Rubona.

Fishermen set off for a night on the lake.

Suddenly the boat sputters to life, turns, sweeps across the bay. This, it seems, is the captain’s signal. We take my bags and jog along the beach, where a few other passengers are crossing a wobbly gangplank. Across the bridge, onto a rusted old barge bobbing beside the Bralirwa boat, where we say quick, heartfelt goodbyes. Then I climb over the railing, hop onto the deck of the cargo boat, and wave to Rubona, where fishermen and laborers are gathered on the beach, laughing good-heartedly at the white man’s flight. An old man thrusts a long mangrove pole into the lake, steering us through the shallows. Then the boat’s engine throttles to full-speed ahead, and Rubona vanishes into the dusk.

John and others waving at our departure.

Next stop, Kibuye.

It is a relief, finally, to be on my way to Kibuye. I had been told earlier in the day that the trip would take six hours, but John insisted we wouldn’t arrive till early morning. This was, I thought, preferable to pulling in at midnight without a place to stay. And a small part of me felt, ever mindful of my budget, that I might as well get my money’s worth from a night on the lake. We leave Rubona in high spirits, with the last embers of daylight dying in the sky over Congo, and the other passengers – a gregarious bunch, two men and four women, with two children in tow – already chattering away, as if they’d been childhood friends. Roasted maize is passed around. Children are gurgled and cooed at. The captain tunes his radio to a local station, fiddling with the antenna. “En-guh-lish,” says a man in a fleece pullover, to everyone’s delight. It is the only word of English I’ll hear for the rest of the journey.

We’re arranged in a half-moon at the front of the ship, sitting on crates and sacks and staring stiffly into the wind. The further we get from Gisenyi, its lights twinkling across the lake, the more of a metropolis it seems. Nyiragongo glows over the city. Night falls, plunging the hills of the Congo into a prehistoric darkness. Fishing boats paddle slowly across the water, lamps lit to attract the fish swimming beneath the surface. There are dozens of lamps glowing, like a floating city. The water slaps against the side of our boat, the moon is out, and I’m brought back to so many other journeys by lake and by sea: in Kenya, in Malawi, in Mozambique. For the first few hours, lost in this pleasant reverie, I convince myself that there’s no better way to travel from Gisenyi to Kibuye.

The cold comes gradually, at first. I pull my fleece and my jeans from my duffel bag, expecting to get some use out of them before the night is through. The women, swaddled in innumerable layers, seem to have more and more lengths of cloth to wrap themselves in as the night goes on. They seem like flimsy protection, though, as the cold begins to bite. The men, meanwhile, are doing the chivalrous thing and abandoning the women to the elements. The first mate opens a rusty trap door, revealing a musty bed in what appear to be the captain’s quarters. The captain shines his flashlight down the hatch and, it seems, offers me his bed. Everyone finds this hysterical. I decline with an emphatic no – “Hapana!” – which more or less brings the house down. (I’ll repeat this gag – “Hapana!” – for the next few minutes, each time achieving the desired effect.) Then the laughter dies and the first mate, stretching and yawning, descends the ladder. The captain lays a few pieces of cardboard over some crates and then follows to the cozy bed below.

The women laugh, hoot, chatter, and curl up on the cardboard. It has probably never dawned on them to expect any better from their men.

The women were assured these were the coziest bottles around.

The joy of this lake cruise is coming to a close. The cold is suddenly bitter, and the women – rising, as if through some unspoken agreement – retreat with their children to their cardboard mattress. They wrap themselves tight in their kangas and huddle together for warmth. The children are remarkably well-behaved. Cries are quickly silenced with clucking and shushing. Alone at the front of the boat, I curl up in my fleece and wrap my thin jacket around my head, to protect against the wind. Every few minutes I shift my position – to find some extra degrees of warmth, to relieve an aching muscle. Now and then I look up to see the driver staggering through the pale moonlight over a mountain of crates. Somehow I snatch a few hours of sleep: 20 minutes here, 10 there. It is a very long night.

Arriving in Kibuye.

Some time around 4am we arrive at the brewery in Kibuye. A guard patrols its floodlit grounds, stopping to chat with the women or offer us a trip to the toilet. It is against Bralirwa policy, I suspect, to let us into the compound, though by this point, the prospect of a warm brewery floor to rest my head on brings a tear to my eye. Again I drift off. A light rain begins to fall. Finally, just a few minutes before six, as pale light colors the horizon, the women rise, as if on cue, and gather their things. Babies are bundled to backs; bags are passed in a daisy-chain onto the dock. I offer to help the oldest woman onboard – a shrill, middle-aged bird – with the bag of potatoes she has brought from Gisenyi. Only when I begin to strain with the effort do I realize she’ll be strapping nearly 50 pounds of potatoes to her back with a frayed length of rope, then trudging off into the hills of Kibuye.

Outside the brewery there are no formalities, no warm partings. One by one we scatter, picking our solitary paths through the crisp morning.

It is a long walk to the Béthanie – the church-run guesthouse where I’d stayed once before –and it takes me a few minutes to find my legs. The pain in my back and neck, too, is tremendous. But having this early-morning hour to myself, with the birdsong filling the trees, is almost entirely worth the effort getting here. And the pay-off, too, comes when I finally collapse into my bed, set my alarm clock, think better of it, and spend my first morning in Kibuye huddled under the covers.

It’s something I think or dream.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 2 – March 22

Before leaving Kigali, I made the decision to leave my laptop behind. For this three- or four-week trip, I wanted to be as unencumbered as possible – to not have to hesitate at the prospect of a boat ride into the unknown, or a stranger’s invitation into his home, because of fears over the safety of my pricey electronic wares. Implicit was a desire, too, to leave behind my emotional crutches. I knew how easy it was, from past travels, to sink into a DVD or retreat into my iPod at the end of a long day. I wanted no such comforts now. Life in rural Africa, after all, means contemplating boredom: acquainting yourself with the long hours after nightfall, when solitary diversions are few and the sound of silence is absolute. (No such luck in the Auberge de Gisenyi, where the chatter of Spanish league football goes on till after midnight.) I felt it was important, for these few weeks, to stay engaged to the world around me – not to escape into a Coen brothers flick or an old school playlist that might, however subtly, draw me back to my American life.

Tuneless, flickless, my first night is a blessing: I sleep like a stone. At half-past eight the birds are chattering, the kitchen is dishing out omelettes, my first morning post-Kigali is bright and auspicious. How liberating, too, to know there are no deadlines on the horizon, no pressing emails to get to: nothing preventing me from just disappearing for a few weeks. It is like a spiritual lightness, as if I’ve been set free from the weight of my daily routine. I feel more curious, more engaged. For a travel writer, I have the peculiar sense that I need to travel more often.

Roughing it in the garden of the auberge.

By late-morning I am back on the beach, which today, a Monday, is almost empty. In the distance I see eight sets of pale limbs, eight swaths of khaki, eight back- and fanny-packs milling around the jetty – Belgian tourists, perhaps, getting reacquainted with their former fiefdom. Closer to me a group of Rwandans – overdressed for the beach, as ever – is watching a motorboat tugging a waterskier in wide circles. He is a Rwandan, and he can only go through one or two passes before losing his balance, flailing his arms, and crashing into the water. The lake is flat and inviting. Every few minutes a small transport plane buzzes overhead – the latest batch of Congolese minerals, no doubt, being whisked off the tarmac in Goma en route to foreign lands.

On the beach I meet one of the young captains of the boat sputtering past us in broad arcs. On the weekend, he says, there is plenty of business from tourists: the wazungu weekending from Kigali, the Congolese escaping the clutter of Goma, the Rwandans holding their wedding celebrations on the lake shore. They pay a few thousands francs to get taxied along the coast, or rent the boat for the day to head further south. (A group of tourists, he says, have paid $600 to take the boss’ other boat to Cyangugu.) On a Monday morning, though, business is slow. The boys waterskiing and flopping around in the water are all employees of the Serena Hotel next door. I suspect the boss – an anonymous businessman in far-away Kigali – wouldn’t be too pleased to see his gas dollars going to waste. Fidele laughs and shrugs away the boss’ concerns. It is a modest job, even by Gisenyi’s standards. “It is something so I can eat,” he says. More often he will take his small savings and cross the border into Goma, where he can buy cheap goods and resell them in Gisenyi for a profit. He hopes he can make it to America someday. “It’s something I think or dream, but I don’t know to do it,” he says. He would like to go and make money and then return to Rwanda. “You know, Africans, we love that country,” he says. But it’s not the same as having a home.

There is a great sense of movement in this border town. Fidele’s retail racket is a common one; others, handicapped men and women, cross the border with their wheelchairs stocked with petrol and cigarettes. The handicapped, through some loophole in Congolese law, are exempt from paying customs duties at the border. And so their hand-pedaled tricycles are loaded down with cigarettes and dry goods and wheeled duty-free across the border. Other, obscure goods are no doubt being shuttled across in some of the many SUVs with Congolese plates barreling around Gisenyi. And then there are the casual pedestrians: most of the youths I meet along the beach seem to be Congolese, playing hooky for the sake of a casual stroll in their peaceful neighbor.

A woman on the road to Rubona.

Despite the lazy pleasure of the waterfront and the languid decay of some of the old colonial homes, there is great energy around Gisenyi. After leaving the beach I walk the six kilometers to Rubona, the bustling little town that serves as Gisenyi’s principal port. Along the way I pass a fish market full of the riotous cries of market women; on the beach outside, thousands of slender silvery fish lay on wooden racks, drying in the sun. There are women selling vegetables on the road, and women carrying great bundles and baskets on their heads, trundling many miles to sell their pineapples and cassava and tomatoes and maize, their voices singing shrilly as they chatter along the way.

On the road a man stops me and gestures to a small satchel slung across his shoulder. It is too small to hold the statuettes and Congolese masks being sold by other hawkers in Gisenyi. I wonder if he is offering postcards; his accent is inscrutable. Only when he opens the zipper to reveal a few hunks of rust-colored rock does the word “Coltan! Coltan!” come into focus. I gently decline – conflict minerals are not my idea of a souvenir. Thus do I, in my own small way, give a tiny cry of protest at the atrocities in the Congo.

Half-way to Rubona, in a small crowded town clinging to the side of a hill, I’m stopped by a group of youths listening to R&B ballads on a cell phone. They are polite, friendly, smiling easily; soon one – introducing himself as John – asks if he can accompany me the rest of the way. As in most of rural Africa, there clearly isn’t much to occupy John on a Monday afternoon. He says he’s just finished secondary school – last month? last year? – and I delicately side-step the conclusion of that thought, as it is probably the familiar refrain: no money to pay for university, no job prospects on the horizon. The rare chance to walk with a stranger through these familiar streets, the opportunity to both form a new friendship and boost his own cachet in little Kiroji, is not something to pass up.

Looking toward Lake Kivu from Kiroji.

So off we go, followed by dozens of curious, eager eyes. The town is built along the road and there is a constant commotion of bodies: women selling pots and pans on tattered blankets, or crouching behind bunches of green bananas. Barbers are buzzing shiny domes in their tiny hair salons and carpenters are sawing at furniture on the roadside. “Everyone’s a businessman here,” says John. And it is hard not to admire the entrepreneurial spirit as peanuts and boiled eggs and bottled beer and avocados and charcoal and hair extensions are being sold.

By the time we reach Rubona my face and neck are sunburned and painful to the touch. We stop for Fantas in a small shop almost entirely devoted to hair care products. DARLING NEW LOOK – HIGHEST QUALITY HAIR ADDITIONS, says a typical package. LIKE HUMAN HAIR! HAIR THAT LASTS LONGER! Outside, with the sun high overhead, we can see the fishing boats clustered around the beach far below. The road has been steadily climbing since Gisenyi, and so John – as familiar with the town as if we were picking through his own backyard – gestures to a narrow path vanishing through the banana plants and begins bounding down the hill.

Always Coca-Cola

Rubona: hair-care capital of northwestern Rwanda

Little Rubona is booming. The hillside is crowded with new housing developments – sprawling brick villas that, I suspect, will soon be touting the requisite Grecian columns and reflective windows that are the truest indication of ill-gotten wealth in the Great Lakes region. John gestures to one half-built compound and says, “That is for a Nigerian,” as if no more needs to be said. We pick through small gardens and brush aside great banana leaves. Many of the houses are already occupied. An old woman hangs the laundry from a line. An ancient fisherman sits in the shade, mending his net. No one seems particularly surprised to have a white man tramping through the yard. The lake is blue, still, dotted with green islands. John skips ahead on fast, sure, nimble feet, now and then pausing to push an earphone back into his ear.

Man with Phone: the perfect rural African tableau

Looking over Rubona

On the beach the women are selling vegetables and breast-feeding and spreading their freshly laundered clothes over the sand to dry. The way they look at you is frank and explicit. John exchanges some words with them and is soon scrambling down a sandy slope, to where a long, slender, motor-powered boat is being loaded for the lake journey. There are negotiations, but they end in disappointment: the boat will be leaving this evening, a day or two before I’ll be ready to say goodbye to Gisenyi. Nearby we find two more boats, these shaded by canopies made from heavy tarps bearing the WFP logo. Again, no luck: Monday, it seems, is the only day that passenger boats travel from Gisenyi to Kibuye.

As we trudge off through the sand, bitter and defeated, John continues to ask hopefully for any mid-week departures. It is hard to describe what a strange and touching thing it is to see such fierce loyalty, such determination, in someone I’ve only just met. If John himself were desperate to board the next boat to Kibuye, I couldn’t imagine him putting any more effort into our search.

Brochettes by the lake

At a local restaurant on the lakeshore, as we’re waiting for our brochettes, John disappears in search of fresh intelligence. Minutes later he returns, looking conspiratorial and optimistic. There is a rumor that a cargo ship will be leaving the Bralirwa brewery on Tuesday on a southbound journey. John can’t investigate the rumor any further. “At this time, it is a prohibition to go there,” he says, gesturing to the brewery with its great billowing chimneys nearby. “This night I will search the information.” He promises to contact an uncle who works for Bralirwa to see if there might be a way to smuggle me onto the ship. Suddenly, things have gotten very interesting in Rubona. Soon storm clouds begin to churn over the hilltops, and we scramble for the nearest motorbikes, hoping to beat the rain back to Gisenyi.


I lose John along the way. The rain begins to fall in fat, cold drops; as we speed over the hills, they strike my arms and face like pebbles. Halfway to Gisenyi we stop and take cover under a shop awning. There is a crowd of young boys there; as the rain intensifies, others come to join us. A leathery old woman, carrying a massive bundle of firewood, muscles her way into our sanctuary. We stand there, talking softly, as the rain pelts the tin roof. Smoke rises from the blacktop. Villagers trudge by, hanging their heads. It is a great comfort, in its own way, to be stranded here, at the mercy of the elements. When the rain stops we get back onto our moto, scooting and skidding our way back to Gisenyi.

Waiting out the rain

In the evening, John calls: the Bralirwa boat, he reports, will be leaving at 8am. A few hours later, he calls with an update: the boat won’t be leaving till the afternoon. Strange that I suddenly feel so compelled to leave a town I was just getting used to. But I don’t want to miss the boat; I decide to pack my things tonight and be on-call throughout the day tomorrow. One way or another, I hope to be in Kibuye by nightfall.