Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Kibuye, the land of a thousand islands

When I was in Rwanda last July, I took some time for myself after my work was complete to spend some time with friends. My friend Aimé took time off from his new job in the Middle East to travel around Rwanda with me. The goal of our agenda was getting to Kibuye, the lakeside town that all of my friends had said was almost too beautiful to believe.

Indeed, it is beautiful (but I still think Gisenyi is more beautiful. I’m a little partial).

The two-hour drive from Kigali was stunning. On the way, Aimé pulled over by the side of a cliff to show me a waterfall, and two boys eagerly ran up to us. Aimé spoke to them in Kinyarwanda, and one of the boys began singing and dancing. He told the story of a man who was asked by the Mwami (Rwandan king) to fetch honey from the bottom of the mountain. He went down to get it, and found it to be so good that he ate it all. When he came back to the top of the mountain emptyhanded, the Mwami was so angry that he threw the man down the mountain, and the cliff was named after him. We gave the boys ample applause, 200 francs, and a couple of water bottles before continuing to Kibuye.

The road is windy, only offering occasional glimpses of the grassy peninsulas and islands as you approach the town. We arrived at sunset, pulling into our small hotel after dark. We chose to stay at the Centre Bethanie, a Presbyterian hotel built on the side of a steep hill that rolls down into the lake.

The Centre Bethanie had been recommended by my friend Lucy, who stayed there last year, after I had left. While at dinner at her house just before my return to Rwanda, she sheepishly gave me a key with a large wooden carving attached to it. She confessed that she had accidentally left with the key (despite the enormous thing attached to it). “Can you return it for me?” she asked—and then advised me to ask for that room, since it opened up right on the water.

So there we were, walking up the steep hill to the reception. (A couple days at that hotel and you’ll have killer quads.) I addressed myself to the woman behind the desk, who barely acknowledged my presence. When I finally caught her attention, I said, “Hello, there. My friend in America stayed here last year, and she accidentally took the key. I am returning it to you.”

It took a long second before the woman understood what I was saying. She looked up at me incredulously. “Mais c’etait longtemps!!” she exclaimed. But that was so long ago! I’m sure she now believes that all Americans know each other.

With a smile, I asked if I could keep the key and stay in Room 25.

In the morning, I woke up to an amazing view of the many islands of Kibuye and the sound of water slapping the rocks outside my room. The green hills rise from the water as far as you can see, and along the coast, there are hundreds of picturesque inlets.

After breakfast, Aimé and I hired a boat (they’re parked at the hotel) to take us down the coast. We both went for a swim (really, I went for a quick paddle before getting back in the boat...I’m still a little concerned about the methane gas in the lake). We arrived at a hotel that was mostly built, a new place that looks rather palatial, where we had tea with the fishermen who came with us. Strangely, there’s nothing else around the hotel besides a methane gas extraction plant.

Returning to Kibuye, we rinsed off and were getting ready to return to Kigali when Aimé received a call. His face changed.

His sister was going into labor and needed to go to the hospital. And we had the car.

We sped back to Kigali, and Aimé’s phone was ringing every ten minutes. I really have no idea how we weren’t pulled over by the Rwandan police for reckless driving. They are unforgiving about that. We wove between tractor trailers and matatus, with narrow almosts-and-nearlies with oncoming traffic.

Arriving in Kigali, we wove up the dirt road to Aimé's parents’ house, where his sister was having contractions. I darted out of the car as they led her and several other people into the small 4WD. They went off to the hospital, and I was left to stay with his father and siblings at the house. In the meantime, we were receiving play-by-play accounts of the birth.

Later that night, he returned, exhausted, but with the news that his sister had a healthy baby boy. I helped his siblings prepare beans and plantains for dinner, and we ate family-style on the couches in the living room. I talked for hours with Aimé’s father. He is quite a character—a highly educated man from the northern Kivu area of the Democratic Republic of Congo. My Rwandese uncle, Boniface, knows him and his family because they are from the same area. More proof that the world is small. He told me all about the history of the area, from the division of Rwanda down the middle of Lake Kivu to the current fighting in Eastern Congo. He’s one of those older men who knows everything about everything, and we shared Mutzig beers long into the night.

Before heading to bed, Aimé’s father told me to go to the bathroom, because it wouldn’t be a good idea in the middle of the night. The bathroom was a latrine around back. I didn’t question his judgment. I guessed he meant it was unsafe to go outside at night, since people could easily hop their compound wall.

It wasn’t a safety issue at all. It was a cockroach issue. I have lived in Texas, and while they have some mean bugs, they are nothing compared to Kigali Cockroaches. These suckers are as long as your index finger. Yes. Your index finger. They were on the walls, in the corners, scampering around the hole of the latrine. Suddenly, I lost the urge to pee. It could wait until morning. It had to wait until morning.

Early the next day, I found the courage to try again. This time, I took my Off! spray with me.

The following day proved just as eventful as the last. Aimé and I spent a lazy morning with Faustin and Roger, two of his older brothers, across town when we received word that Faustin’s wife was in labor and needed to go to the hospital. Round 2 began.

At the end of the day, Faustin and his wife also had a baby boy. We visited them at Faustin’s home. His wife, discovering that I was American, asked me if I would help them to pick an American name for their child. (The new fad in Rwanda right now is to give children American names.) I generated a list of names (and their nicknames), and they chose Harry. My guess is that they may have been influenced by J.K. Rowling.

* * *

Finally, as a capstone to my vacation, I made my way up to the Nkamira transit camp, where I had spent so much time. We had been speeding past on our way to Gisenyi, and I hadn’t intended to stop, since it was raining. When it rains, the refugees are reluctant to leave their tents, and the camp looked empty anyway.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stop?” Aimé asked, as we drove by.

I decided he was right and that we should go back. He turned around, and we drove through the camp gates as I had so many times before.

Out of nowhere, the refugees materialized. “Morgani!!” the kids shrieked. I was touched that they remembered not to call me a muzungu. Behind the crowd of dancing children and clapping adults was Emmanuel, my partner at the camp, the Anglophone refugee who worked tirelessly with me to implement the youth and HIV/AIDS programs.

“Welcome back,” he said, smiling. He was married now, he told me, with a child on the way. Then he brought up the soccer team.

“They said you were bringing shoes,” he said. I asked him who told him. “Someone at UNHCR,” he replied.

I shook my head. “I couldn’t fit 2,000 pairs of shoes in my luggage,” I laughed. “I’m sorry—I don’t have any shoes.”

“Not to worry,” he said. “It is good. We have many footballs, and we have new shirts.” A year after I had left, they still had everything they needed.

Emmanuel paused, grinning. “And we are still undefeated.”


Blogger Morgan C. said...

More photos to come when I can find my photo card. :)

3/26/2008 10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read and enjoyed your entire blog. I just got back from 5 weeks in Rwanda and miss the country and my friends there so much.
Thanks for keeping up your fabulous blog!

3/27/2008 9:30 AM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Ellen, thanks! More to come as I update from my most recent visit (just got back a couple of days ago!)

3/27/2008 12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I underline Morgan's comments about the beauty of the journey to Kibuye [in my case by Okapi bus from Kigali] and the view of the lake when you get there? I went with some young relatives who, typically for Rwandans, had never been there. I also had to put up with a lot of discouragement from people in Kigali before I left who did not understand why I would suffer [as they saw it] a 2 hour journey to get there. In fact it is easy to get stuck in Kigali particularly as no one there will encourage you to leave to see "the real Rwanda" outside the towns [which is recommended].

3/27/2008 2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As for Gisenyi, it is also beautiful. As to which is best, Kibuye and Gisenyi, you can decide. In time presumably it may be possible to go by boat from one to the other and/or by road once the present road is improved. In Gisenyi you can get very nice honey, I am not sure if it is any better than anywhere else in Rwanda, but it is recommended.

3/27/2008 2:36 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dear Morgan,

I have been reading your blog as part of my research for my new play about Rwanda. The play is having a reading next week at the Huntington Theater at Boston. There are a few Kinyarwandan phrases in the play and I have to teach the director and the actors how to say them in a short time. I was wondering if you could help me in anyway with a crash course in pronunciation. I would be eternally grateful.
Best, Ken

3/28/2008 11:17 AM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

As Alex can take a boat from Kibuye to Gisenyi and vice versa. It's pretty expensive, as I understand it (if you take the motorboat). $100 or somesuch. That said, you can take local boats (they're pretty overloaded, but it's possible) for much cheaper.

Ken, I'm happy to help. Luckily, it's not too hard to pronounce.

3/30/2008 2:22 AM  
Blogger Dave Foster said...

What language do the Twa people speak? Do they speak French as much as the Tutsis do?

5/12/2008 7:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Morgan - are those OUR footballs still?! a.mix

5/15/2008 12:48 PM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...


The French question is a tough one. The Twa speak Kinyarwanda, and I'm sure some can speak French, though I suspect their access to language education has been limited, given that they tend to live high in the hills. In terms of questions about the Tutsi, I would say that the secondary language they speak depends on where they were in exile--or if they were in country. If they were in Rwanda, or if they returned from DR Congo, they would speak French. What you will see in the government, however, is the return of the refugee populations from Uganda--and those people, mostly Tutsi, speak English. Despite this, and probably because of the Anglophone government, there is a perception that the Tutsi speak English and the Hutu speak French, though this is not always the case.

In general terms, Rwanda is becoming an Anglophone country. In the past three years, I have noticed a significant decrease in my need to use French--I now almost uniquely speak English in Kigali, and the provinces are catching up. Often, the regional officials will hold meetings in English even if they have more facility in French.

A. Mix, you got it, darling. Still your soccer balls. Pretty amazing, no?

5/17/2008 6:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Morgan. I'm making my first visit to Rwanda in a few weeks (now in US) and have very much enjoyed and learned from your posts. Thank you!

7/03/2008 2:28 PM  
Anonymous Moise Niyomugabo said...

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5/28/2018 11:39 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

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5/28/2018 12:12 PM  

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