KARONGI — He is tall and muscular. He looks younger than his age. But the grey hair and mustache is what betrays this appearance.
Indeed his body structure can not even be compared to that of many youths who visit the gym. At 51, John Baptist Rugigana has been steering a boat on Lake Kivu for the last 30 years.
Many people are afraid of using water transport or even mere standing near water bodies, but Rugigana has explored water for years. "Though I was based in Karongi, I went many places through the lake taking tourists around," he says, brandishing a gift reportedly got from one of his white passengers for his good humor and elaborate explanation.
He did different jobs without earning a reasonable income, the same reason that prompted him to turn to the quite risky but more earning job of boat driving. He practiced carpentry, and he would fix doors, was a photographer and worked with Rwanda Office of Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN). "Though I did many jobs, I some how knew my destiny lay in transporting people on water. It was a matter of time," says Rugigana.
Being a good swimmer, and having spent many years on an island on Lake Kivu, partly reassured him. "This gave me the chance to know more about waves on Lake Kivu, about the risks of moving on water and introduced me to many islands than one could ever imagine," he said.
Rugigana was born and brought up right in the middle of Lake Kivu at Mbabara Island, "My father owned all these islands that your eyes can reach," he explained. Currently staying at Mahoro Island, Rugigana experienced many life challenges during his youth that prompted his movements. He recalls routinely swimming along with family cattle to another island in search of pasture, and swimming to school.
"For all the six years of primary education, I would swim all the way to school. With all this experience I got a clear picture of what I would do in future," he said.
Rugigana is now the owner and head of Kivu Swimming Club a club with experienced swimmers who have competed in national swimming tournaments. "I have learnt a lot of skills from my trainer about swimming including ways of handling serious waves and the efforts I need to reach the far end of the Lake, "said a swimmer who gave his name as Jackson, a member of Kivu Swimming Club.
When Rugigana first inherited his father’s Mahoro Island in 1981, an island with eucalyptus trees, he hardly knew what he would use it for. But he was determined to develop it with the money he would get through his big dream job-transporting tourists. With 30 years experience in the boat transport, Rugigana was trusted by Karongi district to head Water Transportation Co-operative in the area.
"After recognizing that there was less security in Lake Kivu, we chose to give him a chance to come up with a co-operative," said one of the district officials.
Amidst the challenges, Rugigana is ready to continue with his job until his death. On many occasions strong winds would blow his boat to a different destination.
"But I would explain to my passengers and assure them safe delivery after the storm," he says. Before he could afford an engine boat, he could use a lot of manual power with the local wooden boat. The wooden boat made him exhausted and he could put him down for days with illness. According Rugigana, work wasn’t easy for him because many fishermen were unfriendly, though he never encountered any serious problem with them. "My problem was to build confidence among tourists that they would be safe with me," he explained. Many people feel drowning is certain as long as you’re moving on water.
Our discussion was interrupted by a phone call from a tourist who wanted his services. "You see, that’s why I have many plans of developing this field in my district, it’s a juicy business," he said. Traveling to and from Mahoro Island cost Frw12,000.