Touring Rwanda’s picturesque islands

Rwanuma island as seen from Nyamunini. / Courtesy

During my frequent visits to Lake Kivu, I have been privileged to visit a few islands and created memories I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Before I discovered the hidden gems of Lake Kivu, my screensaver was a beautiful image of an island known as Amahoro. I used to admire that image every day until it stuck on my mind and conquered my heart.

Sadly, I wasn’t aware of its whereabouts.

Coincidentally, the first island I visited in this lake happened to be Amahoro. The same island whose image I used to see first thing in the morning. The same island I used to marvel at every day without a slight clue of its location.

I wasn’t responsible for the choice of my screensaver. It was installed by the previous user of my computer. I wasn’t responsible for the choice of my first destination in the Kivu archipelago either.

The author with members of Agaseke k’Amahoro. / Courtesy

When I visited Karongi for the first time and decided to tour one island, my boatman recommended Amahoro. I had no objection.

As we sailed towards the island and got closer and closer, the island looked more and more familiar. It was my first time there but I had seen this picturesque piece of land on my screen countless times before. It took me a while to connect my old screensaver to the reality. When I finally did, my dream came true.

During one of my subsequent trips to Karongi, I visited Nyamunini Island. Also known as Napoleon’s hat, Nyamunini is a very steep hill. This cone-shaped elevation offers great hiking experiences and panoramic views of neighbouring islands.

From the summit, some of these isles look like little dots on the verge of being erased by the tide.  

I used a kayak to sail to Nyamunini Island. A boat could have been faster and effortless but I needed time to bond with the lake. I love water bodies. Who doesn’t? Their power of attraction is irresistible and their soothing effect is seldom felt elsewhere.

While propelling my kayak to the French Emperor’s chapeau, I bypassed my beloved Amahoro and a cluster of other islands. These include Nyenyeri, Mukondwe, Shegesha and Mpangara.

Nyenyeri, Mukondwe and Shegesha islands. / Courtesy

Nyamunini island’s greener pastures attract cows which swim all the way from lakeside farms. When I docked, I saw feasting cows and a small group of little boys who seemed to be fetching firewood. I had a feeling what they were doing was illegal. The look on their faces made me even more suspicious.

While visiting Nyamunini, I encountered healthy cows and boys whose activities call for further investigation. I disturbed a colony of bats and took selfies on the rocky apex elevated higher than any other island in the vicinity.

After discovering Karongi, I went to Rusizi District and visited Nkombo island. Covering 23 square kilometers, Nkombo is the biggest island I have ever toured in Rwanda. It is home to 1,800 natives who speak a dialect mainland Rwandans do not understand.

I hadn’t planned any activities when I set foot on Nkombo’s soil. I didn’t even know what experiences this island can offer. Upon arrival, I started strolling along the streets and felt the heartbeat of the community.

Nkombo dwellers are laid-back and none of them seemed to be in a hurry. Scenes of idle young men hanging out and teenage girls as young as 15 breastfeeding their own babies are common across the island.

Nkombo Island. / Courtesy

In the barbershops, radios are tuned to stations broadcasting from the DRC in a mixture of Swahili and French.

When I saw the premises of Nkombo Sector, I walked in and spoke to a gentleman namely Justin who recommended a visit to Gisunyu forest. Following the directions he gave me, I walked to the forest.

Walking enabled me to observe and absorb more. As I made one step after another, inhabitants of Nkombo stared at me like I was a strange creature from Mars.

On my way back to the boat, I passed by the workshop of a cooperative known as Agaseke k’Amahoro. Members of this cooperative were busy weaving their way out of poverty. I interacted with them briefly, bought a souvenir and kept walking.

My next stop was a stuffy kiosk a couple of houses away. I tried to buy drinking water but the only beverages available were alcoholic ones. The owner of the kiosk informed me that he had been selling beers, wines and spirits to his esteemed customers for many years but none of them had ever attempted to buy water.

Unlike aliens from Mars, Nkombo dwellers spend their money on real drinks.

Nkombo is surrounded by a number of relatively smaller islands. The virtual boundary line separating Rwanda and the DRC lies a few kilometers from the shore.

The view of Bukavu on the other side of the border is clear. The capital of the South Kivu Province is expanding rapidly but urban planning is evidently unheard of over there.

A few months later, I returned to Rusizi and visited Gihaya Island. On my way to Gihaya, I saw a couple of islands whose allure can entice anyone yearning for a tropical getaway.

Upon arrival, I was treated to a heart-warming reception by a group of women doing business under the umbrella of a cooperative known as Noza Ubukorikori.

I didn’t have enough time to gather specific details of their endeavours but our short conversation gave me a preview of their routine. Their busy daily schedule starts at dawn when they paddle their small wooden canoes to different fishing spots. They buy fish from fishermen and proceed to the market.

Delivering fish to the market is not the only thing these proactive women do. They are also traditional dancers.

Entertaining tourists is a way of expanding their business portfolio and diversifying their sources of income. In addition, they weave and sell souvenirs to visitors.

Canoeing is physically taxing but Gihaya women do it effortlessly. It’s amazing how easy their strokes look. I was surprised to see them traversing the lake without life jackets. Yes, their swimming prowess is superb and the lake is their play ground but I thought the regulations reinforced by the authorities elsewhere apply to them too.

Gihaya island. / Courtesy

My encounter with Gihaya women changed my pre-conceived impression that islanders are slow and idle. I came back to Kigali with a new perception and a deeper appreciation of their diligent hands.

A few weeks after returning to the capital, I headed to the Western Province again. This time, I visited Akeza island in Rubavu District.

Akeza is a tiny uninhabited island located approximately 7 kilometers south of downtown Rubavu. This time I had invited friends from Kigali. We had a picnic on the island and spent the night in a cozy lakeside guest house.

According to a surveyor commissioned by the Rwanda Environmental Management Authority (REMA), whose report was made public in 2012, there are 250 islands in Lake Kivu. 56 of them happen to be on the Rwandan side of the lake.

It seems like I still have a lot of explorations to do.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com