How a WWI boat is turning a local village in Rutsiro into a tourist attraction

A photo of the German military ship that is buried in a remote area on the shores of Lake Kivu. Nadege Imbabazi.

A German military ship buried in a remote area on the shores of Lake Kivu during World War I looks will in the near future, turn the locality into a place of interest where tourists visit, typically for its historical significance, a research expert on the issue has told Sunday Times.

Last week, shortly after spending two weeks at “the site called Mu Rwintare and near Musaho Bay” in Rutsiro District, Maurice Mugabowagahunde, a research expert at the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda (INMR), shed light on the story of the long buried German military boat and agreed there is a plan to make that place a tourist attraction of its own right.


The site called Mu Rwintare is located in Kagugu village, Sure Cell, in Mushubati Sector, the Rwandan heritage professional said, stating that “INMR wants to excavate this boat, but we are aware that it will take time, first because of the techniques to be used, and second because of the budget since some of the material we need may coast a lot”.


“However, we have started talking to different partners to see what to do. But this excavation is planned for our strategic plan 2018 – 2013. We are convinced that this excavation will greatly contribute to the development of cultural tourism in Rwanda”.


Origins of the military boat

Mugabowagahunde said the boat was brought to Rwanda by Lutheran missionaries who were in Rubengera, who wanted to use it for missions on different islands, mainly Idjwi, in Lake Kivu.

The boat arrived in the area in 1914, at the start of the First World War, but was never used for the Christian mission it was intended because of the war that erupted.

At the time, he said, Richard Kandt, a German physician and explorer, “was the one governing Rwanda for Germans” but he was on vacation in German when the war started and was temporary replaced by another German, Capt. Max Wintgens, commonly called “Tembasi” by Rwandans.

“This captain seized the boat because he wanted it to be used to fight Belgians who were on the other side of the border. He put a machine gun on the boat and fought Belgians who were on Idjwi Island. He actually managed to dislodge them, and for two years, he was the one fully controlling the lake”.

“In 1916, Germans were losing many parts of the world. So, the ones in Rwanda decided to leave especially seeing that their main military position in North-Western Rwanda, on Nengo Hill (Rubavu) was being surrounded by Belgians. It is at this time that ‘Tembasi’ decided to withdraw”.

The German officer first went to Bugarura Island where he had another military post, took what he could carry with him and buried other things.

Mugabowagahunde said: “He left Bugarura to Mu Rwintare where he decided to bury the boat. According to the information we have now, the boat was full of different things that he couldn’t transport himself. Up to now we can’t be sure of the things in the boat, even if local people still think that there are things of great value in the boat”.

The researcher refutes the notion that the buried boat contains significant valuables because, he reasons, first; if it had any, the Belgians who replaced Germans in Rwanda would have excavated it. Secondly, he said, after two years of war, Germans had used much of their resources and didn’t have much left.

To bury the boat, he said, Wintgens and Indugaruga (King Yuhi Musinga’s warriors) who accompanied him, dug a big hole, and used chains to attach it. It is thought that until the 1950s, people would see the boat from the surface but due to erosion it was covered by earth and disappeared.

“Towards the end of the 1980s, a German team tried to excavate the boat, but the war to liberate Rwanda started in October 1990 and this research team left the country. At the end of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, some Rwandans who had heard about what the boat contains tried to excavate it but failed mainly because they were poorly equipped”.

Rwandan property now

Asked if the Germans can claim it today, Mugabowagahunde said it is now Rwandan property and the Museum will do whatever is necessary to excavate it.

He said: “This is Rwandan property now, and part of our history. In our research team at the Museums, we have suggested to excavate the boat and protect it at the place. Thus, people should visit it at the place instead of putting it in a museum. However, we are also suggesting making a copy, and this will be put in one of our museums.

“In the meantime, the site will be signposted before the end of the current budget year so that people can have basic information on what happened there,” he added, explaining that they are working on putting indicators or signposts on such sites. “The signposts will give information related to what happened at the site, directions, other sites around, and distances”.

10 sites related to Germany colonial era

Asked to shed more light on the plan to make the area a tourist attraction, Mugabowagahunde said they actually want to develop different sites so that they can be visited by tourists in line with what is called cultural tourism.

“We have started by developing 10 sites related to Germany colonial period in Rwanda, but we hope to develop more in coming years”.

The 10 sites, he explained, include Rweru because it is where Kandt entered Rwanda from; the Volcanoes, because the explorer measured them, and golden monkeys which are scientifically named after him.

Others are Gisenyi [now Rubavu], because of the World War I; Kibuye, because Duke Mecklenburg visited the area; Rusizi, the starting point when Kandt was measuring Lake Kivu; and Shangi, where he lived and conducted most of his research from.

The expedition, between 1907 and 1908, of Adolf Friedrich Herzog of Mecklenburg was one of the most ambitious scientific undertakings of Germans during colonial rule.

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