“MWAREGERERE,” a woman salutes. Her extremely dark face glitters with joy as she flashes a wide welcome smile. It is obvious that Felista Nsabimana is thrilled to see visitors on the Nkombo Island.
A few meters away, women and men are rejoicing over something unexplainable. Nsabimana tries to explain using gestures, but unfortunately we cannot understand the ‘amashi’ language—a mixture of Kinyarwanda and Congolese—spoken on the island.
Thankfully, an interpreter comes to the rescue: Zeke Kwitonda says, “mweregerere” means, “good afternoon.”
“You arrived on time. We are rejoicing for the electricity that the president promised to install here,” says Kwitonda, in broken Kinyarwanda.
Men, women and children danced to the melody, ‘abanyenkombo twarahiriwe’, meaning, ‘Nkombo people are blessed’. According to Kwitonda, the tune has replaced the former routine song, ‘abanyenkombo twaragowe’, that means, (Nkombo people are cursed).
The Island stands out in the middle of Lake Kivu, less than 1000 meters from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Lake Kivu glittered under the bright midday sun. Trees surround the island making Nkombo an untold accolade. Wide paths join to form a web of trails characteristic of remote settlements.
Indeed the hilly landscape of Nkombo can be likened to the ‘Treasure Island’ that Jim Hawkins describes in his novels.
The poor infrastructure cannot take away the thrilling, calm tranquil nature that Nkombo has. Sector boats daily transport travelers and tourist aboard who are interested in discovering the unique culture of the Nkombo residents.
Not even this outstanding beauty had made the former Rwandan governments recognise Nkombo as a part of Rwanda. For ages, Nkombo people had been neglected by both Rwanda and Congo. They were stuck in the middle of nowhere. The isolation dictated much on these people’s daily life and behavior.
A unique culture
“Whenever we went to Kamembe for errands, we were referred to as Bashi, a tribe from Congo. Even Congolese referred to us as Rwandans,” says Kwitonda.
And the residents speak ‘mahavu’ their official language from Congo, they blame it all on having been neglected at first.
At the age of 67 years, Kwitonda narrates that Kinyarwanda was a language they learnt in school. Kids were born and raised speaking ‘mahavu’. It’s only seven years ago that learning Kinyarwanda was included in their school syllabus.
The culture at Nkombo also stands out. These happy people freely speak out. When it comes to dowry, the price depends on how educated the bride to be is, as well as their complexion.
“Unnegotiable Rwf200,000 is dowry price for a S.6 leaver while Rwf100,000, negotiable is paid for a non educated girl,” says Espérance Nyabyenda.
Recently, Nyabyenda earned Rwf15,000 from her daughter’s dowry. Her daughter was not educated but had a light complexion — a physical trait that young men at the island value in a wife.
Survival is for the fittest
Living in an isolated society with no industries, market and road, has taught Nkombo dwellers to live the hard way. They daily till the fields, with no surplus harvests.
While men go fishing, the women toil for their family’s basic wellbeing. They achieve this by off loading merchandise from boats. Heavy loads of about 100kgs cost Rwf200.
The brick carrying business is one of the highest paid jobs. After ten trips of delivering over 200 well baked bricks, from the lakeside to their final destinations, the pay is Rwf800.
This does not stop people from dreaming higher.
“I save Rwf100 every day, so that I can one day build a restaurant,” said Mariyana Ruvugo.
Speaking of restaurants, Nkombo has the most interesting ones, where only Coca-cola and Fanta orange sodas are served.
A gleam of hope
“Since the RPF came into power, Nkombo Island has been recognized as part of Rwanda,” said Philbert Manigabe, the Executive Secretary of Bugumira cell, Nkombo.
Apart from the fact that electricity is in the process of getting installed, Nkombo Island currently has two primary schools and one secondary school. The Island also has a modern health centre.
Nkombo island has room for infrastructural development and the residents expect much with electricity installed.
“Hopefully industries will start and we shall all get jobs,” said Kwitonda.
Nkombo’s zeal to develop and connect with the mainland is tangible as they work hard towards attaining development.