It’s Not All Black and White Along Lake Kivu

This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, January 10, 2012 was originally posted on January 18, 2012.

DAYS 11-13 (PART 2): “They’re not quite sure what to make of you,” my guide Tom had told me when were were visited by curious villagers upon arrival in Kinunu village. He had noticed during our bicycle tour on the Congo Nile Trail that in the children’s usual calls to mzungus (foreigners, specifically White ones), some would start shouting “Abazungu!” (the plural form) but switch to “Umuzungu!” (singular) when seeing me, a nationality-ambiguous-but-obviously-not-White Filipino-American — Tom was the only White guy in our trio.

“I’ve been mistaken for about thirty-four nationalities so far,” I told Tom.

Perhaps I was the first southeast Asian-looking person these village children had ever seen — quite possibly the only one — although the Chinese have visited and been seen in many parts of Africa as foreign investors (or resource exploiters, depending on your African economic foreign policy views — if you even have any).

“If they say mzungu bzungu, I usually don’t reply,” Tom told me; it was akin to calling a Black person the N word.

During our two days of cycling, I only noticed one of those offensive greetings — out of hundreds of acceptable ones. For the most part, everyone was friendly and understandably a bit curious about us — except for the few who saw us as dollar signs, asking for amafarangas up front (francs). Tom’s strategy for dealing with those kids (and some adults) was to use their religious upbringings to attention, reminding them that money is rooted by the Devil, and “only God gives out love.” Most of the time he scheme worked, because one kid we encountered who remembered him, knew not to ask for money but for love.

“[Some Peace Corps volunteers taught some kids a different greeting,]” Tom informed me as we rode down the trail. “[You’ll see.]”

As we rode through one village, it was evident: “What’s up?!” a kid called out, waving.

“What’s up nothing much!” said another.

“What’s up!”

“What’s up nothing much!” they would say. Apparently some of the kids learned the question and response as one single greeting.

“What’s up, mzungu!” I heard another kid call out.

Other kids who learned a bit of English would call out “Good morning!” — in the morning, afternoon, and evening — unaware that it signified a time of day. One educated kid we noticed corrected his friend later that afternoon.

“IT’S A BIG DAY TODAY,” Tom of Rwandan Adventures informed me at the beginning of our second day of cycling. The first day covered over 40 kilometers, but the second would cover over 61 km — again, mostly on an unpaved undulating road of hills with an elevation shift range of 1,000 ft. However, it’d be worth it. “This is one of the most beautiful parts of the country, the best part of the Congo Nile Trail,” Tom told me. “When you see it, you’ll know what I mean.”

What he meant was a more rural landscape closer to the lakeshore, away from the calls of following village children. Dusty roads were replaced with grass and mountain bike single tracks, and all with postcard views of Lake Kivu and the fishing boats and islands within.

The quiet, rural lakeshore was nice while it lasted, but eventually we rode back up the the hills on the rocky roads of before — going left, right, upwards, and down again — crossing the brown, erosion-filled Koko River at one point. We continued to do as we’ve done before: greet and wave at locals with “Wirdiwe!” or “Bites!” or “Mwaramutse!” (“Good morning!”), pay respects and chat with elderly wandering men, stop in villages to support local stores by buying fizzy drinks, and give empty bottles to villagers so that they may reuse them.

One anomaly from the two days of bike tour “norm” was a development of cookie cutter houses I’d noticed.

“Government housing?” I asked.

“Government housing for displaced Tutsis.”

During the Rwandan genocide of 1994 — in which Hutu extremists went on a killing spree of almost a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus — many Tutsis survived by escaping to neighboring countries. When everything had settled down and the country slowly began its current state of a tribally-unified nation, these refugees came back to their homeland, but usually with no family left to turn to, or a home to call their own — hence the government housing.

“Is there still tribal identity or a lack of tribal identity?” I asked.

“It’s there, but it’s hidden,” Tom told me. “Lots of tension.”

At one point during our bike tour, we’d noticed a man on a motorbike. “The guy on the motorbike works for the government,” Tom told me. “You can tell by the brown license plate… He says he’s working for agriculture, but I suspect he’s a government security agent,” he continued. “If a war were to break out again, it would happen in the countryside first.”

PEACETIME CONTINUED AS WE JOURNEYED ON. If there was anything that kept people at odds with each other, it was a lack of understanding; which is why we got curious looks by passers-by who stared at us when we revealed our wheel of cheese — one that you could eat like an apple à la George Costanza — which not every Rwandan had seen, let alone eaten before. Although it was produced within the country (obviously after learning the process from the White man), “This’ll be the first time they’ve eaten cheese,” Tom said, cutting a piece for each of the curious boys.

“Sawa?” (“Cool?”)

“Sawa.”

“Some people don’t really like it,” Tom told me. Later on we encountered three adults in a village and gave them a sample of the unfamiliar, yet local cheese. One guy took a bite, smiled, and gave a thumbs up. The others smiled.

Cheese does produce smiles.

THERE WAS ONE LAST “SOUL DESTROYING” HILL up a rocky road, which brought us to the junction at Rubengera. From there, the Congo Nile Trail once filled with rocks and dust was replaced with a paved asphalt road — at least for the time being — which was a welcome change for my seating parts. It was smoother cruising from there, especially since — like in most of the country — there are barely any cars on the road, just an occasional motorbike, NGO car, or minibus.

The elevation shifts did not change though, much to my chagrin — it’s the “Land of A Thousand Hills” whether it’s paved or not — and any sense of accomplishment went unfinished with more “soul destroying” uphill climbs, followed by fast and fun payoffs. The calls from the children continued from all directions.

“Abazungu!”

“Mzungu!”

“Good morning good morning!” (It was well into the afternoon.)

“Ababzungu!”

Tom apologized for the continued nuisance.

“It’s okay, I still think it’s funny,” I told him.

He frowned. “When you live here, it becomes less funny.”

Twizere’s gear popped off, delaying us a bit to make some temporary repairs, but it’s nothing that Tom couldn’t handle — he’s quite handy with bicycle mechanics (another plus to having him as a guide).

Finally lifting our spirits was arriving at our final destination of the day — of our time on bikes in fact — the Moriah HIlls Resort on a bay of Kabuye, an upper mid-range lakeside hotel (with welcome drinks) that Tom included in his cycle tour package since they treat his company well, and he could get a resident discount for his clients. “I figure after all that work [riding 60 km], you deserve a little luxury in a nice hotel.” After a long, 60k of a day, I checked into my room — one with a spectacular view of Lake Kivu from the private terrace — popped open a beer from the mini-bar, and took a much-deserved breather. Ah, Rwanda.

Dinner followed, and then I slept like a baby.

“MY PHILOSOPHY IS COMMUNITY TOURISM,” Tom told me. “Use local guides, go to local shops. It would actually be cheaper to get my own boat, but I’ll use a local guy.”

The next morning, after breakfast and a quick swim in the lake, said local guy arrived with his locally-owned boat. Kasim was a friendly guy, sporting a baseball cap with dollar symbol, and he took us, plus our bikes, back to Gisenyi — but not without first stopping at some nearby islands: Peace Island, an inhabited hideaway with camping facilities, and Nyamunini Island, more commonly known as “Napoleon’s Hat Island” for its shape. It was there that I saw hundreds upon hundreds of fruit bats, none of them shitting on me from above thankfully.

“That’s the euphorbia tree,” Tom pointed out. “[People plant them because there’s a belief that it wards off thunder and lighting.]”

But the tree’s mythical power didn’t work because as soon as we set sail northbound to Gisenyi, the sky opened up.

“Look at that,” Tom said, pointing out a nice bolt of lighting coming down from the sky in the distance. Thunder rumbled, rain poured. It was wet and dreary as we cruised along the shore we’d biked up and down for two days, passing by all the little islands — a scene reminiscent of Halong Bay in Vietnam. The only warmth we could muster up actually came from the warm lake water — heated by the volcanic activity below, so active that there’s a layer of methane gas stratified underneath. (This is a possible energy source for the country if Tom’s wife Natasha had anything to do with it; she had been commissioned by the Rwandan government to research its potential.)

It took only about two hours by boat to ride back to where we started, back at Tom’s house. The bikes were brought in to be tuned for their next use, as I attempted to dry off. I picked up my stored bag and tipped Twizere handsomely before my final farewell to Tom.

“We’ll be in contact,” I told him.

“[Yeah. I’ll send you the elevation charts and map, and all that.]”

We shook hands. “Good luck,” I wished him well on his future endeavors in community tourism. “I’m excited for you.”

Tom negotiated a fair price for me with a moto taxi driver to take me back to the town center. Then he, along with the Congo Nile Trail, were behind me.

The Congo Nile Trail as Rwanda tourism’s next big thing is still in its infancy, but I’m glad I did it early. Granted, there are still things that need to worked out — better signage and clean water sources, for example — but generally it is a grand thing to do, especially if you’re fit enough to go via mountain bike. As Tom once said, “It’s got to be enjoyable. It’s challenging of course, but it’s still supposed to be appealing.”

Appealing it is if you want to interact with locals amidst some of the prettiest land Rwanda has to offer — and get a good work out in the process. Rwanda tourism isn’t just genocide memorials and gorillas any more; it is the “Land of a Thousand Hills” after all, and to ride through a few dozen of them can be something special, especially when those hills hug a lake as beautiful as Lake Kivu.


FUN FACT:

I had a stimulating dinner conversation with Tom at the Moriah Hills Resort, one that had caught attention of an American couple nearby. The following morning, the woman, Dorothy, approached me as I was having breakfast.

“I thought I heard an American accent.”

She and her husband Wally were traveling through Rwanda as part of a “little 5–6 month trip” — little, compared to the fact that “We’ve traveled for a year, three times,” she told me. “Now we just do these little 5 to 6 month trips. When you’re 65, you have to start worrying about your back.”





Next entry: Run DRC?

Previous entry: Trailblazers




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Comments for “It's Not All Black and White Along Lake Kivu”

  • More to come… with hot sauce.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/18  at  04:20 AM


  • It was nice reading this one and not riding with you…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/22  at  02:40 PM


  • What a great way to see the country and the people.  Looks like an amazing thing to do

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/22  at  05:48 PM


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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Monkeying Around," which chronicled an eighteen-day journey through Uganda and Rwanda in eastern central Africa.

Next entry:
Run DRC?

Previous entry:
Trailblazers




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