The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lake Kivu

Most of us are familiar with the Great Rift Valley that runs through the heart of Kenya and Tanzania all the way down to Mozambique and is famous for the large herds of wildlife we have all seen on television at one time or another. Less well known is the fact that there is another arm of the rift valley which runs down the western side of Rwanda, Burundi and beyond. These two small landlocked and mountainous countries are effectively the propped up land masses of the volcanic activity that created the rift valley divide 20 million years ago. Lake Kivu forms a natural border between Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and is one of a number of large lakes which submerge the western rift valley floor until the two arms join up again in southern Africa.
A bit of Oz in Africa

Bussing west out of Kigali, the road is much more mountainous and deeply sculpted than in the more moderate valleys in the east of the country. Started by the Chinese in 1990 it is, in parts, a significant engineering feat and is fully tarmacked all the way to Kibuye on the shores of the lake. Eucalypts, fir trees and little mud houses dot the terraced landscape. At one point we actually passed a forest, a rarity in the country, only to be reminded momentarily of what could have been an Australian national park. On snaking downwards with the lake now in view, it became obvious why Rwanda used to be called the Switzerland of Africa. Kivu is extraordinarily beautiful but it is only in recent times that it has started to gain repute as an international tourist destination although it has been popular for years with holidaymakers from Kigali.
View from the balcony

Sitting on the balcony at Home St Jean, a Catholic guesthouse just outside Kibuye, overlooking the lake, we were captivated by the rhythmic, echoed chanting of boatmen as they rowed across the placid waters below. We even scrambled down to the shoreline and braved the possible presence of bilharzia (or schistosomiasis) in the water to go for a swim. Actually, Kivu is supposed to be free of the parasite that causes the disease although others say that no fresh water lake is safe in sub-Saharan Africa. However, like Kilmarnock's chances of finishing fourth in the Scottish Premier League, I am quietly confident.
Chanting boatmen

The lake doesn't have a great biodiversity with relatively few species of fish compared to say, Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika. There are also no hippos or crocs, which may be due to the high methane levels trapped under the water, some of the gas having escaped to cause mass animal deaths and even extinctions in the past. Fortunately no gaseous emanations occurred when we were swimming - at least not from the lake itself! The government is trying to harness the reserves of methane for conversion to electricity through the construction of a large-scale processing plant outside Kibuye. This will also serve, long term, as a way of reducing the risk to the surrounding population from what is known as a limnic eruption of methane and carbon dioxide similar to what occurred at Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986 killing nearly 2000 villagers.
Arm of the lake

We hung out with a couple of English bikers travelling through Africa from south to north in, largely from what I gathered, wet season sludge. Lake Kivu's sunshine and beauty was a spirit lifter but when the conversation turned brown it was time to move on. Older people are mocked for discussing the number of pills they may be taking but young ones sure like to dwell on their bowel movements. Drink and eat anything, swim anywhere and don't spare the resultant, character-forming agonies. Why is it that diarrhoea invariably becomes dysentery and flu-like symptoms, probably from imbibing too much local brew, can easily be transformed into a raging bout of life-threatening malaria?
Local farmers

We headed off to check out some serious stuff. A stone's throw from our lodging stands the genocide memorial church where 11,400 people were killed in 1994. Lindsey Hilsum wrote about it in the publication Granta as quoted in the Bradt travel guide to Rwanda. "The church stands among trees on a promontory above the calm blue of Lake Kivu. The Tutsis were sheltering inside when a mob, drunk on banana beer, threw grenades through the doors and windows and then ran in to club and stab to death the people who remained alive. It took about three hours." The area around Kibuye and Lake Kivu was one of the worst for brutality during the three-month genocide. As the Bradt guide states: "of the estimated 800,000 or so people who lost their lives throughout the country during the genocide, more than 6% were slaughtered here in this area (Bisesero, high above Kibuye)............ When the genocide began on 7 April 1994, Tutsis from the whole surrounding region converged on Bisesero for refuge, numbering around 50,000 at their height........... By the time the French arrived at the end of June, only around 1,300 of the 50,000 were still alive."
Genocide memorial church

And yet the resistance they mounted for three, gruelling months, at altitude with virtually no food, against the onslaught from the military, the Interahamwe and enemy villagers was heroic, in appalling conditions, during the wettest months of the year. The current government's admirable policy of reconciliation will no doubt ensure that this story is not turned into a major motion picture. I was reminded looking at the mountains around Kibuye, for some strange reason, of those extraordinary sieges instigated by the Catholic church against the Cathars in the Pyrenean region of south west France and of the indomitable human survival instinct.

No comments:

Post a Comment