Taking your life in your hands in Gisenyi

Lake Kivu is beautiful. A vast and tranquil ocean-sized lake set amidst wonderful scenery. At the Rwandan lakeside town of Gisenyi there are beaches, delicious fresh fish to eat and cold Primus beer to drink as you watch another glorious sunset from a lakeside bar. If you’re visiting Rwanda, a stop in Gisenyi is an absolute must. That said, there is a small chance that this peaceful lake will kill you. You take your life in your hands visiting Lake Kivu.

Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Typical countryside near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Typical countryside near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

The public beach in Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

The public beach in Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Three hundred meters below Lake Kivu’s surface, lies something which could cause the death of a high percentage of the 2 million or so people who live around the shore. Dissolved in the water at the bottom of the lake is a vast amount of carbon dioxcide (CO2) and methane, which, if released, could cause a mass extinction of humans and animals. There is evidence that this has happened here in the past. It certainly happened at a lake in Cameroon in 1986, killing more than a thousand people. Lake Kivu contains several thousand times more CO2 and methane than the lake in Cameroon: it could literally explode, releasing tonnes of CO2.

Typical countryside near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Typical countryside near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

The main bus station in Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

The main bus station in Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

CO2 and methane are found in extremely high densities in Lake Kivu because of all the volcanic activity in the region. It is volcanic activity, perhaps a massive earthquake or a huge lava flow from a nearby volcano, which could disturb and ignite the methane. This would cause an enormous explosion and release all the CO2 to the surface. The CO2 would, silently, suffocate every living creature on the side of the lake.

Not all is doom and gloom however. There is a local brewery which extracts the methane on a small scale to power its operations. The Rwandan government has now done a deal with a US company to extract the methane, and use it to fuel a power station to provide much needed electricity. Removing the methane should make the lake safer, but there are worries it might itself cause an explosion, or harm fish stocks – an important source of protein for communities around the lake. Sipping a cold beer on the beach, its hard not to look out over the water and contemplate the chemical composition of Lake Kivu.

Painted advert for Primus beer in Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Painted advert for Primus beer in Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

There is little to do in Gisenyi, especially if you don’t have your own transport, but the friendly and relaxed vibe makes it a good place to recharge the batteries. Despite the fact that it is located on the border with the benighted town of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it feels very safe. I walked around day and night and never felt insecure. People largely just leave tourists alone, occasionally coming to say hello and to practice their English on you.

Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

This is a recurring theme throughout the country. After the genocide, the Rwandan government (with no small reason), blamed the French and Belgian governments for not only failing to stop the genocide, but of supporting those perpetuating it and assisting many to escape justice. In retaliation, the Rwandan government changed the national language from French to English, and have recently joined the Commonwealth (a group of nations that were formerly British colonies).

Rwanda also sees its future as part of an East African community, alongside English speaking Kenya and Uganda. From 1st January 2014, people will be able to get one visa which will be valid for all three countries. As a result, many people are now learning English, and being an informal tutor became something of a pastime for me as I travelled around.

Women with an umbrella, Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Women with an umbrella, Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Traditional fishing boats, Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Traditional fishing boats, Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

I decided to take a lakeside walk to the village of Rubona, about 7km from Gisenyi, where there are a couple of lakeside hotels to have lunch and take in the view. I thought I could walk on the lakeside road, until I reached an army roadblock – probably the friendliest soldiers I’ve ever met, all of whom were keen to practice English – and was redirected to a route which went over a large hill instead. On a hot day, the hill was a bit of a trial, but the effort was rewarded with panoramic views over the lake.

People board a boat, Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

People board a boat, Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Lunch spot on Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Lunch spot on Lake Kivu near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Rubona is a small place, but the lakeside setting was lovely. I had a late lunch of fresh fish and cold beer in the garden of the Hotel Malahide Paradis, and, feeling particularly lazy afterwards, decided to take a motorbike taxi back to Gisenyi. The driver turned out to be homicidal. At one point I thought we were going over the edge of a cliff into the lake, but he got me back in time to see a sublime sunset from Gisenyi’s main public beach.

Sunset over Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Rwanda, Land of a Thousand Hills

Perhaps the most bewildering thing about Rwanda, is just how ordinary and normal it feels when you travel around the country. It’s history, and the genocide which was perpetuated on its people, looms large everywhere you go. There are memorials to the dead in almost every village and hamlet in the country: inescapable reminders that, for Rwandans, there was no corner of their country left untouched by the brutality, no community or family that didn’t suffer death and destruction.

Yet, in this most exceptional of places, life continues to be lived in the most seemingly unexceptional way. That says a great deal about the resilience of Rwanda and Rwandans.

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Rwandans don’t want to forget what happened in those murderous days in 1994, when a deliberate and terrible wave of violence was unleashed across the whole country. They certainly don’t want the international community to forget what happened here. The same international community which stood idly by, passively allowing the genocide to claim the lives of nearly one million people. Men, women and children, old and young, were slaughtered by the military and Hutu militias, many tortured and killed in the most horrific manner imaginable.

Interior of the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, the clothes are those of people killed in the church, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, the clothes are those of people killed in the church, Rwanda, Africa

Shoes of the dead inside the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, Rwanda, Africa

Shoes of the dead inside the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, Rwanda, Africa

If the genocide defines people’s perceptions of Rwanda, Rwandans also want the world to know that their country is much, much more than just that one catastrophic period in its history. Talking to people as you travel around the country is humbling, and every person I met had a thirst to know where I was from, what my life was like and whether I was enjoying my time in their country. Some people talked openly about the family members and friends they lost in the genocide, but mostly it seemed inappropriate to ask too many questions.

Rwanda landscape, Rwanda, Africa

Rwanda landscape, Rwanda, Africa

View over Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

View over Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Women sit by Lake Kivu, Rwanda, Africa

Women sit by Lake Kivu, Rwanda, Africa

There is a wealth of information – news stories, academic research, biographies, histories, documentaries and films – detailing Rwanda’s history and descent into genocide. The film, Hotel Rwanda, is one of the more moving accounts; and the book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, by General Roméo Dallaire, the UN Commander in Rwanda, is a startlingly human account of someone forced to witness the genocide first-hand without the power to prevent it.

In Rwanda, its impossible to avoid the legacy and memory of the genocide, but this wasn’t the reason I wanted to visit. A friend had returned from Rwanda and her description of the country and its people fascinated me, made me want to understand it better. In the end, it was the opportunity to see one of the most iconic of all creatures on this planet, the Mountain Gorilla, that tipped me over the edge into booking my flights.

Baby Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Baby Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Beach on Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Beach on Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

A couple of weeks isn’t a lot of time, but Rwanda is a small country with probably the best maintained roads in Africa. Travelling is easy and quick, although if you want to get to some more distant places, hiring a 4×4 is probably the best idea. The thing that struck me most about Rwanda, is just how beautiful and verdant the countryside is. Although it is hard to escape the fact that, in this tiny country with a growing population, almost all the available land is already used for agriculture.

This is important. Land rights were one of the hidden causes of the genocide, and competition for land and water could cause future conflicts. Its also important because some of the last remaining wilderness areas are under serious threat from agriculture. This is putting pressure on the habitats and animals which could be the source of a tourism boom; while the loss of trees for firewood and to clear land for crops, could severely effect the watershed.

View over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

View over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

Rwanda is addressing these, and many other issues, with limited resources, but from my experience it is looking to the future with confidence. Although it’s involvement in the conflict and theft of natural resources in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, casts a long shadow over that future.

Sunset over the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Travelling around the country though, Rwanda struck me a stable, safe and welcoming. It certainly deserves the name the Ministry of Tourism has bestowed upon the country – Land of a Thousands Hills. There are hills everywhere, including the volcanic Virunga mountain range, home to mountain gorillas which roam across the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. It was a journey I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.