Covering 23 square kilometers, Nkombo is the biggest island I have ever visited in Rwanda. It is home to 1,800 natives who speak a dialect mainland Rwandans do not understand. The island is located in Rusizi District, Western Province.
When I set foot on Nkombo’s soil, I hadn’t planned any activities. I didn’t even know what experiences this island could offer. Upon arrival, I started strolling along the streets and felt the heartbeat of the local community. I walked from the dock towards the interior of the island without a slight clue of my destination. I pretended to be familiar with the area and acted like any other Nkombo dweller. I didn’t want to look like an outsider but Nkombo people stared at me like I was a strange creature from Mars.
As I wandered up and down the streets of Nkombo, I tried to blend in but failed miserably. Some kids called me Muzungu. I must be the blackest Muzungu ever created.
Nkombo dwellers are laid-back and none of them seemed to be in a hurry. Scenes of idle young men hanging out and teenage girls as young as 15 breastfeeding their own babies are common across the island. In the barbershops, radios are tuned to stations broadcasting from Congo in a mixture of Swahili and French.
When I saw the premises of Nkombo Sector, I walked in and spoke to a gentleman namely Justin who recommended a visit to Gisunyu forest. Following the directions he gave me, I proceeded to the forest on foot. As I made one step after another, islanders kept staring at me like I was an alien from another planet.
On my way back to the dock, I dropped by the workshop run by a cooperative known as Agaseke k’Amahoro. In this work station, a group of hard-working women were weaving their way out of poverty. I bought a souvenir and kept walking.
My next stop was a small kiosk a couple of houses away. I tried to buy drinking water but the only beverages available were alcoholic ones. The owner of the kiosk had been serving beers, wines and spirits to his esteemed customers for many years and none of them had ever attempted to buy water. Unlike aliens from Mars, inhabitants of Nkombo spend their money on real drinks.
Nkombo is surrounded by a number of relatively smaller islands. The virtual boundary line separating Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is only a few kilometers from the shore. The view of Bukavu in the South Kivu Province of the DRC is clear. The city is expanding rapidly but urban planning is evidently unheard of over there.
Notwithstanding my failure to fit in while visiting Nkombo, I left the island with several stories to tell, memories to cherish and encounters to reminisce.