Kayonza is one of seven districts found in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. The district is divided into twelve smaller administrative areas known as sectors. Covering an area of 1,935 km², Kayonza is home to more than 340,000 people.
While visiting Kayonza, I indulged in community-based tourism and experienced life in rural Rwanda. In addition, I had unparalleled ecotourism and cultural experiences. Last but not least, I sojourned in exotic resorts and sampled home-grown coffee. Without further ado, allow me to break down my experiences in this beautiful district.
Imigongo Art Center
Upon arrival, I had breakfast at Imigongo Art Center. Breakfast was followed by a brief meeting with Charles Ashimwe, the co-founder of the center. Charles believes in the power of art as a mind stimulant. "Art triggers our creative acumen and divergent thinking, thus boosting our overall productivity." He told me.
When I was done with Charles, I approached Dolph Kayinkore, an artist plying his craft at the center. Dolph was busy painting a rhino. His inspiration came from the role wild animals play in attracting tourists, who in turn, buy his paintings.
It has been thirteen years since Dolph started painting for a living. He worked in different art centers around the country before settling in Kayonza. His colleague, Bonfils Ngabonziza was painting his client’s portrait when I poked my nose into his business. Like Dolph, he had stints in different art centers elsewhere before taking his talent to the Eastern Province. His label can be seen on different paintings displayed at Ivuka Art Center, Niyo Art Center and Morocco’s Association Arkane Casablanca.
There was a third artist who was deeply immersed in his work. I resisted the temptation to talk to him because I didn’t want to interrupt his flow of ideas. The three of them collaborate under the umbrella of Rural African Art, an initiative affiliated with Imigongo Art Center.
Four other artists, including two women, were creating imigongo products on the other side of the gallery. Imigongo artisans create frames on which patterns are drawn. The sketches are then developed into pronounced geometrical features. Materials used are cow dung, ash and glue. After polishing, a layer of paint is added to the mix. Their creative work requires specialized skills and attention to detail.
Before I left Imigongo Art Center, I asked Charles to recommend the second stopover of my unscripted tour. He mentioned the Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center.
Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center
Located along the main Kigali - Rusumo highway, Urugo Roadside Café attracts travelers in need of coffee and quick bites. The café is also popular with tourists en route to the neighboring Akagera National Park.
Stopping by this roadside joint will most likely tempt you to spend your money on more than aromatic beverages and snacks. Specialty food items, including yogurt, fermented milk and peanut butter are also available. These products are processed, packaged and branded by women from the local community. Their gifted hands are also responsible for the creation of a wide range of handcrafts displayed in the gift shops set up on both sides of the café.
The coffee shop and the craft market are outlets of the Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center (WOC). The facility was built by Women for Women International, courtesy of Bloomberg Philanthropies and other donors.
Women for Women International supports vulnerable women in post-conflict countries. In Rwanda, the nonprofit organization has groomed more than 76,000 entrepreneurs since 1997. The beneficiaries of the center’s hands-on training programs are equipped with practical skills, enabling them to utilize available resources and lift themselves out of poverty.
When it comes to the utilization of resources, Urugo WOC walks the talk. For starters, its roofs are structured to harvest rainwater. The collection of this precious resource is done by canopy rooftops and funneled to the underground cisterns through a network of pipes. A solar pump is used to propel the water to the tank and, eventually, dispatch it to users in different parts of the facility.
Training workshops are uniquely designed. The interior of the meeting room is creatively decorated. However, it was the site’s safari tents which attracted my attention. Deluxe camping has become a popular phrase in the travel industry lately. Also known as glamorous camping, or simply glamping, this trend fuses luxury and simplicity. It appeals to travelers seeking a camping experience without compromising the comfort of their own bedrooms.
Unlike traditional tents, the center’s deluxe ones have Wi-Fi, en suite solar-powered hot showers and verandas. With this upscale dimension of camping, luxury meets simplicity. Less is more.
Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center operates workshops from which the aforementioned products are produced. It is in those workshops where acquired skill sets are put to good use. In addition, many beneficiaries of the center’s training programs are currently running successful businesses in their respective communities.
Helping women to develop skills needed to transform available raw materials into marketable products has proven to be a game changer in the process of poverty alleviation. The empowerment of women is a prerequisite for the socio-economic transformation of societies. When enabled, women improve the welfare of not only their families but also their communities and the entire nation.
Akagera National Park
I visited Akagera National Park with a small group of fellow adventurers. Upon arrival, we bought permits, got briefed and hit the trail. We pursued the eastern route and drove along Lake Ihema’s stunning shoreline.
It was cloudy in the morning and sunny in the afternoon but average temperature was moderate throughout the day. Vegetation cover looked greener than your average Savannah.
Before embarking on a self-drive experiment, check the tread depth of your car. The treads shouldn’t be worn out. Your front and rear wiper blades must be working smoothly. Detect any possible air conditioner malfunctions and fix them before departure.
At some point, you will probably need to roll up your windows. There is a stretch which is home to numerous tsetse flies. Although the tsetse flies don’t pose any health risks, they sting and it hurts. It is advisable to apply repellents on your skin.
We opted to have this experience without a guide. The map we had bought gave us very clear directions. Besides, there were other vehicles in front of us. Getting lost wasn’t a concern whatsoever. I have to admit though, we would have learned more about Akagera’s wildlife from the guide. Hiring one is highly recommended.
The first non-flying animal we saw was an elephant covered in mud. From time to time, elephants and other animals roll over muddy puddles repeatedly. Wallowing in the mud has a cooling effect. It regulates temperature of their bodies.
We ate some sandwiches at the lakeside picnic area. During the lunch break, we spent some time looking at a score of hippopotami popping their noses from the water and crocodiles basking in the sun. To have a good look at these scary aquatic animals, you need a powerful pair of binoculars. Don’t ever get too close to the lake.
More animals were on the northern side of the park. The second half of the ride was slower because we spent a lot of time gazing at animals of all shapes and sizes. Giraffes, zebras, warthogs and a dozen species of antelopes were hanging out in groups. They took their time moving from one side of the trail to another.
Beware, animals cross the road at their own pace. No one has ever instructed them to look right, left and right again before crossing. Expect the antelopes, warthogs and the fast and furious predators to appear out of nowhere.
Animals are free to traverse the road as they wish. When we found a group of primates conducting a meeting in the middle of the road, we waited patiently. Those who were behind us did the same. Gradually, a line of safari cars was growing longer behind us. It felt like rush hour traffic back in the city. When you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t honk. Do not blast loud music either. Wild animals hate noise pollution. Besides, you don’t have any rights to disturb the bona fide residents of the park, especially when they are in an important meeting.
I saw this village while driving to Akagera and fell in love with it right away. At a glance, it looked like the location of my dream rural home. Since we were rushing to the park, I made a mental note to return for a familiarization tour.
When I finally returned, I was introduced to a local tour operator namely John Habihirwe. John is the founder of a company known as Village Walk & Bike Tours Rwanda. His business offers walking/cycling tours and camping. In addition, the company guarantees unmatched community-based and cultural experiences. 30% of the revenue generated by this venture goes directly to the community.
Through Hirwa Children’s Foundation, John’s tour company has built a school in a bid to transform livelihoods through education. The said school provides free nursery and adult learning programs.
"Our mission is to provide free high quality education, proper housing, healthcare and nutrition for the benefit of destitute children in the community. We are committed to helping them improve their living conditions and build a brighter future." John told me.
The school is still under construction. However, available classrooms are currently catering for sixty-five nursery school children and thirty adults. The latter are beneficiaries of a program known as Agility Literacy.
"Village Walk" is an excursion designed to enable visitors to experience the daily lives of Dusabane residents. Dusabane is derived from a Kinyarwanda word gusabana which can loosely be translated as getting together and connecting socially. A leisure walk around Dusabane will give you an opportunity to do some gusabana with members of the host community.
I chose to ride a mountain bike around the village. I did so while towing a beautifully designed trailer carrying my camping gear. While touring my beloved Dusabane village in style, I drew a lot of inspiration from John’s initiative and the community he loves dearly.
My experiences in this village showed me that you don’t have to be rich to make a difference. It’s not the size of your wallet but the size of your heart that matters.
Ever since, I have been visiting Dusabane frequently. I already feel like part of this community. Maybe, I have found the location of my rural home. It was love at first sight.
Akagera Rhino Lodge
As mentioned above, sojourning in exotic lodges was part of this tour. Akagera Rhino Lodge is one of them. I checked in late in the evening and had an ultimate outdoor dining experience.
In the morning, I stood on the balcony of my cottage and saw much more than the national park. For starters, the sight of Lake Ihema was breathtaking. This is the biggest lake in the protected area.
The greater wetland area is home to over 500 species of birds. The lake is surrounded by large seasonal and perennial swamps. This is the biggest protected wetland in Central Africa. It is an important source of drinking water for animals inhabiting the park and a remarkable waterbird sanctuary.
From my vantage point, I also saw Kagera River. This river is part of the upper headwaters of the Nile. Its tributaries are Akagera and Ruvubu rivers. Kagera empties into Lake Victoria. Along the way, it forms the boundary line between Rwanda and Tanzania. The upper curve forms the Tanzania - Uganda border.
Akagera Community Center
Before I left the area, I visited Akagera Community Center. My guided tour of the center’s museum and the entire premises was very informative.
Once upon a time, Akagera was much bigger than it is today. Land is not the only thing the park lost over the years. The size of its wildlife population and biodiversity also plummeted during turbulent years.
Settlements around the park brought forth a new kind of pressure. Population growth and the advent of returning refugees made it hard to control constant human interference with nature. Cases of poaching were common. In other scenarios, animals were killed because they preyed on livestock and destroyed crops. Conflicting interests in land ownership and utilization led to frictions between community members and the authorities tasked to protect the park.
To manage the inevitable animosity, policies designed to turn members of the surrounding communities into stakeholders were formulated. Through tourism, sustainable non-consumptive means of income were created for the benefit of the said communities. Parties sharing a common goal were unified to safeguard mutual long-term benefits.
Spurred by the growing number of tourists visiting the park, tourism became the driving force behind conservation efforts. Through revenue sharing, the government injects 10% of the park’s revenue into a wide range of projects designed to improve the welfare of the communities. This is done in order to further extend the economic benefits of tourism to the people and give them a sense of ownership.
Initially, law enforcers had to step up their game but co-ownership is what eventually became the game changer. Today, the community is at the forefront of conservation. It finally makes economic sense to protect natural resources as opposed to depleting them.
Through deliberate revival efforts, Akagera has regained its status as the home of the Big Five. In 2019, the park received more than 49,000 visitors and generated USD 2.5 million. That was a 25% increase in comparison to 2018. 2020 was projected to register record sales but Covid- 19 had other ideas. Despite the loss of revenue caused by the pandemic, the future of the park looks bright. The same can be said about its surrounding communities.
At Akagera Community Center, I gathered interesting information about Savannah wildlife. I also learned one or two things about beekeeping and low investment, high reward farming practices. I also spared a minute to mourn the loss of animals killed by poachers during that dark chapter in the history of Akagera National Park.
On my last day in Kayonza, I went to Jambo Beach and treated myself to the tilapia fillet specialty the place is known for. After the meal, I grabbed a drink and interacted with a couple of patrons doing business in the Eastern Province.
My plan was to return to Kigali on the same day but one thing led to another. I finally made a decision to spend a night there. Kayonza has a way of tempting visitors to stay longer and spend more.
Jambo Beach doesn’t offer on-site accommodation services. No rooms, no problem. I erected my own tent (literary) and slept in it. When I unzipped it in the morning, the view of the lake and the backdrop of rolling hills took my breath away.
After breakfast, I jumped on a boat and cruised in the vicinity. As I did so, I saw a flock of ducks gliding effortlessly on the surface of the lake. From the distance, they looked like little toys being pushed by the gentle wind.
When I returned to Jambo, I sat down in the garden and soaked up the beauty of the environs. Different species of birds, some of which I had never seen before, were minding their own business around me. One particular bird caught my attention. This creature has an orange beak, black crown and green feathers. Just when I thought I had seen it all, I saw a clown bird in a Halloween costume.
This tour created memories I will cherish for the rest of my life. As I always say, good things are meant to be shared — these recollections are no exception. Hopefully, today’s long post has aroused your desire to visit Kayonza.
The author is an adventurer on a tour of all 30 districts of Rwanda. His tour of Kayonza was sponsored by Imigongo Art Center, Silent Hill Hotel, Jambo Beach, Ihema View Campsite and Akagera Rhino Lodge.