Found in the Western Province of Rwanda, Nyamasheke District comprises fifteen administrative areas known as sectors. Eight of those sectors border Lake Kivu while the remaining seven sectors border Nyungwe National Park.
Every sector of this strategically located district touches a popular tourist attraction. Apart from contributing to the development of tourism, these attractions stimulate fishing, transportation, agriculture and entrepreneurship. From the lake to the forest and everything in between, the district is striving to unlock its economic potential.
While in Nyamasheke, I toured the area extensively and created lasting memories. As I always say, good things are meant to be shared, and these recollections are no exception.
I spent my first day in Nyamasheke gathering information and fine-tuning my itinerary. In the evening, I took a leisure walk along a beautiful lakeside footpath. The trail was paved by Ishara Beach Hotel. This hotel is also responsible for the establishment of my favorite man-made sandy beach in the area.
From the beach, I strolled along a walkway paved in a beautifully maintained garden. Farther ahead, I switched lanes and pursued a wider trail that led my steps to a creepy tunnel-like path. Minutes later, I was completely swallowed by nature. Down the throat, all the way to the stomach — this nature walk was out of the ordinary.
The designer of this structure is building a wooden family cottage where mother nature rules supreme. Here, I received a heart-warming reception from choirs of birds and teams of acrobatic baboons. Once completed, this nest will offer the ultimate wilderness experience to nature enthusiasts.
As I kept walking, the track got darker and darker. I didn’t see light at the end of the tunnel, literary. Turns out, this product is still under construction. Upon completion, there will be an outlet on the other side of the thick vegetation cover.
This nature walk was out of the ordinary
When my itinerary was set, I hit the road running. My first stop was Kamujumba coffee estate in Gihombo Sector. On my way to Gihombo, the view of the lake attracted my attention. I pulled over and spent a few minutes soaking up the beauty of Muzira Peninsula, Konyanamo Island and the backdrop of the surrounding hills.
Similar viewpoints are found in different parts of the Kivu Belt road spanning the distance of 200-plus kilometers from Rubavu to Rusizi via Rutsiro, Karongi and Nyamasheke. This scenic highway connects western Rwanda to DR Congo and Burundi. Apart from boosting tourism in the area, the road is stimulating trade significantly.
Downtown Rubavu lies on relatively flatter plains bordering Goma, the capital city and commercial hub of the North Kivu Province of DR Congo. From Rubavu, the terrain rises sharply towards the western edge of Gishwati forest in Rutsiro. At this point, the meandering tarmac slices through sprawling tea fields.
Karongi is known for its tranquility, picturesque islands and water sports. Escaping to this serene resort town is synonymous to reclaiming your lost peace of mind. The number of Karongi-bound visitors, running away from their stressful lives, is increasing rapidly.
Nyamasheke, on the other hand, is surrounded by Lake Kivu, Nyungwe National Park and the Congo Nile Divide. In addition, the district is blessed with several sites of historical and cultural significance.
The southern tip of Lake Kivu is at the border with DR Congo. The bridge connecting Rusizi and DR Congo’s South Kivu Province is constructed at the source of Rusizi River. The vibrant business communities of Rusizi and Bukavu have turned Kamembe Airport into one of RwandAir’s destinations.
The view of Muzira Peninsula and Konyanamo Island from the Kivu Belt highway
When I approached Kamujumba estate, I was awestruck by its beauty. From the distance, this picturesque piece of land looked like an island. After a closer look, I saw a narrow entry point connecting the hill to the mainland. What I thought was another tropical island, is actually one of those peninsulas embellishing the shore of Lake Kivu.
The estate is owned by Kivu Belt Coffee. If you consume this brand, the breathtaking peninsula is probably the genesis of the magic potion that kick-starts every day of your life. Coffee grown on this hill comes from paradise.
Kamajumba estate covers an area of nine hectares. Upon arrival, I joined plantation workers who taught me how pruning is done. Pruning is the process of removing all the unwanted offshoots at the bottom of the trunk. Following instructions from an experienced pruner, I chopped off dead, dry and unhealthy branches. Only the thickest and the healthiest branches survived. I also learned how to shade and mulch the crops.
Irrigation pipes and water storage tanks are set up across the estate. On one side, I saw Nyaruzina estate and Shyute Island. On the other side, I had a clear view of the KivuWatt gas extraction facility built on the Karongi side of the lake.
Kamujumba coffee estate
After my hands-on experience at Kamujumba, I went to Jarama washing station, where Kivu Belt Coffee processes its products. Founded in 2011, this company owns three plantations and two washing stations in the area.
At the washing station, I found out what happens between the cherries and the beans. We harvest cherries and brew beans. The transformation of cherries into beans is an intriguing process.
The coffee beans we brew every day are the seeds of the cherries I had harvested prior to the tour of the washing station. Upon delivery, the seeds are extracted from the fruits before drying.
Altitude levels, humid equatorial mist and rich volcanic soil create an ideal terroir for the production of high quality coffee. Kivu Belt Coffee is exported to the US, Europe and Japan.
Jarama coffee washing station
If you have been following this blog for a while, you are probably aware of my tea addiction. For the record, I consume more tea than any other drink, water being the only exception. I am not the only one. Globally, tea is the second most consumed drink behind water.
In most households, breakfast is never served without tea. As it was the case during the era of the Tang dynasty, this beverage is widely consumed for recreational purposes too.
Rwandans started growing tea in 1952. For a long time, this iconic crop has been one of the top-ranked generators of foreign currency in the country. Over the years, annual production has increased from 60 to 30,000 metric tons. Rwandan tea promotes the country abroad and transforms livelihoods back home.
While in Nyamasheke, I was given a tour of Gisakura and Gatare tea estates owned by Rwanda Mountain Tea. This tour made me acquainted with the entire process of turning green leaves into the product I can’t do without.
Gisakura tea estate
From Gisakura, I twisted the throttle and pursued the Kivu Belt highway towards Tyazo and Kibogora. At some point, I pulled over and spent a few minutes marveling at Lake Kivu and the surrounding landscapes.
After crossing Kanjongo, I took a right turn somewhere in Macuba Sector. What followed was an exhilarating off-road gradient that grew steeper and steeper as I piled up mileage.
My destination was Gatare Tea Company found in Karambi Sector. Karambi area borders Nyungwe National Park. Its grandeur of hills and the view of the best preserved rainforest in Africa took my breath away.
There are currently 24,000 hectares of tea and 18 factories in Rwanda. The growth of the highly organized sub sector has led to the formation of 21 cooperatives and a couple of companies providing outgrowing services.
Tea is grown on highlands and well drained marshlands between 1,500 and 2,500 meters above sea level. Highlands and well drained marshlands describe the land of 1,000 hills pretty accurately. No wonder the famed green plants cover tens of thousands of hectares in Rwanda.
As the country positions herself as an investment magnet, more and more chunks of land are expected to be converted into tea plantations. Rwanda Mountain Tea is at the forefront of this expansion.
When I showed up, I saw a number of newly cultivated hills and many more elevations covered by tender crops. Standing on the summit of the highest hill in the estate, I took a closer look at Mount Muzimu and the edge of Nyungwe National Park.
From my vantage point, I could also see Lake Kivu. Gleams of sun rays on the surface of the lake created a sight to behold. During sunset, the gentle waves illuminate and the sky glows. As I always say, Lake Kivu’s sunset is a spectacle you would want to witness one day.
Gatare tea factory
There is a story behind every cup of tea. The prospect of a seed, the resilience of a tender tree, the survival of shoots and the arrival of a bud. The journey of the Camellia sinensis plant is an interesting topic.
What happens when green leaves are delivered to the factory? Delivery is done at the green leaf reception, where a visual inspection procedure known as leaf analysis is conducted.
After the completion of leaf analysis, tea is processed in five main stages as shown below:
The first stage in tea processing is withering. This is the removal of moisture content from green leaves. At the reception, leaves usually register a moisture content of 80% to 85% depending on the weather.
Fresh leaves are spread out on ventilated troughs where excess moisture is sucked out. The exposure to air reduces humidity to the range of 65 - 70%.
At this stage of my study tour, I saw withered leaves being channeled through a machine known as a rotor vane. Then the said leaves were subjected to four levels of cutting. Some factories use a method known as Cutting, Tearing and Curling (CTC). In this case, the leaves spin on rollers fitted with sharp teeth that crush, tear and curl them into smaller pellets. Through rolling, the juice is squeezed out. The said juice aids oxidation during the subsequent stage.
Classification of tea depends on the degree of oxidation. This procedure determines the color, flavor, taste and aroma of the final product. As oxidation is effected, green leaves turn brown.
At the drying stage, steam is released from a powerful radiator. The leaves are then exposed to temperature levels of up to 130°C. Heating is regulated to ensure the required level of drying is maintained. This procedure further reduces humidity to as low as 3%.
At this stage, fiber components, stems and other unwanted fragments are separated from the batch. The two factories I visited use a sorter known as vibro screen. This machine classifies tea according to the sizes of its particles prior to final grading.
Tea comes in different types, taste and color. However, processing follows a similar set of methods, with minor variations here and there. After processing, the final product is packed, weighed, stored and dispatched.
Processing tea at Gisakura
After learning the main stages of tea processing, I was given a tasting lesson. Tasting is done in order to determine the quality of the final product. A number of factors lead to the differences in flavor and appearance. These include climatic conditions, topography and the degree of oxidation.
Also known as cupping, tasting is the best way to establish quality control. While processing is aided by different machines, tasting relies on the natural power of the tongue and other sensory organs.
My tea tasting training took place in the premises of Gisakura Tea Company. Following instructions from Stephen Wahome, who serves as the factory manager, I used a spoon to fetch brewed tea and slurped it into my mouth. While doing so, I puffed in some oxygen as well.
One sample at a time, I sensed the findings of my tongue’s taste receptors before spitting the liquid into a spittoon. The tasting experience gave me a better understanding of the criteria used by tea companies to place value on their products.
While in Nyamasheke, I had an opportunity to work in a traditional housing project and learn valuable lessons. My construction site was an extension of Kumbya Kivu Life Ecolodge, located in Kanjongo Sector. The facility is owned by a local investor determined to make a difference in his community.
In his 1943 paper titled Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham Maslow documented his findings on the topic of universal needs of society. The bottom-up classification, illustrated in the said paper, presented the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This widely discussed theorem recognizes shelter as a basic need.
Over the centuries, housing has evolved to suit the advanced needs of modern societies, but the traditional Rwandan house will remain a powerful symbol of cultural significance.
Our forefathers boasted advanced construction skills. Furthermore, they incorporated cultural norms into their designs. There was meaning attached to the dimensions, measurements and materials used.
The traditional Rwandan house is re-emerging in contemporary architecture. The designer of the Kigali Convention Center’s dome was inspired by tradition. It is encouraging to see the traditional house holding its ground amid the unprecedented Westernization of the construction sector.
Building a traditional Rwandan house
Kumbya Retreat Center
The history of Kumbya Retreat Center dates back to 1935 when the Alliance of Protestant Missions in Rwanda and Burundi was formed. A year later, a conference dubbed East African Revival took place in Rwanda.
The dream that ultimately gave birth to Kumbya Retreat Center was conceived in 1941. In 1942, missionary Hazel Adamson and his Kibogora-based colleague saw Gako Island while paddling their dugout canoe. They fell in love with the island and submitted a formal application to the government, which in turn, granted them permission to work on their project.
The acquisition of Gako Island was reversed in 1943 when Luella Brown of the Friends Mission convinced her fellow missionaries that Kumbya Peninsula was a better location.
Finally, their newly constructed center was launched in 1944. Two years later, the facility hosted the first edition of Kumbya Convention that attracted about 100 missionaries from Rwanda, Burundi and Congo.
Over the years, the center served as a place of relaxation, restoration and renewal for drained missionaries from Rwanda, Burundi and Congo. Coincidentally, when I showed up during this tour, I found a small group of salesmen who distribute imported products in Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo.
Like the old spreaders of the word of God, this crew of worn out traders turned to the center for relaxation, restoration and renewal. Different teams, different eras, same motive.
Kumbya Retreat Center
Perceived or not, thrill seeking involves an element of risk. When a thrilling experience turns on the testosterone switch, vision narrows, adrenaline kicks in and the heart rate shoots up.
At the Kumbya Retreat Center, guests indulge in thrilling activities. These activities include a swing that forcefully propels participants 100 feet into the air, above the surface of the lake. What follows requires advanced diving skills and prayers.
There are times during my expeditions when I find myself questioning my decisions — wondering what have I put myself into? The "what have I put myself into" moment is a near panic reaction I have experienced quite often while partaking nerve-racking activities.
I remember having that moment when I crossed the canopy walkway for the first time. This happened when I thought the skywalk structure was about to turn upside down, 230 feet above the ground.
Elsewhere, I felt the impact of a sudden adrenaline rush when my canoe was shaken violently at the whitewater stage of Mukungwa River. I had a similar reaction when I realized that I had probably entered DR Congo illegally while swimming from Karambo Peninsula to Karamari Island. I can go on and on mentioning situations that freaked me out and triggered what I refer to as the "what have I put myself into?" moment.
My first ever zip line experience ignited that reaction. Initially, zip lining sounded crazy, but I had seen crazier things before. I had seen people jumping out of flying machines in the name of adventure.
Before my first zip lining experience, my instructor performed a safety check and skyrocketed from platform to platform. I was nervous and almost changed my mind. My inner voice suggested it wasn’t a good idea, but I ignored that voice, gathered courage and took a leap of faith.
It felt like flying. As speed increased, the zip wire I was hooked to became invisible, further enhancing my flying experience. At some point, I felt like a plane wreck falling from the sky, about to crash and explode. It was a combination of thrill and fear of self-inflicted disaster. The landing part was scarier, but I had no problem whatsoever, thanks to useful landing tips from my qualified instructor.
At Kumbya Retreat Center, I entertained the idea of using the aforementioned swing to conduct the most terrifying diving experiment ever. I wanted to take another leap of faith but, this time around, my little faith failed me. I am a thrill seeker, but this was next level stuff.
Guests indulge in thrilling activities
Before I left Kumbya Peninsula, I canoed around Kirehe, Kihene, Tareri and Mushungwe islands. Some of these islands are inhabited. Their residents rely on boats to move from one island to another, and use the same mode of transportation during their frequent trips to the mainland.
Whilst most islanders use public motorized boats, some build or buy their own small canoes and paddle their way to the destinations of their choice across the lake.
Contrary to popular opinion, islanders are busy people. Some of them wake up at dawn and paddle their small vessels to different fishing spots. Then they buy fish from fishermen and proceed to the market.
Canoeing is physically taxing, but these experienced paddlers do it effortlessly. It’s amazing how easy their strokes look. I was surprised to see them traversing the lake without life jackets. I know their swimming skills are off the charts, but I thought the regulations enforced by the authorities elsewhere apply to them too.
Canoes are engineless. They are propelled by their users’ physical strength. Canoeing is healthy and environmentally friendly. This activity improves cardiovascular fitness and strengthens different parts of the body.
Canoeing is healthy and environmentally friendly
Before I headed to Nyamasheke, I visited the site of King Kigeli IV Rwabugiri’s court in Bumbogo Sector, Gasabo District. Upon arrival, I saw huge sycamore trees planted to support the king’s fence. It was at his Bumbogo’s residence where the legendary king wedded Queen Kanjogera.
After the discovery of his Bumbogo court, I picked up interest in his story. During his reign, King Rwabugiri built a formidable army and established a highly organized system of governance.
While in Nyamasheke, I stumbled into another site he called home. How many homes did he have? As I keep visiting different parts of Rwanda, I am sure I will set foot on more pieces of land he once lived on.
King Rwabugiri’s account of defense and conquest sounds like an excerpt from an action movie’s script. However, his story is not a mere blockbuster thriller. It is a demonstration of patriotism and utmost sacrifices.
King Kigeli IV Rwabugiri lived here in the 19th Century
Before 1973, Murwa was an island. It was separated from the mainland by the shallow waters of an area known as Mujabagiro.
"We used to walk to and from the other side through Mujabagiro while navigating the depth ranging from knee to waist levels, depending on one’s height." Says Hakizimana Lawrence, a resident of Murwa. "I was young and energetic. I remember carrying aqua phobic people on my shoulders and help them to traverse the Mujabagiro barrier without getting wet." He added.
As hinted above, Murwa was connected to the mainland in 1973. This happened when a dry path was built. The project, which separated the water like the rod of Moses, is the reason we can drive straight to Murwa today.
On my way to Murwa, I looked at the narrow Mujabagiro entry point and imagined how things used to be. One part of me wished Murwa was still an island, but I also recognized the need to remove the old logistical hurdle.
Murwa Island was physically connected to the mainland in 1973
Dressed by Ambara Uberwe
The only clothing items I had packed were waterproof motorcycle gear and sports apparel. Nothing else. While in Nyamasheke, I did a lot of adventure riding. I also observed my early morning workout routine.
Biking and sporting gear served me well during my 5-day Nyamasheke expedition. I thought I had everything I needed until my departure day when I had to do a presentation in front of the Mayor, the Executive Secretary and two Vice Mayors.
Preparing the presentation was as easy as chewing a piece of cake. That’s because I always document my travel experiences. There was one problem though — I didn’t have an appropriate outfit for a business meeting, let alone an encounter with top district officials.
It was Friday. On Fridays, officials in both public and private institutions tend to ditch their suits and ties in favor of a casual dress code. Even on a casual Friday, I wouldn’t walk into a boardroom donning a body armor protective suit or a pair of Under Armour sweatpants.
This wardrobe malfunction created a predicament I wasn’t prepared for. Luckily, my nosy-self had seen decent clothes in a neighboring shop. The shop in question is known as Ambara Uberwe, which means get dressed and look good.
I rushed to the shop less than an hour before my scheduled presentation. It was a few minutes past 8 a.m. The shop was still closed, but when I called the owner, he came to my rescue immediately.
What’s the moral of this story? Always pack a pair of corporate-friendly wear. You never know. It was a leisure trip, but there is a thin line between business and leisure.
The author is an adventurer on a tour of all 30 districts and 416 sectors of Rwanda. This tour was sponsored by Nyamasheke District, Exposure Digital, Elimo Real Estate and Tec Global Ltd.