There are 250 islands in Lake Kivu. 56 of them are found on the Rwandan side while the rest are in DR Congo. The geological composition of these picturesque islands is similar to that of the grandeur of hills surrounding the lake.
Over the past four years, I have visited a good number of islands in Lake Kivu and 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. In the spirit of sharing, I have compiled stories highlighting my experiences in some of those islands.
About a decade ago, my screensaver was a stunning image of Amahoro Island. I used to admire that image every day until it stuck on my mind and conquered my heart. Sadly, I wasn’t aware of its whereabouts.
Coincidentally, the first island I visited in Lake Kivu happened to be Amahoro. This happened in 2017 during the first week of the campaign. As my boat glided closer and closer, the island looked more and more familiar. It was my first time there but I had seen this picturesque piece of land on my screen countless times before. It took me a while to connect my old screensaver to the reality. When I finally did, my dream came true.
During one of my subsequent trips to Karongi, I visited Nyamunini Island. Also known as Napoleon’s hat, Nyamunini is a very steep hill. This cone-shaped elevation offers great hiking experiences and panoramic views of neighboring islands. From the summit, some of these isles look like little dots on the verge of being erased by the tides.
I used a kayak to sail to Nyamunini. A boat could have been faster but I needed time to bond with the lake. I love water bodies. Who doesn’t? Their power of attraction is irresistible and their soothing effect is seldom felt elsewhere.
While propelling my kayak to the French Emperor’s chapeau, I bypassed my beloved Amahoro and several other islands. These include Nyenyeri, Mukondwe, Shegesha and Mpangara.
Monkeys love bananas and so do I. They are social animals and the same can be said about me. We have a lot in common.
When I visited Monkey’s Island for the first time, its residents stole my bananas and gave me a negative first impression. Despite our similarities, we started off on the wrong foot.
While on this island, I left my boat unattended and started strolling around. Then I came across my favorite fruits and reaped what I didn’t sow, literary. When I returned to the boat, my bananas were gone.
I was angry with those little monkeys and felt like strangling them. However, that didn’t prevent me from returning to their island again and again. Each time I dropped by, I picked a few guavas. As I did so, they stared at me defiantly.
I held a grudge against them for a long time. Little did I know that they were also victims of theft and I was the culprit. Unbeknownst to me, I was stealing from them too. The guavas I was harvesting whenever I invaded their territory belong to them. I don’t condone their behavior but I should remove the bean from my own eye before I see the speck in their eyes.
The realization that I was equally guilty made my reaction questionable. I opened my eyes and saw the need to devise a conflict resolution plan. At the end of the day, sharing bananas did the trick. We have finally forgiven each other and put our differences behind us. After all, our similarities outweigh the genesis of our dispute.
Lately, we have been sharing not only my bananas but also their guavas. Sharing has the power to turn foes into friends. Last time I paid a visit, my hosts’ negative vibe had been replaced by a friendly reception. Their hostile facial expressions had turned into warm welcoming gestures — their way of saying, mi casa su casa.
Monkey’s Island is not as popular as the neighboring Nyamunini and Amahoro islands. Hikers prefer Nyamunini while picnic enthusiasts frequent Amahoro. Whether you are an avid hiker or a picnic lover, an encounter with monkeys is highly recommended. Remember to pack some bananas.
After the tour of Karongi, I visited Rusizi. While in Rusizi, I chartered a boat and sailed to Nkombo Island. Covering 23 km2, Nkombo is the biggest island I have ever toured in Rwanda. It is home to 1,800 natives who speak a dialect mainland Rwandans do not understand. I didn’t plan any activities prior to boarding a boat to the island. That’s because I didn’t know what Nkombo has to offer. Upon arrival, I strolled along the streets and felt the heartbeat of the community.
Nkombo dwellers are laid-back. They don’t seem 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 the DRC in a mixture of Swahili and French.
When I saw the premises of Nkombo Sector, I walked in and spoke to one grassroots official who recommended a visit to Gisunyu forest. Following the directions he gave me, I walked to the forest. Walking enabled me to observe and absorb more. As I made one step after another, the inhabitants of Nkombo stared at me like I was a strange creature from Mars.
On my way back to the dock, I passed by the workshop of a cooperative known as Agaseke k’Amahoro. Members of this cooperative were busy weaving their way out of poverty. I interacted with them briefly, bought a souvenir and kept walking.
My next stop was a stuffy 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 informed me that he had been selling beers, wines and spirits to his esteemed customers for many years but none of them had ever attempted to buy water. Unlike aliens from Mars, Nkombo dwellers spend their money on real drinks.
A few months after visiting Nkombo, I returned to Rusizi. This time my destination was Gihaya Island. On my way to Gihaya, the view of Kamarari Island attracted my attention. Its beauty can entice anyone yearning for a tropical getaway.
I was treated to a heart-warming reception by a group of women doing business under the umbrella of a cooperative known as Noza Ubukorikori. They wake up at dawn and paddle their dugout canoes to different fishing spots. After buying fish from fishermen, they proceed to the market.
Delivering fish to the market is not the only thing these proactive women do. They are also traditional dancers. Entertaining tourists is a way of expanding their business portfolio and diversifying their sources of income. In addition, they handcraft and sell souvenirs to tourists.
Canoeing is physically taxing but Gihaya women do it effortlessly. It’s amazing how easy their strokes look. I was surprised to see them traversing the lake without life jackets. Yes, they are the best swimmers I have ever met but I thought the regulations reinforced by the authorities elsewhere apply to them too.
When I returned from Gihaya, I stayed away from the islands for a long time. It was until late 2021 when I set foot on another island. This time, I cruised to k’Abakingi Island in Rubavu.
This island is relatively flat. Its altitude level is lower in comparison to the surrounding islands. Covered by a mixture of riparian and forest vegetation, k’Abakingi is a birding paradise. The soothing melodies of talented birds and the sound of gentle waves blend perfectly to create the remix of my favorite song.
k’Abakingi Island is privately owned. It is ideal for picnics, camping and bigger events like weddings. One of these days, I will disclose the genesis of its unique name and fascinating history.
Barely 24 hours after visiting k’Abakingi, I propelled a small dugout canoe to Akeza Island. I indulged in this thrilling activity early in the morning. During sunrise, gleams of sun rays on the surface of the lake created a sight to behold.
One stroke at a time, I made strides while singing a song. I learned this song from Lake Kivu fishermen. Singing is not the only thing those who catch fish for a living taught me. They also showed me the importance of motivation, teamwork and patience.
When I made it to Akeza, I walked around and saw a bar and a campsite. Plans to camp on this island are underway. When that happens, you will be the first to know.
After a brief stopover on Akeza Island, I headed to Akarwa k’Abakobwa (Girls’ Islet). When I made it to k’Abakobwa, my heart bled. This is where our forefathers used to dump their pregnant daughters as a punishment for pre-marital pregnancies.
When Abashi men from Idjwi Island came to their rescue, the poor girls ended up in forced marriages under depressing conditions. With all due respect to my ancestors, I think they went overboard in this case.
Girls’ islets are found in different parts of Lake Kivu. So far, I have visited three of them in Rubavu, Karongi and Nyamasheke. They are as tiny as decimal points on the verge of being erased by the waves. The Rubavu one is rocky and devoid of vegetation cover. It looks like a heap of stones partially submerged in the water.
When was the island-dumping punishment adopted? For how long was it acceptable? What happened to Rwandan children born and raised in Abashi communities? Did they harbor any grudges against their maternal relatives on this side of the lake? I left this island with more questions than answers.
There is an interesting story behind every island in Lake Kivu. Some of these stories are legends embroidered in the folklore of the surrounding communities. They are conveyed from generation to generation.
The author is a travel enthusiast currently visiting all 30 districts and 416 sectors of Rwanda. Follow his awe-inspiring journey on Twitter @GeoExposure