Lake Kivu sits on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC). It is surrounded by deliciously green hills, every last inch of which is cultivated with sorghum, maize, beans, potatoes, tea, bananas, bananas, and more bananas. The soaring mountains of Volcanoes National Park, and their famous inhabitants, the mountain gorillas, watch over the lake from the north. Countless little villages dot the Rwandan shore, perched beside a hellacious dirt road running north to south (and zig zagging along the shore in every other direction imaginable).
We had an incredible week along the lake – relaxing along the picturesque, island-studded shores of Kibuye; learning about village life from our friends Lodz (doing research at a district hospital) and Victor (running an orphanage for 50 kids); and gasping at views from atop the UNHCR truck that picked us up after our absurdly overstuffed bus broke-down (thank God!). One day was particularly memorable.
Wednesday is market day in Mugonero, and everybody knows it. They even know it across the Lake in the DRC. Along Lake Kivu, bananas are the staple of both the local and the daily bread. The bazillion bananas cultivated along the Rwandan shore are apparently just not enough. So, every Wednesday the intrepid Congolese climb into their dugout canoes with loads and loads of supplemental bananas and make their way to the Muganero Market. Some people told us it takes them three hours to paddle across the lake. Others said eight. Who knows. But by eight this morning they were arriving. And they were singing! By chance, we found ourselves in our own little dugout canoes, paddling in involuntary circles around the long, thin finger bay that points straight to Muganero.
Boats came in like an aqueous parade. Some dugouts had just three or four people, while bigger wooden boats carried up to twenty people. Generally four guys paddled. Fast, like you imagine the Hawaiians in their outriggers. The paddlers chanted melodic rhythms keeping their strokes in perfect harmony. Sometimes the passengers chanted as well, singing a haunting, lilting melody that echoed off the steep hillsides and filled the fjord-like bay. They stopped to chat in Kinyarwanda, a language shared between Rwanda and parts of Congo, and apparently ranking only second (after Kiswahili) as the most widely spoken African language. We understand none of it, except a few of the many words shared with Kiswahili. Most notably we understand ‘uzungu’ — white people. And this word has a way of traveling across the water, or through crowds, or around the bends of mountain roads. As these boats approached us, we heard their song and heard their banter, and understood only ‘uzungu’. We paused to watch them. They paused to watch us. We laughed together — we at these boats with massive loads and barely an inch between gunwale and water; they at these white folks with sun hats, always going in circles.
We made it to the market, but not in our boats. We landed our dugout, hiked up the hill, hopped in a truck, and wandered among the masses who worked so much harder than us to get there. Apparently almost all of the produce sold at this teeming weekly market comes from Congo (and the used clothes from the US). But our uzungu eyes would never have been able to tell these Congolese vendors from their Rwandese counterparts.
All we can tell you about the people there is that they thought we were funny. A mass of children followed us around, creating a long giggling tail that wagged carelessly through the market pushing everything else aside. The regulars at the banana beer joints beckoned us in, and bellowed with laugher when we sipped their elixir through reed straws and reveled our disgust. Market ladies seemed to compete with one another in showing utter paranoia about our cameras, and everyone but everyone laughed out loud when they saw us eating our little fried cassava triangles out of a plastic bag. Ten for twenty cents.
We tore ourselves away after a while to enjoy a glorious hour and a half motorbike ride along the up and down and up and down of the road that skirts the lake. Stunning. We love Lake Kivu!