Gisenyi, on Lake Kivu, Rwanda, 19.7.77
I posted letter no. 7 only the other day in Goma, which is also on L. Kivu, just a couple of km across the border in Zaïre. Goma, we found, is a pleasant town with lavish colonial villas set in large grounds, Castlecrag-style, on the edge of a large and beautiful lake whose clear waters stretch away to the horizon. It was on the old trade route from the plantations of NE Zaïre, across L. Kivu, then by rail to the Tanganyikan coast. It is also at 1485m (4,870 ft.) and has a Mediterranean climate - thus it was the haunt of the very rich. It once had the only lycée in all Zaïre, Rwanda and Burundi, since the rich like to send their children away from the malarial lowlands (Rwanda and Burundi are former UN Trust Territories, administered by Belgium after WW I when German East Africa was carved up).
Goma, early this year, was threatened by an eruption of the volcano Nyirangongo but the lava didn't reach the town. We clambered several km on foot up the still-warm lava flow (a brittle black crust like the skin on custard) and saw steam still issuing from one of the crevices which originated the problem. The bigger cloud- or mist-shrouded original volcano stands behind, the first peak in the Ruwenzori ranges that we crossed so painfully coming down from Beni. At one point they rise to 5,119m (16,690 ft), another example of perpetual snow on the equator.
We finished up our last few zaïres in the Goma pâtisserie, swam several times in the pleasant waters of the lake and camped beside it amongst the many mansions with their multiple Mercedes etc. There are still a lot of well-heeled Belgians in these places and one has an inkling of why they stay. Apart from the leisured ease, the climate is excellent and the insects few and bearable.
Yesterday we paid $5.50 each in hard cash for 6-day visas in Rwanda and pitched our tents here in the grounds of the Edelweiss Hotel, a sort of Swiss chalet, formerly a pension (in the '30s) for the aforementioned lycée and now run by a fat affable Belgian raconteur. There is a sandy beach (imported sand?) on the lakefront and multitudes of money-changers and floggers of skin rugs, cigars and rather awful carvings. I made the mistake of changing too much money too hastily at less than the best black market rate, and have now determined to eat a series of good and (relatively) expensive meals to use it up.
Last night we celebrated our driver's birthday in the Edelweiss at approx. $7/head w/o wine (which he paid for) and another such foray is foreseen for this evening. We had spicy soup, a cauliflower entrée, pork chops or lake fish with pommes frites, crêpes and Swiss rolls and coffee. Feel a better man for it after all those dehydrated meals. Apart from the food, the hotel provides the luxury of real sit-down toilets, of which we have made liberal use.
The "group dynamic" was such that our planned departure today never took place. Instead we have been swimming, washing and lazing in the sun. A couple of members of the group are rather fed up with travelling altogether and mope about with long faces. I myself would never choose group travel again where there was an acceptable alternative. It's too much like hard work, attempting to put up with everybody's idiosyncrasies and selfishnesses and laziness or officiousness, or sensibilities. There is v. little privacy (somebody is always clambering over your legs or asking you to pass something) and v. little free time (the jolting hours in the truck are only good for sightseeing and a little reading; pitching and breaking camp at unearthly hours takes a large slice of the day; meals and washing up another large slice; and cooking for 18 one day in five is a burden). In addition, you can't stop to take the photos you want, or stop and go as you please. I don't think I'd suit the army. Admittedly, though, most of our group try hard at making the thing work. If only some of them would learn a little more about consideration for others!
Rwanda is supposed to be densely populated and poor (though there is little evidence of it in this resort) with one tribe trying to blot out the majority tribe.I suppose it has an objectionable dictatorial régime like most other countries around here, though its present government is said to be more reasonable.You may have noticed that Mobutu and Amin, between them, have decided to rename L. Albert and L. Edward, respectively, after themselves. Not that Albert and Edward deserved to be remembered by posterity. While we haven't seen much evidence in our travels so far of real hunger and destitution (a few swollen bellies amongst the children), there must be an enormous population explosion under way in Africa. Most women seem to be carrying (one way and another) a couple of babies and have another string of small children in tow. Disease, tribal wars and slavery are no longer keeping their numbers down.
Today's shopping/cooking team came back with a good assortment of fresh vegetables (inc. cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes) as well as the usual tropical fruits (pineapples, bananas). Do you know "plantains"?: a large green banana-like fruit which is unpalatable when raw, but apparently quite good when fried. They are more common than bananas in these parts. It's our turn for cooking tomorrow, unfortunately.
Kigali 20/7. We are sleeping tonight in a school yard in Kigali, the country's capital. It is another of those unfinished "modern" towns with pretensions to importance, pleasant enough in its way. At least they have some fairly recent news of the outside world, and a post office and pâtisserie. We are planning to spend a couple of hours in town tomorrow a.m. early (while one of the Swiss explains to his consul why he can't return for his military service), then we take off along the 200 km (?) of sealed road to Tanzania (tomorrow p.m.?)
Rwanda is really a very pleasant country. We came over some beautiful mountain roads today, lined with eucalypts tinged with red from the dirt road. The scene could have been somewhere south of Goulburn, except for the careful cultivation of the high mountainsides. The locals, unlike in Zaïre, don't seem to mind having their photos taken (though one boy was careful to try to avoid having his sow photographed). I am too tired tonight (after cooking etc.) even to reread what I have written. Hope it makes sense.
In and around Rwanda are apparently the last known preserves of wild gorillas in the world, but of course we won't have time to go looking for them.