In the very heart of Africa, between Rwanda and D.R. Congo, is a silvery, majestic lake framed by breezy palms and sandy shores. Beside her sits an angry old volcano, at his top sits a lake of red hot lava.
Because the volcano’s lava would now and again spew down his slopes and swallow forests, people and their towns and because the lake was pretty, tranquil and full of fish, the volcano always believed he was more powerful.
But the angry volcano was mistaken; the lake’s beauty hid a terrible, fearsome secret; in her dark depths, she harboured a force which if disturbed, would be more deadly than the fiery volcano with his flows of red molten rocks, could ever muster.
(This post is part of a serial blog post called Letters from the Heart of Africa. Details and a table of contents can be found here.)
Rwanda was ideal for short escapes and my spare weekends from work at the Memorial Centre were filled enjoying this pretty country – a short drive west and we’d be in a safari watching giraffes and hippos; to the north-west and we would be climbing volcanoes and come face to face with rare mountain gorillas who knuckle-walked past us, giving us curious looks. To the west, was the spectacular Lake Kivu, 1,000 square miles of freshwater, one of the Great Lakes of Africa, in the East African rift valley.
I had taken a bus three hours west from Kigali with Sam, a colleague at the Centre who looked after the youth section of the Aegis Trust. We passed distant smoking volcanoes and stunning hillly passes, and saw from our windows some of the grinding rural poverty in the country, of mud-huts and nights lit up with smouldering wood fires.
We took a morning walk along the lakeside at Paradis Malahide, the distant hillsides piped with dark green contours of ploughed land and bristly trees; fishermen paddled along in small wooden boats.
If you were to close your eyes and walk down the promenade at Gisenyi, smells of sunwarmed eucalyptus trees would fill your nostrils; the screeches of bats suspended on high up branches, and lapping waves would fill your ears, and then there might be the sound of children’s laughter.
We walked down a lane going south towards the water’s edge and a group of children, smiley and curious, followed us. Here, the children unweighed with legacy, unfettered by self-consciousness, are full of confidence with strangers, especially conspicuous foreign ones which all across East Africa are termed and summoned by the word muzungu. They asked me for money, sweets or pens as children across the world are inclined to do to tourists. Everything was good natured.
What I found more interesting was how they behaved with each other when they were at a distance from me. It was a special interaction indeed; their older siblings, who themselves were just seven or eight year olds, looked after two year olds, carrying them on their backs, holding their hands; in many developing countries, responsibility for a young child often rests with an older sibling who at a tender age shoulders the maturity of someone much older; while mother and father might be at work, the child is a young carer, a mentor, a playmate, a teacher, a listener and they may have long quiet chats sitting opposite each other, on the ground or on a log, in an inter-personal dynamic I had never seen before then.
They took us to a pleasant picnic spot (for a small fee, of course) where steaming hot springs and a smell of sulphur wafted through the bulrushes. A Belgian man with a pot belly and sunburnt head was boiling eggs on a china plate in the hot spring – he was blowing his hands to cool them down, not sure whether to save the eggs or his fingers.
Sam and I walked along the shore and watched the fishermen cast their nets from a wooden boat.
“Y-at-il des hippopotames?” I asked.
“Non, meme pas Gustave,” he replied.
Luckily for us Lake Kivu had no dangerous animals but in the next lake south, Lake Tanganyika, they boasted the ‘A-lister’ of crocs. In these parts, everyone had heard of a legendary crocodile called Gustave in the neighbouring country of Burundi. 18 feet long and over 2,000 pounds, he has killed hundreds of people; he has bullet holes and wounds in his body; he is the Loch Ness Monster of the northern shores of Lake Tanganyika, but unlike Nessie, he actually exists. And unlike Nessie, his celebrity carries menace.
Gustave the crocodile is part of African folklore. He has even evaded capture from a trap, outsmarting his potential captors and taking the bait (a goat) in the process. I can’t help thinking that perhaps some of the reason such a monstrous reptile has caught the public’s imagination, is that instead of having a terrifying name like Genghis or Gnasher (or Crusher or Grinder or Chewer) his name is simply Gustave, a moniker given to him by a Frenchman, who has been studying him for over a quarter of a century. (Gustave makes me think of a bespectacled intellectual, perhaps a Bohemian philosopher of cafe culture, who wears Tweed jackets with leather elbow patches and smokes a pipe. Apologies for the followers of my blog who are called Gustave.)
Incidentally, in Africa, it is the hippos to watch out for – they kill more people than crocodiles. They are occasional carnivores and nearly always in a bad mood, ready to overturn boats or charge at people, especially if people get in the direct line of their route to water.
Crocodiles are more honest in that sense. They look evil and they are evil. Hippos on the other hand, with their bulbous snouts and eyes, their pot bellies, look rather comical and soppy. Why do cartoon hippos wear tutus? Children across the world don’t play Hungry Crocodiles, they play Hungry Hippos. Why? Because we humans think they look cute; it is what psychologists call anthropomorphism, when we humans put our own characteristics on an animal.
With their dung-spraying and mucous-lined skins, I find hippos rather foul. And as for their breath…
We walked north up the lakeside boulevard, under flaking eucalyptus trees till we reached the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly called Zaire) where beyond the checkpoint, was the town of Goma and 20 kilometres to the north, the slopes of a vociferously active volcano called Mount Nyiragongo. It had a picturesque cone, shaped as if a giant hand had pinched a fine piece of silk upwards, painted it brown and green, creating fine furrows and pleats down the sides.
In 2002 Mount Nyiragongo erupted and the ensuing lava flow covered much of the town of Goma and subsumed the airport making aid drops impossible. Fortunately the lava stopped short of entering the lake which could have initiated a catastrophe of massive proportions as I’ll explain later in this post. 147 people were killed and 400,000 people fled across to Rwanda. You can’t outrun the lava of Mount Nyiragongo – it has low silica levels that give lava a melted-molasses like texture – it boasts the fastest lava flows in recorded history at up to 60mph.
It was possible to climb the mountain in two days, where trekkers would be able to peer down at the red lava lake at its top, and warm their faces in the night-glow. Paradoxically, the safest place to be when this volcano erupts is at the top, for the lava flows down defined channels, and as the top is not plugged, it would not violently explode sending up a plume of rocks and ash.
I would have loved to have climbed it, but for VSO volunteers like myself – the DRC near Lake Kivu, like the border with Burundi, were considered strictly off limits as being too dangerous.
We had brunch at the Kivu Sun Hotel overlooking Lake Kivu. Rwanda does five star luxury so well; I ordered eggs benedict and a teapot of Rwandan tea. The buffet table was filled with French cheese, slices of melon, papaya and European hams. We ate with a view towards Lake Kivu, a blue swimming pool, sandy beaches, and sun umbrellas. It could easily have been Southern France.
It was panorama of extremes. Across the lake on the horizon, were the hilltops of the Kivu Province of DR Congo, one of the most dangerous places in world, war-torn and ravaged, the unrelenting problem child of Africa. There, under the forest canopies lurked dangerous armed groups, guerrillas and militia in an incessantly troublesome conflict of complex loyalties and motives lasting decades. Even Rwandan and Congolose soldiers have clashed as Rwanda claims that perpetrators of the genocide still take refuge in Kivu Province.
Dark clouds appeared as we ate, and soon the rain came in; Kivu Province appeared darker and even more brooding.
In the afternoon, as the clouds started to clear, we walked along the beach; a speedboat cut off its engine and drifted on to the lakeshore. A man jumped off it.
“Do you want some exercise?” he asked us.
I thought he wanted to give us a ride but he just wanted us to help drag his boat out of the lake across the sand.
We helped Omri and Gabby, two sun-bronzed Israeli engineers, drag their speedboat up the sands. They were contractors working on a platform of steel girders and pipes in the centre of the lake, that resembled a small oil rig.
“It’s a methane extraction platform,” explained Omri. “The bottom of the lake traps lots gas and the platform extracts this for generating electricity.”
Deep within the lake he explained, sat billions of cubic metres of methane and carbon dioxide, kept down there just by the pressure of the water.
Lake Kivu poses a risk of a rare and extreme form of natural disaster known as a limnic eruption, or lake overturn, when gases deep inside a lake violently rise to the surface. Only twice in recorded history has it ever happened and the last (in 1986 in Lake Nyos in Cameroon) a large cloud of carbon dioxide suffocated 1,700 people in a catchment up to 25km from the shore and causing a 100 metre high tsunami.
Two million people live around the area of Lake Kivu which has a 1,000 times more gas than Lake Nyos. Anything could disturb the gases in the lake. A volcanic eruption, an increase in gas pressure or a lava flow. Such is the precarious juxtaposition of the shimmering, tranquil lake and the angry volcano.
After I left Rwanda, degassing of Lake Kivu started in 2010; I hope they can degas it all safely; Rwanda doesn’t need a second apocalypse; I hope electricity lights up the lives of people who live there and I hope Kivu can increase electricity generation (up to 6 times some say) and once again powers the national brewery in Gisyeni.
I hope those are Lake Kivu’s gifts to Rwanda and her neighbours: more light and more beer.
It was late Sunday afternoon and we had work on Monday morning – 8.30am start sharp back at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. From the bus, the clouds looked to be dispersing as wisps of blue clouds drifting towards a pink sunset.
Lake Kivu, beautiful and darkly enigmatic, destroyer or saviour, shimmered once gain. Her gentle waves appeared to wink in a secret semaphore, her fearsome power.
For a table of contents on more episodes from the blog series Letters from the Heart of Africa, please click here