Get To Know Rwanda’s Twin Lakes With a True Muturage

Article from the series: Attractions of Rwanda, western Uganda and eastern DR Congo

I am Rukundo, a Twin Lakes muturage from Gitare Village in Burera District. This is where I was born and grew up, all the 27 years of my life, making me a real member of baturage. I did translation and interpreting at university — this is why I am teasing you with Kinyarwanda in my first two sentences.

The verb gutura means to live somewhere, so a muturage is one person who lives somewhere and baturage is the plural. In my language, the term baturage is used for locals, especially those who are not civilised. That means that we are not educated, updated, connected, WhatsApp users, or well-travelled … we are villagers, in short. We are not consumers, we are the makers. We don’t go to fancy places like good hotels and restaurants, coffee shops and other facilities for urbanites. Instead we produce our own things, like banana beer, sorghum beer, medicinal treatments and so on.

If you come to my village, eight walking minutes from the shores of Lake Burera, I will show you all that. Because by profession I am a tour guide. This job of mine happened naturally. I spoke some English, so other villagers would always run for me when there were foreign visitors around. That made me famous, and that’s how I met Miha when he first came to Lake Burera and was exploring the area around a fishermen’s house on the shores of my lake. That was a dozen years ago, and together we started putting Burera lake activities on the global map, always with a cultural touch.

That is easy for me because in Gitare, we still follow the old ways. When a woman gives birth we come with gifts of plantains, sorghum, maize, Irish potatoes and locally made beer. If there is a funeral, we bring our food and drinks with us and stay in the home of the dead for two nights, assembled at the fire and telling commemoration stories before and after the burial.

I have many stories for you, but today we have come together to learn about Lake Burera and its twin Lake Ruhondo …

RWANDA’S TWIN LAKES FACTS

Lake Burera

size: 12 x 8 km (7.5 x 4.9 mi)
altitude: 1,862m/6,108
area: 3,500ha/13.51mi2
depth: 173m/568ft
islands (6): Bihosho, Birwa I, Cyuza, Munanira, Bushongo, Mudimba

Lake Ruhondo

size: 9 x 3 km (5.6 x 1.9 mi)
altitude: 1,764m/5,787ft
area: 2,800ha/10.8mi2
depth: 65m/213ft
islands (10): Akakoreta, Akasilasi, Akanabole, Akabadakiranya, Akanyirantoki, Akibudende, Akokwarucuzi, Icabarihira, Mwegerera, Nyirabirori

The Twin Lakes are found in northwestern Rwanda, within walking distance from Uganda and the Virunga volcanoes. Separated by a stripe of mountains only 600m/1,958ft wide, they lie at different altitudes. The 98m/322ft is enough of a difference that a hydropower station can utilise it for creating electricity. The water comes through an underground tunnel that connects the lakes at a place called Ntaruka, introduced by the Belgians in 1959.

Lake Ruhondo

These days Ntaruka is a kind of an entrance to both Lake Burera and Lake Ruhondo. It’s the sightseeing area and the place where people park their cars when taking boat rides. From here, visitors head to the Ruhondo swamp that is great for seeing cranes, blue spoonbills and other birds.

Further away, there is Ruhondo Beach Resort at the tip of the peninsula that almost cuts the lake in half. The Beach Resort is accessible by road as well — a more straightforward solution if you are coming from Kigali. Catholic nuns also run the pretty Foyer de Charite retreat centre on that side of the lake, not exactly a guesthouse but you can ask for permission to stay.

Being a Lake Burera man, I don’t consider Lake Ruhondo as beautiful. However, it is more productive in terms of fish. Because it is shallower than Burera, it’s easier to cathch Tilapia here. The lake is also the site where Rwandans from all around the country are taken to learn how to work as one, how to love their homeland and how to develop it. A patriotism centre, in short.

On the way back to Lake Burera, we can stop at two lodges that are perched on the hills between the two lakes. Virunga Lodge is the expensive option, Byiza is more affordable (but not enough for me). Both hotels offer panoramic views of both lakes.

… Let us shift our attention to the lake of my birth.

Lake Burera

I have created a boating and hiking trip called Fisherman’s Fortune that we can use as our general program in exploring the lake. The islands of Lake Burera are much more prominent and developed than those of Ruhondo, so we will do some island hopping first.

Unlike Uganda, Rwanda doesn’t allow dugout canoeing for anyone but fishermen. There were tragedies on the lake with locals falling out of their tiny boats, and the government decided to forbid canoes. There is a marine police unit that patrols both lakes and also checks on life jackets, possible contraband from Uganda, and the number of passengers in boats. Another role of the marines is to oversee the buffer zone. No permanent construction is allowed up to 50m/164ft away from the lakeshore, to avoid damage to the environment.

The biggest island and the only one with a village is Birwa I. It even has a primary school! Unlike the dwellers of other islands who were moved to the mainland by the government to get them closer to schools, hospitals and other infrastructure, the inhabitants of Birwa I are proud of what they have and want to stay. They have great craftmakers, talented dancers and crafty banana beer producers. (There is no Birwa II — don’t ask me why!)

We talked about Cyuza Island during our Online Picnic (see the video above), you even had the privilege of listening to my local expertise in the recording, so I don’t need to say much about it. It has a budget-friendly campsite and complimentary kayaks available.

Munanira is the island of fishermen almost exactly in the centre of the lake. I arrange lunch for my clients here, that includes silverfish, a maize flour meal, pumpkins, avocados and plantains.

FISHING ADVENTURES

Gaspard Ngendahimana, 51, has a strong entrepreneurial spirit. He used to fish on Lake Kivu when he heard about Lake Burera from his big brother. He decided to come have a look. Equipped with nothing more than a lamp he discovered that Burera had plentiful indagara, tiny fish that are a popular dietary supplement, especially for little children. Gaspard built a couple of boats and a home at Burera, and now lets indagara pay school fees and otherwise support his family. Pictured above: the night fishing tourism experience we run together.

After checking on the three major islands, our boat will be turning to the northeast, to the base of a hill called Mweru. The magical king of Rwanda, Ruganzu, left his footprints there and even walked on water to the other side of the lake, to an area now notorious as a Nyabingi centre. Young girls would be sacrificed over there to appease the goddess. Even worse, people would take pregnant but unmarried girls to that side and throw them down the Rusumo waterfalls, as a mortal punishment.

On the northern end of Lake Burera, a related story can be heard under the Miracle Tree. Women who never managed to get a husband and were getting nervous about their advancing age, would hug this tree at midnight, naked. And it worked! It’s not fiction, oh no — I have testimonials to support it.

We will wind up our tour of the Twin Lakes with a connection back to where we started. Do you still recall the Ntaruka power plant? Do you think it was erected by the colonial administration to help the people? Of course not! It was necessary to support the wolfram mine next to my village.

Most of the youth in our area are not as educated as you would expect because they end up in mining professions. They follow their parents into careers that are easy to get but aren’t very lucrative.

My own grandfather worked for the whites underground, but I have decided to work with them on the surface. Being a muturage guide in the stunning Twin Lakes territory has given me global connections, confidence — and sometimes even some small money, ha ha.

photos by Marcus Westberg and Miha Logar

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