Pirogue & Shipmate

“… the man and his motorcycle finally reach Gisenyi. He orders a beer and sits down in a local bar along side the Kivu Lake shore. His eyes scan the horizon of the lake, while he nervously fumbles with a small paper. On that paper a name and a number are written. He calls the number. The voice on the other side confirms what he hoped for: His vessel is ready…”

Looking for a pirogue

Although preparation is not my  part of a trip nor is it my strong point, buying a boat is quite essential if you want to cross Lake Kivu. So 1,5 weeks before the planned departure it start to inquire if somebody could help me to find a boat. Lake Kivu is full of them so it can’t be that difficult to find one for a reasonable price? To make sure this last part comes true I need a Rwandese fixer. I get a contact from a friend in Kigali. The contact is Sylvain. He lives and works in Gisenyi. The first phone call is a bit awkward:

Me: Hello my name is Carl, I’m looking to buy a boat in Gisenyi to paddle to Cyangugu.

Sylvain: So what kind of motorboat did you have in mind?

Me: No, I want to row to Cyangugu. As a matter of fact I’m looking for a traditional pirogue

Sylvain: So, you want a kayak?

Me: No, I want a traditional pirogue

Sylvain: (Silence) But why would you as a muzungu (white person in Kinyarwanda) want a pirogue?

Me: I want to cross Lake Kivu just like fishermen do!

Sylvain: No fisherman crosses the lake with a boat like that! You’re crazy. I can look for a motorboat?

Me: Nope thanks

Sylvain: (laughs) I have no idea why you want to do this but I will help you. Give me a few days and I’ll fix something! 


A few days later I get a message from Sylvain: “I found someone, you want a boat for two or eight?”. A tough choice but in the end two seemed enough, I don’t really have any desire to start a cruise company on Lake Kivu.

So a few days later, on Palm Sunday, I’m enjoying a beer along the lake side and then Sylvain shows up.

He is what you would call a Gisenyi beach boy. There’s almost no beach but even on the slightest patch of sand next to water there are always beach boys. He’s the kind of guy that knows everybody and everybody knows him. Greeting everybody, shaking hands it feels like I’m on the road with a pop star. Sylvain works as a salesman for the biggest beer producer in Rwanda. This might partially explain his popularity, but he’s also just a very nice guy.

He greets me and takes the chair next to me. He looks a bit annoyed. I ask him what the problem is.

He points at my beer: “That is my problem”. I realize a bit to late that I’m drinking my favourite Rwandan beer, unfortunately also the biggest competitor of Sylvain’s brand.

With the risk of getting drunk while I still have very important business to take care of, I order another beer. This time I choose the right brand. Sylvain gives me an approving smile.

For some reason Sylvain tells me there are 200 bars in Gisenyi and he knows all of them. I’m very impressed. There is an instant connection!

After the usual formal small talk, we start to talk business. Sylvain says he found a fixer and a boat. Nope, It’s not abnormal in Rwanda for fixers to have subcontractors. Although Sylvain is not really a fixer, he’s just a generous guy that likes to help people with idiotic plans.

me and Sylvain

We jump in his company car. We follow the shoreline for a bit. Just outside Gisenyi, next to a fisher cooperative we find our fixer and hopefully my soon-to-be boat.

After an easy bargaining, I buy the boat for 80.000 RWF. It leaks a bit a lot but the seller promises to fix it… with cotton! I’m not completely convinced. On the other hand, I don’t have any experience with fixing boats, so i trust him…

Looking for a shipmate

As the boat should become a definite check, it’s now all about acquiring a shipmate. Why take a shipmate? Although crossing Lake Kivu alone would be very heroic, it’s also quite dangerous and just foolish. With a second person in the boat you can go double as fast (that’s at least what I suspect), you can sing songs together and if your boat sinks you’re at least not the only one drowning.

I send a message around in a few Kigali-based Whatsapp groups. Everybody thinks it’s a brilliant idea, yet no real volunteers sign-up. I don’t know where I lost most people. Was it at the words paddle, traditional, pirogue or crossing Lake Kivu? The fact is I only receive one proper enthusiastic reaction: Olivier, a French speaking Belgian. I’m from the Dutch speaking part.

I accept his candidacy, taking in to consideration that it might become a very interesting social experiment to import the Belgian language community problems on to a two square meter piece of wood that more or less floats on a lake in the middle of Africa.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s