A Magical Night on the Ferries of Lake Kivu

Why you should care

It’s a bucket-list trip to a peaceful corner of a war-ravaged nation.

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A dream once haunted a man who lived on the slope of a mountain on a tropical island overlooking the sleeping waters of Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At daybreak, on the peaceful waters of the lake, joyful fishermen in wooden canoes paddled in rhythmical cadences, their victorious melodies bringing home both tired muscles and their nighttime catch to fish vendors waiting on the bank. These fishermen were extremely content crossing the waters of Lake Kivu.

This sparked the man, Paulin Kirusha, into action to spread the joy of traveling on this lake to locals and visitors. “The island of Idjwi was isolated from the city of Bukavu and Goma,” he explains, and the journey to the cities, in canoe, boats or old and poorly maintained state-run ferries, was “unnecessarily long and perilous.” Kirusha’s first attempt at a modern ferry in 1989 was unsuccessful, due to lack of capital. But it inspired other entrepreneurs who created ferries from imported materials with improvisation and some local ingenuity — and despite working in difficult circumstances such as unreliable power supply, lack of government funding and wars.

From where we started and where things are now, you can only say that it is a beautiful story.

Paulin Kirusha

Two decades later, the dream has revolutionized water navigation on Lake Kivu. Comfortable and stylish ferries now allow people of this war-ravaged part of the Eastern Congo to create sweet memories here — from bridal parties taking pictures of breathtaking sceneries on their wedding day to memorable employee retreats, from friends gathering to enjoy the charming thrills of the lake to partygoers enjoying a nighttime of dance and karaoké music à la belle étoile.

The dream of Kirusha and other entrepreneurs is giving a new narrative to the Kivu region — one of innovation. “From where we started and where things are now, you can only say that it is a beautiful story,” Kirusha tells me. The ferries are “all locally made by young Congolese engineers who have spent many years learning the art of ferry making. It is a true testimony of the innovative spirit of this region.” And these creative minds are now eyeing other lakes in the region to develop fishing and transportation ferries along Lake Tanganyika, between Congo, Burundi, Tanzania and Zambia.

It’s also improved the lives of the people of Bukavu, Goma and their surroundings, providing safer, accessible transport to Africa’s “forgotten island” — and creating appeal to international tourists. Idjwi Island offers a wealth of ecotourism activities — from visits to pineapple, cassava and coffee plantations to hiking and nature walks. You can also canoe to surrounding islets and villages and meet with local communities, or learn a few dance moves under the coaching of indigenous pygmy communities.

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Fishermen on traditional boats head back to Bukavu after a night of work spent on Lake Kivu.

Source FEDERICO SCOPPA/Getty

Catch a local ferry, such as the Emmanuel I, II or III. Enjoy a sunset ride on Lake Kivu in the cooling breeze of the calming lake. Or wait until evening and marvel at the vast sky and its breathtaking constellations of stars — while a DJ charms you with Congolese rumba and ndombolo and you sip a locally brewed beer and sample regional delicacies (order bugali and sambaza fish!). You won’t forget the lush green scenery that awaits you at sunrise and the warmth of the people along the way. And be sure to watch for the smiling faces of fishermen with their spellbinding songs.

Go There: The Ferries to Idjwi Island

  • Length of journey: Typically three to four hours from Goma and two to three hours from Bukavu. Map.
  • Ferry ticket prices: $15 to $25
  • Best time to travel: Between May and September. There is less rain and it’s mostly sunny throughout these months.
  • Pro tip: Organize your trip in advance with local travel agencies to avoid being taken advantage of.

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