Shared by both Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lake Kivu stretches 89 kilometers long, 48 kilometers wide, and 240 meters deep. Small towns and big cities line the shores, framed by the region’s famous rolling hills and towering volcanoes.
Canoeing in groups of three boats, Rwanda’s fishermen spend every night out on the crystalline water searching for sambaza (a fish similar to a small sardine) and tilapia. Though the profession is global, the process is unique to the region; the fishermen’s nightly journey across the lake, with their melodic songs and brightly lit lanterns, is truly captivating.
At approximately 5:00 p.m., the workday begins, as hundreds of fishermen row themselves to the center of the lake singing and whistling to keep rhythm with one another. “They sing for courage,” said boat driver Nelson Habimana when interviewed by Culture Trip. “The songs are sung only in Amashi, and only when fishermen are paddling in and out of the lake together.”
Amashi, a traditional language blending Kinyarwanda and some Eastern Congolese phrases, is spoken by few, and is mainly in use on Lake Kivu’s Nkombo and Idjwi islands.
“But all fishermen—both Rwandan and Congolese—know Amashi,” insists Habimana. “It is the language of Kivu fishermen.” Though the daily tunes are familiar, the songs are rarely the same, as new lyrics are blended with old.
Around 6:15 p.m., when the sun dips low, and fishermen have found their evening post, the captain begins to light the gas lanterns and places them on both the port and starboard sides of the center boat. The bobbing lights are familiar to all of Lake Kivu’s residents and visitors, as the lanterns dot the skyline far after the orange sunsets have turned to a deep midnight blue.
The light of the lanterns is used to attract the curious sambaza, who are then caught in the net that stretches underneath all three connected fishing boats. Though from afar it looks as if the three boats are distinctly separate, they are linked by flexible eucalyptus fishing rods.
Walking on the rods as if they were tightropes, the men dash back and forth to make sure the net is completely secure. Finally, and after several hours of waiting, the fishermen hoist the net in a process they will repeat up to three times throughout the night before returning to the shore.
Once the net has been reeled in, the sambaza are poured into glistening blue buckets. Using the light from cell phones and the nearby gas lanterns, Felicien Nsengiyaremye meticulously sorts the haul from the evening’s catch, throwing out damaged or rotten fish. “We caught forty kilograms yesterday,” noted a nearby fisherman to Culture Trip. Catching between 30 and 100 kilograms of fish daily, the men credit Rwanda’s long rainy season with their recent luck.
Unfortunately, however, this is not a lucrative business. The fishermen each make approximately 10,000 Rwandan Francs per month, equivalent to $11.50 USD. There are a lot of costs associated with this job—like renting the fishing boats and purchasing fuel for the lanterns. The small sambaza don’t fetch very much at the local market, and are sold, depending on the season, for between 1,500 and 2,000 Rwandan Francs per kilogram. Most fishermen hope to eventually own their boats one day, work on the family farm, or get involved with the lake’s burgeoning tourist industry.
Before heading back to the shore, Habimana asks one of the fishermen to fill a cup with sambaza for him to take home. “Fill it more,” instructs Habimana. “These are the really tasty ones.”
Though many fishermen are eager to take tourists out, this activity still remains one of Rwanda’s great hidden gems. As of now, it’s difficult to book night fishing in advance, but quite easy to make happen the day of. Simply ask local boat owners and guides in public spaces on the shorelines of Kibuye, Cyangugu, and Gisenyi about night fishing, and most will happily arrange it for you or direct you to someone who can. Hotels and guesthouses along Lake Kivu should also be able to point you in the right direction.
After agreeing upon a price and itinerary, meet your boat driver no later than 5:30 p.m. at the docks for a trip to the fishermen. The boat driver will likely wait while you spend between three and five hours on the fishing boats, and if you’re lucky, will accompany you onto the boats and act as a translator. While negotiating with your boat driver, expect to pay approximately 25,000 Rwandan Francs for the boat, and 15,000 Rwandan Francs to the fishermen. This is priced per group, not per person. Tipping is also always appreciated.
While out on the boat, remember that this is not a run-of-the-mill tourist experience—you’re sitting in on someone’s life and job. Take that into account, and while taking photographs, make sure to ask for permission, while also staying respectful and out of the way.
Night fishing in Rwanda is an absolutely enthralling activity when visiting Lake Kivu that few tourists to Rwanda get to experience. Hope for good weather, bring layers, take your camera, and get excited to witness Rwanda at its most magical.