It’s about 8:30am as set out for my Ibyiza by’u Rwanda (the beauty of Rwanda) tour. After about five hours drive from the clean and green capital—City of Kigali—am spellbound by the natural wonders of crystal blue waters of Lake Kivu.
Behind Rwanda’s largest water body overlooking the lush forested hills that cover the picturesque landscape of Mushonyi in Rutsiro District… lies a sad story.
“Don’t… don’t take another step; do you want to commit suicide!” A young boy in his early teen years, who only identified himself as Kwizera, shouted over his voice as he attempted to ward me off dangers of drowning. His memories over a colleague, who drowned few days back, are still fresh; his face portrays a sad story.
“Aho ni kure cyane, ntamuntu uhajya; ejobundi Hubert (not real name) namubujije kuhagera aranga… yahise arohama,” the depressed Kwizera told me, loosely translated as “it’s deep there… no one goes there; the other day I told my friend Hubert not to swim from there, he refused and he drowned.” The youthful Kwizera tells me he was there that day to pay tribute to his deceased friend.
Kwizera’s tale made me go deeper on the life of children living near water bodies.
The ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ boosts of 34 water bodies; 21 inland lakes, three others—Kivu, Rweru and Cyohoha—shared with DRC and Burundi, ten lakes in the gazetted Akagera National Park as well as River Akagera.
I took a boat cruise across to the shores of Lake Kivu in Nkora, where I met Esperance Mukarutabana; she shares the same sad story of his son Olivier Nishimwe, who drowned in November last year.
On the other side of the lake in Kaguriro, we find a group of about 20 pupils swimming. The story is still the same. The pupils recall their colleague, who also drowned in November last year.
“Hari ku cyumwero tuza kwoga, agerageza gukura umusomyo biranga ahita arohama (it was a Sunday when we came to swim, he tried underwater diving and ended up drowning),” one of the deceased’s Level Three classmates at Maziba Primary School, recalls.
The tale is shared by Ferdinand Bukedusenge of Cyiramuruzi Sector, Gatsibo District whose 11-year son drowned in Lake Muhazi in the morning of January 26, as he went to fetch water.
The boy, who didn’t know how to swim, tried to catch the jerrycan that had slipped from his hands. It was about 6am and alone, no one to come to the young boy’s rescue.
Down in Ngoma District, Ladouce Nizigiyimana recalls two children as young as 10 years, who drowned in Lake Mugesera. “They were looking after livestock and collecting firewood, they went to swim and when one tried to save the other, they both ended up drowning.”
Statistics by the Rwanda National Police (RNP) Marine Unit indicate that about 30 percent of drowning cases recorded last year involved children.
At least six out of ten cases of drowning in Lake Burera last year were also children. Five of the eight people that drowned in January this year are also children.
But who’s to blame?
Andre Bizimungu, the chairman of COPAC, a coffee cooperative on Gishamwano Island in Lake Kivu, believes that parents are not doing enough.
“In September last year, a boy drowned; he had left home early in the morning and parents realized that their child was missing the following morning when they were called that the body of their son has been retrieved from the lake. That’s a high level of irresponsible,” says Bizimungu.
He adds: “Water incidents are different; you will not lose a leg or an arm like road accidents… you either survive with no injuries or die but higher chances are that you will die and parents should understand that, prevent their children from playing with jaws of death.”
“What would you expect at this time of the hour (7 pm) with those children still outside there with no one attending to them and their parents are actually feeling comfortable at home in absence of their children,” Theoneste Bahati, a fisherman at Lake Kivu says as he points at about eight children swimming in Lake Muhazi.
“These are challenges we encounter everyday—children playing in the lake even on deep and dangerous shores. We are now working with marine in warding them off but also sensitizing neighbouring communities on protecting children from drowning,” Bahati says.
To Aline Mukamwiza, a fishmonger at brasserie on Lake Kivu, the drowning cases and redundancy of children made her take action.
“A child that wanders on this lake will never study… will not have a future, and my son had taken that wrong direction; his performance at school was at its lowest as he could only attend class once a week spending other days fishing and wandering here,” she says
“I took a bold decision as a parent; his only duty is to go to school and he has improved in performance from almost the last student in class in second term last year, to excel to the fourth position and promoted to Primary Four.”
However, communities residing near water bodies and fishermen say cases of drowning and children playing in water bodies have tremendously reduced due to increased Police marine operations and awareness.
By comparison, according to statistics from Police marine, drowning cases reduced by 32 percent last year compared to previous year.
At Lake Burera, for example, no drowning case that has been registered since the beginning of this year, although close to 100 substandard boats have been seized.
According to Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Elias Mwesigye, the Commanding Officer of the Police Marine Unit, preventing child drowning falls under their day-to-day duties especially through awareness.
“Majority cases of drowning are caused by the inability to swim, swimming in undesignated and dangerous areas, others are overpowered in the process of rescue, unattended children and parents who send children to fetch water alone even when its dark,” the CO said.
“As Marine, teachers, communities and fishing cooperatives we are working together to find safer options; we are saying that children should use specified safer shores for swimming, have specific hours for fetching water where elders under the community arrangement, will be there to ensure the safety of children and intervene in case of any incident,” ACP Mwesigye says.
The marine unit was established in 2005 to ensure safety and security in water bodies including enforcing water traffic regulations, search and rescue operations in waters, combat illegal fishing and protection of marine environment.
The Express News