At Lake Kivu Serena having fun is not a suggestion but the plan

Every country has its secrets but Rwanda doesn’t seem to have many. The only secret I know of about Rwanda are the street names that even locals have failed to learn since you only see things like KN 3 Av and not the usual Moi avenue or Luwum street. Nothing much else is a secret.

Gorillas cannot have family secrets since at some point in the year we are told which gorilla gave birth to which baby and on which date complete with all the names of the gorillas involved? The recently introduced lions also have names. Imagine being a wild animal but not being able to live anonymously. That must suck, right?

It is also not a secret that if you are trying to Google the “Rwanda + Fun” then you are better off just heading straight to the lake resort town of Rubavu. While in Rubavu you may wonder what to do with your time and money. Simple, the folks at Lake Kivu Serena Resort have had to answer this question so many times that their answers are no longer mere suggestions but plans as well.

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Even in Rubavu the Maasai can be seen doing their thing

Lake Kivu Serena is one place where your ‘what-to-do’ questions have detailed answers that are part and parcel of the hotel’s mission. While here, time will be your only enemy. You will wish it can be frozen for you to enjoy some more. You will want the sun to set in slow motion making the golden hour more like a golden evening.

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At your service

After an amazing breakfast at Kiyaga restaurant you can embark on a bike excursion around the town on the serene tree lined roads as the lake breeze makes its way to where you are. You can make stopovers at the two border posts with the Democratic Republic of Congo and marvel at the cross-border activity that happens here. Other places to stop at may include the market or the stadium.

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Biking on these roads is not exercise but therapy

You can also do the same tour in a car if biking is not your thing. Make it a point to visit the nearby hot springs and let the locals give you a foot massage with the warm water and some herbs to give you back that spring in your step. If you remembered to carry some raw eggs at the hot springs you can be sure to have them as a quick snack. Nature at its finest!

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A visit to the nearby  hot spring comes with being treated like royalty

In case you have had a heavy lunch because your eyes got greedy as you selected what to have on your plate then a game of beach football or volleyball could be enough to ease up the digestion. If the game turns into a disturbing reminder of how unfit you are then maybe you needed it or what you actually need is a relaxing massage before a boat ride.

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Play in the sand until you can’t see the ball

There is this cool dude called Eric at Lake Kivu Serena who is the go to guy for anything to do with water. No he is not a plumber. He is the guy with a call boat in case you want a boat ride on the Kivu or if you want to do some kayaking. Eric’s boat even has a music system which you are more likely to enjoy when he switches off the boat engine to explain something about the lake.

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Captain Eric on his glamourous boat

But who really gets on a boat for the music? Sit back in the leather seats and enjoy the breeze, the stunning views of Rwandan hills or the surreal view of Mt Nyiragongo in DRC as it goes about ignoring the ‘No Smoking in Public’ calls. This active volcano will smoke away without a bother in the world.

Mt Nyirangongo in DRC can be seen clearly while in Rubavu Photo Allan Brian Ssenyonga.JPG

No smoking in public! Says who? 

If mountain climbing is your thing then you can add it to your itinerary. There are also other options like gorilla trekking and embarking on the Congo-Nile rail. Whatever it is you have on your mind, Lake Kivu Serena delivers in being the place to go to or set off from. The beauty of it all is that they will do all the planning for you.

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Make the water your play space

You know I didn’t even have to write all this…I could have just summarised it all into the conversation below.
Me: I am looking for fun things to do in Rubavu

Lake Kivu Serena: Say no more!

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Red Rocks completes 5 successful years of cultural heritage preservation

Red Rocks Ecotourism Initiative — a Musanze-based social enterprise that works to preserve Rwandan cultural heritage and protect the country’s natural environment — will on December 24 celebrate its 5th anniversary.

With a humble beginning five years ago, Red Rocks Ecotourism Initiative has successfully driven its mission and today it’s one of the few social enterprises that are making a positive impact on rural communities in Rwanda.

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Excellent camping facilities at Red Rocks, Musanze

Believing that conservation is possible only when the involvement of local communities is given well-defined emphasis, Red Rocks Ecotourism Initiative developed their programmes accordingly, hence the organisation’s tagline, “Where cultural tourism leads to community development”.

Situated in Nyakinama village, about seven kilometres west of Musanze town, Red Rocks offers locally-guided packages combining camping, hostel accommodation and activities with cultural aspects such as basket weaving, homestays with local host families, storytelling, community walks, art and crafts and banana beer brewing, among others.

Monthly community events

Since its inception in 2011, Red Rocks has been organising monthly events such as the Cultural Talent Show, which aims to raise cultural awareness and enhance cultural dialogue; Seed of Hope Festival, which celebrates the planting season of the year; Summer Camp Festival, which offers the local community an opportunity to learn about nature, ecology and wildlife; as well as the now very popular Christmas Village Market, which offers locals and foreign visitors alike a memorable Christmas shopping experience in a rural setting.

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Locals taking part in the Cultural Fashion Show during this year’s Cultural Tourism Week

In fact, 2016 has been the most prosperous year for Red Rocks following successful monthly events such as the Cultural Tourism Week, which took place on September 28-October 2; the Banana Beer Festival, which took place in October; as well as the Heritage Preservation Debate, which took place in November.

When Sports and Culture Minister paid a courtesy visit

Red Rocks’ activities are so engaging that in November Julienne Uwacu, Rwanda’s sports and culture minister, was compelled to pay the facility a courtesy ministerial visit.

During her visit, Ms Uwacu, who was flanked by the acting mayor of Musanze district Jean Damascene Habyarimana, went on her knees and showcased her banana beer making skills to the amazement of hordes of locals who were present.

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The Minister of Sports and Culture (in white) touring Red Rocks, Musanze

“We really appreciate all that has been done so far, especially the spirit of working together with the local community… But as we discussed with the owner of this business, there’s a lot to improve. The conception of this village and the exhibits should be improved, and the information they give out to different visitors needs to be written and also well-explained,” Ms Uwacu told the media after her visit.

“We have promised to work closely with them to help avail some research about the social lives of Rwandans but also we can work with RDB and other government institutions to see how we can improve the level of our cultural tourism while doing it professionally.”

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The Culture Minister (right) taking part in the Banana Beer making process

Greg Bakunzi, founder of Red Rocks Ecotourism Initiative, echoed the minister’s remarks.

“I would say that the programmes we have developed are successful though we still need a few partners to come on board so that we can improve our products,” said the tour operator, whose organisation is now adding the Cultural Film Festival — which will take place between June-July 2017 — to its already impressive list of cultural events.

“The Cultural Film Festival will showcase locally-produced films that highlight the importance of preserving our culture,” Bakunzi says. “Most of the films that will be screened during the festival will be featuring local actors so this festival will help give them the exposure they need to take their acting careers to another level.”

Locals reap big

Bakunzi says that the local community has, over the years, come to understand the benefits of Red Rocks’ community events.

He says: “The locals get to sell their products such as baskets, clay pots, shirts made from local fabrics, bracelets, etc, to visiting tourists. Those who can sing also perform for tourists on weekends and get paid.”

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Visitors to Red Rocks can buy beautiful artifacts made by women in Musanze

To promote cultural music tourism more effectively, Red Rocks recently set up a recording studio from where locals can record their music at no cost. The recorded music is then sold to tourists who are interested in traditional Rwandan music.

And that’s not all.

“We have also started producing cultural films featuring local actors from Musanze, some of which will be screened during the Cultural Film Festival in June 2017,” Bakunzi concludes.

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Red Rocks Ecotourism Initiative in Nyakinama, Musanze district

 

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Why Dr Amina Mohammed is a formidable candidate for AU Chairperson

When African leaders converged for the 27th African Union Summit in the orderly city of Kigali in Rwanda, one of the answers they were supposed to deliver to the continent was to the question of who was to replace Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as Secretary General of the African Union Commission.

As a region, East Africa had presented Uganda’s Dr Specioza Kazibwe however, looking at the outcome of the Kigali summit, the region was compelled to present a stringer candidate for the post of AU Chairperson. Enter the more experienced and tested Ambassador (Dr) Amina Mohammed from Kenya. You may be asking yourself who is Amina Mohammed?

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AMB. (DR) AMINA MOHAMMED, EGH, CAV CABINET SECRETARY FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL TRADE OF THE REPUBLIC OF KENYA

Ambassador (Dr.) Amina Mohamed has enjoyed a distinguished career in the Public Service spanning over 29 years and stretching to cover a broad spectrum of domestic and international assignments. Her education, determination and hard work saw her rising through the ranks of the Kenyan diplomatic service starting off as a Legal Office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the highest level of Ambassador/Permanent Representative at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Kenya to the UN in Geneva.

She later went on to serve as the Permanent Secretary for Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs. She was then appointed the United Nations Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi.

As Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs, she supervised the drafting, negotiation and promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya (2010). While at UNEP, Amb. Mohamed spearheaded the implementation of UNEP’s Medium Term Strategy and Programmes as well as on-going reforms. She was actively engaged with intergovernmental processes in implementing the RIO+20 outcomes and support efforts to enhance the funding base of the organisation.

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Following her appointment as Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs and International Trade in 2013, Amb. Mohamed has demonstrated solid leadership and strong negotiation skills, which have seen Kenya re-position herself in the international arena. Amb. Mohamed has also been instrumental in the restructuring, reforming and rationalisation of Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Missions abroad, and chaired the team that drafted Kenya’s foreign trade policy.

More so, she has been influential in promoting Africa’s agenda in multi-lateral fora including in the World Trade Organisation where she chaired the 10th Ministerial Conference, successfully hosted in Nairobi. She continues to champion for Africa’s voice to be heard within the United Nations System through the proposed United Nations Security Council reforms, with Kenya as a member of the AU Committee of Ten on the Security Council reforms.

Amb. Mohamed was recently honoured by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as one of the four UNDP Champions for the year 2016.

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Amb. Mohamed holds a Master’s Degree in Law from the University of Kiev and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Humane Letters from KCA University and Honorary Doctor of Letters Degree from Moi University. She is fluent in English, Russian and Swahili and has a working knowledge of French.

Amina Mohammed is in the race for the Chairperson of the African Union Commission together with five other competitors; Botswana’s Foreign Minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, Chad’s Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat, Equatorial Guinea’s Foreign Minister Agapito Mba Mokuy and Senegal’s Bathily Abdoulaye a special United Nations envoy for Central Africa.

This time, East Africa has formidable candidate for the job in Dr Amina Mohammed.#Amina4AU

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At Lake Kivu Serena you deposit fatigue and withdraw relaxation

There comes a time in life when you concede that actually, fatigue seems to be taking over. You start going to bed and getting up feeling cheated, waking up still feeling exhausted just because even as you slept you still had a dream about that report you are supposed to submit but procrastination and distractions chose to camp at your desk for a couple of days. You feel drained by the hustle and bustle of your work life that some call the rat race (I think rats have it much tougher than us).

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Some of the views that you feed on while at the Lake Kivu Serena

It is at such times that you may develop cravings for an escape to a more refreshing space – a space where your comfort is not a dream but a priority. I am talking about a setting where you can shamelessly deposit your fatigue and withdraw only relaxation. Since we long agreed that water is life, the place we are looking for ought to be in a setting that abundantly exudes life. At Lake Kivu Serena all those boxes and more are ticked.

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Calm down and walk into the path of tranquility

This Serena does not only take a name from the amazing the lake it shares space with, the two are unreservedly resourceful and pillars of tranquillity that exceeds any known boundaries. The graceful Kivu is a source of not only fish but also the rare methane gas that is used to provide electricity and is shared by Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lake Kivu Serena Hotel located in the lake town of Rubavu (formerly Gisenyi) mirrors the same qualities and more. The Serena brand is very recognisable in the region of Eastern Africa and beyond for the fine experience that will leave you satisfied. This comfort gem oozes of tropical splendour surrounded with huge trees that magically give you a calm feeling as you walk in.

The hotel facilities were designed to literally spoil you with comfort at every turn. From your

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Exquisite comfort settings

room, you get to enjoy stunning views of the lake and the gardens but you will most likely step out to watch the sun kiss the water in the evenings for you to live that postcard moment in full. This you can do by chilling at the beach, in the gardens, at the Lake View Bar Terrace, Ziwani Bar or Kiyaga Restaurant. See, you are already spoilt for choice.

Breakfasts at Lake Kivu Serena are clearly etched in my memory given that when you sit out on the terrace of Kiyaga Restaurant lovely black and white wagtail birds occasionally show up as if just to say hello to a long lost friend before they fly back to where ever they came from.

Dinner at Lake Kivu Serena is always an exciting experience – one moment it is self service at a buffet of African dishes another moment graceful waiters and waitresses are taking your orders then there are days when you have an open kitchen where you pick out exactly what you want the chef to cook for you and it is all done as you watch!

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The open kitchen where yours truly partook in refining his culinary addictions

On weekends you have a band taking care of your auditory diet by serving a rich menu of sweet melodies of Rwandan songs, country music and of course Rhumba music. You can’t be that close to DRC and leave without listening to one of the country’s finest exports in the form of Rhumba. And please do not suppress your urge to pull a few dance moves once the music sinks into your bone marrow just before you retire to the comfort of your room.

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The live band serves a medley of tunes from across the region and beyond

There are both indoor and beachside bars and for those who love swimming you have the option of doing it in the lake with the fish or just at the swimming pool that also has a baby pool for the little ones. Children also have a play area in the gardens with a full time staff member to ensure they are safe and happy. Like other Serena facilities, the Maisha Health Centre is here as well in case you desire a good workout in the gym or a massage to relax your body.

By the way if you want to combine comfort with your hustle then Lake Kivu Serena has you covered with its dependable conference facilities. It is ideal for team building and retreats as well as conferences and trainings. There is a fully equipped business centre that offers secretarial services too. Talking about how great the wifi is in a Serena Hotel is like talking about how the hotel has water flowing through its taps – too obvious.

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The rooms are stunningly luxurious

And this is the part where you need to pay most attention; I honestly don’t know a better venue for a memorable wedding reception in the whole of Rwanda than Lake Kivu Serena where you are spoilt for choice on whether to utilise the beach area, the green gardens or the air-conditioned halls or a combination of all three.

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It’s understandable why anyone would hesitate to walk away from such beauty

 

With the festive season already here, this is one place where the only hard time you will have is leaving because the comfort levels are nothing short of addictive.

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SoFI2016: Rwanda was a worthy and deserving host

A few years ago, Rwanda set out to be a magnet for conferences as part of its grand plan to diversify the tourism away from the over reliance on the furry gentle giants that are Mountain Gorillas. 2016 has indeed been the year that this grand plan has blossomed into an amazing reality. The much anticipated Kigali Convention Centre came to life and literally lit up Kigali’s sky. Mega conferences like the World Economic Forum and the African Union summit came to town and travel book editors have had to update their books to include the new hotel brands that now have a Rwandan address.

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It came as no surprise therefore that The MasterCard Foundation chose Rwanda to host its fourth annual Symposium on Financial Inclusion at the exquisite Kigali Serena Hotel. However Rwanda was not chosen merely because it is now a major preferred destination for global, continental or regional conferences, the country brings on the table its own impressive credentials when it comes to Financial Inclusion in particular and development in general.

While countries like Kenya boast private sector led success stories on financial inclusion, in Rwanda the government is often the earlier riser and the pace setter. Therefore the second day of the Symposium on Financial Inclusion kicked off with a keynote address by Hon John Rwangombwa, Governor, National Bank of Rwanda sharing Rwanda’s financial inclusion story.

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John Rwangombwa, Governor, National Bank of Rwanda. /Photo The New Times

The event hosted by The MasterCard Foundation had brought together more than 300 experts on financial inclusion to share and learn from each other on how best to reach the remaining financially excluded people using a client centred approach. The gathering comprised of people from the academia, media, fintech, international development, government, banking and other related sectors.

The Governor started by reminding everyone that financial inclusion was prerequisite for inclusive growth. Indeed Rwanda had an impressive story to share starting with the commendable efforts that have seen 89 per cent of the population being able to access financial services either through formal or informal institutions. To achieve this impressive figure, Rwanda embarked on a number of strategies.

To start with, Savings and Credit Cooperatives (Saccos) were set up in each and every administrative sector of the country (Umurenge) and the government also established the Rwanda Cooperative Agency, a body charged with oversight of the activities of these Saccos. This move has proven vital in Rwanda’s target of increasing uptake and usage of financial services.

On the health side, Rwandans also benefit from a social health insurance scheme called Mutuelles de Sante with subscriptions at over 80 per cent while other have taken advantage of other health insurance schemes in the country. This not only improved financial inclusion efforts but has served as a source of envy to many African countries where access to medical care remains a challenge.

The Rwandan school curriculum also has an element on financial education to help Rwandans to understand, at an early age, the basics when it comes to personal finance and fundamental management practices on earning, spending, saving, borrowing as well investing. It was also pointed that leaders like mayors, all have key performance indicators on financial inclusion that they have to strive to achieve in line with their performance contracts each year.

There is also the amazing story of RSwitch, the first payment switch to attain interoperability in the region. It is a national E-payment switch with a domestic network brand that enables electronic payment settlements. Last year, RSwitch introduced an interoperable platform called Ihuriro to engender a seamless integration among all financial institutions. No wonder, Jean Claude Gaga the CEO at RSwitch reminded Patrick Buchan of AC Group that, “You are the feeder road to my highway.”

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Discussing the Rwandan Financial Inclusion story. /Photo Allan Brian Ssenyonga

Patrick Buchana, Founder and CEO, AC Group also had his moment to explain the challenges and opportunities faced by his startup company that provides ‘Tap and Go’ cards that are used by commuters within Kigali city. The card seeks to ease the life of both the passengers and transport business operators by simplifying the process of payment of transport fares.

Away from Rwanda, Dr Jennifer Riria, Group CEO of Kenyan Women Holding had the room infused with new energy thanks to her passionate presentation on the challenges and opportunities around women’s financial inclusion. Her most memorable line was “It’s not about financial inclusion but financial injustice.” According to her excluding women from financial services is nothing but an injustice and it should be addressed exhaustively.

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Dr Jennifer Riria of Kenya Women Holding. /Photo Allan Brian Ssenyonga

The main take-aways of the day were that leadership really makes a difference as shown by the assertiveness of the Rwandan leadership on matters concerning financial inclusion. It is also important to understand gender dynamics and ensure that women are not left behind on this journey if you are to achieve a holistic approach to economic development. At the end of it all, the contentment and optimism was quite palpable.

About The MasterCard Foundation

The MasterCard Foundation works with visionary organizations to provide greater access to education, skills training and financial services for people living in poverty, primarily in Africa. As one of the largest private foundations its work is guided by its mission to advance learning and promote financial inclusion to create an inclusive and equitable world. Based in Toronto, Canada, its independence was established by MasterCard when the Foundation was created in 2006.

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Financial Inclusion hinges on our understanding the client

In places like Africa, mobile money has been seen as the savior of the unbanked but the recent frustrating experiences of the same product in places like South Africa are proof that a one size fits all approach cannot work. It is proof that clients are different and need to be better understood for financial inclusion to flourish. Understand who the client is, how the client behaves and why the client behaves in a particular way is therefore very crucial.

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This was the premise that informed the two-day Symposium on Financial Inclusion that took place in Kigali Rwanda hosted by The MasterCard Foundation. The event brought together more than 300 experts on financial inclusion from over 30 countries to share experiences and lessons on how best to drive financial inclusion so as to cover the remaining population that is yet to access these services.

The role of financial inclusion in driving development and transforming livelihoods cannot be over emphasized. Insights on how those still left out can be given a hand to jump on board the financial inclusion vessel were shared extensively during the symposium. The room was indeed a boiling pot of brains from the academia, media, fintech, international development, government, banking and other related sectors. This was best seen during the coffee break where at every turn you would encounter a chat that cooled the coffee/tea as everyone got lost in picking another’s brain before another session could begin.

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Each session left participants with so much to mentally nibble on as they sipped their coffee during the break. /Photo Allan  Brian Ssenyonga

The ball was set rolling with a brain-stimulating address by Professor Eldar Shafir from Princeton University on how behavioural science can inform our understanding of the needs of poor clients or any client for that matter. How and why we arrive at the decisions we arrive at as well as our general behaviour is what Professor Shafir got everyone pondering about. With the year’s theme pegged to client centricity, behavioural psychology and partnerships the room was sucked into the mood for amazing deliberations from then on.

A live debate hosted by Nozipho Mbanjwa of CNBC Africa Television followed with the topic being “Deploying data to understand clients better.” The panelists who included Herman Smit of Cenfri, Rose Goslinga of Pula Advisors and Paul Kweheria of KCB Bank shared nuggets of wisdom on the ever evolving journey of financial inclusion. The panelists had great insight into the process of data mining and how it feeds into improved service delivery.

An all female panel later tackled the touchy issue of Client Protection. It was agreed that consumers need to fully understand their rights and obligations when dealing with financial services. The panelists derided those who try to hide this information from clients by hiding in verbose paragraphs or font sizes that put off the client in order to lure them into a den of ignorance soon after appending a signature to the dotted line.

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Financial inclusion is a waste of time if women are not part of the discussion. /Photo Allan Brian Ssenyonga

Nick Hughes of M-Kopa Solar had the audience hooked as he delved into the story of client centricity and the power of digital services drawing from his rich experience with the renowned M-Pesa and now M-Kopa Solar. The story of M-Pesa is regarded highly as far as innovation for financial inclusion is concerned. Its revolutionary impact on how we now perceive financial services and mobile phone handsets cannot be over emphasized.

The MasterCard Foundation also used the opportunity to award its second annual Clients at the Centre Prize to Hello Paisa for their innovative service that facilitates international money transfers for foreign works in South Africa. The US$150,000 prize seeks to reward the most customer-focused organizations working to ensure that poor people can access formal financial services and products. The winner of the prize was chosen by the audience who voted on the three presentations that also included Artoo IT Solutions and 4G Capital.

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The face of a winner. Ahmed Cassim, MD of Hello Group Financial Services. /Photo Allan Brian Ssenyonga

Day one ended when people were still craving for more deliberations because the discussion on financial inclusion continues long after the symposium. We all have a challenge upon us. Two billion people remain shut out of formal accounts at banks and other financial services providers while half of those with accounts do not use them regularly.

We all mustn’t forget the words of Reeta Roy, President and CEO of The MasterCard Foundation, “Financial inclusion is essential to improving the livelihoods of people living in underserved communities, and for advancing a country’s overall economic growth and prosperity.”

 

About The MasterCard Foundation

The MasterCard Foundation works with visionary organizations to provide greater access to education, skills training and financial services for people living in poverty, primarily in Africa. As one of the largest private foundations its work is guided by its mission to advance learning and promote financial inclusion to create an inclusive and equitable world. Based in Toronto, Canada, its independence was established by MasterCard when the Foundation was created in 2006.

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Getting lost in the Masai Mara

What would you do if you were moving in the middle of a game park and you were attacked by a lion? Do you run and climb a tree? Do you pick stones and throw at it? Maybe you put up a fight so that your ancestors can pat you on the back when you finally meet them, for not having been a coward at the final hour.

What about trying to bribe the beast with something to eat? Would that work? Isn’t that what the guys at the zoo always do? These weird thoughts filled my head when it became clear that we had lost our way in the Masai Mara soon after we had landed at Olkiombo airstrip after a short flight from Wilson Airport in Nairobi. The drive from the airstrip seemed smooth for a while until it became clear that our driver was not sure of which direction we were supposed to take to get to Olare Mara Kempinski, the luxury tented camp we were booked into.

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A signature welcome Maasai dance. /Allan Brian Ssenyonga

Saved by the brave Maasai

He tried to make calls to the camp manager but the telephone network in such places is often close to useless. As we meandered around we met these two guys riding a motorcycle in the park. The passenger was carrying a goat and we stopped them to ask for directions. They were quite helpful but I could not stop thinking of how crazy I need to be, to ride a motorcycle in a game park and in the Mara itself!

However these were not your ordinary motorcyclists. These were Maasai. Yes, the guys you see on YouTube videos stealing meat from a pride of lions and walking away with a swag or chasing and catching a cheetah alive before handing it back to Kenya Wildlife Society. These guys are born brave. I think when baby lions are being naughty, they are told to behave or else daddy will call a Maasai. So for them riding or walking in the park is the same as this writer strolling on Kigali streets.

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A herd of buffaloes just minding their own business. /Allan Brian Ssenyonga

We eventually got to the famous Olare Mara Kempinski and we were welcomed by a Maasai dance to further cement the fact that we were in Maasai land. Olare Mara Kempinski is a sister property to the exquisite Villa Rosa Kempinski Nairobi that prides itself in hosting all the big shots who visit Nairobi be it Barrack Obama or India’s richest man – Mukesh Ambani. We were given a brief tour of the facility and our bags were taken to our tents as we settled for lunch.

 

After lunch, we went for an afternoon game drive which to this day ranks as the best game drive I have ever had. Imagine seeing most of the animals after just driving for five minutes. We saw a pride of about eight lions, then we saw a leopard hiding up in a tree as well buffaloes and gazelles all going about their business of being wild. We returned to the lodge satisfied that we had seen more than enough on day one.

Simba’s heavy breakfast

The next morning we had a quick early breakfast and headed out for the morning game drive. It was a bit chilly and we were lucky once again. Our driver and guide, Rafael was alerted by a colleague that someone was having a heavy breakfast near a tree. The guys who work in game parks have this coded language they use to alert each other of where to find the big five so as not to waste time driving around in circles.

So we drove close to this tree and found the king of the jungle finishing up on his heavy breakfast. The lion was eating a zebra and we could see lots of hyenas, jackals and vultures all waiting patiently from a distance for the king to have his fill first. The lion later got up and walked just about a metre from our truck. You could cut through the silence and tension in the truck as the king of the jungle strolled away.

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The boss takes a stroll after a heavy meal. /Allan Brian Ssenyonga

 

 

We followed him closely until he found a puddle of water and took some sips before continuing with his lazy stroll. We later took a different direction and found a huge herd of elephants. The guide told us that because elephants are so huge, they spend most of the day and night eating only sleeping for about four hours.

On our way back we found another leopard hiding in the grass watching zebras passing by. It seemed undecided on whether to grab one or simply watch them go by and hunt another day. Leopards can be so elusive and therefore being able to spot two of them in two days was quite a good score on our part.

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In the Mara the animals can really be this close. /Allan Brian Ssenyonga

Olare Motorogi Conservancy

Olare Mara Kempinski is located in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, which is part of the Masai Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. The conservancy is managed by a board that has representatives from the Maasai landowners, tourism partners and donors to ensure sustainability and protection of wildlife and the environment in general.

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The usually elusive leopard was in no mood to hide. /Allan Brian Ssenyonga

The conservancy system has proved to be a great way to achieve sustainable tourism in an ecosystem that some think is saturated with visitors especially during the great animal migrations from Serengeti to Masai Mara.

Even in the wild customer service is key

The service we got while at the Olare Mara was out of this world. The manager of the tented camp was very helpful and understanding. He always asked if we were having a good time or if we needed anything. The chef, who for some reason was called Bishop, ensured that we got the soul food we needed for us not to go wild.

The facility even has a swimming pool. Do you know how good it feels to swim in the middle of a game park? Monkeys stare at you from a distance and wonder why you have no tail like them yet you look like distant cousins.

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Breathtaking sundowner with different drinks to extinguish your thirst. /Allan Brian Ssenyonga

To top up our experience was the sundowner where we drove out to a romantic spot where we sipped different types of drinks as we chatted and watched the huge yellow sun sink into the horizon. We were told that many visitors to the park use the spot to propose to their loved ones. How can she say no when you have come all this far and are now in the middle of the jungle with wild animals watching you?

The next morning we had a bush breakfast where everything is served and eaten while in bush. In fact a school of hippos was nearby making what I think were jealous sounds as we devoured our omelettes and sipped on spiced African tea. In the Mara you get lost in the wild and enjoy it fully. Indeed destination East Africa is where one can find such beauty spots.

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This is Olare Mara Kempinski! /Allan Brian Ssenyonga

PS: This story first appeared here http://www.newtimes.co.rw/section/article/2016-09-25/203841/

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Rwanda’s tourism menu is now a buffet situation

Restaurants can easily be categorised by the size and type of menus they have in place. I’ve been to quite a number and I am always fascinated by what they have to offer and how it is presented.

In some big restaurants you will be presented with a drinks menu, then one for starters another for the main course and lastly, one for dessert. I have also been to places where the menu has so many items that you have to flip through what looks like a children’s book. Oh! and we do have those that don’t trust customers with their menus. Instead they write everything overhead for hungry folks to crane their necks and read for themselves.

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The colourful sunrise as viewed from Akagera Game Lodge. /Allan Brian Ssenyonga

The ones that fascinate me the most are the low cost eateries. In here the menu is only to be found in the head of the waiter or waitress. It is often just a summary of what is left in the kitchen. You hear things like, “Hasigaye amafiriti n’inyama gusa” (We are left with only fries and meat). As if that is not bad enough, the waitresses will often return with more sad news. “The meat is finished too but there is sauce.”

If you really love food like I do, then you’ll agree that when you are really hungry all you want is a buffet set up. Over time I think it is safe to say that Rwanda has moved from the memorised brief menu to a buffet set up when it comes to tourism. About 15 years ago there was very little to say about Rwandan tourism besides the mountain gorillas.

Efforts were and are still being made by the Government of Rwanda to not only diversify the tourism sector but also grow it in all possible ways.

This last week I joined a select team of journalists from around the world to sample some of Rwanda’s tourism dishes. The journalists and communications professionals were selected from countries like South Africa, Kenya, Turkey, Uganda, USA and local journalists from the different media houses. There was also a media team from the East African Tourism Platform that included yours truly.

The City Tour

The first item that we sampled on Rwanda’s buffet was the city tour. The city tour is a great offering given the fact that most of what people outside Rwanda hear has to do with how Kigali is such a clean and organised city. Many see glossy pictures of Kigali city but remain doubting whether it is real or simply the work of some smart graphics designer.

The city tour affords visitors a chance to slowly move around enjoying the neat and orderly city that Kigali is. They also get to learn about the history of the city and the country, the present and get an idea about where the country is headed.

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Rwanda Development Board’s Maurice Twahirwa briefs journalists before a tour of the Genocide Memorial Centre, Gisozi. /Allan Brian Ssenyonga

We toured part of Nyamirambo and the Central Business District before heading to the Genocide Memorial Centre in Gisozi for the vital lessons on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. We concluded the tour by checking out the Special Economic Zone where several industries are located.

Good tales from Akagera National Park

The next day we attended the Conversations on Conservation conference before setting off for Akagera National Park. We arrived at the park just in time for some sunset photos. Many just dropped their bags in the rooms and rushed to set up their tripods and cameras as the sun briefly posed for some golden shots.

After dinner, the park’s marketing guru, Sarah Hall gave us a presentation about the park and what African Parks (that manages the park) is doing. The park is on course to having the Big Five now that lions are back and already growing in number (fourteen if you are counting). White rhinos will soon be added to the Akagera menu as well.

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The famous Mtware, arguably the oldest elephant in the park.  /Allan Brian Ssenyonga

We got up early again to catch some stunning sunrise photos overlooking the lake from the Akagera Game Lodge before embarking on a day-long game drive with a brief picnic lunch. Akagera Park that used to have just one lodging facility – the Akagera Game Lodge, now boasts of the exquisite Ruzizi Tented Lodge as well as mobile camping facilities and plans for another facility are in high gear.

A park that was known for people – wildlife conflicts, now has a 110km electric fence and a resolute law enforcement team complete with a canine unit that keep poachers wishing they had other career ambitions. The park is also fairing well when it comes to conservation with animal populations growing each day and grey crested cranes being reintroduced into the wild using Akagera as their home away from the brutal domestication in the city.

Musanze the home of the money makers

We all know that tourism is a big cash cow for Rwanda but Musanze is where a lot of that money is made. After all, this is the home of the famous mountain gorillas. The next day had us setting off for Musanze at 4am. Here we were divided into two groups with some going for gorilla trekking while others went to trek golden monkeys.

Musanze seems like the main course menu on those multi-categorised menus. Not only is the place blessed to have the prized primates, it also has caves and other cultural sites that we got to tour.

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Dressing up in the right gear before you enter Musanze caves. /Allan Brian Ssenyonga

I enjoyed the caves experience most and I would certainly recommend it to anyone visiting Musanze. The highlight of the caves experience was that therapeutic moment when we all stopped somewhere and the guide told us to switch off our headlamps for a moment, to meditate in total darkness – literally, darkness at noon.

We ended the night by showing up at Red Rocks where Harriet Ingabire and her folks treated us to a marvellous cultural tourism experience. Red Rocks is not only about things from the past and camping. When it got really dark, there was nice music being played at their small club house. We honestly didn’t want to leave when it was time for us to do so.

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Our trip ended with us showing up to cover the 12th edition of Rwanda’s premier tourism event and a celebration of the country’s conservation success story – Kwita Izina at Kinigi with President Paul Kagame as chief guest.

A total of 22 baby gorillas were named at the event that was well attended by the people living near the park as well as conservation enthusiasts from over 28 countries.

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Journalists snap away at a school of hippos at Akagera NP. /Allan brian Ssenyonga

At the end of it all, one could tell that Rwanda’s tourism had come of age and the journalists will have lots of tales to take back home as they fly out of Kigali International Airport. Many will make a return trip to check out other tourism gems like Nyungwe Forest, Gishwati – Mukura forest, the Congo – Nile trail as well as the Lake Kivu resort spots of Rubavu and Karongi not forgetting Nyanza the cultural centre of the country. Rwanda is ready.

PS: This story first appeared here http://www.newtimes.co.rw/section/article/2016-09-04/203224/

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Ruhunda: A window into Rwanda’s living soul

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The golden triangle of civil society, business and government all in one picture

On several occasions I have mentioned to my friends who have not been to Rwanda that the best thing they can do is stop just hearing about the country and come see it for themselves. This is because often times those outside the borders of this country only get to hear of it in exaggerated extremes. Either that it is the worst place on earth or that it is the synonym for Utopia.

Yet Rwanda is like a living thing with challenges here and there but with a resolve not to let those challenges hold it back. When you come down here and see it, touch it and smell it you can then not only know Rwanda but also understand it. When such people heed my advice and show up or show up under different circumstances, I am always delighted to help them understand certain things. Not that I am an expert on Rwanda but having been around, I can fairly be of help or point to where help can be found when it comes to unravelling this enigma called Rwanda.

A few days back I was in the company of some wonderful Kenyans who did a good job in making me feel like a cheaper version of Google. I was asked all sorts of questions about Rwanda each time we were together. Some of the questions only elicited breath-interrupting laughter like when one of lady in the group turned to me and said, “Allan, I have been told that I look like a Rwandan, is it true?” Then there was this time when Naomi Mutua let her ‘Kenyanness’ loose and asked, “So if I opened a cupcake business here would it thrive?” Aki Kenyans, does it always have to boil down to which biashara you want to open?

Naomi was falling in love with Rwanda so fast that soon her questioning had moved from cupcakes to land prices, prices for apartments and whether there were even people like her in this place – people who love cats. Others were just silently sitting and enjoying the taste of a cold Mutzig beer as they waited to laugh at the next joke while also wondering why the music in this place we were sitting was not that loud.

I enjoyed answering most of the questions given that I have a faint idea about things in Kenya and a better one about Uganda so my explanations came with comparisons which I assume made for easy understanding. But the thing with Rwanda is that the questions never seem to end because the country has undergone such a dramatic transformation that one needs not to just see Rwanda’s face but also its soul.

For a face, Kigali clearly out does itself. The streets are clean and lit. The construction of new structures can be seen almost at every turn. The changes are hard to keep pace with even for those living here. One day you are idly counting the palm trees as you move on smooth roads only to realise that some of them have suddenly given way to a new roundabout just where they formerly stood and sang with the wind. Rwanda is a country on the move.

An hour out of city to the east, there is a place called Ruhunda Cell in Gishari Sector which is in Rwamagana District. In Ruhunda there is a flagship EKOCENTER project that was recently launched by President Paul Kagame together with the Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, Muhtar Kent. They were accompanied by the famous Rev. Jesse Jackson. If you don’t know him, Google does.

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This is Spar… I mean, Ruhunda

The good fellows from Atlanta (The Coca-Cola Company) have of course set up many EKOCENTERs in Rwanda and other African countries. In fact there are over 100 such facilities across Africa with Rwanda laying claim to over 20 of them. However Ruhunda is not like any EKOCENTRE you will find elsewhere. It is so much more. It is a model of what The Coca-Cola Company intends to achieve with such projects.

 

In the first place an EKOCENTER is both a community center and a general store. EKOCENTERs are based on a social enterprise model weaved around well being, women and water. All this has to be aligned with what a particular community needs. However with Ruhunda, the partners who put together the EKOCENTER out did themselves. In the first place they brought on board several partners and in the process gave Ruhinda more than what other EKOCENTERs offer.

In Ruhinda, the solar-powered flagship EKOCENTER is set to benefit over 25,000 residents by easing their access to quality health care, 3G Wifi-internet services, mobile charging services, purified water, a retail store as well as a lit football pitch. To pull this off, The Coca-Cola Company partnered with Ericsson, MedShare, Pentair, Phillips, Solarkiosk and TIGO Rwanda as well the government of Rwanda and the people of the Ruhunda.

Ericssson helped to construct a new mobile phone tower providing connectivity while TIGO Rwanda is providing 3G-WIFI. MedShare provides medicines to the government-run Ruhunda Health Centre while Pentair operates two water purification units that provide up to 20,000 litres of safe drinking water to the people of Ruhunda. Phillips came in with the lighting of the football pitch and surrounding areas. Solarkiosk designed and operates the EKOCENTRE.

 

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Ruhunda Health Centre

During the ceremony to launch the facility both President Kagame didn’t seem to have much to say, given that he has been at the helm of Rwanda’s recovery for the last 22 years and such a project is a mere window into the things he has championed all these years. Rwanda’s record on health particularly health insurance is a story that has been told several times. ICT in Africa is almost hard to touch without finding his name appearing somewhere. The same applies to basic hygiene (water) and his love for sports is not a government secret as well.

In his speech, President Paul Kagame said the well being and advancement of communities is a global responsibility, involving a cohesive public –private partnership. The Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company explained why they invest in such projects; “It’s because we know our growth and our partners’ growth can only be sustainable when the communities we serve are strong. By working across the ‘golden triangle’ of business, government and civil society, we believe we can support increased local investment and help make communities like Ruhunda more economically and socially sustainable.”

The Ruhunda story continues flowing even beyond the speeches of the big men. For example in this area the health centre handles close to 60 deliveries in a month but more importantly almost everyone in the area has medical insurance. This partly explains why they have not registered any maternal death in the last seven years!

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Water is life

 

The sustainability of this project is ensured through training of the people in the area to be able to do things on their own. In other words it is not the usual philanthropy schemes but more of an ecosystem that serves as a catalyst for economic growth. It is a concerted effort to bring together different partners and government to do community work.

The project employs mainly women entrepreneurs, another key pillar of Rwanda’s success story. Time and again President Kagame has said the inclusion of women in the development process is not rocket science, given their numbers and their role in the family set up.

As the big men and women drove away leaving a trail of dust in the air of Ruhunda, the residents knew that the dust would settle and health will prevail. After all they now have a football pitch they can use any time since it has lights, they have ready to drink water and a health centre with quality service. They can also brag about all this on social media now that they have 3g Wifi access.

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Ruhunda’s well lit football pitch

That right there is the soul of Rwanda, a people always ready to join hands and work towards a better tomorrow. They don’t give in to despair; they ride it like a wave to get to the next level. No wonder The Coca-Cola Company boss had to say, “Rwanda is on the move, marching towards a very prosperous future – and we are proud to be part of it as Coca-Cola.”

The Coca-Cola Company is not alone in this desire to be part of the new Rwanda; my Kenyan friends want to come back to visit, to invest, to live or just to open a cupcake business. To you Naomi and Magunga the word to remember is Murakazaneza. In the mean time let me find out about land prices in Ruhunda.

 

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About EKOCENTER
Launched in 2013 by Coca-Cola as a social enterprise initiative to empower communities while enabling business and local economic growth, EKOCENTER relies on partnerships across the public and private sector to operate sustainably.

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Easter with a tropical feel at Lake Kivu

If you take a close look at your calendar right about now, you can’t fail to hear a small voice in your head whispering, “So what are we doing this Easter?” You may be tempted to respond with, “So who are we?” but this is not a time to argue about pronouns. After all, the Son of God did not die on the cross for you to win arguments about grammar and relationships.

What is clear though is that the first months of the year tend to be quite hectic for almost everyone. From the delightful Christmas break you suddenly find yourself wading through January where for some reason money loves to play and win, hide and seek games.

This is quickly followed by the miniskirt of months called February. Even the extra day in a leap year never seems to count for much.  March follows closely and comes with some goodies. On the eighth day women are celebrated and as far as this year is concerned the Easter package comes in at the end of the month.

We are now in the Holy Week that leads to Easter… an opportune time to give yourself that memorable treat something you can find easily at Lake Kivu Serena. This hotel is found in the lake town of Rubavu (Gisenyi) on the shores of Lake Kivu. This is incredible lake is shared by Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I call it incredible because it not only oozes of tropical beauty; it also now supplies Rwanda with electricity thanks to its methane gas deposits.

We cannot talk about the beauty of the lake without highlighting how Lake Kivu Serena completes the picture. You see this hotel is sited on white sandy shores with extensive tropical gardens and a refreshing breeze from the lake. If you are looking for an ideal escape from the city buzz to a therapeutic moment by the lake, Lake Kivu Serena is it.

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Go on and pretend that you don’t want to be somewhere in that picture right now!

By the way, Lake Kivu Serena is just a stone throw away from Goma (DRC) and a few hours’ drive from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. If you choose to fly then 20 minutes is all you need. It is so strategic for those who want to see the famous mountain gorillas at the Volcanoes National Park besides just ogling at your hotel room key.

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Why stare at a piece of wood when you can see the real Silver-back ?

 

Rubavu is a now a tourism hot spot on its own and from Lake Kivu Serena you can enjoy boat rides to different islands in the lake, you can take a ride along the Congo Nile Trail or simply stroll along the streets of Rubavu if you are not interested in climbing the nearby Mt. Rubavu for a spectacular view of Gisenyi and Goma.

You don’t even need to leave the hotel in order to get your money’s worth. How about just  letting your hair down, grabbing a drink, kicking off your shoes and throwing on your sunglasses and allowing the sun to kiss your skin as you relax by the beach or take stroll by the lake as the sand caresses your feet?

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C’est Magnifique!

This hotel has 66 luxury room, executive suites and family accommodation all with stunning views of the lake. There’s a panoramic restaurant, indoor and beach side bars and a luxury swimming pool (with a baby pool) all offering cool spots for you to drown any stress the city life may have visited on you in recent day.

If and when you go for gorilla trekking, endure a bumpy ride along the Congo Nile Trail or try out the steep climb at Mt. Rubavu then on your return your body can be reset with a relaxing massage or spa thanks to the legendary Maisha Health Centre. This place has the right settings for your comfort (true story!)

There are lots of outdoor games you can try out while at the Lake Kivu Serena like beach volleyball and the little ones have their own play area complete with caretaker staff to ensure their safety. If you’ve read to this point and are still in doubt or you think I am just bored and making this all up then how about you click here. Or simply go and see the place for yourself to prove me wrong. How about that for an Easter challenge? Happy Easter holidays.

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