Adventures with Izy: Behind the Scenes, from the Heart

In 2019 the Gorilla Highlands team embarked on the biggest journey so far: we started to produce “Adventures with Izy” video episodes (please visit our YouTube channel and subscribe). In this very personal blog, Isabelle Masozera explains the background of her family move to a new town.

In many ways my life has always been an adventure.

When I was a little girl my parents believed they could not give me a life equal to my potential. They sent me to live with a well-off auntie, a once-common practice in the African society. She treated me as her own and truly tried to build a better life for me. When I moved back to my biological parents, it wasn’t for long.

I left home at only 16, and have been on the move ever since… some would say, “on the run”. At one point a group of friends in Kampala sat me down, concerned that I had changed my residence six times in a year! I prefer to call it a “Rwandan thing”, as by nature our people are nomadic pastoralists. 

I relocated to Rwanda a few years ago and became a talk show host on the national TV. I would bus myself from Kigali to Kampala and back (10+ hours each way) almost every weekend, visiting my daughter in Uganda’s capital. Myla, then only 5 years old, was staying at my mother’s home in Uganda while I worked in another country. It was a very unpleasant arrangement.

My dream came true when she joined me in Kigali, but the reunion lasted for only half a year. As revealing as this writing is, I wouldn’t want to go into the details of why… It hurt badly. An unexpected pregnancy followed, one that I wanted to enjoy away from the limelight, and thus I was back to Uganda at the end of 2017.

A little cottage on the shores of Lake Bunyonyi was as private as it gets, and there was no disturbance of public life. I could focus on the Gorilla Highlands work there (do watch the third “Adventures with Izy” episode below to understand what it is all about) and part of that is, naturally, travel. From national parks to lakes and waterfalls, I was finally able to see things I would otherwise only read about.

Some reflection was inevitable. I found purpose in promoting this great region and chose to devote all my time to it. For years I had listened to leaders like Paul Kagame say “we need to tell our story” and begged wise men to write their tales, with limited success. I had spent too much time and energy criticising BBC, CNN and other international media for how they portrayed our continent, without figuring out the obvious: that I had to take the matter into my hands!

My partner is a brilliant white Ugandan who staunchly believed in me as a TV personality and together we decided to do something special with his video camera. Something unusual, experimental and bold — a platform that would give me a chance to tell my stories in the best light of real life. We’d embark on the project soon after I would give birth.

I was quite visibly heavy when GH Silverchef, our regional cooking competition and networking event, took me back to Kigali in April 2018. After that I stayed put on the lakeside until I got my bundle of joy. Like most women I was rather self-conscious as a new mother; we had done video demos and teasers and the camera was ready but all I could think about was how I would look on the screen, ha!

Still, there comes a time in everyone’s life when she needs to turn a new page.

It was my daughter who pushed me into action.

As 2018 came to a close she was experiencing an emotionally trying time because of the plan that she would stay away from her baby brother and me long-term. While on Christmas vacation at Bunyonyi, for the first time in her precious life she was acting irritable and moody. She was making demands and sometimes not politely. She was talking back. This was new. For a girl as disciplined and polite as Myla, this was unprecedented.

I was freaking out. I didn’t know what to do and how to react. Do I discipline her? Do I not? Do I honour her requests? Do I put my foot down?

Our society’s views of parenting put extreme pressure on us. When a child misbehaves she has to be punished, regardless of her reasons for bad behaviour. Now, Miss Myla is a special child. If you discipline her she usually asks why, and let’s just say that she would make one fine lawyer… I was picturing how my punishment session would go. It was just not going to make much sense and I would be one of those I’m- your-mother-and-can-do-as-I-please people.

I turned to her God-parents (bless the Almighty for those) and our housemates for advice.

Well the views were split, some saying punish her or she becomes a diva. Others advised me to kill her with love and kindness. This was no easy phase… I remember sitting on the porch of our lake house wondering how I was going to get through to her, make her stop lashing out, and stay at the school she was already attending.

Yet in that moment of confusion I had a light-bulb moment. It hit me that I was once 7 too. How would I have wanted the situation handled? There was no grey area; right was rewarded and wrong was punished. Mum was a disciplinarian, beating came easy for her, but Dad had a no-cane policy. He believed in talking things through to find ways to make us understand and change. With that in the back of my mind I had a decision to make… Mind you, despite how much I loved Dad’s methods, I was also a pro at manipulating him and taking advantage of his softness!

At last I took some off time and had a chat with Myla. She made it clear that her requests were the only way she would feel better, and that it wasn’t beyond her to run away if necessary. She was not going to stay away from me, Rwanda was going to be her home too, full stop.

Even though I had planned to move to Rwanda again, her presence would turn my life around. Most annoyingly, we had waited for years to get her to a great school with long waiting lists… Yet after only a term at the British School of Kampala she now wanted to leave! But I had made her a promise that I would do my best to do right by her. 

And so I abruptly began to look for schools during Christmas. I was back at the drawing board, I searched the internet and called friends. Where do I find a decent school in Rwanda that won’t bankrupt me?! The schools popped up one by one, and international schools in Kigali were like 16,000 dollars a year for the cheapest. Eish… 

I also went beyond Kigali in my search. I reached out to a friend who manages a top hotel in Musanze and she recommended I check out Virunga Valley Academy. When I got to its website, I could not believe a school like that existed outside the capital. How? 

Musanze has always had an expat community and to help these foreign parents stay with their children, the Millers, an American missionary couple, opened up an international school. Bless their souls. Being a pessimist, I needed to first see to believe. The web can be an interesting place, people can make you see and believe whatever they want you to. 

In early January my partner and I took a trip to Musanze. My mind was made up. Wherever I would find a great school for Myla, I would move there and make it work. This was new for me. For almost 8 years she came second to my work and this had had a huge impact on her all round. BUT NOT THIS TIME! I was going to move for her.

When we visited the school, its brand-new structures were impressive, but our delight went much deeper than that. Most international schools lack emphasis on culture and local content, but this one was different, and I loved that. It is a Christian school that embraces all religions, has a very small number of kids per classroom and resembles a family in every way. The teachers act like parents. We could feel the love in that place just walking down the hallways. The beautiful inspiring words on the walls stayed with me but my favourite place was the community garden with vegetables that are harvested and given to poor people in the community. This was exactly the school I wanted for Myla. And it was not going to cost more than a couple of thousand dollars per year! Amazing! 

I know what you are thinking. Yes, I should be minding how good the academic standard is. Well I did. The kids we talked to were impressive. And to get in, my daughter would need to do a thorough assessment test to see which class she would join. Not age, but academic skill would determine where she belonged. These guys don’t joke. They were clear that her results would decide her grade, even if it meant starting afresh. I needed to be ready for that. Listening to the principal say that gave me the chills.

We took a leap of faith, paid the application fees and took home the forms. I promised to return for assessment if Myla approved. We took pictures and videos, mainly of the castle that hosts the library that I knew she would love. 

We also looked for houses to rent… Oh, what a memorable experience! The prices were as high as in Kigali, or worse. We tried to get cheaper rates and met some brokers to help but they were not very useful. Worst of all, “the man with the key” was often gone. Fortunately my partner had heard of a house available near the school, on the outskirts of the town. As we drove there, I complained to him about how expensive Musanze was. It was all about the location, he responded.

As soon as we arrived we knew this was home. I took one look at it and knew I had to have that house. It was perfect and big, situated in the middle of a huge compound, and much more affordable than I had feared. We met the owner who turned out to be a lovely man and made arrangements immediately. 

We were back at Lake Bunyonyi by dinner time. Myla took one look at the pictures, and I saw something I had not seen in days — a real smile lighting up Myla’s face. Hearing what was required, she started reading for the test immediately, and the rest is history.

We are loving our new life in Musanze, learning and exploring new things. The best thing about Gorilla Highlands work is that I can do it from anywhere. I am now actually perfectly located: 1 hour from Kisoro (Uganda), 1.5 hours from Kigali (Rwanda) and 1 hour from Goma (DR Congo).

Myla is back to her sweet respectful self and seems to be blossoming more and more every day. To be honest, I have not seen her this happy ever before. And I get to share each day with her, what almost feels unreal. It is all for her and she knows it.

The idea is that she never changes schools again, and that we put down roots. I have moved enough for this lifetime.

text: Isabelle Masozera; video: Adventures with Izy