Visiting Burundi

Burundi is one of only eight countries I haven’t visited. I’ve been through the airport at Bujumbura when I visited Rwanda, but in those days the country was torn by internal conflict and deemed to be too dangerous to visit. I have to go back if I’m to reach my target of Every Country in the World. But I’ve got mixed feelings. Burundi is ranked as the poorest country in the world by GDP, at the moment. Wikipedia cites 'poverty, corruption, instability, authoritarianism, illiteracy, and more’. One of the smallest countries in Africa, Burundi is densely populated and employment chances are grim, so young people emigrate in search of opportunities elsewhere. This has also been rated the unhappiest country in the world. Let’s see.....

Exploring Burundi

I’ve travelled from Uganda. Both countries are in the central, Great Lakes of Africa region, The Heart of Africa. Burundi lies along the second deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika. And I’m going to be exploring Burundi with smiley guide Justin and handsome young driver Sammy. They talk to each other in Kirundi, the sole national language.

Bujumbura, Economic Capital of Burundi

Bujumbura is strategically important, as the largest port on Lake Tanganyika. It’s also the biggest city and economic capital of Burundi. So, there are government buildings in differing states of repair, lots of small shops and a few monuments. The monuments are surrounded by iron railings, painted in the national colours. You have to pay an arm and a leg to enter and this includes an obligatory guide, who recites speeches you can read from the sign boards. I peer through the enclosure at the Park of Presidents and talk to some ladies filming a video at the Unity Monument.

A Brief History of Burundi

  • The Unity Monument was erected in 1991, by Tutsi President Pierre Buyoya, as part of the effort to defuse ongoing tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. So, this seems like a good moment to introduce a little history. Twa, Hutu and Tutsi peoples have lived in Burundi for at least 500 years. As with Rwanda, the relative ethnic proportions are roughly 85% Hutu, 15% Tutsi and 1% Twa (the indigenous pygmy forest dwellers).
  • Burundi was an independent kingdom, until 1899, when Germany invaded and it became part of German East Africa. Following  the First World War, the League of Nations "mandated" the territory to Belgium. After the Second World War, Burundi was amalgamated with Rwanda and designated a United Nations Trust Territory, named Ruanda-Urundi . It was jointly ruled by the Germans and Belgians.
  • Burundi gained independence in 1962, initially as a monarchy, but the regime quickly became unstable. A republic and a one-party state was established in 1966, but internal conflict continued. Horrifyingly, civil wars and genocides resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The situation is slowly stabilizing, but the country is still described as being in political and economic chaos.

There are great views across the city from the monument. It's reached after a hill climb through some extremely affluent villas mansions and embassies, which stand in stark contrast to the low rise tin roofs down the valley.

Dr Livingstone, I Presume?

Just outside Bujumbura, at Mugere, is another, not-to-be missed, monument. This marks the spot where Henry Morton Stanley is supposed to have caught up with David Livingstone in 1871 - I presume. They've added statues to the original etched stone erected by the Belgian colonists. Very sadly, this is another claim that turns out to be untrue. The famous meeting actually took place in Ujiji in Tanzania on 10 November 1871, as Stanley' himself, writes in his book, "How I Found Livingstone". The pair did visit Mugere, a few days later, by canoe from Ujiji, exploring rivers which might flow out of Lake Tanganyika.

Lake Tanganyika

Along the lakeside, beyond the port, are myriad beach hotels and restaurants. The Atrium does lovely food and you can watch the waves rolling from your table. But, with main courses at ten GBP it’s extortionately expensive for Burundi. Justin takes me in there, but refuses to order food for himself.

For lodging, I've been sampling one of the best five star establishments, The Club du Lac Tanganyika. I've a lake view from my room, which is comfortable and pleasant enough, with ethnic fabrics. It would be nice if the TV worked, the entrance hall light would stop flickering and the shower didn't instantly flood the bathroom. (And yes the staff do rectify it all after a reminder). There's a large blue 'semi Olympic ' swimming pool with peeling paint on the bottom, a gym, conference facilities and a restaurant with beach outlook, friendly staff and slow service.

The Rusizi River National Park

There's a national park to the west of the city ( and almost at the Rwandan border), where the Rusizi River wanders into the lake. Red churning waters contrast nicely with the vast sparkling blue expanse of Tanganyika. It’s a good spot for another tranquil boat trip, with bloats (apparently that’s the correct collective noun) of hippo keeping their usual wary eye on us, bobbing up and down, and a sole crocodile. I'm not sure if this is Gustave, a Nile crocodile, rumored to have killed 300 people here. He's big enough. And there are numerous pelicans and other water fowl. The boatman has a guide book and insists on showing me each species we come across.

On the Road in Burundi

The Burundi countryside is beautiful. Justin says this is 'The Country of  1001 Hills'. One more than Rwanda. The roadside towns have small crumbling brick built shops and stores. The markets are utilitarian and crammed with shoppers spilling onto the tarmac. The Burundians are fervent Catholics. Their homes might be small and in need of repair, but each village has an enormous brick built church, many of them modern. And I’m told the priest often has to conduct several services a day, to cater to demand. On the way, a stop at a huge church at Ijenda, built in 1941. A crowd gathers to gape as we try to take pictures of storks nesting in a tall tree.

Bujumbura is home to a million people. The remainder of the eleven million population live off the land. At first glance this doesn't  feel like the poorest country in the world, or the unhappiest.   For the most part it's tidy and clean. There is little litter. The men are clothed in neat western dress and the ladies are beautifully turned out in bright printed fabrics and headscarves. The baskets they carry on their heads are often beautifully woven and decorated.

The people  sometimes wave and smile - calling ‘mzungu’. There aren’t many of us Europeans around especially in the deep south. At others, the Burundians are quiet but not hostile. They don't want their photos taken unless money changes hands. The myth still persists that I will sell their picture to National Geographic for a lot of cash. A few small notes do change hands at times. I don't know if it’s good to encourage this attitude, but the recipients are very grateful rather than hassling.

The poverty is evident, however, in the streams of villagers trudging the roadside wielding hoes or carrying water. Subsistence farming and the development of plantations has led to deforestation, soil erosion and habitat loss. The main crop is coffee, followed by tea. But only the government is allowed to grow for export. There are also maize, cassava,  bananas and pineapple. Its thought that Burundi has some substantial mineral wealth: nickel, copper. But there aren't the resources to find out.

There are few vehicles other than bicycles loaded to the gunnels with provisions (for sale or just bought or exchanged). It takes three or four people straining, to push them up the many slopes. On closer examination much of the clothing especially on children is ragged  and in need of a wash. Queues for petrol stretch three cars wide round the block in Bujumbura. Sammy has filled up in the middle of the night.

The Source of the Nile

South, to what the Burundians claim is the Source of the Nile. We’re climbing immediately, with ongoing gorgeous panoramas beneath. The Source is deemed to be important. It’s signposted almost  from Bujumbura, although it’s 115 kilometres. It feels like twice that distance. Chinese influence hasn't stretched to these roads yet and potholes proliferate, where there is tarmac. Most of the 14 hour return journey involves African massage on unmade roads, which are agonisingly slow. Not Madagascan level, just uneven enough to be awkward.

 I'm not sure if guide Justin had factored in a 7.30 a.m. to 10 pm day. Driver Sammy looks exhausted . He has never ventured this way  before. But he's enjoyed the sights and taken plenty of selfies.

The Source of the Nile here  has a government guide, of course. And an odd little blue tiled channel, with a tap. It's not clear exactly how the tap is fed, but a scramble uphill is a pyramid. It celebrates this discovery by a German, Dr Buckhart Waldecker in 1932 and patronisingly pays tribute to Speke, Stanley and others who showed an early interest, like Eratosthenes and Ptolemais. I'm not sure what to make of this and I perhaps foolishly point out that other countries have opposing claims (see post on Jinja), to be the Source of the nil. But the Burundians are as adamant as the Ugandans that the Nile originates on their land. And there’s  a superb 360° view of the surrounding hills.

We have to leave in a hurry as the Vice President is due for a visit and crowds of smartly dressed guests are beginning to arrive.

German Fault

Next stop, responsible for a large portion of the massage experience, is so called German Fault. This is an impressive break in the escarpment, with plummeting cliff walls, marking the separation of the central plateaus and the Kumoso Valley. There’s a great panorama of the valley from the Nyakazu plateau, at an altitude of just under 2000 metres. The Germans invaded here via Tanzania and were initially pushed back by the King of Burundi, because of the forbidding terrain.

Sammy, Justin and I take turns having our photos taken on a strategically placed rock, against the dramatic backdrop, (that's Tanzania behind us) in a variety of combinations. Two boys fetching water peer over a rock to watch us with astonishment. It seems that the Vice President is on his way out here too. It's customary to decorate the roadside with banana branches when a VIP is visiting. And I thought they were for me!

Kagera Falls

Last stop, on this journey, is the five stage waterfall on the  Kagera River. It nestles at the end of a forest passage of very tall African tulip trees. There's just enough water still flowing to make it impressive and there's a terrifying suspension bridge to view from thrown in. In addition, there are viewing platforms for all five stages, if you don’t mind steep, slippy paths.

The Road to Gitega

The next outing is to the political capital of Gitega. This route is partly National Highway 1, built by the Chinese. But there are still plenty of craters to manoeuvre around. More fabulous views including the Kibera National Forest, where there's a stop at a Twa (pygmy) village.

The Pygmy Village at Busekera

 The villagers dance and the children sing. It's well organised and moving. They have so little. There are few pygmies in evidence. They have intermarried and most of the inhabitants look to be of the same size as the remainder of their compatriots. The grave-faced chief is an exception. He's new to the post, chosen Justin says, as he is a true pygmy and can properly represent his people.

Gitega, the Political Capital of Burundi and the Gishora Drummers

At Gitega, there are more fenced monuments and the German governor’s house. now used, perhaps fittingly, as a prison. The main draw at Gitega, and Burundi's only well known tourist attraction, if you discount Lake Tanganyika, is the drumming sanctuary at Gishora. These drummers are UNESCO recognised and famous for having appeared in film and pop songs. perhaps most notably in Joni Mitchell's 'The Hissing of summer lawns'.

The story goes that the Gishora Drummers originated when the last king of Burundi, Mwezi Gisabo, gave some men two cattle as a reward for his victory, over the rebellious chief Ntibirangwa in the second half of the nineteenth century. They used the hide to cover their drums. The body of the drums is traditionally made from Cordia Africana, a flowering tree sometimes known as Sudan teak. More interestingly, in Kirundi, the tree is known as the “umuvugangoma,” which means “the tree that makes the drum speak.”

Drumming is important in Burundi, as it is throughout Africa. It has always been a key part of the king's enthronement, funerals communication and battle. There are many drum groups, some of which included women. But this group is run by local boys and men, known as Abatimbo who descend from the ancient lineage of Abanyigisaka, run the sanctuary. They are the descendants of religious leaders who held senior positions within the royal court. The government has introduced contentious new rules that ban the participation of women in drumming. In addition, the Gishora Drumming Drumming is now mostly limited to official ceremonies. Private events require authorization, which is subject to a fee, of course.

The tour includes the king’s hut and other dwelling areas, very similar to the one at Butare in Rwanda. The performance is aleg scale and involves about 30 men. They make a dramatic entrance balancing the heavy instruments on their heads and led by a spear toting warrior. There is ritual dancing, poetry and great deal of leaping. All joyful and thoroughly uplifting. Even if it is just done for the tourists nowadays, it's worth a visit. If you can excuse the lack of inclusion.

Watch my video on You-tube

Getting In and Out of Burundi

Sadly, as I've already suggested, Burundi seems keen on overcharging tourists. and making visiting as difficult as possible. Most countries have now abandoned Covid testing and just demand the vaccination certificate. Burundi requires a test within 72 hours pre-entry and another on arrival at the airport. You have to book it online and prove this to be allowed in. And it costs 100 USD cash. The visa on arrival is 90 USD. That's a whopping bill, just to cross the border.

I also require a test to leave. Justin says we will do it Saturday morning, before we leave for Gitega. He sends me the requisition link, just before he's due to arrive, with a message to say that he's gone to the bank to pay as required. We manage to rendezvous an hour later, when he tells me that he's discovered that the banks don't open till 11 on a Saturday and there's a lengthy queue at the test centre.

Plan B is mooted. It’s unorthodox and I'm not going to describe it. But it only costs the same as the legally required route. And results are apparently guaranteed. The latter is predictably not quite true. My certificate citing a negative result  arrives about an hour before I'm due to depart for the airport. It's just a tad stressful.

I've also just received an e-mail from our esteemed government. It advises against travel to all the places I've just been to.

Bujumbura Airport

And when I've finally got over the stress of obtaining my PCR test, departure from Bujumbura provides another contender for worst airport on the world. Melchior Ndadaye Airport (BJM,) is Burundi's only international airport. In fact, it's the only one with a paved runway. It's named after the first democratically elected president of Burundi, who was murdered in a coup d'état in October 1993, three months after being elected.

There's a huge queue to get the PCR test checked. VIPs, such as the national volleyball team, are ushered past to hold us up even further. Then, there's a queue to get your visa checked. Why? I'm leaving! Then, a queue to screen the bags. No-one is looking at the monitor. Then, an excruciatingly long queue to check in and go through immigration and get my visa checked again.

It's roasting hot. There isn't so much as a fan. And the whole check in process is being done manually, with the clerks taking photos of each handwritten baggage tag and boarding pass. I've carefully reserved my near the front window seat many months ago. But my boarding pass says it's free seating. Aaargh ! I just have time to buy a bottle of water in the departure lounge, before we board. And then it’s another hour before we take off. They've overbooked.

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