East Africa

Summer 2007

Part 5: Burundi

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History of Burundi

The history of Burundi is very similar to that of Rwanda: it was an African kingdom (Burundi and Rwanda are two of the very few African countries whose borders correspond to pre-colonial states) which became a German colony in 1884 and then a Belgian one from 1916-1962. After independence it saw a succession of military dictators, and several large-scale massacres of Tutsi by Hutu or vice versa which killed 100,000s of people.

In 1993 there were finally democratic elections, but the new president was killed within months, which set off another 12 years of civil war between various factions. In 2005, a cease-fire was finally signed with the last warring faction (FNL, which had massacred 152 Tutsi refugees as late as 2004) and new elections were held. Since then Burundi has been more stable, though there are still regular skirmishes between the government and the FNL to this day (in fact 5 rebels and 1 soldier were killed the day I'm writing this, March 15th 2008).

After decades of infighting, Burundi is the country with the lowest GDP per capita, which makes it the poorest country in the world in theory.

Through Burundi or not?

Whereas Rwanda is perfectly stable nowadays and in eastern Congo we were in territory protected by the UN, Burundi was the one part of our journey that was somewhat risky. The road from Rwanda to Bujumbura has been safe for a few years, but the south of Burundi was a no-go zone until quite recently because that's where the rebels were launching their attacks against government forces. With the peace-agreement travel in the south became possible again though, and that gave me the idea to travel north-to-south through Burundi to get from Rwanda to Tanzania (the alternative would have been to return to Uganda and enter Tanzania from there). Thus we would get to visit another country and to see lake Tanganyika. We like visiting many different countries and swimming in many different lakes or seas, so this was an easy decision to make.

Still, we kept an eye on the news from Burundi even during the first week of our trip, ready to change our plan if there would be a sudden change in the situation. Five days before we entered the country it seemed this might happen when there were grenade attacks against the houses of some politicians, but that didn't escalate so we stuck to the route through Burundi. Ten days after our passage, 26 rebels were killed in Bujumbura during infighting among the FNL rebels.

Friday August 24th (day 9): Rwanda to Bujumbura

Border crossing

As I told in the previous part, this day started with our bus being chased by the Rwandan police because of us. At the border, there were several long queues and after some time we didn't see the other people of our bus anymore, nor the bus itself. We got worried and started assertively defending our position in the queue between all the manoeuvring people around us even though they said we needn't worry. I still don't understand the system but it turned out they were right, when we had our visa and rushed to the nearest buildings we saw our bus there with only the driver in it.

So we sat on the terrace of a bar and had a drink with the bus driver. I got talking to a Burundese guy there and took the chance to ask him how to pronounce the basic Swahili words listed in the Lonely Planet, so at least we could use some local language beyond "hakuna matata" from then on. All these countries have their own languages, but they're all derived from Swahili so that's all you really need in Eastern Africa.

As we drove into Burundi over mountain roads, we often saw children running towards the road when they saw the bus approach and then shaking their hand at the bus while yelling angrily. I have no idea what that was about, it was very strange.


Bujumbura is beautifully located at the northern tip of lake Tanganyika and we had a nice view on the lake as we drove down the mountains to the north of the city.
We arrived in Bujumbura at 3pm. It isn't pretty but it's a lively place and the mountains around it give you something to look at.
As soon as we'd checked into a hotel we had a discussion about what to do. I wanted to spend two nights here to get a feel for the country, while Danny wanted to keep traveling fast. He convinced me, which meant that we had to do the one thing we really wanted to do in Burundi - hit the beach and have a swim in lake Tanganyika - right now so we could travel on the next morning. So we took a taxi to Saga beach which lies some 5km north of the center of Bujumbura.

Costa del Tanganyika

Bujumbura's white sandy beaches are said to be the finest inland beaches in Africa, along with those in Malawi. We'd looked up pictures beforehand though and on those they looked dreary, so we only went because we wanted to put a swim in lake Tanganyika on our record. However, Saga beach turned out to be a very nice, clean beach indeed, and all around there were mountains, even across the lake in Congo. It's a beautiful place, and it was alive with people, mainly locals who were exercising on the beach but also some UN workers who were just relaxing there.
During our first week in Africa we'd hardly seen any sun, but this was a nice sunny day (and from now on we'd have lots of sun). So we had a good time lying in the sun and swimming in the lake, which had a nice temperature and good waves. At a certain point some of the exercising locals came to us for a friendly chat. At first I didn't understand their poor French, but in the end it turned out that they were advising us to lie on the sand, not on a towel, because that would be much nicer. It was not a joke to start a conversation or anything, that's really what they wanted to tell us, strange conversation :)
While I was about to take a picture of Danny when he was swimming in the lake, he suddenly told me to turn around and then I saw a huge military plane (probably a C-130) coming straight at us at what seemed to be 10m height, wow! I scrambled to make a picture of the plane hanging right above the beach but failed, it all went too quickly. The UN soldiers in Burundi are stationed by the shore of the lake, just like they were at lake Kivu in Goma, and this was one of their planes.

When the sun was starting to set we decided to go back, but there was no taxi out here so we had to walk back. We passed the UN camps, and also a billboard of Otraco. Otraco means COmmon TRAnsport Office (in French), but it used to mean COlonial TRAnsport Office. I hadn't known this before I came here, but I've known the name Otraco all my life because it was the company my family worked for when they lived in Congo. They regularly had (and still have) Otraco get-togethers with other Belgians who've lived in Congo, during which they all eat Congolese food. In Rwanda and Congo the company's descendants now have different but similar names like Onatracom, but in Burundi Otraco still exists, so I had to get a picture.
By the time we got near the center it was really getting dark. It would be unwise to walk around the outskirts of Bujumbura in the dark, and we weren't sure of the way to go, so we found a taxi and got back to the hotel. In the evening we had dinner in a restaurant called MAS. We ordered a local fish dish called "sangala" and it was absolutely delicious, the best meal we had in Africa - and we had many good meals here!

Bujumbura's legendary nightlife

This was a Friday night, and Danny insisted on going out somewhere because the Lonely Planet says nightlife in Bujumbura is "legendary" and that they party all night here. Now I know from my South America trip that the Lonely Planet always says this and that's it almost never true. If you think about it, the chance of finding a bustling nightlife in a poor place is close to zero. But Danny insisted and I didn't want to be the party pooper, so off we went in a taxi to some club which was supposed to be the best in town.

It was so bad that it was funny, I had a good time asking Danny again and again whether he was having fun :) Besides us there were three other paying customers (typical nouveau-riche types) and about a dozen people on the staff who hung around bored. The music was lousy, there was nothing going on and the beer seemed British. To liven things up they were showing an African TV channel that we saw in several places in different countries; it always has two guys playing records and acting cool, while some chicks who never get to say anything are just dancing unenthusiastically all the time, except when they notice the camera is pointed at them. It's incredibly lame and sexist.

Luckily there was a pool table, so we played pool. After a while two girls on the staff came and watched us play. We thought it was because they had nothing else to do, but as soon as we finished our first game they asked us to pay for using the table and then started playing the next game themselves without even asking if we wanted to play again, huh.

So our night out in the legendary Bujumbura club scene didn't last long, which was good because we were leaving next morning.

Saturday August 25th (day 10): Bujumbura to Tanzania

On this day we wanted to get from Bujumbura to Kigoma in Tanzania, where we wanted to catch a train the next day. Now the Bujumbura-to-Kigoma leg of our journey had always been the weakest link and the biggest question mark in our travel plan. There used to be a lake ferry from Bujumbura to Kigoma, but that didn't exist anymore, so we had to go over land, straight through what used to be rebel territory in the south of the country.

The Lonely Planet only had this to say: "due to the uncertain security situation, we were unable to travel to these areas. Ask around in Bujumbura." All we had to go by was one forum post by one guy who'd managed to get from Kigoma to Bujumbura (i.e. the other direction we were going) in a hellish long day that saw him changing transport eight times along the route nearest the lake. This was going to be adventurous traveling at its finest, or so we thought.

Thanks to the very friendly help of two guys that worked in the hotel, and of a Tanzanian guest there who I talked to this morning, we managed to get to Kigoma with much less trouble than that forum guy had had, by a quite different route that I'd never heard about before. I'll describe it in some detail for other people who might want to travel this route, it's probably the best way to do it.

Bujumbura to Mabanda

Since it was a Saturday, Bujumbura didn't come alive until about 10am, and there was no way for us to leave any earlier as there was simply no traffic. We hadn't known about this until the hotel guys warned us the night before. Never seen anything like this, the whole city just slept late. You'd think it's because of that legendary nightlife :)

Anyway, the hotel guys helped as buy tickets for a packed minibus to Mabanda which left at 10:30. Mabanda lies in the south of Burundi, 10km inland from the shore of the lake and also some 10km from the border with Tanzania. We were the only non-local passengers. In fact except at the beach near the UN camps, we didn't see any other white persons the whole time we were in Burundi, not even in our hotel.

We first drove along the lake for about two hours. The driver was a bit crazy, driving as fast as he could, so we made good progress. We were stopped several times at military checkpoints. Hilariously, after checking the driver's papers and taking a look at the passengers, the soldiers would always do a checkup of the minibus, standing in front of it and beckoning the driver to use his window whipers, the turning signals and flash his lights.

When we got near the southern border of Burundi, the driver turned left into the mountains to climb to Mabanda. Despite the many hairpin turns the road was very steep and we were crawling now.

Mabanda to border

We arrived in Mabanda around 2pm, half an hour ahead of schedule because the minibus driver had raced along the lake so fast. Mabanda turned out to be a dusty little town. Though it's some 10km from the border, we had to get our passports stamped here, so we asked around to find the right office, which turned out to be on the edge of town.
When we were done with the formalities we saw there was a taxi outside waiting to take us to the border. We shared it with three locals, so four of us had to sit on the back seat. I wouldn't have wanted to sit in the front though because the front window was all cracked and shaking madly as we drove over a dirt road towards the border.

It was a beautiful ride through a mountainous landscape. The fact that we were driving through the Great Rift Valley (which runs from Jordan to Mozambique) was very visible here as the landscape looked like it had been laterally torn apart. Can't see that in the pictures though.
While this part of Burundi seems deserted as it has no cities or villages, we passed several refugee camps run by the UN. These are inhabited by refugees from Congo, which is ironic given that Burundi itself still has many refugees living in other countries.

Border to Kigoma

We arrived at the border with Tanzania around 3pm. This was only day 10 of our trip but we were now at the fifth and last country already. From now on we'd have to speak English, which I regretted because it was fun to practice my French.
After we got a visa, we had to arrange transport to Kigoma. There was one minibus waiting, but the driver asked a ridiculous price: about 60$ per person (in Tanzanian shilling). So we just said no and went away for a while. Negotiations soon continued. It was an interesting situation; there was no other way of transport out of there for us so we had to get on that minibus. On the other hand, the driver wasn't just going to leave without us and miss out on our money altogether, so we had some leverage.
After a while the two locals who also needed to take that minibus had made a deal with the driver: Danny and I would pay 30,000 (25$) each, while they would pay 10,000 each. Of course it's normal for whiteys to pay more, but we were still amazed how shamelessly they proposed that, so we flat out refused and said we wouldn't pay more than them just because we were foreigners. That got the price down to 20,000 at which point we gave in, and soon we were off.
We arrived in Kigoma at 18:30, so after 8 hours of traveling, only half of what we'd expected!

About Burundi

To finish this part, I just wanna say that Burundi was a very positive experience. Friendly and helpful people, good food, great beach, beautiful views. As I said in the beginning it's the poorest country in the world when measured by GDP/capita, but in practice it didn't seem particularly poor. Burundi lacks the dynamism of Rwanda for the moment, but perhaps if peace prevails they'll follow in Rwanda's footsteps.

<< Part 4: Southern Rwanda    -   Back to Index   -    Part 6: Western Tanzania >>


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