Beautiful Burundi: A Country Less Travelled

F A U S T I N  T H E  B U S  D R I V E R  whoops with excitement as we swing past a truck careering along the opposite side of the road. It is dragging two men straddling bicycles up the steep hill leading away from Bujumbura towards the Rwandan border. “Those guys are so crazy!” Faustin shouts above the snarl of the engine. “Someone dies every week playing those games.” We continue the decent into Bujumbura, through the smoke and the sunset, past tribes of goats, broods of chickens, men burdened by enormous bags of charcoal, women draped in colourful kangas. And every time we reach a village, Faustin slams his hand to the horn, scattering the street loiterers to their safety.

After what seems like an eternity of hillocks and bends, our destination comes into view: the steaming sprawling mass of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, nestled next to the vastness of Lake Tanganyika. The scene is enticing beyond belief: the lake appears almost heavenly in the gorgeous evening haze; and on its far shore, under the gaze of an immense African sky, mountains in the Democratic Republic of Congo stand proudly shrouded in mist. In the words of the 19th Century explorer Sir Richard Burton, “Truly it was a revel for soul and sight.”

“Buja”

By the time we entered the outskirts of Bujumbura, or “Buja”, as the locals affectionately call it, the ink of night had enveloped the city. Through the window I could just about make out the “Obama Shop”, its exterior painted with the president’s beaming face. I have since been told that here you may purchase everything from an Obama pencil case, to an Obama mobile phone, to an Obama T-shirt.

Unlike other capitals in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Bujumbura has seen very little development since the 1980s. Recurrent episodes of civil war and flooding have kept the city locked in a time warp. In contrast to the ex-Belgian Congo (DRC), where the old colonial edifices have all but vanished, Bujumbura’s spacious boulevards and grandiose art-deco buildings remain largely intact. For this reason, Burundi’s capital remains a place of unique appeal to historians of architecture. (The city is also the most Francophone in the region – so be warned, urbanites take their siestas with upmost seriousness.)

We pulled into our final stop, a driveway sandwiched between a selection of sassy hair salons and clattering mechanics yards. Despite it being a Thursday, the streets were filled with people enjoying the night air: sipping beers, smoking, flirting, joshing and laughing. Burundi’s capital is well-renowned in Central Africa for its free-wheelin’ booze infested late night party scene, and after a bone-shaking seven hour bus ride, I was more than ready for a beer…

The following morning, nursing a paint stripping hangover, I organised an outing with the only tour operator listed in my guidebook: Augustine Tours (www.augustinetours.com). My driver, Pierre, suggested that we start the day by visiting the spot where Dr David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley famously first met. (I have since discovered the actual spot is in Ujiji, Tanzania; the Burundian encounter took place fifteen days later.) Grey and large, the cumbersome boulder was fairly unexceptional. Nevertheless, the journey to the rock, through one of Bujumbura’s many slum districts, was fascinating.

Whilst dodging motorbikes and unruly pedestrians, Pierre pointed out the demarcation lines that separated Hutu and Tutsi during the civil war. “If I went into that neighbourhood, just ten years ago, as a Tutsi, I would not have come back alive,” he explained in the laid back manner typical of Burundians.

Contrary to popular belief, the first genocide in Central Africa took place in Burundi in 1972, when a Tutsi-led military dictatorship oversaw the massacre of between 100,000 and 300,000 Hutu intellectuals. Nearly twenty years later, Melchior Ndadaye was democratically elected as the country’s first Hutu president. Alas, his reign would also be the nation’s briefest: assassinated by Tutsi supremacists on October 21st 1993, he lasted just four months in office. The Hutu population immediately began retaliatory attacks against Tutsi civilians. The predominantly Tutsi army responded with characteristic brutality, killing many thousands of Hutu in the process. An ethnically charged civil war ensued in which 300,000 Burundians – Hutu, Tutsi and Twa – would eventually lose their lives.

At the peak of la crise (the crisis), Bujumbura became ethnically cleansed. Roadblocks manned by intoxicated militia groups forced members of different ethnic groups into separate neighbourhoods. Venturing from one district to another was tantamount to suicide. People were regularly dragged off busses, asked to show their identity cards, and then, if they were from the “wrong” ethnic group, beaten, raped, shot, stabbed or necklaced with a burning tire on the side of the road.

Pierre and other Burundians with whom I spoke stressed that all of this was now a matter of history: “Today we are moving forward. Hutu, Tutsi, it doesn’t matter. We all live together peacefully. Tomorrow we go to rural Burundi. You will see what I mean then.”

The Hinterland

By the time we set off, the steep stretch of road that curves out of Bujumbura towards the Southern hinterland was already vibrating with the rhythms of life: old gentlemen busy on outdoor sewing machines; women hoeing the fields, babies wrapped tightly to their backs; children giggling their way to school; kilns fired up, making bricks. Although the poverty is much greater than in neighbouring Rwanda, rural Burundi maintains a sense of hustle, bustle and joie de vivre that I have often struggled to locate in its better known twin.

Our first stop was the village of Gasumo, approximately 115km from Bujumbura; a place Burundians claim to host the southernmost source of the Nile. The spring – cool and delicious – is marked by a small brick structure adorned with blue ceramic tiles.

There is a pyramid about fifty meters above the source. Built in 1938 by the German explorer Burkhart Waldecker, it symbolises the significance of this long sought after discovery. From this point you can survey the swathes of gloriously green banana plantations that furnish the planes of Batutsi and Muhweza.

Several collines (hills) later, we reached our second stop: a stunning set of waterfalls in southernmost Burundi, known as the Chutes de la Karera. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has only recently opened up for tourism – the national park was previously under travel restrictions due to the precarious security situation in Southern Burundi. As a consequence, the area is wonderfully unspoilt.

As we drove along the bosky track that leads to the falls, a herd of long horned Tutsi cattle sauntered out into the road. Pierre hit the brakes, narrowly avoiding the tail end of a particularly muscular bull. The Burundian peoples have a long history of cattle herding and it is not uncommon to find oneself queuing behind droves of the beasts whilst navigating Burundi’s interior.

The falls, comprised of six branches divided over three landings, are undoubtedly one of Burundi’s most spectacular natural features. The water cascading down their rocky slopes eventually reaches the Malagarazi River, which then snakes all the way to the Tanzanian side of Lake Tanganyika. After a long day bouncing around the front of the suspension-less vehicle, I couldn’t resist positioning myself under the largest waterfall, allowing the shimmering stream of water to soak refreshingly through my clothes.

Although the Burundian hinterland is generally safe during the daylight hours, the roads are still prone to banditry at night. In addition, access to and from Bujumbura is strictly controlled after sunset. It was therefore important that we got back before nightfall. There was, however, just one more stop I simply could not afford to miss.

The quiet village of Kibimba was the scene of one of the most notorious massacres to occur during the recent civil war. Located just 15km down the road from Burundi’s second largest city, Gitega, it is not hard to find. On the 21st October 1993, following the assassination of Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye, seventy five Tutsi children were taken from Kibimba secondary school and herded into a nearby petrol station. They were then doused in gasoline and burned to death. The school’s principal was subsequently found guilty of organising the killings and executed. Just days after the massacre, upon seeing the infants’ charred cadavers, a group of Tutsi soldiers killed an unknown number of Hutu civilians in retaliation. The blackened remains of the filling station now stand as Burundi’s only genocide memorial.

When we arrived at the monument, Pierre could not bring himself to leave the car: being a Tutsi, his memories of the Kibimba massacre were still too fresh to handle. Although the memorial is not old, inaugurated by President Buyoya in 1998, its walls have turned a sickly shade of white after years of neglect. Above a circular monument that contains the students’ bodies, a legend reads “Plus Jamais Ca!”(Never Again!). Flowers, sorrowful and wilted, adorn a stone slab in the centre. The gas station itself is eerie as hell. I can still summon the sense of trepidation that consumed me as I entered its dilapidated walls. As we departed, I asked Pierre how he thinks the people of Kibimba manage to live together peacefully today. He replied simply: “Because they have no alternative.”

Land of Permanent Contradictions

That evening Pierre invited me out to watch the world cup at L’Archipel, one of Bujumbura’s legendary cabaret (open air) bars. It was a special day for Francophone Africa: the best French speaking team on the continent, Côte d’ivoire, were playing Columbia. The place was packed, full of happy punters. I ordered a round of the Bujumbura staple: Primus beers, fish brochettes and French fries. We found a seat somewhere near the back of the venue. Within five minutes several of Pierre’s friends came to join us. Within half an hour we were all drunk – slurring, shouting and swearing as Columbia brought Africa’s best hope one step closer to being knocked out of the world’s biggest football tournament.

As I sat there – tired, inebriated and happy – I began to reflect on the time I had spent in Burundi. Over the past two days, I had seen the rock were Dr Livingstone met Henry Stanley (for the second time), the once ethnically divided slum districts of Bujumbura, the southernmost source of the Africa’s longest river, the glorious Chutes de la Karera and the site of one of Africa’s most appalling massacres. Burundi, I realised, is a land of permanent contradictions; a place characterised by both light and shade; a destination that serves wonder and woe in equal measure. In a single day you can be simultaneously overwhelmed by beauty and overcome by sadness; only to find yourself laughing hysterically before you go to sleep. And, although there are times when one feels like a stranger in a strange land (a fact somewhat magnified by the fact that I do not speak French), this small heart of Africa remains one of the most charming, colourful and intriguing countries I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.

Fergus Simpson

Guildford, 22nd September 2014

(A version of this article has been published at :http://www.hackwriters.com/BurundiFS.htm)

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