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)

Rwanda and Burundi: Twins in Central Africa

T O W A R D S  T H E  C E N T R E  of the great African landmass lie the small landlocked nations of Rwanda and Burundi. Although they differ in a number of ways, the countries are often described as ‘twins’. But why is this? Their landscapes are undulating, lusciously green and heavily cultivated. Although small in size, they are two of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Both speak complex Bantu languages: Kinyarwanda in Rwanda and Kirundi in Burundi. They suffered the pains of colonisation and ethnic antagonism at around the same time, culminating in the genocides against the Tutsi in 1994. Over the last twenty years, however, there is evidence to suggest that these ‘twins’ have begun to separate. Rwanda, having clawed itself out of a shallow grave, has become a Central African haven of peace and progress. Burundi, on the other hand, has experienced bouts of political upheaval and civil war, and remains one of the poorest – if not the poorest – countries in the world.

Colonial Legacies

Prior to colonisation, Rwanda and Burundi (or Urundi, as Burundi was then called) formed two powerful kingdoms. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the two territories were merged into German East Africa, along with Tanganyika (the mainland of present day Tanzania). After the defeat of Germany in World War 1, German East Africa was divided between Britain and Belgium under a League of Nations mandate. Britain took over Tanzania, and Rwanda and Burundi became part of Belgian’s colonial empire, known as Rwanda-Urundi.

The Germans and the Belgians could not help but notice the extent to which the inhabitants of Rwanda and Burundi were both linguistically and culturally homogenous; yet, at the same time, they noticed how the societies were split into three distinct ethnic groupings. The relationship between these groupings was intricate, characterised by a high degree of fluidity and flexibility: they were socially mixed, intermarriage was common and it was possible for individuals to move from Hutu to Tutsi or Tutsi to Hutu, if their social circumstances changed. Predictably, the Germans did not recognise the complexities of these relationships, and proceeded to pigeonhole the peoples of Rwanda and Burundi into three categories: the Tutsi, the Hutu and the Twa.

The racist colonialists of Europe considered the Hutu and the Twa to be at an early stage of human evolution. The Tutsi, on the other hand, were perceived to be intelligent, self-disciplined, physically attractive and – this is key – superior to the Hutu and the Twa. (Indeed, a Dominican priest once proposed that the Tutsi had originated from the Garden of Eden.)

Unsurprisingly, these stereotypes deeply affected the groups’ collective self-image and societal worth. They caused the ego of the Tutsi to inflate, and the ego of the Hutu to descend vertiginously into a pit of spiteful inferiority. Fundamentally, it produced a fissure within the bonds of society based on ethnic categorization. It was these early distinctions which acted as a spawning ground for the genocidal ideology that would come to define politics in Rwanda and Burundi.

Post-colonial Mayhem

Belgium finally removed their colonial shackles on July 1st, 1962, when Rwanda and Burundi were granted their independence. In Burundi the Tutsi minority retained power after independence, whilst in Rwanda a Hutu-led revolution abolished the Tutsi monarchy. A politics of ethnicity had begun to infect the public consciousness in both nations.

The first significant massacre of the Tutsi populace in Rwanda occurred in 1959, after the death of the Tutsi king, Mwaami Rudahigwa. Subsequent massacres occurred in 1962, 1963, 1967 and 1972, causing a mass exodus of Rwandese Tutsis into neighbouring Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire. It was not until April 7th, 1994, however, that a final solution to the Tutsi “problem” was implemented.

In just one hundred days, between 800,000 and 1,000,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi and moderate Hutu community lost their lives in the most efficient episode of mass killing since the desolation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are simply no words to describe the horror unleashed in that fateful season of blood. Rwanda, along with Srebrenica, Auschwitz and Cambodia, will forever be remembered as a nadir of twentieth century human endeavour.

Burundi also experienced a cluster of massacres after independence, two of which have been described as genocide by the United Nations Security Council: the 1972 slaughter of Hutus by the predominantly Tutsi army, and the mass killings of Tutsis in 1994 by the wider Hutu population. It is estimated that over 100,000 people lost their lives during the violence of 1972 and a further 300,000 people in the massacres of 1994. The numbers killed in the Burundian genocides pale in comparison to Rwanda, but they are still colossal and deserve considerably more attention than they have received in the international press.

When Twins Grow Apart

As mentioned above, Rwanda and Burundi share much common ground, in terms of their history, geography, culture and language. However, over the last two decades, these twins of Central Africa have begun to go their separate ways.

That fateful spring of 1994 saw the rotting of the Rwandan tree, and the dying of its leaves. The Habyarimana regime had been allowed to pump lies, fear and junkyard propaganda into society for over thirty years. And a class of lumpen, uneducated, losers was bred: ready and waiting for the occasion when saturnalia and frantic destruction made itself known. By the end of July 1994, Rwanda was lifeless, its people barely registering a pulse.

The Rwanda of 2014 could not be more different. The roads are now smooth, buildings are being constructed, business is thriving, the land is cultivated and (slowly but surely) people are lifting themselves out of poverty. According to the Government of Rwanda, the rate of GDP growth increased from 2.2% in 2003, to 7.8% in 2010, peaking at 11.5% in 2008. The Rwandan parliament is comprised of 64% females (a world record, by the way). Smartly dressed police officers and soldiers stand guard at intersections. The Internet connections are amongst the best this author has experienced in Africa. But, most importantly: many, many Rwandans are now happy.

Once a people characterised by tribal divisions, the Rwandans have demonstrated that they can transcend their differences and – regardless of the comparisons one could make – build a nation of which anyone would be proud. Over the one hundred days following April 7th, 2014, they will be commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. This is understandably a very hard time for many Rwandans, especially for “survivors” of the genocide. However, it is also a time to celebrate the extraordinary journey of reconciliation and reconstruction upon which their country has embarked.

Burundi, unfortunately, has not experienced the same level of success. In Rwanda the civil war stopped very soon after the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – the administration currently holding office – overthrew the Hutu-power regime responsible for planning and perpetrating the genocide. Burundi, on the other hand, remained in a state of simmering civil war up until 2004.

The economy of Burundi has grown at a much slower rate than Rwanda’s as a result of this protracted conflict. According to the World Bank, in 2012, Burundi was the second poorest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita. Only the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo stood further from the threshold of modernity.

The current president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, was democratically elected in early 2005 in what was generally considered to be a free and fair election. The country has since enjoyed some longer periods of relative peace. Over recent months, however, political tensions have escalated, leaving many observers concerned about the future of the country’s fragile peace and democracy. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Government officials, police, and the youth league of the ruling party have obstructed opposition party meetings and disrupted demonstrations and other activities.”

In March 2014, violence broke out between police forces and members of the opposition party, Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD). In retaliation, the incumbent regime, the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), suspended the MSD for four months and charged 70 people with inciting and carrying out violent attacks. HRW assert that many of these arrests were arbitrary and unjustified. After just a single day of trials, 21 people were given life sentences and a further 26 people received a variety of other jail terms.

Recent developments have been even more concerning. Paul Debbie, a top UN official, was ordered to leave Burundi on April 17th this year after a report was leaked claiming that the CNDD-FDD had been providing arms to youth gangs ahead of the 2015 general election. According to the report, the Imbonerakure (Kirundi for “those who see far”) militia group, the youth wing of President Nkurunziza’s party, have received training and arms from the government. The similarities to the Interahamwe (Kinyarwanda for “those who stand together”) militia group equipped prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide are extremely worrying.

The Burundian government deny the accusations. “I can assure you that any action to bring about war in general and to commit genocide in particular, cannot be tolerated,” said Prosper Bazombanza, the Vice President of Burundi, in a late-night radio interview. He demanded that the UN either retract the report or provide substantive evidence in support of its claims. Nonetheless, the Burundian government has refused a UN call for an independent investigation into the report’s accusations.

Burundi has traditionally taken pride in a strong civil society and an independent media. The CNDD-FDD is doing its best to remove these freedoms. If Mr Debbie’s suspicions prove correct, it seems they are willing to achieve this goal through the most depraved of means: by arming and training civilian death squads. The Government of Burundi has tried and failed to silence the voices of dissent before, although this does appear to be their most determined effort yet. As Rwandans remember, unite and renew during the Kwibuka 20 commemoration ceremonies, is it possible that Burundi is at risk of regressing back into the chaos of twenty years ago?

Conclusion

The histories of Rwanda and Burundi were inextricably linked for many hundreds of years: their verdant topographies are barely distinguishable from one another; Kinyarwanda and Kirundu, their respective languages, share more commonalities than differences; both were colonised by the Germans and the Belgians; they celebrated independence together in 1962; and, finally, the two countries found themselves at the brink of total annihilation in 1994.

Over the proceeding two decades, these twins of Central Africa have trodden different paths. Rwanda has begun to put a past of tribalism and mass slaughter behind it, in favour of cosmopolitism and economic growth. Burundi, disappointingly, seems to be taking more steps backward than forward. The government is clamping down on dissent, arresting opponents on trumped-up charges, thus threatening Burundi’s hard-won democracy ahead of the 2015 elections. It will take more than luck to stop this beautiful country joining South Sudan and the Central African Republic on the list of failing African states. It will, if Rwanda has taught us anything, take time, energy and resources. But then again, if Rwanda has taught us one thing, it will be well worth our while.

Fergus Simpson

Kigali, 6th June 2014

(Published at: http://www.hackwriters.com/SimpsonF.htm)

When A Thousand Hills Fell Apart

T H I S  Y E A R  W I L L  M A R K the twentieth anniversary of what arguably represents the nadir of twentieth century human endeavour. There are a number of candidates that both could and should be considered for such a macabre accolade. Such a list would inevitably include some, if not all of the following: the Holocaust, the atomic extirpation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin’s purges, the Vietnam war, Idi Amin’s rape and despoilment of Uganda, ‘Year Zero’ in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein’s chemical butchery in Halabja, the Srebrenica massacre – I leave you to fill in the gaps. However, in terms of the sheer efficiency, effectiveness and brutality of the slaughter, none of these occasions quite match that which occurred in the small African nation of Rwanda.

In April 1994, a Hutu government in collusion with various militia groups, most notably the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi, attempted to implement a final solution to the ‘Tutsi problem’ in Rwanda. Although ethnic tensions had existed for decades, it was not until April 6th, when Rwanda’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana, and Burundi’s president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, were killed in a mysterious plane crash, that things began to fall apart. Just as every American knows where they were the day two aeroplanes demolished the twin towers, every Rwandan knows where they were the day that plane was shot down over Kigali. With frightening immediacy, just an hour after the crash, Hutu militia groups erected roadblocks around the city and begun searching houses for ‘undesirables’. Gunshots began to echo through the streets. Many leading personae non gratae – politicians, journalists and human-rights activists – were murdered within just thirty-six hours. The grande peur that was to infect Rwanda and poison its society over the next hundred days had begun.

The event that proceeded Habyarimana’s death was the most efficient genocidal massacre of the 20th century, the rate of killing surpassing that of the holocaust and the Cambodian killing fields. Massacres spread like a rash out of Kigali and into the préfectures. Barely a village was left unscathed. The bodies of the deceased cascaded down the Rusumo falls, out of Rwanda and into Tanzania, where they spilled out into Lake Victoria turning the river’s mouth red. 40,000 rotting cadavers were found washed up upon the Ugandan shoreline. Western governments watched with indifference as the gruesome events played out in front of them. There is an infamous video clip of Bill Clinton stating that United States intervention in Rwanda depended solely upon the ‘cumulative weight of the American interests at stake’. The systematic massacre of 800,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi and moderate Hutu populations unfortunately did not fulfill this rather isolationist approach to foreign policy and, ultimately, the United States did not invest a single dollar in preventing the anti-Tutsi pogroms.

On the 4th of July, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – the party currently governing Rwanda under president Paul Kagame – finally brought the genocide to an end. Kagame and the RPF pushed the Hutu genocidaires out of Rwanda, instigating a mass exodus into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (previously known as Zaire). This migration was made up of both Hutu civilians, who had played no part in the 1994 killing spree, and of Hutu genocidaires, collectively responsible for the genocide. The extremist elements amongst this tide of humanity soon began to instigate incursions against the RPF and started a campaign to ethnically cleanse DRC of its native Tutsi population – the Banyamulenge (a group that has suffered repression so extensive as to be named ‘the Jews of Africa’) – from refugee camps on the Rwandan border. In September 1996, Rwanda launched a full-scale invasion of the DRC, ostensibly with the goal of eliminating the racist Hutu militia at large in the East of the country; Zaire’s generous mineral reserves providing a significant ulterior motive. This aggression ultimately acted as the catalyst that would provoke ‘Africa’s Great War’.

At its zenith, the war pitted the armies of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda against the forces of the DRC, Zimbabwe, Chad, Angola, Sudan and Namibia, as well as up to forty different militia groups. The highest casualty estimates for the Syrian civil fall between 100,000 and 200,000 persons. Although significant, these figures pale when compared to the Congolese wars which, since 1996, have caused over five million people to expire prematurely. The war ended in July 2003, when the current president of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, managed to engender a brief parenthesis of peace and stability. However, this period of relative tranquillity was far from sustainable. Since the war officially ended, there has been a recrudescence of guerrilla warfare in the North and South Kivu regions that border Rwanda, of the kind that had continued spasmodically in Europe during the Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648. There are currently almost 20,000 UN peacekeepers in the DRC – the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world. Despite their recent success in defeating the M23 militia group in North Kivu province, the UN mission has been largely unsuccessful in stemming violence across the country.

As some of you already know, I will be travelling to Rwanda on April 5th 2014 to observe the twentieth anniversary of the genocide. Rather than focusing on the events that preceded and happened during the genocide, I want to write about where Rwanda is now – socially, economically, politically – and the extent to which the genocide lives on in the minds of Rwandans today. I will be carrying out interviews with people working with various charities, aid agencies and (if I can manage it) the Government of Rwanda. I also intend to take every opportunity available to talk to people that I meet upon the way. Genocide Memorial Day takes place every year on the April 7th, followed by a week of official mourning. I will be in Kigali over this period to attend remembrance ceremonies and visit memorial sites. I will then travel through Rwanda, stopping off in some of the towns most affected by the genocide. I am trying to obtain a visa to cross over into the Democratic Republic of Congo on the 1st May 2014 via the town of Bukavu in South Kivu province. From here I plan to take the ferry across lake Kivu to Goma, the capital of North Kivu.

Both North and South Kivu remain two of the least stable provinces in the DRC which, as it happens, is one of the least stable countries in the world. In late 2012, the M23 rebel group – whose leader is currently on trail at the International Criminal Court – captured Goma. The town has now been retaken by Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (the Congolese army) and MONUSCO (the UN peacekeeping mission). From Goma it is possible to track mountain gorillas and scale the live Nyiragongo volcano in the Virunga National Park; both challenges, which, if the security situation allows, I intend to complete. From Goma I will cross back into Rwanda and then south into Burundi, a country with a past almost as turbulent as Rwanda’s. On 20th June 2014, in Bujumbura – Burundi’s capital – my adventures in the great lakes of Africa will come to an end and I will fly back to London.

Over the following weeks it is likely that I will be immersed in planning the finer details of the trip. Obtaining a visa to enter the DRC is already proving to a considerable challenge: the last time I called their London embassy, the operator could not even speak English. Between now and departure, my blog will feature regular commentary on current and historical affairs in Rwanda, DRC and Burundi, along with additional information regarding my adventures. Please do read and comment upon these missives, if you get the time. Any feedback would be most appreciated.

Fergus Simpson

Guildford, 15 January 2014