After spending nearly a week in Rwanda – seeing both, the capital and the country side – I decided to move down a little south and take a look at its poorer neighbour in the south: Burundi.
Arriving in Bujumbura, Burundi, the first thing I noticed was the countless number of people crowding the streets – men dressed in shirts and pants, women often in more traditional dresses. Traffic moved slow, maybe because not all the potholes had a lot of street around them. The city has a bit of a 70ies feel to it – with most of the building having been constructed around that time, before investment ceased with the civil war. However, the most remarkable thing about going to Bujumbura was the kind of people you meet there.
The first foreigner I ran into at a craft market was a former drug addict turned ‘missionary’ from Norway. According to his own accounts he used to go around shooting people and doing heroine. The scars on his arm made the second part quite believable. He’s now studying theology (together with all the other people in their van), getting disability benefits, as well student loans and support from his parents for, you know, no longer being a criminal drug addict.
A girl from couchsurfing recommended me to stay in the Hotel de L’Amitié while in Bujumbura, one reason being the interesting people you get to meet there. Turns out she was right.
First guy I met at the hotel was a German electrician who worked for a brewery equipment company. His job was pretty much to fly around Africa and build or fix all things brewery. On this trip he was coming from Uganda by motorbike to visit his wife’s family in Burundi. His wife and son who were with him looked somewhat beaten up though. Turns out their bus driver on the way from Kampala to Bujumbura fell asleep. Bus driver: Dead. First row of passengers: Dead. Wife and son sitting right behind them: Lucky.
The next day upped that a bit – this time I ran into a Belgian nurse who worked in a rural area in South Kivu, DR Congo. Not exactly the safest place on earth – so power generators and military protection are a given. She was working there with a organisation similar to MSF, albeit much smaller. She came with two Congolose guys, one working in the Congo as doctor, the other having a job in Bujumbura.
Bujumbura guy seemed to know everyone and their uncle and showed us around town. First stop was the well-known beach club Bora Bora, a few kilometers north of town. We reached the place by public bus – which one might be tempted to describe as ‘crowded’ with roughly 25 people being in the small van. However, the fact that there were two Burundi basketball players sitting next to me, meant there wasn’t too much grounds for complaints for someone of my size.
The beach club felt a little surreal. A bubble of wifi, white people, white and pastell-colored interior and a general atmosphere of removedness. For some reason I thought of the beach bar in Blood Diamond that later on got overran by rebels. But maybe that was just my siege mentality, partially induced by multiple crime and security warnings regarding the country in the Lonely Planet. Or it was due to the large and sparsely visited beaches. Or due to a plane landing and taking off on the water, while jet skis and speed boats were skuffling around. One major familiar sight though, coming from Thailand, were the locals who went swimming with their clothes on.
I decided to head onwards from the beach club to a small national park further north. The idea was to see some gazelles, hippos and crocodiles. While the actual ‘safari’ itself wasn’t too successful, with only a handful of mostly sub-merged hippos showing up, the surroundings more than made up for it. From my ‘armed ranger’ – which was actually a police man with a kalashnikov on a bycicle – to the nearby village we went through (since there weren’t many hippos in the park, we decided to look outside) it was an interesting Burundi-experience.
One recurring theme in the country were that things weren’t really taken too exact. From not so super unusual things like forgotten food orders or extra items on a bill, there was also some really surprising moments. Paying with a 10,000 Franc (approx 8 USD) bill and getting change for a 5,000 Franc bill (I got the correct change when I pointed out the mistake) might in other situations seem like a rather straight-forward fleecing attempt. However, the fact that when I changed 20 USD into 25,000 Franc they accidently gave me 45,000 Franc (I returned the extra amount) makes it look more like things in general aren’t always being taken too exact.
Nightlife in Bujumbura is rather small. However, they managed to incorporate all the international must haves: The club in which you can’t get in because of your shoes (or by paying extra), the place that’s full of hookers and sexpats, the bar where expats and tourists sit around having quite beers and the local backyard with a dance floor and cheap drinks. Streets empty pretty much completely at night – one of the reason the horribly researched Bujumbura section of the East Africa Lonely Planet (cheapest hotel in there: 45 USD, cheapest hotel in reality 10 USD) recommends taking a taxi everywhere. According to locals and hotel staff that wasn’t necessary, so consequently I didn’t.
Rwanda und Burundi both share streets full of police and military with Kalashnikovs, an impoverished country-side and a decent road to the capital from the border, However, where in Rwanda foreign languages are a mix of English and French, in Burundi English is of very limited use. The French focus in the southern country also becomes apparent when it comes to food, with mouth-watering tomato-omelette croissants being my absolute favorite.
Two days are way too inadequate to get a decent impression of a country. But with limited security information being available, I decided to play it safe and stick to the secure area of the capital without any explorative visits to the country side. Thus, roughly 48 hours after arriving, I took the bus and headed back to Kigali.