A Lonely Planet guidebook author completes a personal misson to visit one of Africa's smallest and least visited countries, and returns satisfied.
Find joie de vivre in Burundi
Sitting on the sun-bleached wooden terrace of the Bora Bora club eating fresh barbecued fish and watching the sun sink to the horizon, I took in the view around me. It was one of dangling coconut trees, adults and children alike splashing and playing in the wavelets and a hyper-enthusiastic band beating out live drumbeats on the beach to a hip, swinging crowd of pretty girls. It could have been Ibiza or the Caribbean, but it was neither of these, and nor, in fact, was I even gazing out over a salt-filled ocean. Instead, I was on the sultry shores of Lake Tanganyika in Burundi, a tiny landlocked African nation no bigger than a smudge mark on most world maps. It’s a country that for the better part of the past few decades has known little but violent unrest. But on a Sunday afternoon at Saga Beach, just outside the village-sized and exotic-sounding capital of Bujumbura, it was hard not to believe I wasn’t playing a bit part in a beach holiday brochure.
My adopted guide for the day, local taxi driver Antoine, told me we’d come to Saga Beach at an opportune moment. The band, he said, were no ordinary band, they were Les Tambourinaires du Burundi and, dressed in flowing robes of red, white and green (the colours of the Burundian flag) they’d performed on stages the world over. I wasn’t surprised to hear this; the performance was an explosive mix of raucous drumming, hollering and acrobatics that would make many a circus performer proud and any overly extravagant pop star seem slow and dull.
Burundi’s recent past hasn’t been very pretty. Like its northern neighbour, Rwanda, the country’s population can be divided into two groups. Hutu and Tutsi. And, like in Rwanda, the two ethnic groups have fought bitterly with one another for political control with both groups committing mass atrocities and slaughter. By the early part of the 21st century, this violence had left Burundi a near-bankrupt wreck. Although its past had done it no favours, I’d long held a fascination with this seriously under-visited country and so, when the opportunity arose to update a guidebook to the country, I didn’t hesitate.
Bujumbura, known by its friends as Buju, must once have been a beautiful francophone (the country was a colony of Belgium) city. Today it’s a quiet and rather melancholy type of place, but hints of former colonial grandeur remain. The streets are wide, and must once have been orderly, and the older buildings of state are grand and pompous. For years much of that beauty was hidden under a veil of neglect and destruction. However, the relative peace of the past few years means that, finally, the city is getting the makeover it so deserves (and hopefully all that colonial-era architecture won’t be lost under new developments). And when it comes to getting Burundi back on its feet everybody chips in. For three hours every Saturday morning the entire able adult population of Burundi takes part in Ibikorwa rusangi, or community work. During this time virtually everything in the country shuts down (something to keep in mind if you’re in Burundi on a Saturday) and people get busy manicuring public lawns, sweeping streets, splashing fresh paint on buildings and generally showing a bit of civic pride.
Walking the hot, sticky streets, I quickly came to the conclusion that Buju was more a city of atmosphere than a city of actual tourist sights, which are limited to a depressing zoo, where the animals look like they would have more fun if they were dead, and a market, filled with far more joy than the zoo. While it fails in the tourist-sights department Buju excels in joie de vivre. There’s no doubt that this is a city that appreciates the finer things in life and, if you have a francophone background, few things in life come finer than food. For its size, Buju might well be one of the best culinary cities this side of Africa. There are starched tablecloth places with “don’t change a thing” traditional French and Belgian dishes, cute bistros packed with French-speaking expats dining on exciting French-African fusion dishes and even patisseries creating delicate Parisian strawberry tarts and perfectly flaky croissants. The good folk of Buju are not ones to let adversity get in the way of fun, and it’s rumoured that during the darkest days of the civil war, when dusk to dawn curfews were in place, they would pile into their bar, restaurant or party of choice before the curfew kicked in for the evening, and remain holed up there until the following morning.
Although the countryside around Bujumbura is flat, hot and very humid that, as I found out when I hopped into a minibus heading north towards the Rwandan border, is hardly atypical of the rest of the country. For the most part Burundi is made up of hills heaped upon hills painted in the greens of banana plantations and other crops. Small hamlets of red-mud houses line the twisting mountain road to Rwanda. In a few rare areas, the terraced fields that cover almost every hill from foot to summit give way to clumps of old-growth tropical forest through which masses of birds including half turkey, half parrot turacos flitted. This forest is at its most pristine in the Parc National de la Kibira, Burundi’s largest forest reserve. Here the birds are joined in the trees by monkeys in a dozen shades and, most enticingly, chimpanzees. Researchers are currently working to habituate these chimps to human visitors, and the park’s infrastructure is being slowly upgraded, but for the moment if you want to see the primates the best plan, and the one that I did, is to cross the border (a painless task) into Rwanda and head to the Nyungwe Forest National Park, which co-joins Kibira.
Nyungwe is feted as one of the oldest, most biologically diverse and most important rainforests in all of Africa. The park is home to no less than 1,000 known plant species, 13 primates, as well as numerous other mammal species and more than 275 different kinds of bird and more butterflies than you can shake a big, floppy wing at. My time here was a morning-to-dusk, action-packed blur of hiking (or rather sliding) along muddy, slippery trails through foliage-packed forests for close encounters with some of the park’s star attractions. These included a group of habituated chimpanzees, who gave us an impressive performance of tree-trunk-bashing, hollering, hooting and a rough-and-tumble race through the forest. Smaller, daintier but equally impressive, was the huge group of some 400 habituated Angolan colobus monkeys that I spent a morning watching. Although most people come to Nyungwe primarily for the primates and the exceptional birdlife, I found myself just as happy taking in the Hollywood-worthy jungle scenery, whether that be on a walk through the forest to crashing waterfalls or a gentle amble through the tea bush carpets that cover the slopes abutting the park.
Returning to Burundi after my short ape-watching diversion, I met Antoine. He asked what I had seen and done in Burundi and, after listening to my reply, near enough commanded me to meet him the following morning so that he could take me to see some hippos. After breakfast the next day I clambered into his beat-up old taxi, and we headed west out of Bujumbura for a half-hour drive to the low-key Parc National de la Rusizi. While the park can’t compete with the big-name East African national parks in terms of wildlife quantity and variety, it did turn out to have an enjoyably offbeat and unexplored air to it. And yes, there were hippos there, which, after we’d swapped the taxi for a garishly painted wooden boat, we saw, along with a crocodile or two, as we puttered up and down the park’s river channels.
Later that afternoon, as we returned to Buju, Antoine, who had clearly enjoyed his day out, said, “Ah, there are many good things in Burundi for a tourist. This national park was very nice, but do you want me to show you the best place in Burundi?” And without waiting for my reply, Antoine veered off the tarmac road, down a short dirt track and into a parking area crowded with expensive jeeps, colourful mopeds, rust-bucket cars and bicycles.
The instant I stepped out of the taxi, I could hear the high-energy drum beats of what turned out to be Burundi’s most famous musical export. Sitting on the terrace of Bora Bora club, chewing our barbecued fish, Antoine nodded his head towards Les Tambourinaires du Burundi, aka the Royal Drummers of Burundi, whose performance was coming to a noisy crescendo, and told me that when they were at home they played most Sunday afternoons at one of Saga Beach’s palm-shaded bars.
Coming out here to enjoy the sun, the lake and the music was, Antoine knowingly assured me, the best thing for a visitor to do in Burundi. I took my eyes off the musicians and looked along the beach. Couples strolled along the water’s edge, footballs were being kicked about, the sun was turning evening gold and a man on a snapped surfboard was trying to surf knee-high waves. Yes, I thought, Antoine was probably right.