A short visit to a very troubled country

Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a recent past filled with corruption, autocratic rule, civil war and a life expectancy in the 40s. Even now, it is far from safe and there is not that much to see. So why would one go there? Well, I went because it was there, I was right next door, and I thought “when am I going to have the chance again”?

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As a general rule, I find that the touristic appeal of a country is inversely proportional to the number of UN planes flying there. For each tourist I ran into, I saw at least 100 UN personnel.

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While Bujumbura is a beachfront city, the reality of that beach doesn’t add much to the country’s appeal. But to be honest, about twenty minutes outside of town, there is another beach which apparently gets packed on week-ends. I went and it was certainly much cleaner and surrounded with bars and little tables. I’m sure it would be fine on another day. Strangely, the main bar/restaurant kept a couple of monkeys in cages.

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This is zoo keeping, 19th Century style. A tiny cage from which any passerby can poke the poor creature to get a reaction. He seemed thirsty, so we gave him a bottle of water. I wasn’t sure a chimp would know what to do with a bottle of water…

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But he sure did! I wish we had had a bottle of beer to give him; that would have been precious.

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Speaking of beer, the brewery is one of the major industries of the city. It also bottles various kinds of soft drinks.

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Now that Burundi is starting to stabilize after years of civil war, a number of projects are under way. In fact, I saw construction sites all over the city. Large and small, brand new or the re-birth of projects suspended years ago. Amid the poverty and lack of development, one can even find the odd restaurant aimed at NGO and UN workers, western preachers, military officers from the developed world and all other manners of relatively rich expats. During a meal in such a restaurant, I read about the economy of the country on my phone and realized the annual GDP per capita in Burundi was equivalent to 40% of the retail value of my phone. Quite incredible when you stop to think about it.

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You even find some “magasin chinois” or “chinese shops”. I didn’t go in, but I assume it is like the ones I saw in Southern Africa. It isn’t that the store is Chinese owned (although it may very well be), but rather that it sells all manners of articles made in China. An assortment of household items not easily hand made on the local market. Let’s call it a very cheap version of Wallmart.

On the topic of the store’s French name: unlike Rwanda where English is very quickly replacing French as the “official second language”, Burundi is remaining 100% loyal to its linguistic Belgian colonial heritage. Absolutely all the signs are in French and it is the language of use in all the businesses I went in.

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Except of course when you are trying to market to a rich, trendy and youthful clientele, then you switch to English. In one of the poorest countries in the world, I found the very concept of a gym to be a little disgusting. I wouldn’t want to explain the concept in a remote village: “You see, I pay a lot of money to these people who then allow me into their business. There, I lift many heavy things and then put them back right where they were. Doing this helps me compensate for the fact that my entire life involves absolutely no physical effort whatsoever. Get it?”

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I always love the businesses where the incredibly cheap cost of labour allows things which would be impossible in the developed world. This car washing and carpet cleaning roadside place disassembles the seats from your car to better clean the inside. I would be a little afraid that, in case of a collision, me and my very clean seat would both be travelling through the windshield!

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As everywhere else in Africa you have vendors in the street. Some provide useful products to the average motorist stuck in traffic: bottled water, cigarettes, snacks, newspaper, etc. These guys were trying to sell bedding and pillows. That’s kinda random; I wonder how well they did.

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Typical heavy merchandise delivery vehicles.

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As you can imagine, all that traffic chaos results in quite a few collisions. We stumbled into one, and of course it involved not two cars stopped on the side discussing the matter, but rather several cops, the drivers, the cars blocking the entire street and a bunch of random people not wanting to miss the action. My driver did a u-turn.

My driver was a guy recommended by the hotel. Because of the rather stern warnings given by western Governments about travelling to Burundi, I stuck to a high-end hotel, a car and driver, and little night time travel. Not ideal, but it’s not like the slums of Bujumbura are so interesting that I should risk getting robbed or stabbed to see them. As an added safety measure, my driver was a medical technician, should something occur. Of course, this was a coincidence, but it was true. He would have preferred to work in a hospital, but his training didn’t quite make the cut for the few private facilities and he couldn’t work in a public hospital – or in any other Government job – because he was not a member of the ruling party. Such is life in corrupt Burundi.

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The main touristic attraction in Bujumbura is the “Musée vivant”, a three part affair comprising this rather lame recreation of a traditional village (huts only, no people or artifacts), a zoo that would terrorize animal welfare people from anywhere in the world and an area where people make and sell arts and handicrafts.

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This beautiful leopard in a 3 x 3 m cage did not seem too happy. If you visit and find him sleeping or otherwise being boring, don’t worry, you can poke him with a stick, then you’ll see what I mean.

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But perhaps I am seeing their lives from a human perspective. One of the cages had a couple of monkeys like this one, but one was out of it. The guide told me that during the day, they keep one in the cage for the few visitors to see them, but let the other one roam free. “They always  come back?” I asked. “Of course, the cage is safe and we put food in it, why wouldn’t they come back”. I guess dreaming to see what’s over the next hill is not a universal phenomenon in the animal kingdom.

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I don’t know how happy this chimp felt, but he seemed to have a very good relationship with the guide.

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In sometimes flimsy cages and cracked window vivariums, some of the most lethal snakes in the world. I didn’t stay too long.

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A few crocodiles.

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And what my guide called “les condamnés”, the condemned. These animals are raised by the museum for a specific reason. They have only one role, and the one act play is set in a pit with a large crocodile.

And that concluded my short visit to this troubled country. Despite the dire warnings, I somehow managed to remain un-murdered.

#Burundi

4 thoughts on “A short visit to a very troubled country

  1. Hmmm, did you visit the stone which is the commemoration of the place Dr. Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley is believed to happen? I would underline the word “believe”. If you don’t believe this happaned in Burundi (some 20 km away from Bujumbura) you can bet that this meeting has happened actually in Tanzaia. Believe or not, keep going Colin. Best regards.

    • I had the same skepticism as you Valentin, which is why I did not go. Plus, paying a long taxi to see a stone was not my number one priority during the short stay. Cheers!

  2. Um….Sorry I missed the point here! you see, I can sit here and say nothing but judging your awkward approach on things, that I miss the positive side of you where you actually get to leave your bubble and explore different parts of the world. Get it? So let me see…may be not having a good day was part of the reason? Patty Hearst puts it this way “It’s hard to know what to say about somebody like that, except there are people who look for trouble. And trouble is very easy to find when you go looking for it”. I think it’s great that you kept us aware of this part of this nation, but posting a one sided article in which you only spoke of all the negative moments of the event that you could remember of really made you sound like a fat jerk.

    • First of all, I will admit that training while travelling has proven a bit of a challenge, but… I AM NOT FAT!!! Which leaves one question; am I a jerk? In this case, I probably am. I usually go out of my way to find positive things about the places I visit, especially when they have been poorly portrayed by mainstream media (like Albania, Belarus or North Korea – not that the DPRK is that great mind you). In this case I made no such effort, mainly because as in many places with little tourism and a lack of security, transportation can be either not very recommendable, or very expensive. So why go through danger or great expenses to visit a natural park in Burundi when there are plenty of similar parks in neighbouring super orderly, safe (but expensive) Rwanda, or slightly chaotic, but cheap and recently safe Uganda?

      I guess I was doing a form of “disaster tourism”. “This looks like a bad place. Let’s peek in. Yep, pretty bad.” Certainly not very respectful of the people of Burundi and the enormous challenges they face. Hopefully I don’t make it a habit, because as we speak, I am writing the story of my visit to Haiti.

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