Drumming has a long tradition in Burundi and drums are sacred instruments used to commemorate births, deaths and other major events. The tradition is passed down from father to son, and the drummers take turns to drum, dance and rest during the long performances.
Burundi – Long Read

The beating heart of Africa

Photo by Blickwinkel

Burundi – Long Read The beating heart of Africa

Hello Burundi, a tiny nation squeezed between the giants of Tanzania and DR Congo. Although little known, the country is blessed with dramatic mountain landscapes and an extremely laid-back population. As it quietly rebuilds after its brutal civil war, it has all the potential to become the next must-see destination for adventurous travelers.

Arne Doornebal
Arne Doornebal Journalist

A long time ago they were one. Burundi and its northern neighbor Rwanda are both roughly the size of Belgium, their former colonizer. The people in both countries speak the same language and belong to the same tribes. And on both sides of the border they love (Congolese) Primus beer.

But that is where the similarities end. Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali is buzzing with foreigners; businessmen, diplomats and backpackers hang around in fancy coffee shops with wireless Internet. The country is world famous because of the 1994 genocide and the remarkable recovery afterwards. Burundi, on the other hand, counts as one of the world’s forgotten conflicts after the civil war there raged on until 2005.

In Kigali, the nearest capital city to Burundi, I board the “Yahoo” bus company for the six-hour journey. Rwanda is known as “the country of 1,000 hills”. Those hills become higher and higher as we approach the border and soon after crossing I decide Burundi could claim fame as “the country of 1,000 mountains”.

The border formalities are a bit unwelcoming; the only visa available (for a whopping $40) is a three-day document allowing just enough time to arrange a “real” visa in the capital, Bujumbura.

The mountains are covered by forest. Early in the day, before the heat of the sun hits the valleys, a blanket-like mist hangs over them. The bus does not have an official music system, but a young man next to me entertains the passengers by playing one hip-hop song after another from his smartphone. When the bus drives too fast up and down the slopes, my ears start aching like in an airplane coming in to land.

The city is chaotic by any standards

After an hour and a half we start a kilometers-long descent, while in the distance I can see Lake Tanganyika glinting in the sun to the far horizon. Some more sharp corners later, we reach the outskirts of Bujumbura. The city is chaotic by any standards. The market is huge; vendors open up their wooden stalls each morning before throngs of shoppers flow in. The minibus terminus next door is a beehive; from here you can travel to anywhere in this fast-growing city.

My destination is Kamenge, one of the city’s many suburbs. Today is the start of FESTICAB, Burundi’s own film festival. Papy Jamaica, pioneer filmmaker who started his career producing wedding videos, explains why they need one. “After 1985 nobody would shoot a feature film here, because of the war,” he says. “But when the war ended, that all changed.” Burundian artists sprang up and Jamaica started a film school in 2006.

On the soccer field nearby, a hip-hop competition is going on. It draws large crowds who might otherwise have gone to FESTICAB. At the cinema, I watch four short locally-made movies. A man marries a second wife without the consent of his first, who gets her revenge by throwing boiling water on him. The second film shows a man raping his daughter, while numbers three and four portray a rebel group and prostitution. Welcome to Burundi!

“These are films made by people who lived through a decade of war,” says Francis Muhire, director of FESTICAB. “So what do you expect? They are based on the everyday life of people here – the things Burundians go through.”

Outside, the hip-hop crowd has swollen to the thousands. Kamenge is a rather poor neighborhood; few people seem to work. The market is gigantic, but the number of young men hanging around idle seems higher than elsewhere in the region. It is my first sense of the over-population that the country is struggling with.

Hustlers pull me and my luggage

I end up staying five days in the capital. Although I can’t wait to see the countryside, I have to kick my heels for the weekend so I can extend my visa when government offices open on Monday. On Monday, they are willing to issue the visa but say I must wait until Wednesday morning for the stamp. Just after lunch on Wednesday, I finally pick it up. Lunchtime is strictly observed in Burundi; between noon and 2pm office life comes to a standstill.

With all my documents cleared I rush to the city’s Gare du Nord to find transport to the second city of Gitega. Gare du Nord might be named after the famous Paris station, but there are no trains here. It is just a junction where Toyota station wagons compete for passengers before speeding off to their various destinations. Hustlers pull me and my luggage, literally trying to push me inside their vehicles. “Only one place left before we can go,” they shout. I take the nearest one. As soon as there are five passengers (four on the back seat is standard) we speed off.

Despite being so squeezed I enjoy the ride as we drive towards the mountains, singing along with the latest Kiswahili hit songs. There are so many cracks in the windscreen that it is hard to see through but what I do glimpse is often terrifying. The verges are steep, the road crumbling and the drop vertiginous. Men on bicycles are hanging on to heavy fuel trucks to pull them up the mountains, and not letting go even when the trucks accelerate downhill again at high speed. The scenery is dramatic and very beautiful, high mountains plunging into deep valleys, with banana plantations filling every corner of the landscape, their spreading greenery a vision of fertility.

Burundi and Rwanda were both powerful kingdoms

Two hours later I reach Gitega, which has a huge hotel with wireless Internet but very few guests. Just outside town is the neat, three-room National Museum, recently refurbished with a $30,000 grant from the US embassy. Jacques Mapfarakora is in charge and he shows me black and white photographs of historic royals. Burundi and Rwanda were both powerful kingdoms when first visited by Europeans in the late 19th century. Some say the autocratic style in which both countries are now ruled stems from this history, with the current presidents seeing themselves as the successors of those mighty kings.

“The most famous king was Mwezi,” says Jacques. “He was in charge when the Germans arrived and survived colonization by signing a treaty with them.” Burundi later came into Belgian hands, an unhappy time, and just before independence the kingdom was shocked by the murder of the popular prince Rwagasore. A few years later the ruling King Mwambutsa had to flee the country during political turmoil and the monarchy was abolished.

Professor Emile Mworora was a 22-year-old student when he witnessed the Belgian flag being lowered and Burundi’s own going up, on July 1, 1962. “That was an emotional moment,” he says. “Finally we had our own country. It felt great.”

But the joy had been overshadowed by the assassination of Rwagasora, a prince of the Tutsi who preached cooperation between the country’s main tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Just as in Rwanda, the divide between the two groups deepened under colonial rule. The Belgians favored the Tutsi, even calling them a separate race they said had migrated from Ethiopia. “This so-called Hamitic theory led to a large divide,” says Mworora. “The Tutsi were seen as superior while the Hutu, seen as coming from local Bantu groups, were inferior and less intelligent.”

The Hamitic theory has now been discredited as people realized that Hutu and Tutsi are not separate races but different social categories of the same ethnic group, sharing the same culture and language.

The king had to flee over a century ago

The seat of the Burundi kings was in Muramvia, halfway between Bujumbura and Gitega. But Jacques knows another royal place, just 20 minutes by motorcycle taxi from the museum. He instructs one of the riders to take me to Gishora. “King Mwezi lived there for a while, when he had to flee his residence over a century ago,” he says.

It is my first long journey outside the city, and the landscape is amazing from the beginning. We ride through valleys where women are harvesting rice, through small towns with children who might never have seen a white person before, and across creeks on wooden bridges. After a while I see a giant structure atop a hill: a clay hut with grass-thatched roof. It is Gishora, home of the guardians of the royal drums.

But there aren’t any guardians today. There is nobody here, just the drums: beautiful, historic and unprotected. I wait for 20 minutes but no one shows up. I take some photographs, and return to town. The country might have a rich history, but not much is being done to protect its historic sites.

The next day is a Saturday. Gitega is quiet. Extremely quiet. Just outside town, men and women are weeding the roadside with hoes. “We do this every Saturday morning,” an old man says. “It is mandatory community service, between 7am and 10am.” In the city people may try to get out of it but in villages you can expect a knock on the door if you do not show up. “We are used to it,” he says simply when I asked if people really like this or not. Forced labor and strict state control date back to colonial times and contributed greatly to ethnic violence in the past, as only Hutu had to work while Tutsi were exempt. “Nowadays, everybody has to, no matter whether you are Hutu or Tutsi,” the old man says.

It takes a while before I find a bus to visit Karera waterfalls, the country’s top tourist attraction. Public transport here doesn’t run on Saturday mornings, until the community work is over.

Ten kilometers before reaching Rutana there is a signpost pointing to the falls, a 14-kilometer journey on another motorcycle taxi. It is cool here; we are at an altitude of over 2,000 meters. I pass a fragrant eucalyptus forest and the old bike struggles to climb up the steep hills.

A Unesco-listed World Heritage Site

Four falls make up Karera, a Unesco-listed World Heritage Site where two streams of the Karera River plunge into a pool before falling in two more stages to the valley floor. I ask the young guide how high they are, normally the first thing any tourist might want to know, but the poor boy does not have a clue. “Fifty meters,” he says, after we have descended to the bottom in under five minutes. I doubt that and say it is a maximum of 30. “That is too little, sir!” he says, nearly begging.

I have so far seen no other foreign tourist and it will stay like this for another day. Many times on this trip, people ask “Can we help you?” or “Have you come to buy our products?” as I take photos of drying fish along the lake. The idea of a foreigner with no objective other than tourism is simply alien.

The motorcycle driver is in a bad mood when his bike breaks down on our way back. Together we push the heavy machine uphill. “This thing cost me $1,400,” he says. I wonder how many years and how many passengers it will take to earn back his investment.

After connecting twice I reach the village of Rutovu, the other top destination in Burundi. Here, people say, is the source of the mighty River Nile. Uganda normally claims that the point where Lake Victoria flows into the Nile is the source but, in Burundi, they reason that all streams flowing into the lake are sources, and this one is the furthest of all.

“Germans discovered this place in 1938,” says the tour guide, Gerard. “From here this water will flow 6,737 kilometers to Egypt.” The Germans built a symbolic small scale Egyptian pyramid on top of the hill to mark the site. The stream itself does not look very impressive or even natural as it comes from a pipe. Construction work is under way to dig a swimming pool. That could work as a tourist attraction.

Both Hutu and Tutsi are part of the government

I am at 2,200 meters and the pyramid enjoys a great view over farmland. There is still a lot of nature here, compared to other parts of the country where land is divided into tiny plots. Overpopulation, clearly visible everywhere, is a major problem. With 8.5million Burundians and an average of four children per woman, the country is no stranger to land disputes.

“We are slowly overcoming the divide between Hutu and Tutsi,” says professor Mworora. “In Rwanda, for example, it is forbidden to even use those words but here we can discuss the issue openly.” He believes tribalism was only one of he reasons for the violence that plagued his country. “Ethnicity has often been used as an excuse, but it was a political struggle for power and resources. There is very limited land in Burundi, while the population keeps growing.”

The most recent civil war, which started in 1993 when the first Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye was murdered by Tutsi extremists, eventually saw different Hutu rebel movements fighting each other. “Now both Hutu and Tutsi are part of the government and parliament,” Mworora says.

Having visited the highlights in the southern part of the country within a day, I make my way down to Lake Tanganyika, which forms the western border. With two transfers, without at any point having to wait any longer than 30 minutes, I reach the town of Nyanza-Lac. The two words mean the same: lake. In one of the minibuses the passengers spontaneously start to sing: the term Yesu suggests that it is all about Jesus.

Many people I see walking are barefoot

“The south of the country is more underdeveloped than elsewhere,” someone in Gitega told me. He was right. Many people I see walking are barefoot. Although the main roads are maintained well, everywhere else is connected by nothing more than rocky paths. On certain stretches, the other passengers speak no French, only Kirundi, the local language.

Nyanza-Lac is hot, just like Bujumbura. It is the very southwest of the country and is a resort town. There are two hotels on the beach, with a cheaper option in between. For the first time I see people identifiable as tourists: a couple with a guidebook. The views over the lake are beautiful. The water is deep blue, and there are a few meters of beach. Fishermen are busy preparing for the night, when they go out with lights to attract their catch. In the distance I see the misty mountains of DR Congo. This lake stretches down to Zambia, more than 600 kilometers to the south.

The town itself is small: a busy road, a market, a post-office. If someone would start organizing lake trips, they could make a killing. I go swimming with some local boys, who all start showing off for the “mzungu” (white man).

I make my way back north to the capital, a three-hour drive, the longest distance so far within the country. This road is even more amazing, squeezed in between the lake and the mountains. I pass picturesque fishermen’s villages, although taking pictures is impossible as I am sharing a 14-seater taxi with a record 22 other passengers. Instead of the usual three people per row, the standard here is five. Traffic officers checking “overloading” are bribed efficiently.

Where Stanley met Livingstone more than a century ago

Just ten kilometers before Bujumbura there is another landmark. A giant rock marks the spot where Burundians say American newspaperman Henry Morton Stanley met the missing British explorer Dr David Livingstone more than a century ago, with the famous greeting: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” However, history shows that this first meeting actually took place 200 kilometers south at a place called Uji, in Tanzania. The duo then sailed together up the lake, landing here some two weeks later and carving their names in this stone.

There is no real need for Burundi to fudge history. Although tourists looking for wildlife may be disappointed – as there is virtually none – there are plenty of other reasons to visit. Burundi’s Minister for Commerce, Industry, Posts and Tourism, the Honorable Victoire Ndikumana has launched a campaign to brand the country as “The Beating Heart of Africa”. “If you look at a map, you will see that Burundi is shaped roughly like a human heart,” he says. “Burundi drummers are also known all over the world, and music and dance are an integral part of our culture.”

“Will the next 50 years be better than the previous ones? Of course,” says Professor Mworora. “We are integrating into the East African Community, we are joining the world. Things should improve.”

Those American-style rappers at Kamenge show the new, modern Burundi. Population growth might be a continuing threat but all the young people certainly give a lively feeling to this tiny country.

Now our film industry can flourish

“We went from crisis after crisis, but now I am very hopeful this has come to an end,” says FESTICAB’s Muhire. “I think the end of the last war in 2006 was for real. Now our film industry can flourish. That will create jobs and exposure for our country abroad.”

Burundi has shown how it can excel in 2012, when Lydia Nsekera, president of the Burundi Football Association, was elected to the Executive Committee of world soccer organization FIFA. It was the first time in 108 years that a woman had been appointed.

“Let Burundi be an example to the world,” Nsekera says. “We are a small country, not very rich. This is a place where women are not considered for their true value. And yet in this country, 45 men one came together one day and chose a woman to lead the football association.”

It was their last chance to save soccer in the country. Riddled by corruption, the leagues had been dormant for three seasons and talented players were leaving for other countries. Nsekera swept in like a new broom to clean things up. Even the national team responded and just missed out on a place at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Her story is a shining example of hope for a country that is like the football league on a bigger scale, handicapped by a legacy of corruption and rivalries, but ready to make changes that will see it join the big players.

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