Monday, 27 July 2009


After a somewhat heavy day of genocide-related activities, I was ready for a little change. So we decided to get away and take an overnight trip to Burundi. At this point you are probably asking one of two questions:
- where is Burundi?
- why Burundi?

Since you asked... Where: Burundi is a tiny, poor and relatively unknown country, wedged in between the Dem. Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Lake Tanganyika and Rwanda. Why: Bujumbura (the capital) is renowned as a good place to go out. And how often does the chance to go to Burundi come along?

Natives of East African countries often emphasize perceived cultural differences with their neighbors. Tanzanians point out that Kenyans are pushy, cutthroat, loud, unable to speak proper Swahili, and prone to criminal behavior. Kenyans (at least those I've met) insist that Tanzanians are lazy, backwards, communistic, superstititous and slow-moving. Oh yeah, and they know about the Tanzanians eating albinos (fair point, Kenya).

I think there's a similar rivalry between the little guys in East Africa (e.g., Rwanda and Burundi). When we told Rwandans that we were going to Burundi for a day, they told us that we shouldn't go there -- "Burundians are lazy," "there's nothing to do in Buj," "it's dangerous," and the like. Surely Burundi deserves the chance to set the record straight.

Getting to Burundi is actually a little bit painful. The Congolese and Tanzanian borders are very dangerous and often impassable for tourists. Even from Kigali, the trip involved getting up early indeed, speeding through the cold morning air on a moto-taxi, then taking a long minibus ride to the border in the mountains. The entry process at Kanyara-Haut seemed to confirm that the Rwandans might have been right about Burundian laziness; it took forever to get through the line. Eventually, the minibus driver had to intervene and took us around the back of the building to pay our visa fees to a comically surly official wearing a blue beret. Shortly thereafter, we were in. Bienvenu au Burundi!

The drive from the border to the capital was better -- lush, towering mountains for the eyes, African hip-hop favorites for the ears (for a sample, here's the Nigerian-based hit of the summer: We got into Bujumbura mid-afternoon and decided to hit the town right away since we only had a single night there.

First stop was the famous Saga beach on Lake Tanganyika. Tanganyika is the second most famous of the African Great Lakes (after Victoria, of course), and it's a long, choppy lake -- a watery border between Tanzanian the DRC. The Burundian shore is regarded as a one of Africa's finest inland beaches and a great place to hang out for the day.

We parked ourselves at a little bar right on the sand, did some people watching and had a few beers. I tend to think that you can tell a lot about a country by its beers. Obviously the quality and range of options tells you a bit about the country's wealth levels. But the size of bottled beers even varies across countries. East African countries tend to favor 500 ml bottles (just under a pint), larger than the 330-ish ml bottles used in North America. Apart from cost considerations (large bottles are cheaper to distribute per unit of alcohol), I always assumed that the larger size reflected the fact that people like to enjoy themselves in this part of the world. If so, Burundian Primus bottles confirm that the people of that country really do like to party; Burundian Primuses weigh in at 720 ml per bottle -- roughly equivalent to a standard bottle of wine back home. Perhaps this is to one-up the Rwandans, whose Primus bottles only contain 500 ml, but it's still hilarious.

The beach was filled with interesting comings and goings. A group of ballet dancers (think African, rather than European, moves) came to the beach to celebrate an alumni event with their troupe. They had a bunch of guitars, and danced and had fun on the beach. The other people were mostly locals having a good time and drinking Primus (during the workday, mind you). The only person who did not seem to be a having a great time was an old Belgian-looking guy -- perhaps a local UN dignitary -- who was being waited on by two local guys.

After dinner we met up with Amy, a friend of a friend from Dar. We joined up with three of Amy's local friends and headed to Toxic, one of Bujumbura's best nightclubs. Two of the guys -- Habib and Navio -- were members of five-man hip-hop group Klear Kut, one of East Africa's most prominent rap groups: They've done a lot of interesting collaborations and worked with some big artists, particularly in West Africa. This is one of their biggest hits from a few years back: Habib was also telling me that he's got the rights to Ismael Lo's song 'Africa,' in my opinion one of the best West African songs ever written -- should be exciting stuff when the sampled version comes out.

Amy and her friends were really welcoming and nice. They took us to their usual table in the VIP lounge at Toxic (they are rappers, after all) and we hung out there. Around midnight, the club was still practically empty since Burundians like to go out very late indeed. But people continued trickling in and the club was full before too long. We stayed out very late, switching it up between dancing to Congolese tunes, US hip hop and Bongo Flava, and hanging out in the VIP area, which was guarded by a ridiculously large dude who handled the mandatory red velvet rope.

Overall, it was a great night. The seven-hour (bumpy) ride to Kigali the following morning, less great.

Thanks to Chrissy for managing to get pictures despite a nearly-dead battery!

Up next: rafting at the Source of the Nile.

1 comment:

  1. The pictures came out well - quality, not quantity. Thanks for the motivation to go all the way to Burundi...can't wait to hang out in Boston and annoy everyone with, "Remember that time we were partying in Buj..?"