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Published: November 10th 2009
Lake Tanganyika with the DRC in the background
Only an hour or so after I’d arrived, I was scribbling delightedly in my diary, “Oh, I love Bujumbura!”
Mind you, as I rapidly admitted to myself, it doesn’t take much. I’d found myself in the most charming, centrally-located and funky hotel, the Saga Residence, with an imaginatively-designed semi-sunken room (you descend a couple of steps from the far end of the little courtyard to get to its door, making it feel both cosy and private); I’d had my first encounter with a local, the Ugandan-educated Rukundu, which had resulted in a good quarter-hour natter that was both fascinating and, I have to confess, ego-boosting (and no, for once, he wasn’t trying to marry me!); and I’d tripped over the gorgeous Havana Lounge which not only served cold-cold drinks (Buj was more than a little warmer than Rwanda had been of late so this was a particularly desirable feature) but also provided large numbers of
vast, squashy leather armchairs and sofas into which one could disappear to contemplate the world or simply peruse one of the good quality, up-to-date English and French news magazines available.
Bujumbura must be one of the most delightfully positioned cities I have ever visited. Although nestling in the sultry plains, the city is almost encircled by beautiful scenery. To the west are Lake Tanganyika and the distantly impressive mountains of the DRC, while Burundian hills try to complete the circle and then extend southwards along the Lake, the nearer slopes home to the more expensive outskirts of the city, and the only gap being to the northeast beyond which the plains extend cultivated-ly with the ghost-like hint of further hills beyond. With a regular on-shore breeze, the beaches that fringe the Lake to the north of the city provide a literal breath of fresh air from the heat of the city. It’s a city-break brochure-writer’s dream.
After three days in the city, I came to the conclusion that Buj people can be as friendly, interested and interesting as their northern neighbours but, in my experience, fewer of them are, and more of them see you, the allegedly-moneyed muzungu,
as a commercial opportunity, whether simply as a “white bank” to hand out money in every direction, or as someone to be taken for a ride. With the influx of UN and other aid relief, the muzungu is seen as fair game. Up to a point, I don’t mind. I can always say no. The problem comes when it is people on whom you are depending who then use that as leverage to extract more from you; when you have not a negotiating leg to stand on. Taxis were the case in point for me. I took a taxi south of the city, a distance of, maybe 12-14 km each way, to visit “La Pierre de Livingstone et Stanley”, aka the spot, allegedly, where Henry Morton Stanley, allegedly, uttered the immortal “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” By definition, this is a round trip: there is precious little by way of return transport unless you wait for a minibus that happens to be going to the right part of town. As yet, I was insufficiently sure of my Bujumbura geography to want to take that risk. The driver’s opening price had been BFr10,000 for the whole trip, I got him down to
BFr8,000 (approximately US$8). Fortunately, he didn’t try his little stunt until we’d got back into town, but at that point he decided to try and insist that the agreed rate had been “each way”. My French doesn’t extend to too many expletives, so I simply opened the car door and walked off, leaving him with BFr10,000 as I didn’t have change. (Ironically, as he’d been good company and a more than competent driver, I had been minded to tip him.) The next day, a cab to “Saga Plage” decided to drive me round in circles and then drop me at the bit of shoreline nearest to the centre of town, alleging that he’d already driven 5 km and needed more money to take me to the north of the city, my original destination. I could certainly argue the distance point, having actually walked to this particular point two days’ earlier, but there was nothing I could do about the insisted-upon fare increase as I didn’t know the northern part of town. At the end of that day, a taxi driver who finally rescued me from the long walk back into town ended up taking me only a couple of kilometres,
a journey that took no more than a few minutes at that time of day. Even he tried to insist on an increase in his paltry fare, but, again, I could walk away from that one.
There was no shortage of people asking for money outright. I found more apparent beggars, both abled and disabled, here than I had noticed in Rwanda. Several adults on crutches or in wheelchairs were without the full complement of operational legs, almost certainly because of the war, but it was the children who, as usual, broke my heart. The babe-in-arms with no hands. The young child sitting on the ground with nothing except small stumps below his shoulders, and I wasn’t too sure his emaciated legs were up to much. Congenital or land-mines? By the time you are looking at the effects, the cause is irrelevant. But other, perfectly healthy, people also saw me as the Great White Bank. A schoolgirl’s “Donnez-moi de l’argent car j’ai faim”… err, “NO!”, albeit with a laugh at her audacity. A pregnant woman working at the cathedral refusing to take no for an answer. I found myself becoming harsher and harsher in my analysis of a demand:
fisherman on Saga Beach
do you have the full complement of limbs? Do you have shoes? Are your clothes tattered? Do you look essentially clean and well-fed? Do you have anyone with you who might already be looking after you? Do you look like you have a job? Harsh, but I had to draw the line somewhere. While I recognise the thinking behind the regularly-uttered recommendation that you only donate to particular charities - they can then apportion money according to actual demand, it stops people relying on donations as a way of life, it gets them off the street, it helps prevent the abuse of children put out on the streets to earn money for others, etc. - it is very hard to resist a patent need when it is right in front of you.
But to correct my developing inclination to cynicism in the locals’ treatment of the lone muzungu woman there was Claude. We got talking my first afternoon when I paused at an intersection to try and work out where I was. I knew I should have taken an earlier turning on my way back into town from the Lake, but backtracking would have been way too boring. Claude
did he, or didn
And if he did, did he say it here? The site where "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" may or may not have been uttered...
approached on his motorbike and we got chatting about where I was and the best way back. He asked if I wanted a lift and I declined, saying I wanted to walk, a preference he said he just couldn’t understand. A little way further on, I was conscious of a moped drawing level with me. He continued our conversation unbroken, and quickly established my nationality. At that point, he said he much preferred speaking in English, and promptly switched to that language. “Why won’t you accept my offer of a lift?”, he asked every few minutes. Put like that, I thought, it would be rude to refuse, notwithstanding a small helmet deficiency (for both of us). He’d already said he didn’t want payment - even though he was a moto-taxi by profession - he was simply content to help out an English-speaker. My faith in Burundians was instantly restored!
The most companionable evening was the first night when, conscious of the warning not to walk Bujumbura’s streets at night, I went to the bar/dining area of my own hotel. The television was showing some dubbed American thing, and a young couple of locals were seemingly engrossed. However, when I
well, he chose a scenic spot for it, anyway!
The view back towards Bujumbura and its hills from La Pierre de Livingstone et Stanley
next looked up from my scribblings, they had gone, and I asked the barman if we could switch over to the football: I knew Manchester United was playing that day with a late kick-off. This idea went down extremely well … and, before long, we were joined by several of his colleagues and a shy wee lad, the offspring of one or other of them, there being few other punters requiring attention in the bar that night. I was sorry that my French football vocabulary was practically non-existent (I had to ask one of them the word for “goal”), but it was surprisingly companionable with their Kirundi chatter and my degree of engrossed-ness in the match - how many more near-misses could Berbatov suffer in one match? - providing no small amount of entertainment for them. Mind you, ordering something to eat at half-time proved to be a touch tricky with almost everything on the menu inexplicably not available or being so heavily meaty that even my sometimes-flexible vegetarianism could not be tempted. I settled for chips’n’mayo (there wasn’t even Ketchup!) and resolved to brave the streets of Buj the next night, my new-found bar and another restaurant being only
and it's now a kids' climbing frame
La Pierre de Livingstone et Stanley
a block or so away. Surely I could survive that kind of distance in one piece? Besides, Rukundu had been phlegmatic about the safety of his home-town now that the curfew had been lifted; he seemed to think I’d be fine up to midnight or so and, believe you me, I had NO intention of being out anything like that late…
That evening’s television had been generator-powered. Bujumbura is so prone to power-cuts that the streetlights aren’t switched on even when there is power, and a local menu qualifies its lunchtime and early evening discount on pizzas in a way that my still-lawyerly brain just adored:
“Happy Pizza. Havana Lounge vous propose tous les jours** les pizzas à 50% de 12h à 14 h, et de 17h à 20h… (**jours d’électricité).”
But I did feel sorry for the folks running the local internet cafés. For some reason - I was never very technical on this subject - they couldn’t fix up or didn’t have access to the hardware for a proper UPS. This meant that, when a power-cut struck or when the electricity personally came back on, all the PCs would cut out… invariably, personally speaking, when
I was mid-email!
Road-blocks were more evident here than they had been in Rwanda. There was no permanence to them; you’d simply see a few cops on either side of the road sporadically stopping traffic. The only time I was affected was heading south to the Livingstone/Stanley stone when the cop must have seen a muzungu in the taxi’s front seat. He asked for my ID, so I handed over my passport, expecting him to flick through until he found the photograph, check it against the scruffy version in front of him, and hand it back. Five minutes later, the driver switched off the engine. This diligent cop had decided to read every word of my passport, from the “request” of “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State” on the inside of the front cover and the two pages of EU-standardised “Notes”, through each and every stamp and visa, turning the document round as required to read those put on at an angle. To be honest, I’m not sure he actually got to the photograph page at the back; I think he just got bored and handed it back, but it must have taken a quarter-hour or so. The driver
having fired up the demonstration...
...the drummers were happy to take a photo-break
and I giggled about his apparent diligence, and speculated about whether we’d be stopped on the way back… We were, and I could pick up enough of the driver’s conversation with cop no.2 to work out that he was explaining we’d been stopped on the way out; could we please be allowed to go on? We were. Fascination with European passports wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Before leaving Rwanda, I’d checked on the current exchange rate for the Burundian currency, and was enchanted to discover its international three-letter abbreviation to be “BIF”. It’s a “zeroes” currency, there being about BFr1,200 to the US dollar, which makes one BIF about half the value of a Rwandan franc. I didn’t encounter any coins, though I think there may still be some around. There’s a mixture of notes currently in circulation, at least two sizes of notes for each value, and some of the lower-value notes are truly filthy. This makes note-recognition a touch challenging at times, but I was intrigued to find the same warning on every single note: “Le contrefacteur est puni de servitude pénale”. Seems a strange thing of which to remind people on a daily basis...
arrived in Bujumbura on a Saturday. This meant that my visit would coincide with one regular event and, accidentally, with what is probably a fairly irregular event, but both contributed to the memorable-ness of my trip.
In recent times on my travels, I have tried to visit a local church or cathedral during a service, not for any new-found devotional reasons of my own, but to experience another facet of the town or country’s life. I had been impressed at the trio of morning services at the St Philomena’s Church in Mysore: in Tamil at 5 am, Kannada at 6 am and English at 7 am, and the busy lack of formality to attendance, with people milling in and out the entire time. In Musanze, the day after gorilla-tracking, I had been stunned at the number of people attending Notre Dame de Fatima for what must have been a two-hour service, with little coming-and-going, and the low, narrow, unpadded benches packed solid: there must have been a thousand people. I wondered what the only other muzungu present made of a service in Kinyarwanda; perhaps, as an apparent ex-pat in the middle of the congregation, his command of the language
was already sufficient for the weekly devotions.
In Bujumbura, I timed my Sunday morning’s wanderings so as to be passing the Cathedral at what I assumed would be about the middle of the morning service. Once again, I’d been meandering from memory, and found myself overshooting Boulevard Lumumba which the Cathedral dominates, so I walked up the next side street and turned a corner. I was stunned by what I saw. This wasn’t a case of “No room at the inn”, but of “No room in the church”: a couple of hundred people must have been crowded outside the Cathedral’s doors, with others scattered under the shade of trees on either side. Clearly this is a regular occurrence: speakers mounted high on the front wall of the Cathedral allow the rich singing to billow forth and the celebrant’s voice to boom out. I sat down under a nearby tree and people-watched. “Sunday best” really is exactly that here. Little girls are in frills, little boys in miniscule suits. Men are in suits, or at least smart shirts and slacks. Not surprisingly, it is the women who wear the greatest variety of outfits here. There’s a local variant on a
sari, except in a more floating fabric, with the two ends of the rectangle tied at one shoulder, and the blouse underneath being longer, with no apparent restrictions on its style. Some women favour a nearly full-length apparently shapeless but enormously colourful dress, often with sleeves not sewn the whole way to the cuff, a triangular neckline at the back and a matching piece of cloth around the head; others favoured more Western-looking skirt suits, with a preference for longer skirts, though I did see one knee-length A-line number; one or two even sported trouser suits.
Half an hour later, the service came to an end and, with a pause for a heavy downpour, people started to disperse. I took the opportunity to look inside the Cathedral, and sat down near the door. It is a wonderful airy building, modern in its simplicity and Art Nouveau in its one panel of stained glass windows. In front of me, some of the congregation appeared loathe to leave… and other people started filing in… yes, I was in time for round two. 12.29 saw us all on our feet for the first of this service’s fabulous hymns. No hymnbooks or crib-sheets
here, but the choir alone could raise the roof, and the sound when the congregation joined in was magnificent. Interestingly, the service was in a mixture of Kirundi and French. I found my ears pricking up when the first Bible reading was suddenly comprehensible, and, later, the priest gave his sermon in French. He was a man who knew his surroundings, and took full advantage of the microphone-enhanced acoustics. After about ten minutes, I decided my ears had had enough of being berated in echoing crescendos of French, and crept out.
The next day, I decided to fill in a couple of sightseeing gaps, the first of which was the Place de l’Indépendance. I’d driven past this a number of times. It didn’t look overly prepossessing, but I wanted to take a closer look. Risking my life half a dozen times to cross its supposedly one-way system, I passed a couple of uniforms and started to walk up the short gravel path to the monument itself. Strangely, it wasn’t the uniforms that stopped me, but a groundsman who gesticulated from the surrounding grass that I shouldn’t be there. I backtracked and asked the uniforms if I could take a
picture of the monument - colourful Burundian red, white and green flags, and a commemorative plaque for the events of 1962. Of course, they said no. Uniforms almost invariably do, but I remain optimistic enough to ask. I became aware that a school brass band was practising further down the long strip of grassy parkland behind the monument and, mindful of the lack of other folks on the grass, walked around the outside of the park to see what was going on. It wasn’t immediately clear. A number of people gathering on the grass were sporting some kind of Olympic T-shirt. Was this, perhaps, a kick-off-the-hard-work-for-2012 for the Burundian Olympics team? Was the band perhaps not practising but performing, despite being pretty out of tune? Even before the band finished, people from my side of the park had started oozing over to the other side, regardless of the number of uniforms - blue, dark blue/purple and army, all accessorised with guns - around. (I eventually concluded that both the blue and the dark blue/purple uniforms must be police, though I never worked out the difference.) The band now had to battle against a massive PA system, booming out pop music
...or, maybe, a handbag?
(This one's for you, Lynn!) Bujumbura market
from the back of a bakkie parked on the far side. Manfully, they reached the end. As soon as they had, a collection of tom-tom drums started. I joined the movement of people across the park, cautiously staying to the back but peering over shoulders. The drums were accompanying a war-like chant, the performers dressed in what appeared to be knee-length Roman togas in the national colours, and wearing beaded bands around their heads. The beat got more frenzied, the chant more emphatic. I could feel my body vibrating. I was reminded of the All Blacks Hakka. One part of me began saying, “I shouldn’t be here”… a few more minutes… just what were these guys revving the crowd up for? Beyond them, I could see a hint. A crowd had gathered behind a wide cloth banner on which was written, “Les élections propres pour 2010; sans armes, sans enfants soldats; vers une vérité et réconciliation du people burundais”. That sounded fairly uncontentious, I thought. After all, it was broadly in line with a government department motto that I had seen - “Ensemble, la consolidation de la paix” - and a worthy-sounding sign on the way into the city, “Vision
Burundi 2025: pour un avenir plus sûr du Burundi, luttons ensemble contre la corruption et pour l’établissement d’un état du droit”. But I didn’t like the look of the demonstration’s policing. Three separate bakkies arrived with machine-guns fixed and mounted on the back. This in addition to the number of cops and soldiers I’d see around… perhaps I’d just leave the Burundians to their thing…
I never did find out exactly what was going on or what happened. The existence of the demonstration seemed to be news to a taxi-driver I spoke to later, and I couldn’t track down anything relevant in my brief internet search. But, for me, these were the first outward signs of this country’s recent past. Yes, there were a fair number of UN and other international-acronym-ed vehicles around, but this was Burundians speaking out, and I was both deeply impressed and humbled. How much we take our pretty fair (by its terms) and open election process for granted. Yes, we could have a more representative government with different counting procedures, slicing the cake a different way, but the system we have is open and fair. Election malpractice is, essentially, unknown, at least to any
significant extent, and no-one has ever tried to overthrow this, our version of the “democratic process”.
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