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Published: April 5th 2010
Just south of Rwanda lies its forgotten little brother, Burundi. Shaped a little like a human heart this tiny country has experienced its fair share of internal troubles as the Tutsi and Hutu populations periodically massacre each other. Two of the first three Presidents after independence were assassinated and in 1994 another was killed in the same infamous plane crash that took out Rwanda's President and sparked the subsequent inhuman horrors of the Genocide. Unlike Rwanda, Burundi has continued to be ruled throughout by its Tutsi minority and, unlike the repressed Rwandans, the locals here still proudly distinguish themselves as either Tutsi or Hutu. Whether this approach to internal differences is better than the 'sweep-it-under-the-carpet' Rwandan method is debatable, but, with the official disarmament of the last rebel group a year ago, Burundi is perhaps on the path to a more harmonious society.
I notice little difference as I cross over the border. The myriad hills continue to roll into the distance and it takes a long to time to weave through these monumental mounds down to the capital city, Bujumbura. Approached from up high ‘Buj’ looks like the victim of a rolling pin attack, sprawling extensively along the
very north-eastern tip of Lake Tanganika, the world's second most voluminous freshwater lake (although it is actually slightly longer than the first, Lake Baikal). It is the only place I actually visit in the country because my visa is a three day transit and frankly there is nothing much to see. Burundi's claims to two significant African attractions are spurious. Neither the source of the Nile, nor the point where Stanley met Livingstone and uttered those famous words, is located in Burundi. They are to be found at Jinja in Uganda and Ujiji in Tanzania respectively. Despite the ceasefire it is also still highly dangerous to venture outside of the capital.
Not that Buj is particularly safe either. A couple of weeks earlier a former travel companion of mine was mugged here and just after I visit I hear on the travel grapevine of a fellow nomad witnessing two people gunned down in the street outside the internet cafe he was patronising. When I leave my hotel in the late afternoon for a quick explore the receptionist looks like he's about to have a heart attack and frantically warns me to be back before dark. I soon discover,
after plenty of walking about, that there really is bugger all to see in Buj. About the most exciting moment is when I am stopped by a security man for taking a picture of the 'Obama shop' and have to conjure up some of my best French to convince him I am a tourist and not in fact an American spy.
Burundians however are a very friendly bunch, and my journey out of the country, as we speed to the Tanzanian border dropping more banana skins than a furious game of Mario Kart, is perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of my short stay in the country due to some bantering interaction with the locals. At the end of it the quiet man next to me, who speaks only Kirundi, mimes that he wants my telephone number. Quite how he expects us to carry out a conversation over the phone I don't know. I am stamped out in the last town before Tanzania; the immigration official misreading my passport and jotting me down as Irish, before changing vehicle for one final hour of transport to the actual border. Having seen my passport the driver tells the rest of the
passengers that I'm born in 86 and they all have a good, incredulous chuckle at how much of a baby I still am. I'm in the front of the car and deferentially my neighbour straddles the gear-stick to give me some extra free space, making for a highly amusing and suggestive spectacle every time the driver changes gear. The road is dreadful, with cavernous channels so large you could film a Star Wars aerial combat scene in them, and it takes a long while to cover what is a short distance. We trundle slowly along with the driver merrily yelling "mzungu" to everyone we pass so that in one hour I probably do as much waving as the Queen does in a year.
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