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Africa » Burundi
October 31st 2009
Published: November 7th 2009
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I’m going to do something I haven’t done before. I’m going to take you with me on my travels. Yes, I thought you might like to join me as I take the bus from Huye (formerly Butare, Rwanda’s erstwhile colonial capital and still the country’s intellectual capital) in the south of the country, over the border and into Burundi, to spend a few days in its fabulously-named capital, Bujumbura.

Since arriving in Rwanda three weeks’ ago, I’ve talked to a number of people who have confirmed that Burundi is now stable. All rebel groups have ceased fighting, and the road across the border to “Buj” is sufficiently and predictably safe for the New Yahoo Express bus company to have increased its daily service. We’re getting the 8 am from Huye, but it’s coming from Kigali, so you’d better be prepared for it being pretty crowded…

Sure enough, it is. There’s only room for us to squeeze cosily together in the fold-down central seat between a large, cheerful Burundian woman and her taciturn grown-up son. But don’t worry, we’re only one row behind the driver, so the view’s pretty good. It’s just that taking photographs en route will be a
the colours of Burundithe colours of Burundithe colours of Burundi

I took this very rapidly out of the window of the bus and, as you can see, it\'s come out blurred. However, for me, it still captures the rainbow of Burundian country women\'s clothing
little tricky. Thank goodness we only brought a small bag for the 2-3 day trip, though. Luggage is piled up everywhere possible, including against the door to such an extent I’m not sure how we’re going to get out. But there’s a fabulous muck-in mentality. Everyone helps in the luggage-juggling manoeuvres, Cheerful Lady is handing out the Rwandan departure forms, and my pen is doing the rounds to enable people to fill them in. Once completed, they’re temporarily handed to a guy in the front seat who logs our details for the bus’s manifest, but he’s struggling with my handwriting: that’s the third time he’s turned round for clarification.

Huye was quiet this morning, almost as sleepy as I felt. We got up early because it would be a shame to miss out on the Hotel Faucon’s breakfast - it is included in the cost of the room, after all (and I’m not Scottish for nothing) - even if I still couldn’t quite bring myself to tackle an omelette at that hour of the morning. As we set off, there is still mist in the valleys, silhouetting the hills on either side.

As usual on buses in this part of the world, we have audio entertainment imposed on us, according to the driver’s taste. Remember the incongruous tape played over and over by the driver on the Kigali-Musanze route? Elton John and Rod Stewart - particularly “Daniel” and “I Am Sailing” - seemed just a little out of place. This time, however, we’ve got a morning talk show, with some woman emphatically punctuating her comments with “cyane, cyane” (very, very). Wonder what she’s talking about…

How are you coping with the confined space? My abs and thighs are working hard to prevent me falling into my neighbour’s lap, though I’m glad his seat is slightly elevated. That way I can prop my right shoulder against its back for extra support.

I’m still amazed at the ubiquity of the head for carrying things, whether it’s bundles of leaves or branches, boxes (remember that one we saw this morning, balanced on a woman’s head by only one corner, yet it didn’t wobble a millimetre?), baskets, sacks (carrying sacks of charcoal must be filthy work), daypacks, water containers, suitcases, bedrolls... In a week’s time I’ll see women carrying metre-square trays of drying fish down near the shore of Lake Kivu. I hailed them and congratulated them, which made them laugh delightedly… and their loads never moved.

Hey, this must be the border already: we’re pulling over. There’s not much sign of the buildings and busy-ness of the Goma border, and the land around is uninterruptedly cultivated - how do you know where your maize ends and your Burundian neighbour’s begins?

So that’s how they deal with the luggage! Someone comes over - must be from an incoming bus-load - and is helping to unload the bags and suitcases through the window until enough room can be created to open the bus’s doors.

Sheep-like, let’s follow the crowd. There’s no separate window for us “muzungus”, so let’s queue with our fellow passengers. I greet the immigration officer with a smile and “waremuse” (good morning) without looking up the pages of Kinyarwanda expressions that Kenneth in Gisenyi wrote out in my notebook. Wow - they must be sinking in at long last. It’s hard learning even the basics of a language when none of the words bears any relation to its meaning in terms to which I can relate. Entertainingly, the immigration officer starts teaching me another phrase - having asked me where I’m going, he’s now telling me how to reply - but I don’t want to take up his time by asking him to write it down, so that means I’m going to forget it almost as soon as I’ve rehearsed it with him and an unprompted chorus of our fellow passengers. It’s fun the number of people I’m meeting who are joining in the teach-the-muzungu-our-language process!

Now what? We head back to the bus, but the driver points us over to the barrier. I get it: we cross on foot, and the bus follows on behind. A little like we did at the Tibetan/Nepalese border, if you remember. This road across no-man’s land is far less intimidating than the Goma crossing, don’t you think? There’s the company of our straggling line of co-passengers, and a few other souls, like that child walking through with a sack of groundnuts on his head, and this wee lad, barefoot, wandering more aimlessly.

“Le Burundi vous souhaite la bienvenue” is the first signboard we see - very friendly! - but, watch out, there are street-sellers and money-changers everywhere. I don’t want to change money here - remember what happened to a couple of the folks on the China/Nepal trip when they tried to change their remaining Yuan in Zhangmu? It’s all too easy to have your attention distracted, for calculators to be rigged, your pockets to be picked… Still, we’ll find out what the rate is just for reference when we get to town - 1,100BFr to the US dollar rapidly becomes 1,150BFr when we walk away. And now we’re being offered Red Bull! How strange: it seems to be the only alternative to water on sale here. I wonder how much they’re selling it for. After all, it’s not exactly a cheap drink at home… But I don’t want to ask in case they mistake the query for interest, and I really don’t want one. Too many memories of needing it to get through all-nighters…

We’re not going to be popular with our fellow passengers when we get to the Burundian immigration office. After all, we’re “complicated”, having to pay for our visa, even though they’re only giving us a three-day “transit” visa (transit? To where?). Mind you, I wish you’d reminded me to pick up my change. I’d put my wallet away, and the officer had moved my US$50 note out of sight while he filled out the receipt and the register, and then hunted for somewhere to put his stamp in my passport (it was impressive that he did actually look for a wee gap, rather than starting one of the few remaining blank pages in my three-year-old, 48-page passport)… I totally forgot about the change, too busy overflowing with apologies for the way we’d held up our peers in the queue behind us… Oh well, I hope he took his family out for a nice meal or something… It might be worth asking on our way back, but I’m not hopeful. What are the chances the same guy would be on duty, even if he could remember a lone muzungu a few days’ earlier, and even if he’d be prepared to admit the error and produce my change…

There’s the bus, part-way up the hill. It’s a bit disconcerting with all these people milling around, particularly given the reputation of this part of the world for banditry and other unpleasantness, but I don’t want to have to get back on the bus until we absolutely have to. Apart from anything else, we’d only have to move again when the people next to, and in front of, us get back. So, let’s stand outside. “Merci beaucoup, madame.” Yes, the handsome lady in the very front seat has reminded us to keep hold of our bags with the number of kids around, even though mine was resting against my leg already. Umm… a couple of older boys have joined the kids who were staring so closely at my scribbling my diary out here. I don’t feel too comfortable. Let’s get back on, but hover in the passageway so as to make it easier for people getting past us.

Wow. I’m not sure how long all that took, but it can’t have been more than half an hour or so, even with the bus and about thirty of us to get through two sets of border formalities, and now we’re off again. I wonder how quickly we’ll notice a change in our surroundings, or even how much of a change we’ll notice, from the Rwandan countryside…

Bare feet seem to dominate. In the Rwandan countryside, the prevalent footwear is a mass-produced slip-on plastic sandal. Such modernities do not yet appear to have reached Burundi in quantity.

There’s a grass-roofed hut over there. The New Times a day or two back had an article about how Rwanda is encouraging people to use more fire-resistant and permanent roofing, but I hadn’t actually seen anything other than tiles and corrugated iron on top of the standard mud/wood-frame and/or brick houses there. But the houses in this village we’re passing now all have tiled roofs. And, as in Rwanda, windows seem to be closed simply with shutters so I guess glass is only for the rich. Also, do you notice how good the roads are, with neat brick-lined ditches on either side?

Oh, I’ve just seen some camouflage clothing… I hold my breath, but it’s only a civilian carrying a black briefcase in his arms. I don’t know about you, but I feel a little edgy about seeing uniforms and suchlike here. After all, we’ve been told everyone’s stopped fighting, but do they know that? I’m sure we’ll quickly work out which uniforms mean what, but, at the moment, I’m just a bit cautious about every one and every gun we see.

An outstretched hand, the plaintive wail following us up the road…

A child with a stick rolling an old bicycle wheel along, the ubiquitous all-engrossing Third World game.

Erosion uphill from the road, exposed red soil.

I love all the brightly-coloured patterned fabrics worn by women here: more reds and oranges than I’ve seen in Rwanda.

Kids holding onto the back of a truck to hitch a lift, toes and fingers seeking hold where they can. A cyclist using the same truck to help him get up this long winding hill.

A kid in a Lakers jacket, a long way from LA and a bit short for basketball, don’t you think?

A group of people, mainly women, in full-length bright orange, like Lao monks’ robes washed with Persil Extra Bright. Is this something religious? It has a co-ordinated feel to it, although the only thing they appear to be carrying is rolled-up umbrellas.

Two policemen… a couple of soldiers… speed-bumps... a triangular Place de l’Indépendance at a three-way junction… lots of trucks seemingly heading for the border… This is Kayanza. We’re stopping to let a couple of people off, another complex process with someone outside once again helping to unload luggage through the window. It’s like the Tube at rush-hour: those in the way have to get out briefly to allow people off. The luggage comes back in through the window.

Look - Hotel Panasonic! The electronics giant has certainly chosen an interesting place in which to branch out into the hospitality industry…

Muslim women, black cape tightly circling their faces and falling to their knees.

Women wearing a length of extra fabric tied diagonally over one shoulder, or as a shawl and knotted at the front. It’s still chilly outside, though I must say I’m warming up in here and am now trying to use my sweater to cushion my mid-back against the seat’s back. Are you bearing up? “Ah, non merci, madame”. Wasn’t that kind of Cheerful Lady to offer us part of her chapatti-like-thing? Have one of these glucose biscuits instead, if you’re peckish. They’re no great shakes, but sweetly bland and will keep the hunger pangs at bay until we get to Buj.

Oh, shame, the driver’s just tossed his empty Red Bull can out of the window. Gisenyi Kenneth has a similarly disconcerting way of just dropping rubbish. I didn’t said anything, but I made it obvious when I picked it up. Do Rwandans rely on “Umuganda”, the last Saturday of the month when the government mandates that everyone take part in community good works, such as rubbish-collecting? Certainly the countryside is very clean of trash, despite attitudes like this…

The road’s starting to deteriorate, subsiding. Its surface looks stretched, cracking up like dry mud in the Hoanib riverbed.

There’s a goat being led by its front foot. I wonder why there is a tendency in many countries to lead goats in this way, rather than using a lead running from the collar? The goat certainly looks pretty uncomfortable.

This is a fascinating seat from which to watch the driver’s speedometer… or don’t you want to? He seems to be maintaining an average of about 80 kph, bends notwithstanding, because he really puts his foot down in-between times. Yes, I’m sure he hit 105 kph or even 110 kph on the last straight bit.

Yikes, there’s consternation amongst that group of people over there, on the outside of this bend. They can see both us and a double-length truck bearing down on them from opposite directions on the same side of the road, and they’re scattering. The truck must have been invisible to our driver, but he reacts quickly and nips back into his own lane.

There’s laundry drying on the fence over there. Remember our funny little church-run guesthouse in Musanze, the Centre Pastoral de Notre Dame de Fatima (so appropriate for our agnostic/atheistic tendencies!), and the way they’d lay the sheets and towels out to dry on the lawn and/or over the hedges, despite the fact it had rained most of the day before? Mind you, this seems to be standard procedure in this part of the world. I wouldn’t have thought it would be exactly optimal for either drying or cleanliness… And being this close to the road must give your clothes a particularly appealing carbon monoxide aroma… not one that I’ve seen advertised on any of the fabric softeners at home.

Wow! You know what we were saying about women carrying things on their head? Look over there, there’s a woman carrying, what’s that - fifteen? twenty? - layers of bricks, probably two on each layer. What’s that doing to her neck???

Two young men pushing a heavily-laden bicycle uphill. This has got to be pretty tough cycling country. The downhills would be tremendous (except for the danger of encountering motorised traffic), but the uphills must be a killer!

Our driver’s trying to overtake a smart red Corolla as we go through a village - what does he think he’s driving? Not surprisingly, the car’s not letting him. Now he seems to think he’s on a mission…

Those neat piles of bricks all along this stretch of the road… I wonder why? Oh, it looks like there’s some kind of brick-making process down in the valley. Such fabulous red rock - echoes of Namibia.

There’s another bike hitching a lift uphill from that lorry but, you’re right, that’s a heavy polluter and I’m worried about the kid’s lungs.

There we go, finally overtaken the red Corolla! The driver looks really pleased with himself… or do you think I’m imagining it?

Two army uniforms with guns over there. They’re turning to look at us, but that seems to be all. No-one on the bus is reacting, and that has to be a good sign.

Half a dozen people, men and women, each carrying a long bench upended on their head. Is there no limit to what people will carry in this way?

That pedestrian on the other side of the road is kindly signalling to the driver that the road ahead is clear as we start to overtake a truck. Not sure the driver really thought it wouldn’t be. He seems to favour action-now rather than consideration-first.

Assuming this is now Kirundi on the radio, have you noticed that they seem to use “hello” which doesn’t seem to be used at all in Rwanda, even when people are calling out to us in English. There they seem to favour the more formal (at least, to our ears) “Good morning”, regardless of the time of day, which is very sweet if unintentionally amusing at times.

Look at that goat! It’s way up on its hind legs nibbling from that bush. Does it think it’s a gerenuk, with that buck’s distinctive way of feeding? I must say I did a double-take when I first spotted it…

I hope the Kampala bus will be a little more comfortable. My seat bones are beginning to make their displeasure felt! Mind you, that dose of whatever-it-was last week won’t exactly have helped the padding in that area. Ouch! The driver’s just hit a couple of potholes - listen to the muted grumbling from all those passengers he’s just woken up!

We’re letting people off again, though I didn’t see the name of the town. We’re instantly surrounded by street-sellers: bags of carrots, eggs or passion-fruit, anyone? Those grilled mealies smell good - did you hear my stomach rumble?! - but I’m glad we didn’t change money at the border. I’m not sure that kid’s hands are exactly clean… Hey, the driver’s set off again already, but someone’s yelling. I can’t work out whether it’s because they didn’t get their change or because a vendor thought he could make another few sales…

Sewing machines, and their operators, out on the stoep of that house over there. Their machines look like my mother’s turn-of-the-last-century one.

Wooden bed-frames for sale, lined up cheek-by-jowl at the side of the road.

A woman wearing a red Rooney no.8 shirt. I thought he played at no.10?

Hey, wake up! The road’s getting even more impressive. There’s a deep valley dropping away to our right, ripples of mountains disappearing away into the
hillsides that have escaped control...hillsides that have escaped control...hillsides that have escaped control...

scenery en route from the border to Bujumbura
distance; as usual, every inch is cultivated to some extent. I must try and sit on the driver’s side, by a window, on the way back, so that I can photograph some of this.

Have you noticed the dominance of green bananas on the roadside edge, laid out for transport? But there’s a stall selling yellow ones. Quite a dramatic colour-contrast after all that green. But look at the bicycle in front of us, piled high with lengths of green bananas, stalks aerodynamically sticking out behind, and one each side pointing upwards, looking like panniers. This downhill slope must be such a relief for the rider.

Do you see the roadworks sign over there? The man digging seems to be wearing a bowler hat!

There’s a cyclist with a door lengthways and upright across the back of his bike. How much less aerodynamic can you get? And the one over there, with a piece of furniture on the back? He’s got a branch of banana leaves sticking out to one side, an improvised “wide load” flag.

We must have crossed a watershed. Suddenly the hillsides have lost their controlled appearance and are all littered with palm
looking down at Bujumbura...looking down at Bujumbura...looking down at Bujumbura...

...Lake Tanganyika and the cloud-topped mountains of the DRC
trees. Wonderfully disorganised after all that cultivation…

Now we’re trapped behind a double-length lorry as it crawls down this slope in low gear - yes, there are times when even our driver won’t overtake - and Banana Bike happily whizzes past.

Look, way down there! That must be Bujumbura on the plains at the foot of these mountains, and we can just make out Lake Tanganyika, though it nearly matches the cloud above in colour, thanks to the haze. It’s even more spectacular than that first sight of Gisenyi at the northern end of Lake Kivu, don’t you think? And, there, in the far distance, that ghostly ridge of mountains must be the DRC.

Why’s the driver just decided to put his seatbelt on now?

Here’s a minibus with “Arsenal” across the top of its windscreen. What with the Manchester United one at the Kigali bus station the other day, we’re covering off the options slowly but surely. Now for Chelsea… Yes, look! There’s a blue football shirt just as I’m speaking. Right on cue. But I must tell Malcolm that I haven’t seen any Gillingham supporters here. I guess it’s a bit of a minority-interest club.

More signs on minibus windscreens: “God Bless You” (is that supposed to be the last thing you see as they’re running you down?!), “Dieu Merci” (for getting me there safely?) and, more egocentrically, “God Bless Me”. And there’s a minibus with Chinese characters on it - no surprise there, then, given the vast amount of investment China now appears to have in Africa.

Love it - do you see the bar over there? “Bar Gare du Nord” (where do you reckon the nearest “gare” would be… Kenya?) And that shop, “Kiosque Au Bon Prix” (well, so you’d hope), and “Nice Cuts Salon” (saying otherwise wouldn’t exactly pull in the punters).

Is this it? We seem to be pulling off the road through a very narrow gap and into a courtyard… Yes, people are getting out. I guess we’d better unfold our limbs and see if we can find our hotel. You want a snooze before we go exploring? But you’ve been sitting down for the last four hours! OK, OK, if you must…


7th November 2009

change of tense
Hi Elizabeth, I enjoyed the journey with you - easy to see both the fascination and the edginess of travelling. I am planning another Earthwatch next summer, Walking with South African Wildlife, can't leave the bush for too long!
7th November 2009

Hanging on the back of lorries
Great pics! Makes me think of going back to Africa..
7th November 2009

Distant friends
Dear Elizabeth, What an amazing journey you are having. I sooo look forward to the publication of your Book !! Take care of yourself in these far off lands and think of us here in the frozen, foggy lands of rural Perthshire. Much love, Carolyn and Jim XX
7th November 2009

Love your stuff Elizabeth. You will have to do a book. I'm off to NZ on 17th and back on 3 December. Hope to see you before Christmas ? Trish
10th November 2009

Your journal
You have a new career as a travel journalist. Thanks for all the experiences --albeit virtual! Travel safe . Jen Rxx

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