Trip report Burundi – Country #195/196

Burundi – where jogging and drumming is a crime

Let me be honest and say that Burundi was not a country I was expecting much of or looking very much forward to visit. Several sources place it as the second poorest country in the world. Also it is one of the most corrupt. And in the most recent (2018) World Happiness Index Burundi was placed last (as opposed to my brilliant country Denmark that often tops the list).

Here for decades Hutus and Tutsis have killed each other – just like in neighboring Rwanda. Most of the country including the main city of Bujumbura is categorized by the british FCO as ‘advise against all but essential travel’ with a few red ‘advise against all travel’-spots. But obviously when Oysterboy visits his second last country it can only be categorized as ‘very essential travel’. (hehe)

Additionally in the Every Passport Stamp group on facebook I had read about an American couple who had been arrested (or detained) when going for a simple walk in the park (I think) near the central Place de l’Independance. Why it was a crime to walk (and possibly photograph) I do not know but they were detained for hours, had to pay to be set free and their local friend – at whose place they were couchsurfing – ended up spending 17 days in prison for no other reason than he was helping and giving lodging to tourists(!)

Well in despite of a civil war that did not end until 2005 (followed by several subsequent riots and clashes), a recent genocide, a lot of poverty and corruption and people from EPS having problems I still ‘had to’ visit Burundi in order to complete my journey to every country in the World.

Police and army people are everywhere as I go from the airport to my hotel. In the most troubled countries I often stay at an upmarket hotel with 24/7 armed security – and here is no exception to that rule. Kangaroo – my hotel is called and for just 50USD a night I get a lot of luxury – a lot more luxury than I would get for this price elsewhere – which is one of the (few) benefits of travelling to such a poor country.

Check in at my hotel for reasons unknown to mortal man takes more than 30 minutes – in despite of the fact that I have the agreed amount in cash ready in hand. It is conducted by no less than 4 (nice and smiling but not very bright) receptionists. The hotel is – I am told – ranked among the best in the country and has a lovely pool around which the elite of the town wines and dines at night. A locally brewed Primus 72cl beer costs only around a dollar. It is a luxurious colonial-style oasis in a country of extreme poverty.

“Oru mono meeza” – “you are a good person” – the friendly (and pretty) young girls at the hotel teach me to say in the local language that is named Kirundi and is similar to Swahili. As in many other languages after a short break I add – “Dje-va mzungu omsaazee” – “I am the crazy white man”. In many other countries they laugh when I say that – here they frown and look concerned. Maybe they are thinking that I don’t know what I am saying or maybe they simply find it impolite to laugh at a foreigner.

After some bad experience with police and military in other corrupt countries (mainly Guinea and Libya) I have decided not to take any chances here. So I chose not to travel around the country and just do a day trip in Bujumbura. Bujumbura used to be also the capital but for some strange reason and just days before I arrive the capital has officially moved to Gitega – a town two hours drive away with just 30.000 inhabitants.

For 20 USD I arrange a city tour with Pascal who works at my hotel and can act as my guide/fixer. His friend Egide (4 kids) acts as my driver. There is only one thing I would really like to see here – namely the ‘Burundi Drummers’. A name for a famous drum ensemble that also travels overseas to play with big international artists – but also the general name for local drummer groups performing at weddings and in the streets. After many phone calls and two days of waiting Pascal has promised me that on this Monday afternoon we will be able to see one of these performances.

First however they take me elsewhere. To Safi beach where locals play soccer in the sand in front of the legendary art deco restaurant ‘Lake Tanganyika Restaurant’ in front of which some former leader allegedly was assassinated (read about that here). On to the ‘Musee vivant’ a small Zoo where the leopard is served a live guinea pig for lunch. After that we head out of the Bujumbura province and into the neighboring Mutambu province – again without me asking to go there and without anyone informing me where we are going. Leaving the city limits means that we have to go through a check point. Luckily we get through this one easily. We do so – Pascal explains – ‘because Egide knows the policeman’. Very reassuring.

Outside the car windows the streets are packed with small shops and busy markets and people and animals everywhere like in so many other poor countries on this continent. Constantly we see armed people. Members of the army, the police and the military police. Pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on the back and escadrilles of soldiers armed with AK47 jogging the streets synchronously. Pascal has told me not to take pictures when any of these people are in sight. Not only can I not take photos of them – also I cannot take pics in general when they are around he says. “It is only because someone has come here and subsequently they have edited their photos in Photoshop making them look like there are always riots here” (?!) – he confusingly tells me.

We head for the mountains even though I thought I was only on a city tour – and it feels a little unsafe. “We are just going to show you a lookout” Pascal explains as if he had read my thoughts. Soon after we are at the top watching the endless rows of corrugated iron shacks squeezed tightly together and making up the suburbs of Bujumbura (pop. officially 500.000 but unofficially estimated at 3 times that). “I would very much like to see those drummers now” I tell Pascal. “yes yes” he says before they take me to yet a few other completely different places. On our way back into the city we of course have to pass another check point. This time a young soldier angrily asks me for my passport. I only have a laminated copy since the passport is in my hotel I explain with my heart racing. After a heated discussion between Pascal and him in Kirundi fortunately we are allowed to pass. “His chief of police drinks beer with my hotel boss around our hotel pool” Pascal explains in a mix of French and English. “That’s why he led us pass”. Yet again – very reassuring – and very good to have the right guide/fixer by my side.

Our next stop (after I have turned Egide back when he tries to head for yet another mountain lookout point..) turns out to be at the ‘Monument de L’Unite’. A guard hurriedly rushes over, flaunts his AK-47 and tells us that we cannot enter. After that we stop at a small and chaotic shop for Pascal to buy pens at notepads for a conference the next day in the hotel (which takes forever). Then we head on to ‘Place De la Revolution’ which is swarmed by armed guards and where Pascal tells me to keep my camera totally out of sight. From there we continue to ‘Place De L’Independance’ which is (I believe) where the Americans got detained. Inside the little park is an ugly statue of some dictator. I haven’t told Pascal about the Americans – but he tells me to be careful here and says ‘that maybe if I am quick I can take a sneak photo of a little bit of the fence surrounding the square’. I tell him that I will give photographing both the fence and the ugly statue a miss and ask him yet again if we could now please go and see the Burundi Drummers. “Is it okay if we pick up my girlfriend on the way” he replies.

A short time after we are finally headed for the drummers. I have persuaded Pascal to wait picking up his girlfriend until the show has finished. In the late afternoon we therefore finally pull up in front of a half ruined building behind a ‘Community House’ sign. Unfortunately the house is deserted and some guys there informs us that there is no drum practice or performance today. Not until later I find out why. Pascal who specifically promised me to see the drummers (and who spend two days arranging it/waiting for it) does not look very affected by the ‘cancelled’ performance. (and still asks me for more money than agreed when we later return).

Pascals girlfriend (who I for many reasons like better than Pascal) lives next to and works at the famous restaurant/bar called ‘Marquis’. After we have picked her up we all drive to the Saga Beach to watch the sunset. Like Safi Beach Saga Beach is on the shore of Lake Tanganyika – the Worlds second deepest lake (after Lake Bajkal). In despite of its depth today the water is as calm as water in a cup. Out in the water stands a couple of palm trees behind which a hippo sometimes pops up its enormous head breathing for air. At the beach I meet a sweet Belgian who runs one of the best restaurants here and have lived here for 5 years. “You are lucky” they tell me “the lake is normally only this quiet once or twice a year”

(Video from Gitega where drumming is allowed – by Ric Gazarian / GlobalGaz)

Also it is the Belgians who explain the missing drummers. “The president has made drumming in public illegal for people who have not previously obtained an expensive official permit” they tell me. “Formerly they performed every Sunday near the stadium and at various other party and street performances around Bujumbura – but now they can no longer be seen around the city” – they tell me. I assume that this is also the reason that I could no longer see them practice – but I don’t know for sure.

Drumming in public – I later find out – is not the only thing no longer allowed in Bujumbura. In 2014 the country’s infamous president Pierre Nkurunziza made public jogging in groups (of two or more people) illegal(!) if not carried out with a membership of specific official running club and if not performed on nine designated presidentially appointed venues. Not following these rules leads to from five years prison to life(!!). Apparently however this jogging ban does not apply to people in

(Video from Gitega where drumming is allowed – by Ric Gazarian / GlobalGaz)

the military because as written before I constantly see soldiers in camouflage clothes running around in large groups. To fully understand this ban it is important to understand that running clubs in Burundi have had a huge historic significance. Hutus and Tutsis had separate running clubs and members of the clubs where treated and helped almost as they were family. So most likely the ban on both joggers and drummers has been made by a president who is scared of large group gatherings turning into a coup.

While the sun is setting over the palm trees and the Hippo of Lake Tanganyika I evaluate my visit to the worlds second poorest country. I unfortunately have not seen the countryside at all (‘and then you can’t say you have seen any of Burundi’ someone wrote at one of my Instagram pics). And unfortunately I did not manage to see the drummers. But I did get a good little impression of a strange country with very strange laws. A country where taking photos seems illegal and where the president has changed the constitution allowing him first to rule for more than the allowed two terms and recently again allowing him to stay in power until 2034. A country where anyone in power as the most natural thing in the world will jump the queue (as I find out when three different VIPs just go in front of me in the airport queue). And most of all a country where jogging or playing the drum in groups in public (without an expensive permission) is now a criminal offense that can lead to life in prison.

As in most other countries most of the people of Burundi are smiling, friendly and welcoming. But they are brought up in a strict regime with insane rules and punishment if those rules are broken – and I am sorry to say (even though this may result in a few critical comments here on facebook) but Burundi is not a place I would like to return to in the foreseeable future.

End of trip – back to work – thanks for following – enjoy the pics.

PS the two drum videos in the album are kindly supplied by the great Ric Gazarian(from Counting Countries / GlobalGaz) – they are recorded in February 2019 in the new capital of Gitega – where public drumming (without expensive government permission) is still allowed.

(as always – sorry for my terrible English – I write mainly in Danish and do quick translations)

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