"A country unburdened by major tourist attractions" Top 5 Page for this destination Burundi by CatherineReichardt

Burundi Travel Guide: 122 reviews and 1,040 photos

(work in progress)
With the greatest of respect, I have to say that Burundi is a pleasant – and often scenic - place, but not the sort of country that I'd cross continents to visit on the basis of its own virtues. That being said, it's an enjoyable location in which to spend a few days on business, or a rewarding detour if you're already in the region, especially if you're interested in ‘ticking off’ another obscure country.

Although Burundi’s tourist authorities gamely try to promote it as a wildlife destination, the sad truth of the matter is that the large mammals that were once here have long since been eaten, and the few that remain have sought refuge in the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the country. Rabid twitchers will probably be intrigued by the opportunity to track down a few Albertine Rift endemic bird species, and the countryside (particularly in the highlands) is pleasantly scenic, but frankly, that’s probably not a reason to go to considerable effort to get here.

By anyone’s standards, Bujumbura’s an odd place, which establishes its peculiar credentials from the moment you step off the plan into an airport that looks like a 50s comic version of what a futuristic moon station might look like.

The town (it’s impossible to think of it as a city) commands an impressive location at the head of Lake Tanganyika, where the fault-bound walls of the Rift Valley slope steeply towards the lake. The lowlying location makes for a hot and humid climate, and proximity to a lake which is not suitable for swimming is almost more of a torture than a relief, except in the evening, when a (relatively) cool onshore breeze picks up and provides some relief from the oppressive mugginess.

In most ways, Buj is a stereotypical post-independence capital of a small African nation: densely populated, sprawling and scruffy. Genocides aside, it is a placid and pleasant location and is also home to a well established community of expats comprising diplomats, NGO workers and representatives of primarily Francophone businesses who are content to be big fish in a very small pond. Initially the substantial number of diplomatic missions seems disproportional to Burundi’s peanut size until you realise that their primary function is to monitor developments and seek out economic opportunity in its gigantic neighbour, the democratic Republic of Congo, which is surely destined to become the economic powerhouse of the region if it ever manages to resolve its fractious internal politics.

There are few major tourist attractions in Buj, although there are some intriguing ‘second division’ attractions that are the charm of exploring a town of this sort. If I had to describe a single characteristic that defines the place for me, it would probably be that its population has an unlikely passion for jogging, for reasons that I don’t begin to fathom. Maybe the government once ran a highly effective public health campaign extolling the virtues of physical exercise, or (more prosaically), perhaps there’s not a lot else to do here of an evening once the sun starts to set and both temperature and humidity drops into a range more conducive to physical exertion, people come out to pound the pavements en masse. Twice in 24 hours, I witnessed the Darwinian spectacle of a jogger halting in midstride and starting to do situps in the middle of a public road regardless of oncoming traffic!

A bit of historical context

It's a fair bet that most tourists visiting Burundi (and that's not a lot in the first place) know very little about its history, other than its tragic involvement in the genocide that devastated the Great Lakes region in the 1990s.

At a push, many would know that prior to independence, it was a Belgian colony, and a few - probably those with surnames like mine - would recall that it was previously part of German East Africa. The unlikely transfer of power between these two colonial forces took place in 1916 when the Germans – essentially the governor and a handful of men - surrendered to the Belgian forces under a vast spreading acacia on the outskirts of Bujumbura, which you’ll pass as you drive into town from the airport.

Both German and Belgians were indirect colonial powers whose principal interest was resource security, so - unlike more hands on colonial settlers such as the British, who tended to set up bureaucractic and administrative structures - they had a minimal presence, and pretty much left the local people to their own devices. Belgium's control over Burundi was ratified by the League of Nations in 1921, and it continued to be a source of raw materials to its colonial overlord - most notably exporting much needed food supplies to Belgium during the World Wars - until Independence in 1962.

Fewer still would know that it was Bujumbura - and not Kigali - that was the former capital of the combined country of Ruanda-Urundi, and that the most recent genocide was merely the last wave of ethnic cleansing in a region that has a shameful history of violent racial intolerance.

Whilst Rwanda is disarmingly open about its genocide history – and has done a staggeringly successful job of reconstructing the country from the chaos – the genocide is much less conspicuous in Burundi. One commemorative square in downtown Buj was the only tangible commemoration of this sad passage of Burundian history that I came across, and even then, you needed to know enough to join the historical dots, as there are no commentaries to give context.

On 21 October 1993, most of the Burundian cabinet in one fell swoop in a coup that plunged the country into civil war. Barely a year later, President Cyprien Ntaryamira, who was shot down in a plane with his Rwandan counterpart - and fellow Hutu – Juvénal Habyarimana in an event that sparked the fullblown atrocities of the Rwandan genocide.

The politics of the Great Lakes region can be byzantine to outsiders, and I own up to the fact that, despite my best efforts, the litany of sheer human misery caused me to quickly lost track of who did what to whom. Perhaps all that I can offer in my defence is that I was perhaps too preoccupied by the sheer enormity of a human tragedy that Ieft 300,000 Burundians dead and displaced over half a million more: figures that seemed too huge to comprehend until we arrived in Rwanda ...

Following in the footsteps of the great Victorian

For most tourists, the chief attraction of Burundi is the thrilling opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the great Victorian era explorers. In the second half of the 19th century, the colonial powers were besotted by The Race For Africa, and despatched explorers who are still household names 150 years later to resolve the major geographical riddles of the day (whilst bagging enormous tracts of land in the name of their monarch in the process).

One of the most pressing questions was the manner in which Central Africa’s complex system of great rivers and lakes interacted, including the greatest prize of all: locating the source of the Nile. Inspired by the ghosts of David Livingstone, Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke and Henry Morton Stanley - who devoted much of their lives searching for this Holy Grail of Victorian era exploration - I could hardly contain my excitement, I pored over the map of Burundi and was thrilled to see a point in the highland interior marked, ‘southern source of the Nile’, only half a day’s fairly easy drive from Bujumbura and thus well within striking distance.
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Whatever I may have expected of the southern source of the Nile, what we encountered wasn’t it! To add insult to injury, in the last few years, its claim to fame has been rendered redundant by the discovery of a spring in Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park which has been formally recognised as the southern source of the Nile.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Burundi provided the backdrop for great explorers of the Victorian era to meet. In fact the shores of Lake Tanganyika provided the setting for not one, but two meetings between these travel titans: meetings between Livingstone and Stanley, and between Burton and Speke. The meeting between Stanley and Livingstone is best known for one of the famous conversational openers of all time: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”. Not that there would have been much mistaking the elderly Livingstone in his trademark peaked cap for anyone else in these parts, but to be fair to Stanley, he’d been tracking the good doctor down for some time, and by that point, Livingstone hadn’t been seen by a Westerner in over four years.

The Burundian travel industry would let you believe that this famous meeting took place in Mugere, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika and less than 20km from Bujumbura. This is a tempting claim to fame, but sadly they’re being economical with the truth: although Livingstone and Stanley did meet here, it was actually a reunion, since they had first met - and exchanged this historic greeting - in Ujiji in November 1871.

Nonetheless, Livingstone and Stanley- did reunite here, and spent a few weeks in each other’s company in this very pretty spot. And – unlikely though it might seem – the irascible Scottish missionary and the boorish American newspaper reporter (who was actually a workhouse boy from Wales) got on extremely well. They met at a time in their lives when they desperately needed each other and developed a fascinating codependent relationship. Stanley brought Livingstone back into the public eye and through his genuine devotion to Livingstone as a mentor and father figure, almost singlehandedly established the saintly reputation that he has enjoyed ever since. By association, Stanley gained the recognition as an international explorer that he so desperately craved, which gave him the profile that allowed him to raise funding for his subsequent explorations.

It’s quite something to walk in the footsteps of such giants, although what motivated them to endure such appalling hardships with limited financial reward is still baffling. All these years later, it’s almost unimaginable that men thought it worthwhile risking life and limb for little more than the opportunity to be lauded by the Royal Geographical Society, and that, as a result of their uninvited presence, a continent was arbitrarily carved up between respective monarchs with startling disregard for tribal and geographical considerations

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Small, friendly and virtually untouristed
  • Cons:Poorly maintained infrastructure and erratic power supply
  • In a nutshell:Pleasant
  • Last visit to Burundi: Mar 2013
  • Intro Updated Jul 22, 2013
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Reviews (34)

Comments (5)

  • Yaqui's Profile Photo
    Jun 9, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    What a fascinating place and you write your tips so well. I enjoyed the tour you provided. Excellent page!

    • CatherineReichardt's Profile Photo
      Jun 10, 2013 at 3:44 AM

      Thanks Dee - coming from someone who writes as well as you do, I am honoured!
      Burundi and Rwanda have been a pleasure to write up because they're so much outside most people's comfort zone and there's been relatively little recent feedback on VT about the Great Lakes region.
      Since you read the tip, I have posted a photo of the newly unveiled 'hooded statue' that my husband took last week - oh dear!
      What have you been writing recently? I've been so caught up with addressing my backlog that it would be nice to experience something new and different through the eyes of a fellow traveller ...

  • christine.j's Profile Photo
    May 26, 2013 at 2:14 AM

    A very interesting page, I'm looking forward to reading again when you've finished it. It's good to see you here again.

    • CatherineReichardt's Profile Photo
      May 26, 2013 at 2:21 AM

      Hi Christine Thanks so much for your kind comments - and yes, it's good to be back ... I've missed my VT friends! Regards Cathy

  • wabat's Profile Photo
    May 22, 2013 at 3:08 AM

    Love the title - very Victorian :-) what do you really mean ?

  • toonsarah's Profile Photo
    May 21, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    Fascinating reading! Let me know when the page is finished and I'll stop by to read the rest

  • GentleSpirit's Profile Photo
    May 20, 2013 at 2:55 PM

    So good to see you again!!!!!!!!

CatherineReichardt

“Never go the same way twice!”

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