Chapter 5 – Burundi


The visit to Burundi was the shortest of all my trips: just four days. I took an overnight coach from Kigali (the capital of Rwanda) to Bujumbura (the capital of Burundi), and then a boda-taxi to the village where I was staying – and then the same in reverse at the end of the four days. The visit was for the purpose of seeing and experiencing the culture and learning more about the charities that I had been in touch with – I didn’t really leave enough time to be able to work or volunteer there very much.

When I met my host and he took me back to his house where I would be staying with the family, he immediately started to tell me things that I needed to be aware of regarding my own appearance. I had been wearing trousers to travel, for the sake of comfort (though I had brought skirts with me, aware that in the villages where I had visited in the other African countries women are expected to wear skirts, not trousers) – and he told me that I certainly should have changed into a skirt before leaving Bujumbura because everyone in the villages assumed that I was a prostitute since I was wearing trousers. This was enforced further by the fact that I was wearing dangling earrings – another sign of prostitution in their area. He told me, “You stand out enough because of your skin colour: it is not worth drawing extra attention to yourself by wearing trousers and earrings”. I felt bad for any embarrassment that I had caused to his family: people knew him in the village, and had seen him travelling with me (dressed as a prostitute by their customs) to his house. I was also wearing bracelets when I arrived, which I was promptly advised to remove because they are considered a sign of witchcraft in the villages around where I was staying.

One of the first things I noticed about those rural villages in Burundi was the houses. In Rwanda the houses in the far-flung villages that I visited were made of mud, and I was told that they dissolve whenever it rains heavily so need to be patched up or even fully rebuilt every so often. In the rural Ugandan villages that I had visited the houses were made mainly of sticks and the walls were made of any pieces of card or wood or tin that could be scrounged or bought, so needed patching up fairly regularly. The Burundian houses out in the rural villages seemed to combine the two and had made the basic structure from interlocked sticks for the strength and then padded clay-mud around the sticks for a few inches on each side, to eliminate leaks and holes and to provide privacy and shade. It seems so basic – combining two very readily accessible and free resources – but the houses seemed so much stronger than what I had seen in the other two countries. When it rained the people did not have to re-make the whole structure like what I saw in Rwanda, and they did not have to keep scrounging for pieces of card or tin to patch up the gaps like what I saw in Uganda. I am aware that I only visited less than twenty villages in each country and that this certainly does not give a full overview or the right to generalise, but it was an observation that I found fascinating at the time.

I spent three nights in Burundi: two in the house of this English family I knew, and one with some American charity-workers I met there who worked for the same organisation as the English family. Although these two buildings were more Westernized and brick-built, there was no electricity in either location: I was told that there was occasional electricity in the family’s house, but that at this time of year it was rarely accessible. This meant that we went to sleep when the sun set at about 8pm and got up with the sunrise at around 5am. We had candles to guide us through the house when it began to get dark, which was my first experience of actually having to live by candlelight. It felt both exciting and peaceful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In the family’s house there was also a guard at the entrance at all times. When I asked about it I was told that there were fairly frequent and seemingly random attacks on the area as there were still strong repercussions from the Rwandan genocide and from general civil unrest, and that as a white family they were an obvious target. Even though they knew all their neighbours quite well, they were advised by several people to get a guard for the sake of their safety, the safety of their children, and the security of their possessions.

In the other building, where I stayed my final night with the three American charity workers, we spent the evening chatting by candlelight and went to sleep an hour or two after sunset. Above my bedroom there was an attic space, and during the night I could hear what I thought sounded like dogs running around up there, all night: there was noise of running, slipping and scrabbling on the wooden floor, followed by a loud thud and silence for a few seconds, as if the creatures had run into a wall – then the running would start again. I struggled to sleep because the noise of the incessant running and thudding competed with that of the insects screeching at me from just outside (thankfully) the window. In the morning I asked if there were dogs living upstairs, but was told that it was a family of large rats, which the Americans had unsuccessfully tried to remove a number of times. I was glad that I had not known this the previous day: I would have got even less sleep knowing that there was a family of large rats just above my head!

While in Burundi I visited various projects run by a few different charities that worked together a little. For this we went between Bujumbura (the political and legal capital) and Gitega (the traditional trade capital), to visit projects there and in the surrounding villages. The road between the two is known to be one of the most dangerous roads in the world, and was genuinely terrifying. The scenery was breathtakingly stunning, absolutely beautiful – the best scenery I had ever seen. But, for most of the road, on one side there was a sheer drop where many vehicles would fall. There were countless ribbons tied to sticks that lined the road as memorials to those who had died there.

There were cyclists who, on the long and steep up-hill parts of this road, would grab onto the backs of lorries and cars in order to be pulled along. Other cyclists would ride up and hold onto the backs of the shirts or seats of those cyclists and be pulled along too, and so it would escalate – we would see lines of seven or eight cyclists holding onto each other and the one at the front holding onto a car or lorry. If one were to wobble or trip on a stone, or lose his grip, all those behind him would fall. Many of them were transporting goods, too, carrying large bags or other heavy items on their backs or on their heads – and if these were to fall and hit the rider behind, who knows how many cyclists and vehicles might be affected. Different people quoted different percentages regarding the number of deaths out of all the people who travelled that road, or the number of deaths per day on that road, but I tried hard not to think about those. It really was a terrifying experience – numbed slightly by the contrast of the fantastic views all around.

Strangely, despite my age and my inexperience, I was invited to participate in an advisory capacity in leadership meetings for two of the different charities. Similarly when I met staff members at the various projects I visited, two of them asked for my advice. I wondered, again, if this assumption that I had great knowledge and superior capabilities was simply because of my skin colour. But perhaps in Burundi it was simply because I was a visitor who had travelled a bit and experienced the workings of charitable organisations across various different cultures. I don’t think I will ever know why they asked for my opinions, ideas and advice. I felt like I had very little to contribute, but did voice a few of my observations and some of the differences I noticed between the ways that they operated and the ways that other similar organisations elsewhere had done things – not saying that any other ways were any better or more effective; just for the sake of interest. Overall I was very impressed with the various organisations that I met across Burundi. They seemed well structured and well-organised. They were united by an obvious motivation of compassion – some for children in unfortunate situations and others for people with mental or physical disabilities. All of the organisations I visited, as well as wanting to benefit people in greatest need, had clear vision as to how to do so in the most effective way possible, and I was impressed by their vision and strategies.

My host, as well as being heavily involved in various ways with these organisations, would go off on his motorbike every so often to very rural villages to meet and chat with the village leaders, witchdoctors and other interesting characters, and would come back with all sorts of fascinating stories. He always had many things to tell and entertaining anecdotes of cultural mistakes that he had made and of strange things that had happened.

The trip back to Rwanda at the end of my time in Burundi was very memorable. I had wondered whether to pay the extra money (the equivalent of about £6) to get the ‘VIP coach’, but I was stingy and didn’t believe there would be much difference. How I regretted that decision later! I found the long overnight coach trip between Bujumbura and Kigali much more frightening than when I had come the opposite way: this time, the drier appeared to be heavily intoxicated and swerved around the road all the time, even when we were driving beside very steep drops (which was a significant part of the journey). He was speeding a lot, too, and every minor bump or major pot-hole seemed to almost lift the vehicle clean off the ground. I spent most of the journey desperately praying for safety, convinced that something would happen to the coach. Other passengers seemed calm (I was the only foreigner as far as I’m aware), though some were shouting and seemingly arguing, which didn’t help the situation I’m sure. Some slept. I did not.

When I got to Kigali, shattered and quite smelly by this point from fearing for my life most of the night on the coach, I took a boda-taxi from the Kigali coach station back to where I had been staying with the English couple before going off to visit Burundi. Part way through the journey a dust storm began, indicating that it was about to rain. Having not consulted a map beforehand I didn’t really have any idea where I was or how far from my destination I was. As the dust began to pick up, my driver pulled in under the roof of a petrol station for shelter. Other boda-taxi drivers were doing the same. By the time the rain began there were about forty or fifty men sheltering there – mostly boda-taxi drivers but also a few passengers, quite closely packed together in a relatively small space. The body odour was almost overwhelming – I was not used to being in very crowded places during my time in East Africa.

As if the smell wasn’t enough to make me feel uncomfortable, everyone was looking right at me. It was like a scene from a film – I was near the middle of a crowd, with people pressing in on all sides, and everyone looking right at me. They had no shame in it either – when I looked back nobody looked away or pretended not to be staring as any Brit would feel inclined to do; they just maintained eye contact until I looked away. I felt very awkward. I didn’t know where to look, and ended up staring at the ceiling and listening to the sound of the rain; trying to forget that forty or fifty pairs of eyes were steadily watching me. I did not speak to them – I was not confident in my Kinyarwanda and did not know whether any of them spoke any English. Nobody spoke to me; they just stared. I wondered why people did not stare at the rain, as they had done in the office where I worked in Kigali. I found it funny that whenever a dust-storm began, everyone in the office would get up and walk to the windows, and would stand there simply watching it until the rain completely stopped. Here in this petrol station, though, people were not staring at the rain but at me. I felt extremely self-conscious and was relieved when after about forty minutes the rain stopped and we set off on or journey again. It was very strange.