In the lobby of the Martha Hotel in Bujumbura is a colourful map of Burundi and it struck me that it looks very much like a human heart, complete with valves, arteries and an aorta! How apt, then, that this small and somewhat unknown country is pretty much in the heart of Africa. Bordered on the west by Lake Tanganyika and Tanzania to the east, Burundi nestles just south of central Africa’s other mini nation of Rwanda. Like its neighbour to the north the country has been through much upheaval in the past twenty years. Rwanda infamously suffered one of the worst genocides of the 20th century and these atrocities made global headlines. Burundi’s problems, however, were not reported so widely and hence it seems to be one of the continents ‘unknown’ nations.
Burundi was a no go area for over a decade from 1993 until 2005 during which a civil war raged with an estimated death toll in excess of 300,000. The war was related to the troubles in Rwanda in that it was borne out of the ethnic divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. Since the end of the war and the launching of a peace process life has been mostly tranquil and positive however Burundi still has the unenviable position of propping up several unwanted global statistical lists:
- According to the United Nations in 2012 Burundi had the lowest nominal GDP per capita in the world
- It features top of the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Hunger Index
- In 2014 it was ranked second bottom in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Network Readiness Index which is an indicator of telecommunications infrastructure and it placed last in the WEF’s survey of telecommunications usage
So you may think that my visit to Bujumbura, the country’s capital city, in May was a lesson in the worst of African poverty but what I actual found was quite different. You can see from my photos that the bleak rankings seem to contrast in many ways with what I observed. Obviously I saw the veneered surface of life but I’ve been to other countries which have a far less welcoming veneered surface. The city centre is fairly small and immediately to the east are the serene suburbs of Rohero, Gatoke and Kiriri (the latter very popular with diplomats) which are prime areas for expatriate abodes. I stayed at the Martha Hotel in Rohero and my daily walks into town were coupled with flowers in bloom and shady tree-lined avenues which could be from a brochure for Western suburban utopia. Okay, I’m waxing lyrical a tad there but my point is that the Bujumbura which I experienced, and which assignees experience, is certainly not one which may be imagined by the nation’s poor performances on the above lists.
A great example of this was a sight which I cannot remember seeing elsewhere in Africa (except maybe South Africa) but which is commonplace on the streets of Europe and North America – locals with a pet dog on a lead! I had to double-take when I saw it but sure enough there were a couple of Burundians with two well fed dogs complete with pink leashes and jangly metal name tags around their collars (the dogs that is, not the people!). That’s not where the familiar sights ended. When you step inside the Café Gourmand, located at prime crossroads in the centre of the city, you feel instantly transported to a gourmet delicatessen or boulangerie in Paris. Expats and locals alike meet over a coffee and set up their laptops to access the free wi-fi whilst taking an occasional bite from one of the many products on offer. Everything from freshly baked baguettes, mango smoothies, cream-filled éclairs, rich buttery croissants, toasted paninis and ice cream sundaes – it’s all quaffed with a smile at this Bujumbura institution.
Towards the west of the city centre the streets and buildings give way to Lake Tanganyika and on the shores of Africa’s second largest lake is another expat hangout – this one with a more relaxed ambience. The Bora Bora beach club is a favourite weekend and evening get away a few kilometres from the bustle of town where you can lounge for as long as you like under the equatorial sun with a cool beer and a pizza.
And if all of that isn’t enough to remind you of home when in Burundi just remember that you can head to Au Bon Prix where you can be sure to find all the dog food you’ll need!