Burundi rarely makes the news. It’s a nation about the size of Massachusetts, but with more people and extreme poverty. It’s the twin to Rwanda, same ethnic strife, Hutu vs Tutsi, same Belgian colonial legacy, but Burundi is poorer and more forgotten. In the entire country, we saw but one working traffic light. From the Tanzanian border, the road was dirt. Our hiking trails are in better condition. In Burundi, most children suffer from chronic malnutrition. I have never been in a land so poor.
People were surprised to see us. Outside of the capital, especially closer to Tanzania, people would cheer as we cycled by. It’s like we were famous, like we were world class cyclists, like we were doing something noteworthy and important. And in a sense, maybe, we were. One man told me that I was the first white person he’d seen outside a car. It was just incredible.
At every little town, a crowd would gather. Once, the police asked us to move because the crowd around us blocked the main intersection. They would stare and gawk and sometimes manage a few questions in English. They asked us where we were from. America. America! They asked us why we were in their village, their town, in Burundi. We come as tourists. Tourist? And they would shake their heads, like they knew what the word meant but they’d never seen one before.
For decades, Burundi has been embroiled in civil war. The last one started eighteen years ago and ended but three years ago in 2008. Today, the country is at peace. The remaining rebels are holed up, top mountains bordering the Congo.
We were going to camp behind a restaurant when one of the other patrons, a businessman who owns a couple gas stations, asked if we would stay with him in the hotel. If we did not, the police would come to “protect” us. It would be better this way. Such kindness was common in Burundi. Later, a man told me, in very rough English, that this man was a big man, that during the war he would protect people as he does with you now. It gives you pause. During the war. Lives saved. And how many were lost?
In Burundi, the mountains are truly lush; Lake Tanganyika is very beautiful. I drank a few beers with a Burundian trying to get the word out, to jump start tourism. He said that someday he would like to do as I do, travel around, but that it is much easier for me than for him. Yeah, I said. But life is long. Maybe in a few years. Maybe. And I hope it’s true. That this government stands, that they begin to make more than just coffee, peanut butter and beer, that the peace lasts, that in some years maybe I can welcome him into a bar as he has done for me. I really hope so. I really do. That’s what I was thinking as I watched a police officer drink himself stupid. He dropped his rifle. It spilled onto the floor and he left the bar ashamed. A couple minutes later he returned, rifle in one hand and a beer in the other.
The State Department has a travel warning against Burundi. It says, “groups of armed bandits or street children, poses the highest risk for foreign visitors to both Bujumbura and Burundi in general … gunfire and grenade attacks are common … travel outside the capital, Bujumbura, presents significant risks, especially after nightfall…” And indeed, one sees trucks stacked 50 soldiers high, they transverse the mountain passes, which themselves are lined with soldiers. It’s disconcerting. But it was here, in Burundi, dirt poor little Burundi, that we experienced the least begging and the most hospitality. Maybe it’s because the NGOs haven’t yet corrupted minds into thinking that white people exist to give. Or maybe, as I’d like to think, it’s because they’ve had enough and turned a corner, through their good character they will yet build up a nation. That is what I hope. I really do.