Burundi - April 25, 2011

Today I sat on the upstairs balcony of my hotel, basking in the sunshine and enjoying the amazing view over Bujumbura to Lake Tanganyika and the mountains of DR Congo.  As the sun set over the lake, I listened to the birds singing and bugs trilling and faint drums and horns from distant Easter celebrations.  I watched two beautiful cranes with stark yellow mohawks and red, white and black face paint wander aimlessly around the hotel garden.  It was truly paradise.  I forgot where I was for a moment.  I felt like I was in a glossy brochure for honeymoon destinations rather than one of the poorest countries in the world…literally in the bottom ten.  It’s so sad that there are beautiful places like this with so much potential but they are bogged down with civil war, crazy diseases, extreme poverty, political turmoil, corruption and ethnic tensions.

So far I’ve found Burundi to be a very interesting place.  I used to say that I could tell the economic prosperity of a country by how much trash was on the street, but I have to take that back.  Burundi is extremely poor, but very clean.  In the capital city, Bujumbura, the roads are nice and buildings and infrastructure look pretty well maintained.   You don’t really see the remnants of over 10 years of civil war. 

Last week I drove out to Makamba, the most southerly province of Burundi which borders Tanzania and is about 3.5 hours from Bujumbura.  The drive was absolutely beautiful.  On the way there, the majority of the route was along the shores of the Lake, which serves as the border between Burundi and DRC.  There were fantastic views of the mountains rising from the lake and shrouded in billowing cloud formations.  On the way back the next day, we took a different, longer route through Gitega, which is pretty much smack dab in the middle of the country, so I got to see a lot of the countryside.

Burundi is mountainous which made for some interesting people watching as bicycles are the main mode of transport for people and their goods.  There is always one particular thing in a country that I get obsessed with while I’m visiting.  In Haiti it was the stuff people carried on their heads, in Liberia it was the crazy public message signs all over the city, in Uganda it was the boda boda motorcycle taxis and in Burundi it is the bicycles.  These are not necessarily things unique to those specific locations (especially the head carrying) but they seemed to capture my attention the most while I was there.  Anyway, on the drive I must have seen hundreds of people on bikes…and by people I mean men.  I did not see one single female with a bike.  I asked about it and was told that it’s just not something women do here.  These bikes were laden with all manner of goods…huge bails of grass or burlap sacks full of fruit or wooden furniture frames...you name it and they will pack it onto their big, rusty Chinese bicycles.  Then these guys push their bikes, overflowing with stuff, up the mountain roads.  Sometimes the road would be steep uphill for miles.  It must be so strenuous and I was exhausted just watching them.  A few times I saw guys surreptitiously hanging onto the back of lorries or petrol tankers, hitching a ride up the hill.  These bikes didn’t have goods on them because I’m sure it would have been impossible to balance and it seemed a pretty precarious maneuver as it was.  There has got to be a pool of Lance Armstrongs here who could win the Tour de France without any formal training.

Burundi is splendidly green and brown and earthy feeling, much like Uganda.  When I was in Cape Town I was told that the Cape is the most diverse floristic kingdom on Earth.  Frankly it was a bit hard to believe since it seemed like there were just 1,000 different types of small thistle like shrubs which all looked exactly the same.  But Burundi…if someone told me that Burundi was one of the most diverse, I would believe it.  There are all sorts of trees and grasses and shrubs and bushes and flowers…big palm trees, little palm trees, trees that are 50 feet tall, trees with fat trunks and huge swelling foliage, pine trees, trees that look like Aspens or Poplars...not that Burundi is like a big forest or anything…it is more like a blanket of green stretched over the land with patches of trees and bushes.  In the late afternoon, in the hills near Makamba, the foliage was reflecting the sun and the leaves and bushes were shiny and glowing.  It solidified in my mind (as if there was any doubt before) that I am not a desert kinda girl.  It felt the polar extreme of how a desert feels…it felt somehow satiating and soft and slick and lush…imagine the exact opposite of harsh and cracked and crunchy and dry.

We visited some IRC projects along the way to the office in Makamba.  One was a set of latrines constructed near the shore of the lake at one of the communes that houses Burundian refugees who are returning from Tanzania.  Cholera was breaking out a lot, so these latrines were built and the incidences of cholera have been greatly reduced.  It’s amazing what a brick outhouse with a concrete slab and a hole in the ground can do for the health of an entire community.  My prior experience in Africa was a bit sheltered compared to my experience with IRC so far.  When I was at the project sites, I was totally in the thick of it, the only foreigner around and actively engaging with the community.  In my prior experience, I was only really in the city alongside other foreigners, in our own little expat bubble.  It seemed like everyone we passed shouted Mzungu and little kids were running after the car or waving and laughing from the side of the roads.  When I was in New York last week I felt like everyone around me was an alien and no one paid any attention to me…well, maybe when I fell on my ass in the rain outside Grand Central station…whomever decided to pave the sidewalk with stones that turn into a slip-n-slide in the rain should win the real man of genius award…but I digress.  In NYC everyone else was an alien, but here, especially out in the country, I am the alien.  It’s not that I haven’t experienced this before, but perhaps it just all feels different and more acute somehow because I’m on sensation and information overload…in a different land, trying to learn a new job with all new colleagues and new responsibilities that I’ve never had before…also, this will be my lifestyle from now on, for the next couple years I will be on the move bouncing from one remote location to another.

Speaking of new experiences, the other night I stood about 50 feet away from two hippos that came out of the lake to eat the grass on the shore.  Seeing as hippos are one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, we weren’t that close for very long, we soon headed back onto the walled deck of this nice Italian restaurant where we were having dinner.  But we could still see them from the deck and it was magical when we caught a glimpse of a baby calf eating with them.

Well, I think that’s all for now.  I’ll write again from Liberia.  I’m heading there this week for my first real assignment as part of our emergency response to the Ivorian refugee crises.