Beauty and Bias in Burundi

Beauty and Bias in Burundi

“Exchanges of gunfire and grenade attacks are common even in densely populated urban areas.  Stay indoors, in a ground floor interior room, if gunfire or explosions occur nearby.”

—US State Department Travel Advisory on Burundi, April 20th 2014

One could be forgiven for picturing the streets of Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down. The advisory goes on to warn about terrorist threats, armed bandits, political violence, muggings, ambushes, walking at night, leaving the capital, and bribery.

They might as well write, “Never leave your fortified hotel, unless traveling in an armored car with SEAL Team Six.”

I know that State Department travel advisories tend to be a bit alarmist, but am still nervous about Burundi.

The country certainly faces legitimate challenges. It experienced civil war from 1993-2009 and is currently the fourth poorest country in the world.

I am curious to see if things are indeed as terrible as they seem from the outside.


First impressions

I hitch a ride from the airport with a friendly Congolese gentleman working in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital. The windows are down as we drive through the lush countryside. The air is warm, but not stifling. It is not entirely clear where the countryside ends and city begins. For a capital c ity, Bujumbura feels quaint. Traffic is mild and the air breathable.

We chat about life in Burundi and his home country. While he admits that both countries face serious issues, he believes the region is finally on the mend. He believes that instead of aid and pity, both need honest investment. He drops me off and ends with, “I am glad you came to see things for yourself; more people should do so. They would be pleasantly surprised with what they find.”

I meet my host, Caity, an American friend of a friend. We spend the afternoon strolling through downtown Bujumbura. No one bothers us; most do not even seem to notice us. After the State Department’s warnings, anonymity comes as a welcome relief.

We walk to the lake for happy hour. Lake Tanganyika is both the second largest and second deepest freshwater lake in the world. The sunset is vivid, the views impressive, and the beers are cold and cheap. The only disturbance comes from fishermen storing gear.

Burundi: 1, US State Department: 0.

Happy hour on Lake Tanganyika.

Happy hour on Lake Tanganyika.

Testing limits

My host took me to karaoke on my first night, and while out, we meet a group of young Burundians. While out to karaoke that evening, I meet Medea and her friends. Medea is are from Bujumbura; and she now works as a financial analyst at a bank.  We discuss what else I should see while in Burundi. We devise a plan to drive upcountry the next day in search of both good brochettes (kebabs) and hiking.

When she comes to pick me up in the morning, I realize this is as much of an adventure for her as it is for me. She is the ultimate city girl and this will be her first proper hike. She seems more than a bit apprehensive – not about rebels or bandits, but about whether she brought the correct footwear.

We stop in Ijenda, a small town two hours outside Bujumbura. While a few locals shoot us intrigued looks, everyone is exceedingly friendly. We purchase a dozen tangerines from the local market for around 3 cents each and munch on goat brochettes for lunch.

After lunch, the real adventure begins. The exact location of our desired destination, Mount Heha, the tallest peak in Burundi, is unknown. We make no less than 15 stops along the way, seeking directions from a mix of children, farmers, and road workers.

We finally think we have found it. We park at a family’s house. The family greets us. Heha is another 45 minutes away, but the second highest peak in Burundi is here. We decide to go for it; two local villagers offer to guide us. Medea wants to throw in the towel halfway up, but we convince her to push for the summit. She is skeptical and tired. “Why are we doing this? We could be sitting in a nice café somewhere having a drink…”

Finally, we summit. The views are stunning. Suddenly, Medea’s mood changes. “This is so beautiful. I am going to bring all my friends here! Look at this view…” I realize I am taking the moment for granted; Medea’s bright-eyed awe and wonder are a good reminder to appreciate it.

We scramble down the mountain and drive back to Bujumbura, stopping along the way for happy hour.

Burundi takes a clear lead.

Burundi: 2, US State Department: 0.

Buying tangerines for 3 cents each.

Buying tangerines for 3 cents each.

View from Burundi's second highest peak.

View from Burundi’s second highest peak.

The Beach

Having heard great things about the beach, we decide to head to the lake the following day. After a long walk down the beach and an impromptu Cirque du Soleil tryout, we sip on Primus, the local beer, and discuss the future of Burundi.

Recent reports state the government is arming militias and suggest Burundi might soon devolve back into civil war.

Medea responds, “If I watched the news, I would never leave the house. This country is tired of fighting. Most of us just want peace. We do worry about the election, but people have said the country is on the verge of war since fighting stopped almost ten years ago.”

While the scary stories might be true and the future is uncertain, at least for now, Burundi remains peaceful.

Burundi: 3, US State Department: 0.

Relaxing by the beach.

Relaxing by the beach.

Cirque du Soleil audition.

Cirque du Soleil audition.

American Arrogance?           

The breeze blows gently as the sun sets over Lake Tanganyika. Ominous clouds loom over the Congo, just across the lake.

Christian, a twenty-something Burundian who works at a local NGO, asks me, “How can Burundi use innovation to help alleviate poverty? We have many smart youth, but they have no outlet for their creativity and intelligence.”

A smart, nuanced, and certainly challenging question.

Before I can answer, another American who just joined the group, jumps into the conversation. He ignored the Burundians until now, content to chat with his Dutch friend.

“Do you see this watch? It cost $4,000. Do you see this diamond ring? It cost $8,000. Can I walk around the streets of Bujumbura at night and feel safe? Until I can, this country will never develop.”

I blinked. My Burundian friends looked shocked. What just happened?

Before anyone could respond, he continues, “The problem with Africa is that Africans will not take any responsibility for their own problems. They only want others to solve their problems for them. You need to start taking ownership for your own country.”

Okay, then. What his answer had to do with innovation and youth is unclear.

At dinner, once the American has left, we rehash the experience. I cringe when Medea says that he was similar to most Americans she knows in Burundi. Her friends nod in agreement. “Westerners can be very arrogant. They always think they are better — but they often do not look or listen.”

Other stories seem to confirm this bias is not a complete anomaly. Perhaps the most shocking concerned an expat party. The invitation told the guests to bring friends – unless the guests were Burundian, who were explicitly instructed not to bring friends. The hosts supposedly worried about theft.

Certainly many, if not most, Westerners are doing great work across Africa and are respectful and optimistic; but it is unfortunate that there are also many with such a insensitive and jaded worldview.

Were I not intentionally seeking positive stories, I would likely also be pessimistic about  Burundi, particularly after being bombarded with negative information prior to arriving. Yet, my experience was extremely positive. It did not require ignoring the challenges of Burundi, but did require moving past the bias of outside reports and my own American mindset of what the world should look like.

Ultimately, Burundi is emblematic of many countries in Africa: it faces real challenges, but is also far more beautiful and peaceful than most reports make it seem.

I hope others accept the challenge issued when I first arrived: bring an open mind and come see for yourself.


If you have not already, read more about my journey, sign-up for future updates, and follow along real-time on Instagram.