It’s an odd moment when the FD at work emails you and says ‘hey, didn’t you say you were going to Burundi in a few weeks?, I know someone who will be there’. It’s fair to say Burundi doesn’t have much of a profile, and quite a surprise to get an introduction to a British couple who were going to be in town.
Running along one side of lake Tanganyika, it neighbours Rwanda, has a similar track record of violence, yet it is largely unknown! It apparently is one of the ten poorest nations in the world and has the lowest gdp per capita. Unsurprisingly perhaps Burundi ranked as the worlds least happy nation in the 2016 world happiness report – however I am happy to report I had a very happy experience while I was there.
I rolled into town after 20 hours flying from London and was ready for a snooze. I was staying at the delightful club du lac, on the shores of the lake, and about as far as you could possibly get from the real Burundi. The carpark was full of 4wds, and while the gorgeous pool had a good mix of dark and light people bronzing, the accents were principally European and American. And there was an incredibly posh wedding going on. The room was lovely and had two rare things in Africa – hot water and aircon!!!! It also had a view of the DRC, across the lake (which is full of hippos and bilharziasis, both of which I avoided)
I met the lovely British couple – Rod and Anita – by the pool who I had been email introduced to a few weeks earlier. They are extraordinary and have been coming to Burundi for five years to support a programme called New Generation. We lounged by the pool, drinking spicy African ginger tea in the sun and talked about a wide range of topics from global retail businesses to African development.
We wandered down the lake to a neighbouring restaurant for a dinner of local fish, spinach, fried plantains, and for me an enormous ice cream sundae. Over dinner I heard more of the story of the charity – founded by Dieudonne, who found himself living on the streets after his father and many of his family were murdered. He took it upon himself to look after other street kids and 20 years later is still doing just that. Today they are supporting about 75 youngsters who live together in houses, and many of the kids who he has helped over the years are still involved. At the beginning there were 30 of them all living in a rented house!!! I was looking forward to meeting Dieudonne the next day!
I slept like a log and then strolled along the beach for a wonderful African breakfast with excellent coffee, mangos, avocados, and pineapple. I was looking forward to my morning at church. Ok! For all of those who know me, you can now pick your jaws up off the floor — yes I went to church and lightening did not strike me down. As I said to my kind hosts, I actually enjoy church in Africa and Polynesia, as it is so much more joyous than in Europe. It’s hard to imagine that joyous exuberant Africans are all in the same religion as their largely constrained and quite European cousins.
We arrived at church, which was exactly what I expected. A corrugated iron roof, no walls, sand on the floor and the most beautifully dressed people in their Sunday finest singing with all their might and joy. We were welcomed by everyone, and luckily we had been saved seats up the front where we could see the screen. The service was conducted in kirundi and translated real time in English, and the songs all had live translation. I can’t really describe how wonderful my morning was. The sermon was delivered by Dieudonne with passion and conviction, and just enough fire and brimstone so I knew I was in Africa. I was grateful that we stood most of the time so I didn’t entirely sweat through my clothes. The singing was fantastic, and the sheer joy, enthusiasm and grooving from the congregation was genuinely uplifting. The highlight of the service was when the pastor (the aforementioned Dieudonne) called up the children who were attending from new generation (its optional, they only come if they want to), and the congregation prayed for them. Beaming happy faces of former street kids who were finding purpose and safety with Dieudonne and his family.
I was incredibly honoured that Dieudonne had offered to drive us round and show me the sites of Bujumbura. If you take a look at tripadvisor you will quickly figure out that there isn’t much in the way of sites. I had seen that there was a famous rock south of town where Livingstone and Stanley apparently had their famous rendezvous – ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’. I figured it was too much of a faff to get there, so didn’t think I would see it. Or course, given my wonderful hosts, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when we ended up at the rock with a wonderful view over the lake and a crowd of children around us checking out the muzungus (white people). Livingstone and Stanley apparently spent two nights at this site in 1871 as the guests of a local chief. It was great to see it.
From there we headed back into town and up the hill to the rich quarter which was stuffed with ostentatious mansions and embassies.
We also popped by the oldest university in Burundi which had amazing architecture but was virtually in ruins – and I was surprised to find out they were actually still using it. Unfortunately though, it can take up to six or seven years to get a degree as the professors frequently get fed up with the government not paying them so they stop teaching.
We stopped for lunch at the cafe gourmand. It’s weird ordering a latte that costs the same as feeding a family of four. However, being a former French colony, the quiche Lorraine was excellent.
Properly restored, we recommenced our whirlwind tour of Burundi, checking out the town centre, Main Street and the place d’independence. We also had a quick spin around the lovely city market, which was quite peaceful on a Sunday. After that I was off to the airport to get the last flight to Kigali, part of my three flight hop to get to Juba
I can’t thank Rod and Anita enough for being such wonderful hosts and graciously allowing me to see a side of Burundi I never would have witnessed without them. My FD friend recommended them as two of the nicest human beings I would ever meet, and she wasn’t wrong, I have never felt so well looked after. And thanks to Dieudonne for his wonderful hospitality. Dieudonne was quite an inspiration, he is smart, creative and very driven, as only those who survive and thrive without corruption in Africa are. An extraordinary man, he could easily be running a business in America, or have set up shop in Rwanda, or be doing any number of things. He could also be a very bitter man, given his father and 19 members of his family were murdered in the violence. Instead, he has dedicated his entire life to setting up his church and working with his children, and trying to change the world. Amazing!!! If you want to donate to New Generation do let me know – cash is good, or alternatively they are starting up a phone business, so will gratefully take donations of old unlocked smart phones.
Bujumbura, February 11, 2018