Burundi Diary # 3: Longer stay, security, Eddy, food & oil crisis - and the beaches as cultural exchange spaces

Bujumbura, Burundi
July 2, 2008

I’ve been here a couple of weeks, one of many visits since my first in 1999. This time is different in that I’ll be here more than 3 weeks, longer than ever, I stay privately instead of at the Amahoro Hotel, and TFF has to save as much money as we can since we have just received a “No” from the Bernadotte Academy in Sweden to our grant proposal for the next 12 months of work here.

In this an coming Diary notes I wil tell you a bit about life here and what TFF is trying to achieve partly with the Amahoro (Peace) Youth Club and with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is the third dispatch, the first two were from March and April here in the blog.


I like walking; it’s by far the best way to get an impression of any place. But I’m about the only white (Muzungu) walking the streets here in Bujumbura, or “Buja”. Every morning I walk about 20 minutes to the small dark room of the Amahoro Youth Club on Boulevard de l’Uprona Nr 12 and on my way meet all kinds of people - those without shoes, with plastic sandals, fancy jogging shoes, normal shoes or elegantly dressed bureaucrats with shiny shoes (they have just gotten out of a car where I pass them).

Security being what it is, Bujumbura is not the place you go out after dark; Ina Curic – TFF’s coordinator – and I have organized a small pool of reliable taxi drivers who speak English, are punctual, reliable and drive carefully. The first days I did not exactly fancy the walking in the streets with my bag, a computer, money, passport etc. A small group of street kids or organized criminals could easily get hold of that bag and its content, but somehow I have been lucky and meet many more smiles than threatening attitudes, in fact none yet of the latter.

And what is my slight fear about? Everyone being black and me the only white? Prejudice? Judging people on their clothes? Believing that poverty potentially means higher criminality? Me representing by all my appearance a European who has “colonialism” painted all over me and feel cultural guilt? What? Whatever the answer I guard my back here in a way I don’t in Europe or Japan, but would in Washington, New York and certainly Rio.

Well, there is security here and there; soldiers, private companies watching shops and public buildings and now and then a couple of walking soldiers. I feel better here han in, say, Nairobi that I have always avoided since the 1970ies when I had to go through it on my way to Moqdishu.

Eddy, my favourite taxi driver

The streets are either red-grey gravel, dusty to say the least now it never rains, or tarmac with holes in any number and size. Riding a taxi here is interesting; most are of some Japanese mark beyond repair because of age and lack of maintenance; they are smelly, dirty, worn down and send out thick dark smoke. Curiously, all have right-hand steering although you drive the right-hand side of the road; and they all have loud music coming out of one loudspeaker in the back window, right into your ears.

The prices are kind of fixed, but you must know them, otherwise there is a special price for those who do not know town. Short distances are 1 USD, out to the beach or up to the universities in the mountains 4 USD. It shall be agreed before you enter, no metre and don’t expect that they have change, most of them think it is your problem if you don’t pay the whole sum.

My favourite driver is Eddy, a Muslim of 35 with a wife and two children 7 years and 16 months. Eddy is different, a gem. He sports a CD with Arab music dangling from his rear mirror and tells me that whatever comes to him in his life comes from God and therefore he is happy with what he has and with what he gets. He keeps his car very tidy and clean, he dresses spotlessly clean and always wears white shirt and we shake hands and I say Salaam every time he picks me up. He is the only one who has ever called me on my mobile and asked whether I needed him and when he finishes driving tonight, should I need that info to plan my day. If one minute late, he will apologise – I think he is the only one in this country!

Life is hard enough for Eddy and his family. On a good day he makes a profit of 20 USD from early morning to about 9 pm. That is, after he has paid for the extremely expensive petrol here. It is now 1860 Burundian Franc per litre, rather exactly 1,5 USD – guess what that means for people in a society in which the average annual income is 140 USD !

Eddy drives all days in the week except Fridays. I ask him what he and his family likes to do when he is free. The best is to go to the beach, the children love it and it is so relaxed there – the beach is the fantastic beach of Lake Tanganyika a few kilometres out of Bujumbura. But it is too expensive for us, he adds, it is only now and then we can afford it and so I stay home most of the time.

I happen to know that the price on the local bus is 600 FrBu or 50 US Cents per person each way. So it means one dollar going and coming and they are three. And then some Fanta or coffee there. So, it is not something we can do often.

I am happy that I can contribute a little extra to his family; he tells me the story while taking me to that beach and that costs 4 USD one way.

The combined food and oil rice crisis

I was here in March-April too and the prices in the shops and restaurants have skyrocketed only in that short time. Since this time I buy foodstuff locally for my breakfasts and lunches - I do go to restaurants with friends, locals, internationals and Ina in the evenings – I now see just how terribly difficult it must be for the average Burundian to make ends meet.

A 0,3 litre milk from Uganda, 1 USD, a locally produced marmalade 4 USD, local sausages 0,8 USD per 100 gram. Imported goods such as wines and French cheese is beyond reach for 90% of the locals – a small Belgian Leffe beer costs 5 USD in Dimitri’s Super Marche on the main street and a bottle of red wine minimum 16 USD, even those from next door South Africa. In short about 1,5 times the price back home in Sweden! Whisky about the same as in Sweden.

Of course people here buy stuff at the market and there prices are lower. But, still! If you want to experience the combination of what is now fashionably called the food crisis and the oil price crisis in the wealthy parts of the world, come here and you will see what it means to some of the poorest on Earth. No wonder if someone desperate would grab the opportunity and knock down a Muzungu with his bag, money and everything else…

The beaches

Most people I meet in Europe do not have a clue about where little Burundi is. The last two times I have checked in at Copenhagen Airport and say that my luggage shall end up in Bujumbura, the person at the counter has responded – where? Where is Burundi? In contrast, most Burundians at least know that Sweden is northern Europe and a big, long country. So much for educational standards in various parts of the world…

And is Burundi small? Yes, it is geographically, only a few hundred kilometres in each direction. But its population is 8 million, the same as Sweden where I come from. This also surprises many Burundians who have never been abroad, they associate wealth with being many so Sweden must be much bigger than their own little country.

Perhaps therefore, many readers may not understand when I say “beaches” because Burundi is in the inner heart of Africa, right? Right! But the capital Bujumbura is beautifully situated at the shores of the gigantic Lake Tanganyika.

There are three beaches here and the beach is the meeting place on weekends, Karera Beach, Saga Plage and Club du Lac Tanganyika where probably the best maintained and most “Europe”-style hotel is situated, run by an Italian whose kindness and round belly speaks volumes about his joy of life and food here. It’s elegant, spotlessly clean and the food is as delicious as expensive – a meal for two, for instance Saturday night’s Indian buffet plus a beer, will end around 40 USD for two. The hotel has all facilities including a sauna at about 45 degrees centigrade, no use for a Swede even trying that!

A lovely swimming pool for families with kids and people with money – but much better is the calm, beautiful beach with long stretches of white sand, bamboo shades and magnificent water. The lake is one of the biggest in the world – far-far away in the horizon you see the majestic mountains of Congo and that beach is the place to see the sun go down, for sure.

So I have enjoyed sitting in the sun-heated sand, see the sun disappear behind those mountains in a red fire ball while simultaneously the upper part of the sky is still daylight blue with cloud formations as abstract paintings. Then comes a period when the breeze feels cold, then the lake waves become calmer and, for reasons I do not really know, you suddenly feel warm air again all around you. It’s probably the combination of the winds dying down and the sand emitting its last warmth of the day. But it is lovely, can sit for hours. And this beach has guards and is safe for muzungus.

I love to sit there and watch the waves lazily moving towards the shore, delivering their white foam lit by the lanterns from the hotel so they look like huge white bird wings rising in the night and disappearing into the water again. Welcome to eternal change remaining the same!

This is one of the many moments here when I gratefully feel close to the basics of life.

Ina who has been here for 15 months has taught me the cultural importance of the beaches here as places to mix and make friends. There is music and bars, there is fantastic clean water and white sand, there are musicians – such as the incredibly powerful local drummers – there are people who come just to be, to sleep in the shade under tree, have picnic. Many take their bath here and wash their clothes too. There are tons of children and youth, scouts have exercises while others play football.

Ina and I have been there most of last weekend, talking to whoever happens to be around, swimming and playing volleyball – meeting Amahoro Youth Club members and have a study circle with them and youngsters we had never met before who told us about the genocide in the mid-1990s and how they see it today.

The through-going theme I hear is: We young people were the victims of that madness, we lost family and friends and we are never going to repeat it – actually many of their stories are about reconciliation and how hutus and tutsis work side by side in various sectors of Burundi. But the youth, it seems to me, are coming together as youth.

The beach is the beach, yes – and the meeting place because, tell you the truth, there is hardly anything you can do in town. There are no galleries, no museums, no shopping malls – none of what makes Europeans enjoy their weekends. People sit home. If they are not on the beach. In the evening we return and fill the restaurants. If we are internationals. You have to be wealthy to go to a restaurant with international standards here. But of course there are local restaurants where you can have a plate of local rice, beans, spinach, banana, perhaps some little dry meat and onions with a sauce poured over for about 1 USD. I’ve been to some and survived it. Hope I will in the future too because it is a good experience when together with the Amahoro Youth Club members. More about them in the next posting.

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Tags: Burundi, beaches, bridgebuilding, cultural, early, humanitarian, in, intervention, of, outbreak, More…peace, process, protect, reconciliation, responsibility, risk, security, to, violence, war, warning


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