Smile, You're In... Burundi!

Saturday, August 17, 2013 | Bujumbura, Burundi (map)

At Blue Bay, Burundi, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika
The rumors are true: Burundi is indeed a happy little corner of central Africa.

Many friends—Rebecca most of all—had told me so, and I felt it the moment she and I arrived from Kigali for the second stop of our East Africa vacation. Everyone from immigration officials to porters flashed smiles and offered cheery greetings. Even Bujumbura's airport itself gives off a sunny vibe. Though perhaps in need of a fresh coat of paint, the modernist building with its mushroomed rooftops reminded me of images from Africa's golden years. Standing before it, you can almost picture what must have been a joyful ribbon-cutting ceremony in that happy post-independence decade long before my time, when fresh optimism was in the air.

A pleasant glow is still in the air in Bujumbura, Burundi's charming little capital city, which wraps tightly around the northeast corner of Lake Tanganyika. We spent the weekend there at the Hotel Club du Lac, one of many beach resorts that extend along the city's western edge toward the nearby Congolese border. Bujumbura's families love to spend their free time here at the beach, relaxing by
the lake or at the poolside bars.

After a day's visit across the border to Rebecca's new home in Uvira, DRC (details to follow soon!), from Bujumbura we drove down the coast to Blue Bay, a pleasant resort on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. (The resort is just north of Kigoma, Tanzania, where back in 2006 I boarded a once-sunken WWI battleship, since dredged up and re-purposed as a ferry, for a multi-day journey down the lake.)

We arrived at Blue Bay on Sunday evening to find the tables stacked with hundreds of empty beer bottles, and the staff still scurrying to clean up after the weekend rush. As the sun set, we took a refreshing dip in the lake, which is so clear you can see your feet on the sandy bottom below even at night. (Swim at night, however, and the beach's cheerful caretaker will emerge from the palm trees to notify you—not that you can't swim, but just that it's too dark for him to see any approaching hippos and warn you in time to escape them. Just so you know!) We spent two full days relaxing on the beach, sipping cold beers and eating grilled fish fresh from the lake.

All this is not to suggest that Burundi is wholly idyllic. Beside the low standard of living that exists throughout much of the country and perennial security threats from rebels beyond its borders, Burundi has a history of violence that is little known in the outside world only because it has been overshadowed by that of its northern neighbor, Rwanda. While we were in Bujumbura, we met Rebecca's friend Parfait, who had just come from visiting a friend who lay in a coma in the hospital after a gruesome machete attack, which Parfait said was carried out by ethnic rivals. Though it has never peaked quite as infamously as Rwanda's did in 1994, since independence Burundi's own Hutu-Tutsi conflict has also left hundreds of thousands dead, also from a population of just a few million.

Rebecca is well versed in this conflict—some of her writing on Burundi can be found here—but keeps returning. In the context of this region where she works, she sees Burundi as a happier, more livable medium between dour Rwanda's obsession with law-and-order and chaotic Congo's utter lawlessness. (When I defend Rwanda in that comparison, she jokes back that it all comes down to one thing: "In Burundi, everyone just wants to sit by the lake and have a beer.") Perhaps it's a measure of just how low the bar is in the region when one can see a relative paradise in a country with such evident challenges. But after a few days in Burundi, I share in the optimism. If the country's neighbors can stay on their side of the lines long enough for Burundians to work out some of their own issues, this place may earn a well-deserved spot on tourists' maps.






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