I landed in Bujumbura on squealing wheels and dotted lights. My initial reaction was not one of joy. I’d been to Burundi before, but we had never hit it off like drunken University students in a half-price-shots bar. I was, however determined to give the Country a second chance. Not that I had much choice mind you- I wasn’t here on holiday after all.
I sailed swiftly through immigration where the officials barely glance at your passport before sending you on your way, which is exactly how I like my immigration officers.
My cab guy chatted happily about Burundi’s changing fortunes as he drove me to my hotel. I felt like Thomas Friedman gleaning my initial thoughts on the social-economic situation of a Country from a wise and talkative cabbie. “Things are changing here”, he said with no little amount of satisfaction. It was thrilling to me that we could speak two different languages and understand each other perfectly. It felt like some kind of accidental magic trick and it surprised me every time it happened.
This is Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi- a Country which reknown writer Charles Onyango-Obbo dubbed ‘The Mandazi economy’ (as some football pundits like to say ‘harsh but fair’). Bujumbura looks like a town on a different time continuum, with many buildings that look like they were put up in the seventies and never revisited again. And the pace of life is so languorous that you could fall asleep just looking at it. “Most shops and offices are closed between 12.30 and 2pm”, my colleague told me, her voice tinged with disbelief ‘Can you believe that?” Apparently Buja’s residents needed their nap during work hours so everything stopped until this could get done. This complete disregard for modern commercial norms is almost charming.
Bujumbura feels like a City stuck in time- a frozen tableau of delayed progress and delayed naps.
My hotel (Emeraude) was excellent though and the Croque-monsieur I had for dinner was functional but efficient. The mineral water bottle promised the consumer ‘oxygen rich’ water. Such endless possibilities! I had dinner sitting close to a guy who made the sign of the cross before he began drinking his Heineken, which left me a bit perplexed. I was however intrigued by the idea of a Heineken that had been blessed by the Almighty. When Mr. Heineken guy left, I ordered a Johnny Walker Black Label and coke feeling a bit uncomfortable to be drinking alone. My hopes that the waiter would be discreet were dashed when he brought the entire bottle to my table and began to wave it around in what at first glance appeared to be a rain dance. “What the hell is going on?”, I wondered. By the time he’d poured the Black Label in my glass, I was grateful that it was finally on solid ground.
We saw a lot of the city through the windows of the car transporting us to our daily meetings. My colleague informed me that hippos came out at night near our hotel and one could view them from a safe distance. As intriguing a prospect as that was, I failed to see what constituted a ‘safe distance’ when it came to hippos. I never did get to see the bad-tempered animals though. Nor did I get to see Bujumbura’s nightlife, which I’m told, is vibrant and exciting. Perhaps, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “Youth is wasted on the young”.
The night before I left, I had dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Botanica. “Be careful when you are leaving the restaurant”, our hosts had warned us, “It can be dangerous”. I assumed Botanica was in a shady part of town overrun with hardened criminals; so imagine my surprise when I discovered the restaurant was right in the middle of town by the main road and across the trendy nightspot Havana. The art on the wall was fantastic although the lights were a bit too Valentines Day for my liking. I grappled with a world-weary burger while my dinner partner bravely disposed of lasagna. We both agreed that at the very least, Bujumbura was a fascinating city. It certainly didn’t seem dangerous.
Bujumbura might appear to be frozen in time, but it has changed in some ways. The city is much cleaner now and there are some imperceptible improvements. I could grow to really like this town once I start pulling my weight in this relationship. The British group Elbow wrote a great song called ‘Station approach’ in tribute to their hometown Manchester. It’s about how a city gets into your bones in ways you cannot define. The contours of its streets and the spirals of its rhythms become entangled with your emotions and your consciousness. As Guy Garvey sang ‘I need to be in a town where they know what I’m like’. You can see how Bujumbura can become a ‘station-approach’ kind of town. “Maybe next time Bujumbura”, I muttered to myself as the plane soared into the sky leaving this enigmatic city behind.
*Rwandair flies daily to Bujumbura for US $197.