The last outpost

Apart from the numerous trans-regional busses that ply the narrow mountain highway to the lakeside capital and the few English names of businesses and entertainment places, there is little else to indicate from the first impression that Burundi is part of the East African Community.
The new Rwanda-Burundi border point at Nemba-Gisenyi (Photo by Kelvin Odoobo)
The new Rwanda-Burundi border point at Nemba-Gisenyi (Photo by Kelvin Odoobo)

Apart from the numerous trans-regional busses that ply the narrow mountain highway to the lakeside capital and the few English names of businesses and entertainment places, there is little else to indicate from the first impression that Burundi is part of the East African Community.

Unlike Rwanda which has adopted English as its official language and has opened itself to the region and the world for business and tourism, this small central African country, is still trapped between its past and its future.

An indication of its past lies in the numerous number of presidential portraits that line government offices, so many for so short a history as a sovereign nation which points largely to the long cycle of political violence that has dogged  this country.

At the small almost abandoned border town of Kanyaru where the rolling hills are separated by a dirty brown river which marks the boundary between Rwanda and Burundi, the difference between the two countries is stark.

The immigration post looks like a small village outpost, where metal grills separate the official who stamps passengers travel documents in after a slow and excruciating wait.

It opens the way into a country which is markedly different from its eastern neighbor. One begins to understand the heavily forested or terraced steep slopes and the rice-green reclaimed marshlands in Rwanda are just not a marvel of nature but a creation of well intended policy.

Instead the slopes are bare, the agriculture very subsistence with signs that apart from the basic efforts of illiterate farmers, apart from patches of overgrown pine trees.

But like in Rwanda, the small village towns hug the narrow risky roads where often the huge long haul trucks have to break to give away to each other while small overloaded taxis speed along recklessly.

Despite the obvious scars of war, rural Burundians are determined to make the best out their live. They hawk healthy looking deep green cabbages and delicious looking ripe raspberries on the roads.

The more risking type race along the highways on bicycles like bullets down the descent or hang dangerously on empty coast bound trucks.

Bujumbura looks like the last outpost of East Africa. A city that has had a checkered history, its tree-lined avenues have had a much needed facelift, but the citizens display a marked understanding of the status quo.

I shudder when a motorcycle taxi zooms away and does not bother to hand me the passenger’s helmet, as he weaves, hoots and flies through the chaotic midmorning traffic but just a few metres away from my destination he hurriedly hand me the helmet, remarking, “ That policeman looks very hungry, he might be looking for his day’s lunch.” Our host laughs at me when on entering his car I look to strap my seatbelt on.

“You don’t have to wear that hear.” He chuckles, “People will laugh at you.” On the next day, a Friday, my host surprises me where he casually requests me to strap myself in because, “You know these poor policeman are now on the look out for the weekend.” It is a galore of corruption, and people are not embarrassed to admit that notes can make impossible things happen.

Burundians have a knack for good talk. It does not help that French, Swahili and Kirundi all mesh to produce a nice mix of street lingua. No wonder the tiny country supports four mobile phone companies.

Surprisingly the town empties early and becomes almost a ghost town apart from a tiny number of night prowlers and a small fleet of taxis to ensure their mobility.

If the town centre is anything close o derelict, Bujumbura’s suburbs are neighborhoods of far flung spaces full of small luxurious apartments punctuated frequently by palatial residences jutting out of the hillside and commanding an exquisite view of the town and Lake Tanganyika.

Clearly, for a country recently out of war, there is clearly a lot of money to flush, despite the widespread poverty in the rural and urban areas.

Burundi, as petit a country as Rwanda, with a crucial port to boot, perhaps lacks an important element of political will and a path of development to move from the current state of peace and precarious existence to a more development-focused direction.

Perhaps a more coordinated move towards integration into the East Africa communities is necessary for the economic benefits of wider market and cheaper goods to spark a Rwanda-like story of progress.

kelviod@yahoo.com