If you have been to the relative order of Rwanda, Burundi looks like another world altogether, a third world country among third world countries.
The chaos manifests itself properly on the country’s roads. A very mountainous country, its roads are thin and weave around the hills dangerously, most of the time on slippery roads due to the thin mist of high altitude or rain itself.
Cyclists seem to have an aversion for their brakes and instead scurry down the slopes around sharp curves leaving their lives to the mercy of approaching motorists. While on the climb they hung on the backs of trailers to aid their ascent. Small overloaded hunch back taxis full of humans and goods driven by recklessly daring drivers hurtle up and down the potholed roads, which most of the time lie on very high cliffs which overlook valleys as deep as a kilometre, inspiring fear in any guest.
This daring recklessness is an open window into the hearts and minds of Burundian people. After decades of intermittent civil war, Burundians fear less about their lives and can risk a little more to make sure that they can put food on the table. The country is now experiencing the first full half a decade of tangible peace in a long time, and people are willing to literarily make a dash for a better life.
The state of chaos is more pronounced on the city’s roads. Bujumbura urban is like a street from a show of mad people. The motorists become mad with each other’s reckless swerving into and outside of their lanes with disregard of others. Beggars clog all the places that budding businessmen selling all kinds of wares from fresh mukeke fish, to cassava leaves, delicious looking apples and fake gold jewellery leave empty. That noisy spectacle extends to the overcrowded but very colourful and organized main Bujumbura market where yellowish oil palm competes with the riot of colour of kitenges and second hand clothes from the west. The hustle and bustle displays a strong enterprising and resilient spirit. People begin to buy and sell as soon as the wide metal gates are thrown open and most of the times are forced out of the grand old market building by the close of all but one of the entries.
Bujumbura’s traffic jams are perhaps the most unpleasant urban experiences. For its size, you would think Burundi would not have that many cars to jam a road. In the baking heat of Bujumbura’s sun, passengers wear a thin sweat, and at every five kilometres or so a group of idle people surround a fresh road accident, usually involving a car and a motorcycle, whose rider seems allergic to helmets or bicycle, whose rider likes to get in the way of taxis. The traffic policemen struggle to control the rush hour traffic at rush hour when it is clear that motorists do not respect his commands and even when they get caught on the wrong side of the law, a full reprieve is just a few thousand Burundi francs away.
But if Burundians have any particular love for something it is for beer and physical exercise. Legend goes that the only true national treasure that survived subsequent groups and rebellions over the decades is the soft drinks and more importantly beer maker BRARUDI, which produces popular Primus and Amstel beer brands apart from the classy Heineken because it was always under guard by the soldiers of the day. No wonder BRARUDI is the country’s biggest and most reliable tax payer! It is a common spectacle in the early afternoon to find in Bujumbura’s suburbs, citizens sitted on simple stools and tables drinking from huge bottles of beer as if there was an important dignitary they were waiting for to pass on the road. The drinking culture is so imbibed into the social fabric that there are hundreds of shops which exclusively deal in spirits and wine which come very cheap for as low at ten US dollars. In the main market there are also exclusive stalls for French and South African wines in five litre containers apart from hundreds of spirit brands which surprisingly buyers know by real name. If you thought their penchant to drink copiously is perhaps an aversion to healthy practices, on Saturday and Sundays, everything comes to a standstill as Burundians head for the collines (hills) to sweat out their bodies. In the mornings, people of all ages are running all over the town and stretching themselves in groups as if it was a national obsession. In a country where order is not the order of the day, it is surprising that Burundians hold dear to their exercise regime, every week, man or woman, old and young. They jokingly say that it is necessary to remove all that beer from their bodies, apart from the benefit of avoiding lifestyle diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure which are partly a result of lack of physical exercise.
But behind the chaotic nature of all things in Burundi is hidden a rare culture of artistic class. In night places, you are more likely to find classy seventies Rumba from Congo or American Blues and country music. The classiest joint in town, Havana looks like a quiet jazzy joint in an American neighbourhood than in one of the poorest countries in the world. Burundians like to spend their money on fun and entertainment, let alone spoil themselves on various coastal-like beaches on Lake Tanganyika. That perhaps sums up their attitude towards life. Enjoy when you still can because you never know what is coming.