Burundi by Bus

Riding on a packed bus through Central Africa, UB professor Shaun Irlam discovers serpentine passages, joyous music, brooding disquiet and the dream of peace

By Shaun Irlam, Associate Professor and Chair of Comparative Literature
Burundi by Bus

So, this is central Africa. It’s an early Friday morning, January 13, 2006. Dawn is rippling westward along the equator. Cool, lingering mists peel slowly from the hills surrounding Kigali, capital of Rwanda, but already the bus and taxi station at Nyabugogo on the western edge of town is a frenzy of commuters and vendors, jostling bags and goods through teeming throngs. Somehow, in this tumult of humanity, I find my seat on the New Yahoo! bus line to start the six-hour jaunt south to Bujumbura, reposing on the sleepy shores of Lake Tanganyika. A research trip into the Rwandan genocide has brought me here to Kigali, but as it has become clearer to me just how closely the fates of Rwanda and Burundi are interlocked, my interpreter and guide proposed a weekend foray into Burundi: unplanned, unscheduled, improvised—the best kind of journey.

From Nyabugogo, the nerve center of Rwanda’s public-transport system, taxis and mini-buses fan out to the remotest corners of the country and beyond. Ticket kiosks read Byumba, Kampala, Goma, Bukavu, Bujumbura, Arusha, Nairobi. Four African countries lie within two hours of Kigali. No bus leaves the lot until it is stuffed beyond capacity with passengers and goods. Behind a veneer of sheer chaos lies one of the most efficient forms of public transport I’ve ever encountered. Crushed between people and luggage, and with my knees knocking out my teeth, I brace myself for the long road down to Lake Tanganyika.

The bus follows the narrow, serpentine roads across the land of a thousand hills to the drowsy, university town of Butare. Then it’s another 30 minutes through dry, hilly, eucalyptus country to the Kanyaru-Haut border post. All the way down, we’re treated to hour after hour of solemn church choirs singing in Swahili until a chicly dressed young Burundian woman exclaims: “Change the music—we’re not going to church!” This is followed by guffaws of laughter. Cassettes are passed forward and after some complicated negotiations with the driver, it’s agreed that pop music will prevail across the border. We arrive at the bridge into Burundi and make the border-crossing on foot to pass through the customs checkpoint. For some strange reason, at the border all local currencies become useless—Burundian officials will only sell you a visa for $20. Even euros are unwelcome. Travelers flourish fistfuls of U.S. dollars. Finally, we resume our seats on the bus.

A writhing ribbon of road

As we roll down into Burundi, Bob Marley crackles cheerily through the speakers, and we spend a couple more hours threading our way along a paved but narrow and tortuous mountain road up to the village of Bugarama at an eastward fork in the road. East lie Muramvya, Gitega and the Tanzanian border beyond. We bear southwest, however, dropping precipitously down for mile after twisting mile to Burundi’s capital, the city of Bujumbura, sprawled across the ancient flood plain of the Great Rift Valley on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It is along this writhing ribbon of road that you will see the humble bicycle serving uses no inventor could ever have dreamed. Cyclists plunge down the long, snaking pass into the Rift valley at nightmarish speeds on ancient, cumbersome, often brakeless Chinese bicycles, ferrying piles of produce to the bustling markets in Bujumbura. Wares are stacked so cartoonishly high that they resemble a runaway hayrick or a heap of sugarcane wobbling away down the mountain. It is 20 miles downhill to Bujumbura.

The city below us appears to doze in the haze as we descend. Majestic palms line the shores of the lake, which is so vast that Bujumbura seems like a seaside town. At last, the New Yahoo! pulls up at the bus depot in the city center. We peel ourselves off the seats, retrieve bags and tumble onto the broad, dusty streets amid purposeful but unhurried throngs of peddlers and pedestrians. Some businesses are already closed for the weekend. The welcoming hospitalities from my indigent Burundian hosts are sumptuous beyond their means and I’m humbled by their generosity. The party lasts well into the night. Beer and music flow freely.

The next morning we take a tiny car in driving rain along slick, narrow roads to the ancient, eastern town of Gitega, about two hours from Bujumbura. Just a few years ago this route was a corridor of carnage in the vicious civil strife between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi government and such a trip would have been unthinkable. A couple of horrific accidents that had just occurred along this short route are a sobering sight, but they don’t deter our driver from his own, blistering pace. Tropical rains glaze the roadway with water. In each village we pass, charred hulks mark the memory of neighbors purged and the edge of an ethnic abyss over which Burundi perpetually teeters. Lank, luxuriant weeds lie wanton in the blackened enclosures behind vacant windows and gaunt, soot-rinsed walls where the embers of ethnic rage continue to smolder.

Carnival of color

By the time we reach our destination, the rain has stopped and a bright sun streams through the clearing sky. Gitega is a beautiful, little market town, flung languidly across several hills. It hosts the National Museum of Gitega, with an impressive assortment of relics from Burundi’s precolonial past, as well as an imposing Catholic Church compound. At the center of Gitega, among the cluster of old and crumbling colonial buildings, is a thriving market of tiny, clapboard kiosks and stalls, all trading as vigorously as any global stock exchange. It is a carnival of color as the women mingle round in vivid lime, scarlet, hot pink and saffron robes to sell tomatoes, beans, mangoes, gourds and tiny, fiery peppers used to make the formidable pili-pili sauce. A colorful Tintin* mural adorning a roadside bar pays sardonic tribute to Burundi’s erstwhile Belgian rulers as we cruise out of town.

* Comic strip character created by the Belgian Hergé

Bugarama, Saturday, January 14, 2006

The history of postcolonial Burundi is spattered and stained with the blood of its citizens. The Tutsi minority maintained a brutal military dictatorship since independence from the Belgians in 1962 until elections in the early 1990s. During a genocide long-forgotten, more than 100,000 Hutus were slaughtered by Burundi’s military rulers in 1972. Rwanda and Burundi often seem like mirror kingdoms, trapped in an endless thrall of carnage: persecution of Hutus by the Tutsi regime in Burundi spawned reprisals against the Tutsi in Rwanda; pogroms against the minority Tutsi by Rwanda’s Hutu regime spelt a similar fate for the Hutu in Burundi.

Burundi’s haunted hills

In 1993, Burundi held its first democratic elections, which were won by the Hutu-dominated Front for Democracy in Burundi. Their leader, Melchior Ndadaye, became Burundi’s first Hutu president, but a few months later he was assassinated by Tutsi army officers and Burundi plunged once more into a brutal civil war. To avenge Ndadaye’s killing, Hutu extremists massacred tens of thousands of Tutsi civilians. In 1994, the Rwandan genocide offered the regime the spectacle of their brethren butchered across the northern border. Burundi’s Tutsi military retaliated in kind against the Hutus. Hutu rebel forces were attacked with the utmost viciousness and, where the rebels themselves could not be traced, countless ordinary Hutu villagers were slaughtered instead. Burundi is not a peaceful place; a brooding disquiet haunts its hills. As recently as 2003, one could still be ambushed and killed on the main road from Rwanda to those palm-skirted shores of Lake Tanganyika; the strife is far from over. The most extreme Hutu rebel group still refuses to negotiate with the current government. But let us return from Gitega and this digression to that fork in the road at Bugarama …

We race down a steep hill and sweep west, round a sharp bend, in among a tiny cluster of shops, saloons and dwellings called Bugarama. Our driver recommends the local brochettes —barbecued goat-meat skewers—as Burundi’s best, so we stop for a late lunch. The road down to Bujumbura skirts around the base of a broad, grassy knoll sprinkled with wooden benches, tables and trees; in another hemisphere it might pass for a village green. As soon as we’re settled at one of the tables, somebody trots over to take an order. There are no choices: the menu is brochettes, beer, grilled corn. The sky is a rich, deep blue; radiant, white clouds puff across the horizon; the low, corrugated tin roofs gleam in the sunlight. Despite the warm sunshine, there is a sharp, autumnal chill in the air. From our vantage point on the slopes of the knoll, we follow the easy rhythms of the village. Along the road below us, the life of Africa on a Saturday afternoon languidly unfolds: men lounge on porches at the road’s edge, drinking beer; a delivery truck unloads crates of bottles; soldiers heave sacks of supplies into a pick-up truck: rice, corn, sugar, beans. Cyclists and stray dogs weave across the road; taxis honk through the knots of pedestrians; women with infants lashed to their backs and heavy parcels balanced on their heads walk slowly into the hills; children scamper after a ball of rags. Here is the true face of a continent so often eclipsed by stark images of strife, suffering and horror. Our brochettes appear on crudely hewn skewers, succulent and rich with flavor. Large bottles of Primus beer quickly follow.

Country wedding on a lustrous afternoon

Then there is a commotion up the hill on the edge of this tableau; a little knot of people surges toward us out of the tall grasses and we soon make out a woman in white surrounded by a retinue of guests—it is a country wedding of the humblest kind. Although clad in nuptial white, even on her wedding day, the bride does not enjoy the luxury of transport; the entire wedding party proceeds on foot to the church. Ragged children tag along in the rear; a taxi rushes by, forcing the wedding party to the edge of the road. Clearly accustomed to walking these hills all their lives, the wedding guests stride briskly past, squeezing between the vans and cars blocking the way. We notice that aside from the groom there are at most two or three men among 30 guests or more, a grim reminder of the huge toll that decades of civil strife and AIDS have taken on the male population in these hills.

As I bit into that crisp apple of autumnal afternoon in Bugarama and took in the sweep of the highlands, time seemed to stand still; history had taken a vacation in Burundi. This precious interval of peace against such a backdrop of blood made that fleeting, lustrous afternoon all the more cherished and eternal. Martin Luther King Day was approaching, and at this beating heart of the continent from which he drew his blood and his spirit, I could hear his voice, “in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream … From every mountainside, let freedom ring.” It seemed for a moment as if all Burundi had suspended the perennial clash of arms and fratricide to listen to that voice. It is too soon to tell how long central Africa’s search for peace will remain, in the poet’s phrase, “a dream deferred.”

Associate professor and chair of comparative literature, Shaun Irlam established UB’s study abroad program in Africa in 2002. It now includes programs in Senegal, South Africa and Namibia and may be extended to Rwanda next year. A native of South Africa, Irlam earned his MA in English literature from the University of Cape Town and his PhD in comparative literature from Johns Hopkins University. Among his research interests are post-colonial literature and theory with emphasis on Caribbean and African literature.