Sometimes you just have to write…

The First Day


Friday, July 24, Bujumbura, Burundi

It’s 1:30 in the morning. We just arrived, and I’d really like to go to bed, but I’m waiting for the hotel to bring me a bottle of water so I can brush my teeth.

The hotel is about what I expected: basically clean but worn out around the edges. I was quite surprised to find a quite modern air conditioner – the kind with a digital remote to operate it – and it works! What’s a little disturbing at first glance at the hotel is the height of the wall around it, and the lengths of barbed wire coils attached to the top. They said that criminality is a problem here, and you can see the effects. Driving here from the airport we couldn’t see much, since it was the middle of the night, but there were quite a few buildings like this one that we passed: bright area lights on high walls topped with barbed wire.

Some of this is familiar and expected, like the fact that I had to wait so long for a bottle of water to be brought (it’s finally arrived). During our stopover in Nairobi, we waited in a transfer lounge where there were three tvs: two big flat screens and one quite small normal one. The only one working was the normal one. That’s the kind of situation I expected. What I didn’t expect was how many computers are in evidence: in the shops in the airport, etc. They seem pretty up to date here.

I can barely keep my eyes open. I’ll type more tomorrow if I can.


It’s 4.00 in the afternoon now, and it’s been an interesting day so far. After breakfast in the hotel (yummy fruit!) we had two official visits to make: to the

the Dutch consulate

the Dutch consulate

the view from the Dutch consulate

the view from the Dutch consulate

Dutch consulate and to the Ministry of Education. At the Dutch consulate we met the consul and got a general explanation of the safety situation here. As I had read, the main problem these days is banditry and petty crime, now that the civil war is over. The problem is that there are so many weapons around since the war, and so much poverty, that it leads to crime. This explains the fact that for any outings we go on on the weekends or after work, we’ll have one or two bodyguards with us. We had one with us today when we went to do errands. I didn’t see a weapon on him, but I assume he had one. Mostly he makes himself useful, getting things for us, translating, etc.

The Minister of Education received us in his office, which was distinctly bigger and more luxurious than the ones we walked through to get to it. It was clear from those glimpses of various government offices that much of the work is still done on paper here, not on computers. He seemed a well-meaning man, with ambitions for education in Burundi, but clearly stymied by the constant lack of money.

the "Obama Shop" in Bujumbura

the "Obama Shop" in Bujumbura

We had lunch at a restaurant (fish from the lake) and then did some of our errands: exchanging money, because there’s nowhere to do that where we’re going tomorrow in the north of the country, and buying a SIM card for our phones. The cost of the card was exceptionally low: about one euro 50, if I’m figuring it right. Of course, it has to be that low if anybody but the richest Burundians is going to afford it.


That makes me aware of how far we’ve come since I lived in Malawi. We wrote old-fashioned letters if we wanted to communicate. If my mother went more than a couple of weeks without hearing from me, she sent me a telegram. Remember telegrams? She would order me, in the telegram, to call home. So I’d have to either go into town and phone from the post office, or go over to the convent across the street from Albert’s house and ask the nuns to let me use theirs. Remember phones with dials?


traffic jam in Bujumbura

traffic jam in Bujumbura

Bedtime now.

a dirt road in Bujumbura

a dirt road in Bujumbura

Interestingly, this didn’t correlate with the rich/poor divide; the road in the wealthy neighbourhood we drove through was one of the worst.

We drove a bit around the city later in the afternoon. There’s quite a contrast between the wealthier neighbourhoods, with huge houses surrounded by high walls, complete with armed guards at the gates, and the poor neighbourhoods, not much more that shantytowns. The roads vary enormously as well: from perfectly smooth, newly-paved, to roads that are more pothole than pavement, where you have to drive at a crawl to avoid real damage to the car.


We spotted some people who were practicing drumming. If you read an earlier entry in this blog, you already saw a film of Burundi drummers. So we pulled over to watch. They were just finishing a piece, but when they saw us, they didn’t start up again. It seemed they decided not to drum anymore unless we paid them something. It was disappointing, but at the same time understandable. Disappointing because you’d like to think they’d enjoy getting an appreciative audience for their jam session. Understandable because we’re rich compared to them; why should we get something for nothing? Anyway, our guide said they weren’t particularly good drummers from what he’d just heard and didn’t think we should pay anything, so we left.


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This entry was posted on July 24, 2009 by in Burundi and tagged , , , , , , .
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