Introduction of Burundi
Rwanda’s southern neighbor, Burundi, is an amazingly rewarding place to visit, although it can be a dangerous place. The British government advises against all but essential travel, as does the United States. Since the civil war and ethnic conflicts which began in the 1970s and flared up in 1993, insecurity has been chronic, as rebel forces clashed with the government. However, ‘free and fair’ elections were held in 2005 and 2010 and the security situation has improved. A very small trickle of intrepid travellers have been venturing into Burundi and have been reaping the rewards of visiting this small country. Burundi offers a great trip, with safari opportunities, a zoo in the city (the Musee Vivant, currently being re-built with UNDP help), some fantastic beach bars/resorts to the north of the city (Bora Bora, Saga Plage) and various swimming pools in the city hotels. The people are fantastic and friendly and the country is desperately trying to rebuild the non-existent tourist industry.
Warning: The situation in Burundi remains highly unsafe as of now. Incidents of political violence continue in Burundi. Attacks by armed groups are highly frequent. The situation has deteriorated very severely ever since the country’s contested elections, an attempted coup, and the current president expressing interest in running for a third term. Violent crime is also very high risk in Burundi, especially after dark. Armed robbers ambush vehicles on roads heading to places outside of Bujumbura, therefore keep all of your windows and doors locked. Demonstrations meant to be peaceful can turn violent very quickly. If the conflict worsens further, it might escalate into an all out civil war. Therefore, traveling to Burundi is strongly discouraged by most Western governments at this time.
Burundi’s Quick Facts
- Country local name: Burundi
- Capital: Bujumbura
- Population: 6’220’000
- Government: Republic
- Religions: Christianity (Catholic, Protestant), Indigenous beliefs, Islam
- Languages: Rundi, French
A Brief History about Burundi
After its defeat in World War I, Germany handed control of a section of the former German East Africa to Belgium. On October 20, 1924, this land, which consisted of modern-day Rwanda and Burundi, officially became a part of the Belgian colonial empire and was known as Ruanda-Urundi. Following World War II, Ruanda-Urundi was a United Nations Trust Territory under Belgian administrative authority. In 1948, Belgium allowed the region to form political parties. These factions would be one of the main influences for Burundi’s independence from Belgium.
On January 20, 1959, Burundi’s ruler Mwami Mwambutsa IV requested from the Belgian Minister of Colonies a separation of Burundi and Rwanda and a dissolution of Ruanda-Urundi. Six months later, political parties formed to bring attention to Burundi’s independence from Europe and to separate Rwanda from Burundi. The first of these political parties was the African National Union of Ruanda-Urundi (UNARU).
The country claimed independence in July 1, 1962, and legally changed its name from Ruanda-Urundi to Burundi. Mwami Mwambutsa IV was named king. On September 18, 1962, just over a month after declaring independence from Belgium, Burundi joined the United Nations. Between 1962 and 1993, at least 250,000 inhabitants got killed because of constant conflicts and war between the Hutu’s and Tutsi’s. In 1993, for the first time a Hutu was voted for president, but this lasted only until 1996. To this day, conflicts between the Hutu and the Tutsi continue. In 2005, Pierre Nkurunziza, once a leader of a Hutu rebel group, was elected to president. Reconstruction efforts in Burundi started to practically take effect after 2006. In addition, Burundi, along with Rwanda, joined the East African Community in 2007. As of 2008, the Burundian government is talking with the Hutu-led Palipehutu-National Liberation Forces (FLN) to bring peace to the country. Both agree to meet twice a week to establish a commission to resolve any disputes that might arise during the peace negotiations. Refugee camps are now closing down, and 450,000 refugees have returned. The economy of the country is shattered – Burundi has the lowest per capita gross income in the world. With the return of refugees, amongst others, property conflicts have started.
2010 elections ended with President Nkurunziza winning a majority. The opposition parties complained that the elections were rigged and their leadership went into exile. International observers stated that the elections were free and fair, although others disagree. Around the elections there was chronic insecurity and violence was witnessed in various parts of the country. Bandits or rebels seem to be attacking government troops in the northern parts of the country (January/February 2011) and there are fears of a return to armed conflict, although the government is trying to keep things safe.
Geography of Burundi
One of the smallest countries in Africa, Burundi is landlocked and has an equatorial climate. Burundi is a part of the Albertine Rift, the western extension of the East African Rift. It borders Tanzania to the east and south, the Democratic Republic of Congo to the northwest and Rwanda to the north. The country lies on a rolling plateau in the center of Africa. The average elevation of the central plateau is around 1,700 metres, with lower elevations at the borders. The highest peak, Mount Heha at 2,685 metres, lies to the southeast of the capital, Bujumbura. The source of the Nile River is in Burundi province, and is linked from Lake Victoria to its headwaters via the Ruvyironza River[clarification needed] Lake Victoria is also an important water source, which serves as a fork to the Kagera River. Another major lake is Lake Tanganyika, located in much of Burundi’s southwestern corner. Burundi’s lands are mostly agricultural or pasture. Settlement by rural populations has led to deforestation, soil erosion and habitat loss. Deforestation of the entire country is almost completely due to overpopulation, with a mere 600 km2 remaining. There are two national parks, Kibira National Park to the northwest (a small region of rain forest, adjacent to Nyungwe Forest National Park in Rwanda), Ruvubu National Park to the northeast (along the Rurubu River, also known as Ruvubu or Ruvuvu). Both were established in 1982 to conserve wildlife populations.
Burundi is divided into 17 provinces; Bubanza, Bujumbura Mairie, Bujumbura Rural, Bururi, Cankuzo, Cibitoke, Gitega, Karuzi, Kayanza, Kirundo, Makamba, Muramvya, Muyinga, Mwaro, Ngozi, Rutana, Ruyigi.
These provinces can be grouped into several natural regions.
- The Rift Valley, or Imbo is a narrow plain on the western border of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- The Central Highlands consist of steep hills with marshy valleys and cover roughly two thirds of the country.
- The Kumoso is a strip of plain at an altitude of about 1,300 metres in Burundi’s east, extending into Tanzana.
- Bujumbura – is the largest city and capital
- Gitega – the former colonial capital, second largest city, in the middle of the country
Burundi’s Sights and Activities
The capital Bujumbura is simple, small and cosy and provides a few activities for travellers:
- Buja day spa does massages and other spa related activities. Basic though.
- The central Market is risky but rewarding. they sell everything! Be very careful and don’t take any valuables.
- Musee Vivant is sad but worth a visit. They have snakes, crocodiles, primates and a cat. Not ideal conditions but you have to give it to them for trying. Also there are plans for traditional Burundian dwellings being built.
Well, if this is not an off the beaten track safari experience, none is. Burundi is small and although part of the wildlife has suffered severely because of the civil war(s), there is enough kept left to explore, including some fantastic national parks. An absolute must is to visit Kibira National Park, home to a large community of Chimpanzees, or to visit one of the most accessible national parks of the country and maybe the only one that has some decent visitor facilities is the Rusizi National Park. The park mainly consists of wetland and you will definitely see hippos, crocodiles, sitatungas (aquatic antelopes) and many species of birds. Other parks include Ruvuba National Park, and several reserves including Bururi National Reserve and Vyanda National Reserve.
Again, an off the beaten beach experience in the hart of Africa. Yes, you read it right! Burundi has its own beaches along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. There are pure white stretches of sand and the water is nice and safe to. One of the best and most crowded is located close to the capital Bujumbura and is called Saga Beach, named after the Saga resort which comes as a surprise in this country. A more upmarket and more expensive (still cheap) alternative is Bora Bora, 5,000 BIF from the city centre with a taxi, excellent location with swimming pool, restaurant, bar, aquatic activities, jet ski’s, wake boarding and a small group of hardcore kitesurfers.
The economy of Burundi leans on the export of coffee and tea a lot. Visiting one of these plantations is possible and provides some sort of insight in the everyday life of the local people and economy. You can easily arrange this from Bujumbura and distances to these plantations are small, so it’s easy on a day trip.
Stanley and Livingstone Monument
The Stanley and Livingstone Monument is nothing more than a large rock which marks the spot where the words ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ where spoken by Stanley. This encounter between Livingstone and Stanley is supposed to been taken place on the 25th of November 1871. Several other locations claim the same like Ujiji in Tanzania which is probably more likely. Anyway, if this is your thing you might as well go for it and say the same words. No one will hear you as the place is deserted!
Other sights and activities
- Gitega Waterfalls
- Burundi Museum of Life
- National Museum
- Colonial buildings – all in Bujumbura
- Source of the Nile
Events and Festivals in Burundi
Throughout the year, Burundians celebrate different cultural traditions and remember various historical events like Independence Day, Unity Day, Anniversary of Rwagasore’s Assassination, as well as the Assassination of the late President Ndadaye. Other festivities commemorate various religious traditions, but most celebrations are centered on culture. There are no fixed dates for these events, but the Centre Culturel Francais in Bujumbura can give you information on performances and festivities during your visit.
The Mancala games (football games) are exciting to watch. Burundians celebrate many local holidays, but the liveliest and largest celebration happens on New Year’s Day, when you can expect feasts, traditional dancing and drumming. Ask your hotel if you can get tickets to Burundian drummer performances, which are a delight to see.
Burundi has a tropical climate with warm weather and high humidity. There are however some differences in the country, which mainly have to do with altitude. While the capital Bujumbura has temperatures around 30 °C for most of the year during the day, dropping to around 20 °C or slightly lower at night, places towards the west are around 3 °C to 5 °C cooler. The wet season lasts from late October to April, with more rain in the higher parts of the country. June to September is relatively dry, with just a few showers during the late afternoon.
Burundi, Getting There
International Airport of Bujumbura (BJM) is where the international flights arrive and depart. It is located near the capital Bujumbura and international destinations include Brussels with Brussels Airlines, Addis Ababa and Entebbe with Ethiopian Airlines, Nairobi with Kenya Airways and Kigali with RwandAir.
Air Burundi serves Kigali and Entebbe, as well as Kilimanjaro International Airport.
Fly540 serves Mwanza and Nairobi, while Interlink Airlines flies to Jeddah. It’s better and often cheaper to fly to nearby Rwanda or other countries like Tanzania.
Technically, you are able to cross borders with Burundi to and from Rwanda and Tanzania, but due to the security situation in the country, it entails many risks. It is nonetheless possible with extreme caution, careful driving and strictly limit yourself to driving between 9:00-5:00pm.
Several bus companies offer transfers between Bujumbura and Kigali in Rwanda. There are also buses on a bad road between Bujumbura and Cyangugu (Lake Kivu). To and from Tanzania, there are also a number of options to cross borders, but safety conditions are rather poor during these days. Ask around and i’m sure you’ll find buses in Bujumbura to other places in the country. Again, caution is needed.
Very limited boat transport is available to get to the south of the country and to Zambia. There is no passenger transport and therefore need you to find a cargo boat yourself, negotiate a price and find somewhere to crash on the boat. There is no regular service and you may be waiting for a week. It has nonetheless been done and with a bit of patience and a lot of determination you can do it. Ask at the port.
Again this entails very large risks, we know of several groups of travellers who had done it and were fine. Also, again find out about security situation in south of country and around Zambian border.
Getting Around Burundi
Most roads are sealed, but travelling to remote places or rural areas might be unsafe due to ambushes. Also, not many rental cars are available, but you might contact your local hotel. If you can rent a car, be sure to have your national driver’s licence ready and remember that traffic drives on the right hand side of the road in Burundi.
Travelling throughout the country is best done by minibuses which leave when full. Most cities and towns are served from Bujumbura, but be sure to start early if you need to switch minibuses as many roads are unsafe or even close when it is dark. Shared trucks are an adventurous way, but they are crowded and therefore uncomfortable.
Several opportunities exist for travelling along Lake Tanganyika south from the capital Bujumbura. Otherwise, locals may bring you further to another village for a small fee, the best way is also to ask around.
Visa Formalities for Burundi
All nationals need a visa and a valid passport is required. Only nationals from countries where there is no Burundian embassy can get an entry stamp, without a visa, at the airport upon arrival. These entry stamps are not a substitute for a visa though! These have to be obtained from the immigration service within 24 hours of arrival. Visas cost from US$40 to US$90, depending on the anticipated length of stay. Travellers who have failed to obtain a visa will not be permitted to leave the country! Evidence of yellow fever immunization must be presented. Also, visitors are required to show proof of vaccination against meningococcal meningitis.
Burundi Franc (BIF) = 100 centimes.
Notes come in denominations of BIF5,000, 1,000, 500, 100, 50, 20 and 10, coins in denominations of BIF10, 5 and 1.
As of June 2009, there were no ATMs in Burundi accepting foreign ATM/credit cards, however there was at least one bank in Bujumbura (Banque de Credit de Bujumbura) where credit card cash advances were possible at the counter.
Study in Burundi
The Centre Culturel Francais in Bujumbura gives Kirundi classes.
Although most travellers will find that they can get around passingly well with a working knowledge of French (and increasingly English), some familiarity with Swahili or the related local language, Kirundi, is helpful, particularly in rural areas. The problem may be that Kirundi is extremely difficult to learn. Kirundi and Kinyarwanda (the official language in Rwanda) are quite similar.
Swahili and English are also spoken in the country.
Eating in Burundi
For the international traveller, Burundi offers some culinary surprises —-fresh fish from Lake Tanganyika and produce from the nation’s rich volcanic soil are particularly notable. There is a sizeable South Asian community, offering curried dishes alongside the more traditional rice and beans, and French-inspired European offerings. For lighter meals, samosas and skewered meats are common, and bananas and fresh fruit are often served as a sweet snack.
The national dish is beef brochettes (kebabs) and grilled plantains (cooking bananas) available almost everywhere.
Other signature dishes are Mealie-Meal Porridge and Sangala fish garnished with onions and stewed beef.
Drinking in Burundi
Soft drinks and beer are readily available. As in Rwanda and DRC, big 72cl Primus bottles are available for between USD1-2 as well as Amstel, which is about USD2. Both are locally produced and of good quality.
Sleeping in Burundi
Although accommodation in rural areas can be basic, Bujumbura hosts a number of international-grade hotels, catering to a mainly UN and international clientèle. Notable hotels include the Source du Nil, the Hotel Botanika, the Clos de Limbas and the new Sun Safari. A cheaper option is the Hotel Residence Saga.
Along Lake Tanganyika there are some nice options as well.
Health in Burundi
You have to have a cholera stamp (prove of the fact that you don’t have that disease) when entering Burundi overland. And you are legally required to have a yellow fever vaccination.
It’s a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Burundi. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people. When having a lot of contact with locals and when staying longer than 6 weeks between December and June, this is also recommended.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don’t underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers’ diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS. Also note that Southern Africa and thus Burundi as well has a high percentage of people with AIDS.
Safety in Burundi
Word of warning: check, check and check again about the current security situation before arriving in Burundi. When you are here keep an ear to the ground and keep atop of local news as things can spiral quickly. Be prepared for embassies to tell you not to go and that it is too dangerous. it is nonetheless possible to travel here, with caution and common sense. One can also travel (with difficulty) down Lake Tanganyika and south to Zambia, although it will involve days of waiting and travelling on a cargo ship or two.
Although some semblance of normality has returned to much of the country with the conclusion of the nation’s democratic transition and a democratically chosen head of state in Aug 2005, travellers should be warned that there is still significant insecurity throughout the country and exercise extreme caution. Besides the still-active rebel group, the Forces Nationales de la Libération (FNL) that continues to attack government forces and civilians, threats posed by banditry and armed robbery, as well as petty crimes, remain. Visitors should exercise caution, avoid travelling after dark, and be aware of curfew laws. Many roads close at night, and most embassies put out curfews on their staff. As in any other conflict or post-conflict situation, visitors should consult their embassy to be apprised of the latest local developments, and be sensitive to the changing security environment.
Communication in Burundi
Wifi is available in most hotels and cafes/bars.
Burundi’s international telephone code is +257. Its GSM network coverage is decent, although data connection is limited to Edge and 3G in large cities.
Burundi’s postal service is not fast but your postcard eventually will arrive at its destination in most cases.
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