Tag Archives: bujumbura

On a lighter note from Burundi.

A full month after it went to press, it’s dawned on me that I never posted a link here on my humble blog to my first story for The New York Times. A teaser follows:

AS rumors of a failed coup attempt swirled in the muggy evening air of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, no one seemed inclined to let them dampen the mood.

This was salsa night at Le Kasuku, an eclectic French- and Belgian-inspired restaurant and club. And if the day’s cares in this war-weary nation seemed a bit too much to bear, you wouldn’t have known it from the hips that swiveled across the dance floor.

An incongruous scene? Perhaps, but a Burundian one all the same. Throughout the civil war that waxed and waned in this tiny central African republic for more than 15 years, a spirit of defiance seemed to infuse daily life. “During the war you never knew what the next day would bring,” said a young woman holding a cocktail at Kasuku. “Our generation was not afraid like our parents’ generation. We had to live.”

To read the rest of the story, click here.

It’s all fun and games UNTIL HIPPOPOTAMUSES don’t actually ATTACK!

WARNING: The following contains photos of a not at all GRAPHIC or BRUTAL nature, as a pod of potentially LETHAL but actually harmless hippopotamuses descend on a group of swimmers at Bujumbura’s Saga Plage to scare them but wreak absolutely no unspeakable CARNAGE. Viewer discretion STRONGLY unnecessary.

As I wind down these last few days in Burundi, I’ve begun to say my sad farewells to Saga Plage, Bujumbura’s happiest little plage. Last week, I hit the beach with Jean Marie and Lucio, two Congolese friends studying at Hope University here in the city. It was their first visit to the beach, after more than a year of studying in Burundi. Scraping by in their little two-bunk room, hoping to make the most of whatever money they could scratch up from family members or odd jobs in Congo, they rarely had the time or money to hop on a bus for the 5km trip to the beach. Mostly they spent their time at the university library, or at the Centre Culturel Français, scribbling in their notebooks and talking about poetry, family, life.

Lucio, in the room he shared with Jean Marie and another Congolese friend in Bwiza

Jean Marie, rifling through paperwork from the university

I had met Lucio on a bus barreling along the Uvira road after a visit to the beach in December; he was on his way back from the DRC, and had hopped on the bus at the border. Since then he and Jean Marie have become as much a fixture in my Burundian life as morning coffee at Aroma, punishing workouts in my sweatbox of a gym at the Galerie Alexander, and that little kid with no legs and flippers for hands who hops around with a box between his teeth, soliciting passersby on the Ave. Prince Louis Rwagasore.

So we spent the afternoon shrugging off storm clouds and swimming in the lake, unaware that DISASTER would be totally avoided, but still kind of conspicuous in a creepy, near-miss sort of way.

Lucio zipping past the Brarudi brewery

Your intrepid reporter - briefly glimpsed in the mirror - with one of the UN's massive BINUB compounds on the right

Inspired by 'Jersey Shore,' your correspondent tries the blowback look

Saga Plage is generally safe and pleasant, as African plages go. None of the killer methane bubbles that have been known to asphyxiate swimmers in Lake Kivu; none of the aggressive touts who molest you along the Kenyan coast. Gustave, the legendary killer croc who is said to have devoured hundreds of hapless villagers around Lake Tanganyika through the years, only puts in the rarest of appearances around Buja’s beaches. (You can check out the BBC’s recent Gustave documentary here.)

So having scanned the waters pre-swim and detected no signs of danger, I didn’t think twice about splashing around and giggling like a little schoolgirl in the tepid water. Jean Marie, whose submariner skills were on full display when we spent Christmas in Rumonge, ducked under the surface and swam far out to shore, his little head bobbing darkly in the distance. Lucio rocked a mean doggy-paddle. It was a beautiful day.

After an hour, with a cold wind whipping across the water, I decided to towel off. Jean Marie joined me on the beach, where a malnourished, three-legged mongrel hopped across the sand. Only then, with Lucio bobbing like a piece of driftwood offshore, did something dark, ominous, and vaguely hippo-like raise its hairy maw above water. I gave Lucio a panicky little hand signal to return to shore, not long before a Volvo-sized hippo rose to the surface, water spouting from its massive nostrils. Lucio scrambled back to the beach; I scrambled for my camera. What you see below will not at all SHOCK and AMAZE.

A hippo ear - or a small wave - in the center of the frame

The horror! Something that sort of resembles part of a hippo, center-left

It cruised along like a patrol boat before vanishing beneath the surface. Minutes later it reappeared, showing off the sort of hairy, bug-eyed face that only a hippo-mother could love. We stood there on the beach having a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God moment. And if our myopic friend could have spotted our shivering bodies onshore, he might have been thinking, “There, but for the grace of God, goes lunch.”

Happily un-eaten on Saga Plage

Hippo-less times at Bora Bora

First you salsa; then you coup.

It is 8:15am in Burundi right now, which means the government has had a good 12 hours or so to doctor its story regarding last night’s alleged foiled coup. I would like to say I’ve been diligently burning the midnight oil, working the phones and probing trusted sources for all the juicy details. Sadly, this has not been the case. Instead I’ve spent the better part of the past 12 hours at Le Kasuku’s salsa night, lending further credence to the time-tested wisdom that a good salsa, like a good coup, is all in the hips.

Little breaking news to report so far. Early reports, according to the BBC, uncovered a dubious plot of ambiguous provenance.

Thirteen soldiers in Burundi have been arrested for plotting a coup to overthrow President Pierre Nkurunziza, the army chief of staff has said.

Major Gen Godefroid Niyombare said the 12 soldiers and one officer had been caught in a meeting near Lake Tanganyika earlier on Friday.

Investigations were ongoing and more arrests should be expected, he added.

Opposition candidate Alexis Sinduhije, as I noted last night, was wary of where those investigations might lead.

“They are going to arrest me again,” he said. “They are going to arrest me and say Alexis has plotted to overthrow the government. They have been working on something to destroy the whole parties.

“Everyone is calling me. They think we are targeted.”

The popular wisdom around the bar last night held that the coup plot was cooked up by anxious ruling party cadres desperate for an opposition leader to pin it on. At least one cheeky ex-pat – who may or may not have been this reporter – suggested we start a betting pool on which presidential hopeful would be behind bars before the weekend was through. He also recommended, given this country’s troubled history, that a new term – beaucoup d’etat – be introduced into the political lexicon to describe a country in which the military coup has supplanted the democratic election as the preferred means of transition.

On-the-ground reports here in Bujumbura, meanwhile, have provided the sort of levity that only a failed coup can provide. There was the much recycled rumor that the alleged plotters were arrested in pirogues – i.e., dug-out canoes – in Lake Tanganyika. (“We don’t do coups by water,” said one Burundian.) Then there was the claim made by at least two ex-pats that the Minister of Defense was seen boozing at a Chinese restaurant with the Chinese ambassador, a full two hours after details of the alleged coup surfaced. This is, you have to admit, a funny way to react to a coup.

I will be following the latest news – no, seriously – throughout the day, and should have a better sense of where things stand some time this afternoon. Also, for what it’s worth, I would like to note that I broke the coup story on Twitter a good 20 minutes or so before the BBC. I suppose that makes me the no. 1 trusted news source for stories you care nothing about.

The Amazing & Incredible Adventures of A Not Altogether Guiltless Letter to Malawi!

I have been taken to task by at least two friends this week for general shittiness related to my correspondences, or lack thereof, and I would like to commend those friends for: a) holding me to my word regarding Mr. Richard Soko, fisherman, Malawi (see below); and b) not even suggesting that said shittiness could perhaps, in any way, be applied to the time that has elapsed between our own correspondences.

The long-delayed and -dreaded postal ordeal turned out to be, in the end, less harrowing and soul-searing than I’d feared. In fact, from the time I set foot in the post office to the time the sealed and stamped envelope left my hands, I’d aged – both physically and spiritually – by no more than three minutes. That this only compounds the guilt and general self-loathing I feel at this point, of course, can be left unsaid.

SEE! the hand that writes the letter!

FEEL! the card going into the envelope!

NOTE! the Malawian address, hand-written with care!

FOLLOW! the letter on its perilous voyage to the central post office in Bujumbura!

SAY! goodbye as the letter prepares to vanish into the bowels of the African postal network!


An interesting postcript: the very helpful and not at all unfriendly postal worker told me that the letter should be arriving in Malawi within the week. This makes me wonder exactly which sea turtle or tree sloth is being used by the Malawian postal service, since Richard’s last letter – dated mid-November – only arrived in New York last week. For once, it seems, Burundi can be held up as a model for us all.

A land of milk and honey.

I am living in Burundi, which is almost funny to say, because if you’d stumbled across this blog at home or at the office or on whatever Apple pleasure device you call your own, you might have felt a sense of ambiguousness, or amorphousness, at what you’re reading. I have used my little digital platform to talk about Angolan oil wealth and Ugandan homosexuals and the heartbreaking sincerity of letters from Malawi, but I haven’t always had a lot to say about Burundi itself – apart from observing that it is a useful butt for jokes that begin with, “If you think [insert impoverished country here] is poor…”; and a comedic foil for anyone hoping to make light of a particularly dire situation (i.e., “At least we’re not in Burundi!”)

Well I, for one, am in Burundi, along with eight million or so other people, most of whom, if my months here are any indication, are probably poor; most likely illiterate; guarded toward their neighbors; skeptical of their leaders; not at all unkind; worried for their children; unsure when the next meal will find them; hopeful, impossibly hopeful; and generally glad to be tilling their soil and drinking their banana beer and making do in whatever thrifty, belt-tightened way, if only there could be a few good leaders and a small dose of good luck to help this country back on the right track.

A good deal of the song sounds something like, 'MSD, MSD, MSDeeeeeee!'

I was at a campaign rally a few weeks back for the Mouvement pour la Solidarité et la Démocratie – Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, or MSD – led by the charismatic and controversial Alexis Sinduhije. The party was opening a new permanence – a permanent office, I suppose – in Bururi province, and during the obligatory flag-raising ceremony a strident, militaristic tune filled the air. Few in the crowd knew the words to the MSD anthem, and I could hardly blame them: the song carried on for six or seven minutes. Between the murmuring and lip-synching, I asked a man beside me to translate the refrain.

“When MSD gets there, the international community will recognize that we are again a country that will rise above our problems and again be a land of milk and honey,” he said. It was, admittedly, not the catchiest tune. But you sort of get the point.

The crowd lip-synchs its support

Say what you will about Burundians, but they sure know how to open a permanence in style!

This is a proud and anxious year for Burundi, which is holding its first direct presidential elections since its 12-year civil war officially ended in 2005. (The 2005 polls brought in a new parliament, which in turn chose former rebel, gospel singer, and football afficionado Pierre “Peter” Nkurunziza to lead the country.) Even after the formal peace was brokered in 2005, the Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL), the last and most recalcitrant of the Hutu rebel groups, continued to wage a small-scale war in the bush. They formally agreed to lay down their arms in 2008; last April, they finally carried through on their promise. Thus 2010 marks the first year since the civil war began in 1993 that no armed factions are at loose in the countryside, and that the government – ostensibly, at least – includes all of this country’s dissonant voices (43 officially recognized political parties, at last count).

Burundi’s past experiences with elections have not always ended well, and have always been surprising. Beginning with the election of the Tutsi nationalist Prince Louis Rwagasore as prime minister in 1961 – won at a time when Burundi’s colonial overlords in Belgium had shifted their allegiances to the country’s Hutu majority – Burundian elections have always defied by the conventional wisdom. Calling for elections in Burundi has, in effect, always been a precursor to defeat.

The lesson for Buyoya: don't hold an election unless you're sure you can fix it

In 1993, when Tutsi strongman Pierre Buyoya called for elections – prompted by a wave of post-Cold War reforms across the continent, and signaling the end of 30 years of Tutsi military rule – he was upended by Melchior Ndadaye, an ethnic Hutu whose brief experiment with reform ended with his murder at the hands of Tutsi extremists from the army. When Ndadaye’s Front pour la Démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU) party, wayward custodians of the transitional government which brought the civil war to an end, called for elections in 2005, it was the Conseil National pour la Defense de la Démocratie -Forces pour la Defense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD) – a rebel group that threatened to return to the bush should they lose – which surprised everyone with a sweeping electoral win. FRODEBU, full of wounded pride, retreated to lick its wounds, and CNDD-FDD suddenly found itself, despite a complete lack of governing experience, at the helm of this tiny, troubled nation.

Incredibly, these men would prove unfit to govern

You can argue that the experiment was doomed to fail – that a party raised and founded on a culture of violence would find the tricky business of politics to be less palatable than their preferred gun-barrel diplomacy. But the Burundians I’ve spoken to all describe those first months as a time of great promise. The war had ended; the corrupt old guard of FRODEBU – tainted by years in power, however neutered – had been swept from office; and the new ruling party – running on a platform of human rights and good governance – had stirred hopes of a fresh start for the country.

The honeymoon was over before it started. Rights groups quickly uncovered a campaign of repression and political violence being carried out at the hands of the ruling party; and the corruption that, to some degree or other, had always played a part in Burundian politics, soon took on the momentum of a runaway train. Describing the disillusionment that set in once the first hopeful signs faded, one restaurant owner in Bujumbura told me, “It was like a dream had been taken away.”

The presidential jet: If found, please return to this address

The scale and audacity of the crimes was shocking, even to the most cynical observers. The presidential plane was sold under bizarre circumstances shrouded in sleaze and secrecy; and the free-for-all became so brazen in recent years that the anti-corruption watchdog OLUCOME, citing $30 million in stolen revenues in the first half of 2009 alone, called graft “a way of life” in Burundi.

“It is the first time that people have stolen more than $30 million at one time,” said Gabriel Rufyiri, the head of OLUCOME, when I met him last week. “That’s the first time in our history that such an amount was stolen. It was the first time that a presidential jet was stolen in view of everyone. And all the criminals are there, and they’re becoming stronger and stronger. They are becoming stronger than the state. We see that corruption is becoming more endemic than before. The corruption is being legitimized by those who were supposed to fight against it.”

Rufyiri, like most outspoken critics of the government, has received numerous threats on his life. He has been imprisoned, according to his own count, “at least five times since 2002.” Twice he has had to flee the country.

In the five years since CNDD-FDD took office, a culture of repression and impunity has come to dominate the political scene. And yet people are oddly hopeful – that particular, African hope that finds even the darkest clouds to have a silvery lining. While the threat of violence remains high around the elections, most believe the prospect of a return to civil war are slim. Nearly 300,000 lives were claimed by that lost decade; the country is only just getting back on its feet.

“The Burundian people are not ready for more war,” a pastor told me.

Today I met a man, Pacifique, who has spent the past 10 years living in Antwerp. He was sitting beside me at Aroma, the café, complaining about the heat (the first time I’d every heard an African pining for the cold of Europe). It was his first visit to Burundi in more than two years, and the difference to him was palpable.

“The mentality is changed,” he said. “In Bwiza” – one of the city’s poorest, liveliest quartiers – “people are doing some trade and commerce. They are talking about some things with politics they were afraid to talk about before.”

Pacifique’s daughter, a placid, pot-bellied little girl, came down the sidewalk and joined us. She planted a kiss on her father’s cheek and unfolded some schoolwork for him to look over.

“I don’t believe in all this politics, Hutu and Tutsi,” he said. “We speak the same language, we are the same people.”

First there was Hollywood; then Nollywood. Now, meet the filmmakers of Bujumburiwood…um, Burundywood…uh…

Sadly, my friends in Rwanda have already claimed “Hillywood” for themselves.

The boys of Bujumbura patrol the streets in third-hand T-shirts and ill-fitting jeans, carrying stacks of DVDs they sell to passing motorists, sidewalk diners and curious passers-by. Rifle through the selections in this busy capital of Burundi and you’re likely to find Nigerian crime dramas, Tanzanian romances and Hollywood blockbusters pirated in China. What you won’t find are films made in Burundi.

For an impoverished country still struggling to emerge from more than a decade of civil war, that might not be surprising. But as peace returns to this troubled African nation, Burundian filmmakers are hoping to finally put their country on the map.

For my report from the frontlines of Burundian filmmaking, check out my piece in Variety here.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here: Burundi edition

Three and a half weeks after applying for a one-month visa at the Bureau de l’Immigration here in Bujumbura, my application has finally been processed by the relevant stooges. This means that less than a week after getting my January visa approved, I’ll be going back again to get an extension for February. Not exactly surprising, given the state of the immigration office.

By my reckoning I’ve made seven trips to le bureau this month, only to be turned back, brushed aside, pitied, blatantly laughed at, and denied. The paperwork wasn’t ready. The paperwork was lost. The paperwork was something-in-French-I-couldn’t-understand. And me, flustered, irate, trying to explain in my marginal français: “J’ai venu sept fois ce mois, monsieur! Quelle est la problème? Je ne peux pas revenir chaque jour! Je suis…[flustered hand movement] busy.”

Still, me and the head stooge seemed to build up a sort of rapport, if by “rapport” I mean “mutual loathing.” The man was stern, fierce, unmovable. In a country that’s only just emerged from 13 or 15 or 16 years of civil war (depending on who’s counting), I suppose you can expect sympathy for the white guy to be in short supply. So instead I just grumbled and sighed and fought my way through queues which usually looked something like this:

Still, I succeeded in getting my visa de sejour and in not swallowing my own face in a fit of self-consuming rage. Given the circumstances, it was a good day.