Beaches, Brunch, and Good-byes in Bujumbura

The workshop in Gitega ended midday on a Friday, and we made the two-hour drive down a steep mountain road to arrive in Bujumbura before sundown. We enjoyed another chance to see the beautiful countryside, tea and coffee farms, bustling villages, fruit and vegetable stands, and many different kinds of travelers carrying many different kinds of goods. We saw goods carried in a variety of ways, but it was very impressive how much could be balanced on one person’s head or a single bicycle.

Motorcycles were also a popular transport option, and on the return journey, we had a surprising realization over one particular motorcycle. We came up behind a motorcycle being ridden by two men, and as we bounced along and drove down the winding road waiting for the opportunity to overtake them, I suddenly realized that the pink thing that the men were carrying between them was not a sack of goods or cloth — when it opened its eyes, I realized it was a pig! Surprisingly, the pig was contentedly lying on its back in the passenger’s lap as though it was sleeping in his arms, occasionally opening its eyes and then closing them again, never struggling or seeming at all uncomfortable with the situation. I was amazed to see a pig behave so calmly and just appear to enjoy a motorcycle ride, cradled in the arms of a man!

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On our way down, we stopped to get some fresh fruit and vegetables at one of the roadside vegetable stands. We were instructed by the driver to stay in the car so that he could negotiate in the local language and try to obtain the best price. Part of this method was also crowd control, as the car was immediately swarmed with vendors hoping to sell their wares. It was pretty wild, as people pushed their way to the car window and the driver called out what kind of fruit he was looking for, then argued over the price until everyone was satisfied with the deal. We bought strawberries, bananas, carrots, and more!

Once back in Bujumbura, I had the weekend to rest a bit and get to know the capital city. One of the things I was advised that I absolutely had to do was visit Lake Tanganyika, the large lake that borders Burundi (as well as Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia). It’s the second largest freshwater lake in the world and the second deepest. The lake is a popular relaxation and recreation area, and there are many restaurants and clubs along the beachfront. The different clubs cater to different clientele, so some are more family oriented with play areas for children where others are more party oriented with bars and club music.

I was invited to join a few staff members at the lake, so I had several opportunities to relax by the water. Unlike Gitega, which has a cooler mountain climate, Bujumbura is warm and humid, so it was very pleasant to sit by the lake and relax in the sunshine and breeze. I was invited to join friends at Hotel Club du Lac Tanganyika, where there is not only beach access, but also a swimming pool, shaded tiki huts, and a restaurant with pool and beachside service. It was a great way to relax after an intense workshop!

Although it was quite warm and other people had a great time swimming in the lake, I didn’t do more than dip my feet and ankles in the water. When I was first warned that there were crocodiles in the lake, I thought they were joking with me, but I quickly realized that the warnings were genuine! I was also told that when I come back to Bujumbura, I should take the time to visit Gustave, a massive crocodile named after a local, legendary man-eater being kept at Musee Vivant, a small Bujumbura zoo and museum. There are also hippopotami in the lake, which can also be quite dangerous. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until my final evening in town that I learned about a local lakeside bar where you can see hippos, usually around sunset. This will have to go on another “to do when I return” list!

So… no swimming for me!! I did see some locals swimming in the lake, but most stayed close to the shore while the majority of swimmers kept to the pool.

On Sunday, I was invited to brunch at a cafe in town that is known for great coffee and pastries. Burundi’s largest export is coffee, and it has deep colonial ties with Belgium, so there were places that offered high quality lattes, cappuccinos, espressos, and other coffee drinks as well as pain du chocolate, croissants, pain aux raisins, and more! It was a lovely opportunity to see another aspect of Bujumbura and spend more time getting to know my colleagues. We enjoyed the outdoor garden and the great food, and it was clearly a popular place. While we were enjoying our brunch, I noticed that a monkey was running around the garden, and it appears that one of the owners had brought it from the south and was keeping it as a pet! It was definitely not the kind of pet that you could get close to and…well…pet. But it was certainly entertaining, as it ran around the garden, occasionally sunning itself, then hopping up to climb the awning covering our eating spot, then racing off to climb something else.

It was soon back to work when Monday arrived, and I spent the next week working with program staff and conducting a gender workshop before finally returning to the US.  On my final evening in Bujumbura, we gathered in a small “dive” somewhere in the heart of the city to drink beer and eat mukeke, a fish caught in Lake Tanganyika. My colleagues invited wives and friends, and we sat in an outdoor space under tiki-style awnings, gathered around a wooden table sharing stories and laughing late into the evening. The fish — served whole and either grilled or fried — was eaten by hand. While my fellow colleagues put dashes of bright orange pili pili sauce on their fish — like they put on every other dish — I simply can’t handle the blistering heat of this locally made hot sauce, and I was content to pull the hot fish meat from the bone and wash it down with cold beer or fried bananas. We said a fond and pleasant farewell in the office on my final day, exchanging gifts and good wishes, but this final dinner was the real good-bye, holding one final “committee meeting” over beers and stories and sharing friendship and the hope that we’ll meet again soon.