March 2022: As part of multi-country African trip, my wife, friend and I visited Burundi. It was the last country in the region that I had not visited and even though I was miles from the border in Rwanda years earlier I did not visit. The country had for years been dfficult to visit due to complex visa issues and had just recently started allowing visa on arrivals. We arrived on an overnight Kenya Airlines flight from South Africa via Nairobi. Upon arrival we were required to pay for and receive a PCR Covid test at the airport. The immigration process was mostly corruption free with the exception of the official who tore the corner of my 100 $ bill right in front of me when I tried to pay for the visa and informed me that the bill could not be accepted in Burundi but that he could give me a very favorable exchange rate. I declined and provided him another bill that we both agreed was not torn. This would be the only corruption I would witness during my time in Burundi. Since our visit in Burundi was short, 2 nights/3 days, I hired Audace with Gisabo Tours as a guide with a 4WD vehicle in order to maximize our time in country. With more time, I likely would have traveled the country independantly via a mix of hired taxis and public transportation.

About Burundi

Burundi a Central African country in the Great lake’s region bordering Lake Tanganyika was a Belgian colony, and the people are French speaking. Burundi has the not so proud title of being the poorest country in the world. Like its neighbor Rwanda it was plagued with ethnic tension between Tutsis and Hutus that saw approx. 200,000 people killed from 1995 to 2003. Presidential coups have also furtherly de-stabilized the country. Despite the tragic past of Burundi, its fortunes are turning around, and the country is seeing a period of hope, peace and stability. I didn’t expect much from Burundi before my visit. I knew it was overpopulated and much of the nature decimated so I honestly wasn’t that excited since I typically plan my trips around nature. yes, much of the nature is gone but there still is a lot left for the visitor to appreciate but in the end, what captivated me most about Burundi was its people. The people are truly friendly and genuine and, in a world, where so many places have been spoiled by mass tourism, Burundi is a country where people greet and welcome foreigners with genuine hospitality.

Location of Burundi

Visit to Batwa Pygmy Village

Day 1: Our guide Audace, his driver and assistant picked us up at the airport, took us to check in at our hotel Club de lac Tanganyika located right on the lake, and we set off to visit a village of the pygmy Twa Tribe. The Twa village is located in the hills about an hour outside of the the capitol, Bjumburu. To reach it, we hiked along a muddy path in a torrential downpour across a few rickety bridges. The village residents, all 100 or so of them were waiting to greet us when we arrived. The regional governor proceeded to speak on bahalf of the village and gave speech about the difficulties of life in the region and that any donations would go a long way to improving the lives of the Twa people. The governor was a tall man and clearly not Twa. The governor’s somber tone was far different than that of the Twa, who like all pygmy tribes that I have encountered in my traveles, are always happy and jovial. As soon as the governor finshed his speech, the Twa started a dance and song for us. i took some polaroid photos and printed them to give to the children and the Twa Chief. The dancing celebration was interuppted by a heavy downpout and the chief suggested we take the festivities indoors. With this everyone transferred over to the inside of one of the Twa huts. All 100 people packed into a small hut where we resumed the song and dance.

Rickety bridge to Twa Village

Twa Children

twa kid using his shirt as cover against rain

Dancing and singing with the Twa

The Twa village was a mix of pygmy and non-pygmy people. Per the chief there is abeen a lot of intermarriage. This resulted in some people being very short while others being of a normal height. The Twa traditionally have lived off of the forests as hunters and gatherers but these days in Burundi there is no longer a lot of forest for them to hunt in and as the chief explained to me the remaining forests are protected and hunting is no longer allowed so the Twa people have turned to a new concept-farming. In the case of this village they have also turned to tourism but with Covid few if any tourists have visited in years.

We enjoyed our time dancing with the Twa and they put on a genuinely excited performance of some of their traditional songs that we and the entire village tok part in.

Dancing and singing of the Twa in the rain

Twa Chief and villagers answering my questions abot their lives. The chief wore an interesting ceremonial hat that consisted of a cut off plastic soda bottle with grass strong around it.

A man who we met, who sadly wears this hat to cover up a giant tumor on his head. He asked me if I could help him and even though I took his contact information and promised him I would reach out to various medical charities in the country, I told him that in truth there was nothing I as a tourist briefly passing through the country could do. This was heart breaking and I wish I could do something for him.

Dancing and singing with the Twa

After a few hours with the Twa, we offerred the chief a small donation for their hospitality and we hiked back to the car in rain that was even falling harder now. We spent the rest of our night relaxing at the hotel along the shores of lake Tanganyika.

Sunrise Over Lake Tanganyika

Day 2: As I always do when traveling, I wake up at sunrise to catch the best photo opportunities when the light is best and the day newest and most exciting. Watching the fisherman setting off to the lake with the storm clouds in the distance was a breath taking sight.

Fisherman at Dawn

Fisherman at Dawn

Largest Rainforest in Burundi-Kibira National Park

After breakfast and being careful to not get too close to the lake shore at the hotel where very serious hippo warning signs were posted, we set off to the mountains to visit the largest remaining intact old growth rainforest in Burundi-Kibira. Kibira has traditionally been protected by the king of Burundi as a royal hunting ground and also because it is believed to be a place guarded by spirits. It is a huge swath of virgin mountain rainforest that connects with Ngunwe National park in Rwanda, where I had tracked chimpanzees almost 10 years ago. Kibira is also home to chimpanzees, although not habituated and I was hoping my wife would be able to see them in the wild. To reach the national park, we had to take a fairly good paved winding road through the mpontains for a few hours from Bujumburu. Like road travel in many countries in Africa, it was frightening and trucks and cars passed each other at terrifiying speeds around blind turns providing plenty of close calls for death.

When we arrived at the National park, we hired a ranger to escort us on a 5 mile walk which began in tea plantations. We were fortunate to have great weather but due to the recent rains, our ranger provided us walking sticks to help  navigate the mud on the trail. We spent a 3 hours walking through the rainforest in complete awe of the big trees, lush jungle and waterfall but we never did see the chimps although we saw plenty of evidence of their existance. Even though we didn’t see chimps, we did see some monkeys hundreds of feet up in the canopy. 

Tea Plantations

Paula admiring an old tree

Ranger showing us the old growth trees in the national park

a 100 year plus old 4 foot tall tree that is unique to this forest and only grows a few inches per year

Ranger sitting in a huge tree

Royal Drummers Village-The Tokyo Robot Show of Africa

After hiking in the rainforest, we set off to another town deeper into the hilly interior of Burundi to the town of Gitenda, where we checked into our hotel for the night and set off to watch the Gishora King’s Royal drummers, which was simply one of the most electrifying non-electric performances I have ever witnessed. The Gishora village is the home of one of the historical Burundian kings and the people there have taken it upon themselves to preserve the Burundi traditions like the drumming. The men of the village are famous throughout the country for their traditional drumming. For just my wife, friend and I about 50 villagers performed drums, dancing, singing while hundreds of villagers and little kids clapped, cheered and sang along in one of the most amazing performances I have ever witnessed. It was very clear to me based on my observations of the drummers and villagers that they drummers were not performing for us as much as they were for themselves and for the pride of their village. They gave all they had to the performance, and it was exhausting watching the effort they put into it. They laughed and teased each other to the delight of the audience or other villagers who must have seen this show many times before but still seemed entertained as if they were watching their first show. It was obvious to me that the whole village had a deep and true love to the drumming performances and for maintaining their cultural traditions. Then at the end of the performance the drummers beckoned us up to drum while they danced with Paula. This experience is a highlight of my African travels and should not be missed when visiting Burundi.

Royal Drummers Playing Heavy Drums on their Heads

Royal Drummers Playing Heavy Drums on their Heads

Paula and Jimmie in the spectator section

Hundreds of villagers and little kids all gathered to witness the performance, while cheering, clapping and singing along 

Royal Drummers Playing Heavy Drums on their Heads 

Watching Hippos at Rusizi National Park and Looking for Gustave-Man Eating Crocodile

Pod of hippos with baby

Day 3: On our last day we returned to Bujumbura to see another national park-Rusizi which protects the wetlands and banks of Lake Tanganyika. We took a boat into the lake and watched pods of grumpy hippos and Nile Crocodiles. I was hoping to see Gustave, the famous giant man-eating crocodile who is known to live in Rusizi. Gustave is 18 feet long, 100 years old and is thought to have eaten 300 people. He has an almost mythical like status among local people and although there have been capture attempts, he has never been caught and is believed to still roam the lake. In all likelihood however he is dead. I asked our boatman if he was alive and he claimed he is and is still in the lake but had not been seen for a while.

False Positive Covid Test

Travel during Covid has many challenges and one of the biggest challenges taking a required Covid test and having a false positive that will earn you a self-paid government-imposed quarantine for a week if not longer. My travel companion unfortunately received two test results the night before via email and, they were positive. He had no Covid symptoms, and he had just passed a PCR test taken only a few days ago in the Seychelles. He had Covid a month prior to the trip he believes, and traces of the virus were picked up by the lab used in Burundi. For reasons un-explained no other tests out of the 8 that he received on our Africa trip were positive except for in Burundi. Convinced the test was a false positive, he figured he could get a more reliable test in Ethiopia, where we were flying from Burundi.  The problem was in order to depart Burundi a departure PCR test taken in Burundi is required within 72 hours of departure. The test must also be taken in Burundi. An official at the entrance to the airport was scanning QRC codes on test results, and she would not accept his Seychelle negative test. Luckily for him she was distracted long enough by the long que of people waiting to have their tests scanned so he was able to sneak around her and enter the airport and catch his flight.  I realize that many people may think this is scandalous, but it was clear to him that this test was a false positive or the lab was hypersensitive and was detecting viral remnants from his previous infection. The alternative would be to cancel the rest of his Africa trip and be forced to quarantine in a government hotel for up to a week or longer. Later that night his PCR in Ethiopia was negative. 

11 + 15 =