Discovering Burundi after an interesting train ride
Umwana suwumwe (a child is not for one person)
I've known for a long time that the longer I stay within a single country, the stronger I become attached to it and it's people. That was the case for Iceland, Greenland, USA, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo and now also Tanzania.
An Uber came to pick me at Morten and Charlottes house, where I had been living as a part of their family. On a side note Uber is very new to Tanzania and hardly present anywhere else than Dar Es Salaam. The driver brought me to the train station, where I had been the day before to purchase my ticket. I opted for the 1st class ticket which didn't end up being too expensive.
Morten's wife Charlotte ran a half marathon and I did the 5k at a charity run the day I left Dar.
I constantly need to "whip" myself to get going. I believe that it would otherwise not be possible to visit the entire world as you world simply get stuck somewhere. There is much the Red Cross Red Crescent still has to learn about the Saga, but overall I'm very delighted to have them as a partner as I keep on keeping on. My loyalty should never be questioned although I do get frustrated at times. Who wouldn't get frustrated from time to time? The RC is a wonderful invention and it contains an abundance of wonderful and spirited people. I have met thousands of them and speak from experience. Oh well, got sidetracked, but it's important that I mention it once in a while ;)
Smart clothes and cool shoes...but somebody had to push the caboose in order to connect it to the train.
I said farewell to the Uber driver and made my way through the chaos of the train station. Sort of organized chaos. A train that belongs in a museum was waiting for me. In the future it will be replaced by a modern train...I'm sure of this. And with president Magufuli the future is now! I boarded the relic from the past which I'm sure had as many stories to tell as it had cockroaches onboard. My cabin had 2 beds and a sink.
To flick on the light I needed to cross to electrical wires on top of a switch which read: "on/on". No off option...but first a startled man who was taking a nap in my cabin got up and left while leaving a stench of someone who hadn't showered for a long time. Then the train left Dar Es Salaam and so did I. As the soothing rhythm of the sound an old train makes, began to dominate the conductor came to warn me about thieves who would run around on the rooftop and enter through the window? Furthermore just thieves in general onboard the train? Then Mathias came to say hello. Mathias is probably in his late 40s and said that he was sharing the cabin with me although he was currently sitting somewhere else? Over the 43 hour train ride I never came to share my cabin with anyone else, although I had company by plenty of cockroaches which one apparently can get used too. Mathias and I would however meet frequently on the hallway and talk about his more than 20 year career with the train line along with the many things we saw pass the windows outside.
Do you see the log?
I began to notice short tree logs hanging horizontally from rope up in many of the trees we passed? Mathias could explain that those were in connection to the traditional way of making honey. The bees would take residence in the especially designed tree logs and villagers would in turn harvest honey. For more than a thousand kilometers I observed Tanzania change from dry to green and lush. And frequently I would spot the hanging tree logs.
A German named Hubert was onboard the train in another wagon. We met and decided to have dinner together on my second night. But as we walked to the dinning compartment we learned that it had been disconnected at some point during the first half of our journey? Instead we were facing the wall of the caboose.
So we ended up having some street food at a station where the train stopped for an hour. Hubert is an interesting man who has traveled a lot. He explained that the rail we were traveling on was constructed prior to First World War which began in 1914. Back in those days Tanzania was under German governance and the Germans wanted to bring a ship to lake Tanganyika. So the railway was created for the purpose. The ship has been modernized and still sails the lake today.
Tanzania is wonderful to observe from a window as it passes by. It wasn't always beautiful but it was well worth while glazing across.
Kigoma station, Tanzania.
After my second night onboard I was still in bed as we approached the station at Kigoma. Someone was knocking on my locked door while informing that we had reached our destination. As I left the train I noticed I was pretty much the last one to do so. That's also a way of beating the crowds :) Kigoma has such a pleasant ambiance and the architecture of many of the building made the trip well worth while. The landscape had turned into rolling hills and lake Tanganyika was such a beautiful sight. The air was fresh and cool and the surroundings where green.
A motorcycle taxi immediately got me to the main road. From there I quickly had a ride to the border from a driver commanding an overstuffed Toyota Corolla. I was on the backseat along with 3 others and the front seat was shared by 2. The driver had his own seat though. That changed as we reached immigration in Tanzania. I paid the driver and boarded yet another Toyota where I shared the back seat with 4 others!! The front seat was as per standard shared by 2, while this driver also shared his seat leaving 4 legs between the pedals. Not to speak of the insane amount of luggage we also were transporting. At Burundis immigration I had instant flashbacks to a few of my nightmares in Central Africa. It was most defiantly triggered by speaking French with immigration. I'm sure my heart rate went up, but on the outside I stayed cool. The immigration officer wasn't too tough on me though and I was soon on my way again inside the overstuffed Toyota - but now inside country number 117: Burundi! :)
I was initially impressed by the very good road conditions as we entered Burundi. And looking outside the window, I was equally impressed about how clean the country was! Throughout the 43 great African nations I had been to, one often feels pain to observe how people treat Mother Earth as a wastebasket. Especially plastic becomes a huge environmental sinner and at times it is hard to observe. But then now and again I also reach nations which are far cleaner. Burundi seemed remarkably clean! The road conditions however deteriorated after 30 minutes and went to become far less impressive. But at this point we had reached lake Tanganyika which presented a spectacular view of blue stretching as far as an ocean.
I have grown really fond of Burundi and the enormous heart it possesses. And I never experienced anything remotely unpleasant. However it's a country undergoing instability and you should not fear to visit...but certainly be up to date with your travel advisory.
You get a lot of time to think about things on a project like this.
About 40 minutes into Burundi I had to switch to a minibus in order to reach Bujumbura which is Burundis capital. Not long ago it would have been possible to sail from Kigoma in Tanzania to Bujumbura, but that is no longer the case. My way seemed much faster anyway as I reached Bujumbura before sunset. On arrival a young man named Beker approached me. Actually, I'm a little unsure if he might have been one of the 23 passengers inside the minibus? Beker wore a nice suit over a white shirt and his black shoes were well polished. He immediately offered his assistance to help me. I trusted this little "toothpick" and told him I needed a simcard. This was no problem and we walked off together. Beker confided in me that his dream was to leave the entire continent! "Africa is no good" he said. It's a shame when young people feel like that, but you cannot blame many to think so. Hollywood, music videos, magazines and much more promote a wonderful perfect world which doesn't exist for most. And certainly not for Beker from Burundi. He wanted to go to the USA, to Europe...and now Denmark. I have a better idea of what Africa is than most people I meet. And Africa isn't even close to being a failure. The middle class along with development, education and healthcare is blasting forward many places. But it is naturally a lot easier to move into "a painted room" than to "paint it" yourself. So let's all go to Hollywoods utopia.
To get a simcard in Burundi you need to sign up and present ID. So I did and after a while, with Beker as my confidant, we raced off in a tuctuc towards a low price guesthouse. Beker and I exchanged numbers and I told him I would call him the next day. That night I had brochette at a nearby outdoor garden and I slept like a baby.
The next morning I was meeting with the Burundian Red Cross which is in a class of its own!! But first I found Beker knocking on my door at 08:00am. Beker's English wasn't great, but it was far better than my Kirundi. And although Burundi was once a Belgian colony my French was better than Beker's. But then Beker also spoke fluent Swahili. Anyway, there he was. So I locked the door to my room and Beker joined me for breakfast. A very nice lady served me an omelette and Beker had some sort of banana stew. I managed to place my order along with provide some small talk in French. Central Africa knocked a solid portion of that language deep into me. And Burundi borders DR Congo so I didn't feel far away.
About 150 volunteers were cleaning gutters before the rain comes. To prevent waterborne deceases.
After breakfast with Beker I was collected by the Burundian Red Cross who brought me to their HQ. An impressive place for an impressive national society. All in all my visit to Burundi became somewhat "Red Cross heavy" as my time was short. But I think it's a fair representation of Burundi and I'll tell you why. Burundi is a small country which you can cross in a day. It has somewhere around 12 million inhabitants and yet the Red Cross there has more than 500,000 VOLUNTEERS?!? What?!? Yes!!! In comparison the USA which boasts a population around 330 million people and a far more impressive economy has about the same amount of Red Cross volunteers. The Red Cross Red Crescent movement has about 17 million volunteers worldwide. So for such a small country in the Lake District of Africa to have so many volunteers sends a strong message: The country is fundamentally well organized and very compassionate!
My friend Balthazar at Burundi Red Cross made sure I had Mukeke which is a local fish.
Some of you may already know that the Danish Red Cross tasked me with writing an "always present" story about each of the 190 national societies in the world. So I'll go into more depth there and those stories are currently available here: www.ifrc.org
My friend Andrew who I first met in Brazil and later on stayed at in Kinshasa (DR Congo) set me up with a contact of his in Bujumbura. Her name is Laureen and she works for the UNHCR www.unhcr.org. Laureen found the Saga interesting and invited me to stay at her place for the remainder of my Burundian visit. So the next few nights I had company by her colleagues, friends and her boyfriend Hussein. Everyone were really nice to me and I was told to feel at home. Laureen is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the regions rather complicated history. It was great to listen to her and get a better understanding of the ins and outs of Burundi. Several people I have met mentioned that only a few years ago Burundi was a paradise. Not a paradise in the sense that all was perfect, but it was a lot less complicated to live there, and there is no debating the natural wonders of that green country with its friendly people and beautiful white sand beaches at the lake.
Hussein preparing a brilliant omelette for all of us.
Hussein turned out to be a journalist with some solid connections and he also took great interest in the Saga. So we worked a little on how he could use it. I spent some time with him in the kitchen while he was preparing an omelette. Hussein's English is really good and it turns out that it's mainly because of English clubs which students form to speak and practice English with each other. I can't say for sure, but I could hardly imagine language clubs to be a common thing in Denmark where I come from. But in Burundi it is quite ordinary. Imagine the passion it takes to learn a foreign language create or join clubs like that? Mind you that these are people who mostly already speak 3 other languages.
We also spoke about the compassionate network which culturally exists in Burundi. Hussein explain that in Burundi there is a Kirundi saying which is: Umwana suwumwe (a child is not for one person). It is already a part of the building blocks which form a society where someone in distress quickly receives support from strangers. Apparently Burundians while compassionate, friendly and curious also often have a tendency to bottle up emotions. And if you dwell into Burundis history you may find evidence that bottling up emotions isn't necessarily they right way to go about stress or anger.
During my few days in Burundi I was always met with smiles and easy conversation. Smiles and curious eyes come before words with many I have met. It always has me wondering why such countries are not wealthy and well developed. However, I usually find my answers by looking into history. Burundi however is another country which is rich on natural resources and has a good location for international commerce. Is it enough to visit a country for only a few days to get to know it? No, not at all. But you do get an idea that is more than what you had before you entered. I managed to meet an abundance of people in Burundi stretching from public transportation to meetings among many places. It was always easy to strike up a conversation and laughter was never far away. I'm in my way home after 3 years in the world and for this project 3 nights became enough. I jumped on an early morning tuctuc and made my way to yet another Toyota Corolla. This time we were only 3 on the back seat and the front seat was not shared.
I saw this many times in Burundis hills. A smart way to get up hill for a cyclist. Unless the truck makes a sudden stop.
After a somewhat hazardous trip up and down the rolling hills taking every hairpin turn a maximum G-force, we managed our way to the Rwandan border. The journey to get there was one of spectacular views of hillside fields and which were rather limited by the dramatic landscape. The houses we passed seemed in good shape and every stream or river we crossed look clean and pristine. The vast majority of every vehicle I saw could easily pass European standards although the population didn't look like wealthy to me. Smartphones and Facebook are limited to certain parts of the population and once again nothing is simple. But I guarantee that a mothers love towards her child cannot be measured in gold and that Burundians cry and cheer whenever their favorite sports teams win or loose. And finally I may add that no matter what you look like, what you believe in or what you stand for; you still taste like chicken to a bear.
Between the hills of Burundi and Rwanda I reached immigration and stamped my way out of one country and into the next. Knowing I was moving too fast, although I had to keep on keeping on...
Travelers come in all sizes. Here at the border between Burundi/Rwanda. He even came to shake my hand :)
Rwanda is another small country with a population twice of that in Denmark. I'll tell you all about that adventure next Friday when I'll probably be in Uganda.
I'll end this by saying that I'm in no way feeling as sad as last week, but I am feeling emotional both for good and worse. This world we live in is unfairly represented and while we do not live on a perfect planet, I can guarantee you that it will surprise you as a much better place than you ever thought it could be. As such perceptions is reality and I've got a cold beer in that your perception is likely to be below actual reality ;)
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - 2 countries richer
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"