Thursday, July 30, 2009

Feeding Guinea Pigs to Crocodiles (and other things that are not normally allowed in zoos)

One of the greatest attractions in Bujumbura, I was told upon arrival, was the Musee Vivant, or the Living Museum. With a name like that, it seemed like an innocuous children’s park, with a couple of friendly goats, and perhaps some monkeys, that children could feed and pet.
Not so, my friend told me. There are crocodiles there, she said, and you can feed them. With live guinea pigs.

Obviously, I had to see this for myself.

I managed to convince two of my guy friends to come with me. If I was going to feed crocodiles, I preferred to do so in the company of people who would be entertained by the experience, not with people who were going to whine about it. It is, admittedly, an experience that doesn’t sit well with many muzungus. But where else can you see a crocodile on the hunt, other than on National Geographic?

After paying the 5,000 Franc (less than $5) entry fee, a guide walked up to escort us around the small park. It was more of a zoo, but with a real focus on crocodiles. The guide had worked there for twenty years, he said, and hasn’t lost a finger or appendage yet. He also told me that he simply doesn’t take chances, particularly with the big crocodiles.

The first two concrete pens separately held adolescent crocodiles, about three feet long. They were Nile crocodiles, he explained, and the younger they are, the more agile. He asked us if we wanted to feed them with guinea pigs (les cochons-dindes) or with rabbits. The guys, excited to see exactly how fast these crocodiles could move (since they were just languishing in the small pools of water), took the guide up on the offer, and for 4,000 Francs each, we had two guinea pigs ready for sacrifice.

One of my friends dropped the guinea pig into the pen, and the crocodile launched out of its resting place, whipping water violently on the walls of the pen, and darted for the prey. In one bite, it was gone. The second was dropped into the other pen, with the same effect. With a squeal, the guinea pig had disappeared. The only trace that remained was a smear of blood on the crocodile’s snout.

My friends asked how much it would cost to give the crocodile a goat, so there would at least be a fight. The guide said it was 50,000 Francs (about $50). We decided it wasn’t worth it. (Plus, you can buy a goat on the side of the road for $10, so asking $50 was way too much.)

Moving on, we came to the leopard cage. In the past, the leopard had been living in a 2 meter by 1 meter cage, but the Musee Vivant decided to build it a larger one, with a tall canopy and large branch so that the leopard could climb up and perch if it wanted to. There was a bucket of water in a corner surrounded by, inexplicably, tufts of fur.

The leopard had a full, thick, spotted coat. He rubbed against the cage, which was so close that we could reach out and touch its body (though we were told not to try to pet its face, because we would probably lose several fingers). The guide told us that we could also feed the leopard with a guinea pig. We took him up on the offer, and a couple of minutes later, he emerged with one in hand.

With a toss into the cage, the leopard pounced, grabbing the guinea pig by the head and carrying it around the cage. After settling on a place to eat, it walked around in circles before lying down and systematically eating, by carefully pulling off the fur and discarding it in tufts on the ground. The mystery of the piles of fur had been solved. Even big cats don’t like hairballs.

Next, we saw the large crocodiles, which occupied enormous pens. Each had its own, and was submerged in the shallow pool of water, with only their eyes and their slit ears above the surface. We were the prey; they followed our movements, slowly lumbering in our general direction as we walked around the pen. They were also Nile crocodiles, about seven or eight feet long, and wide in the middle. One looked ready to pounce, which it probably would have, if not for the tall concrete walls that surrounded it.

The next stop was the chimpanzee cage, and the guide warned us not to get too close with our cameras, because the chimps grab them—and getting them back in one piece would be difficult. They reached their black, hairy, humanlike hands through the cage, trying to snatch my camera and the beer that my friend was drinking. (Er…there’s another thing that’s not allowed in the United States.)

My friends may or may not have given beer to the chimps, and the chimps may or may not have shared it. The guide, who was very laissez-faire about everything, responded in a way that made it clear that this is a relatively frequent occurrence. The chimps went crazy.

We moved into the reptile house, where we saw a spitting cobra, a regular cobra, some other venom-spitting snakes, and some innocuous ones. We also held an enormous python, which began to wrap itself ominously around our arms, and defecated on both of my friends. They were nonplussed, to say the least, and tried to wash off the white mess.

The last attraction was the baby crocodile pen. The guide jumped in and, with swiftness and confidence, grabbed the baby crocodile, which was about a foot long, by the snout and tail, securing its jaws firmly shut. He passed it to us to hold, giving us careful directions about how to hold it so as to not lose a finger. We each took hold of it (it urinated on one of the guys…it wasn’t his lucky day) and felt its smooth underbelly and rough skin.

The guide then asked us if we wanted to feed it. We did, and he brought back a baby guinea pig (the regular ones were too big for him). This was my Achilles heel, and I should have known it. The baby he brought back was adorable, and fit in the palm of my hand. I made the mistake of holding it—of building rapport—and gave it a little kiss before passing it along. Unlike the others, I couldn’t watch this one.

Meanwhile, the boys were yelling at the crocodile, making it seem like a speedy end had not befallen this little guinea pig. I went back to the pen to see the crocodile snapping, but missing every time. He went for it no less than five times, and failed. Finally, the crocodile gave up, swimming away.

We decided that this little guinea pig had earned his stripes. We retrieved him from the water, and, cupping him in my hands, where he was trembling violently from cold and fear, we decided to keep him. The guide told us that he was injured, that he wouldn’t live—but in fact, he hadn't suffered so much as a scratch. And so we carried him out of the Musee Vivant, and he will live at the Marine House, with endless quantities of carrot shavings and lettuce. We named him Harry Potter—because he was the guinea pig who lived.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Things To Do In Bujumbura, Burundi

(Also known as the Bujumbura Restaurant and Shopping Guide)

The following guide was originally (and mostly) compiled by several expatriates who lived in Bujumbura over a number of years. Many people who arrive in the country to work are sent a somewhat outdated version of this guide, and I thought it would be useful to share it with a wider audience, since it is extremely difficult to find up-to-date information on restaurants and activities in Bujumbura.

The credit for compiling it goes to the unnamed many (among whom were several CARE International staff), and in particular to my friend Ledio, who was the first to send it to me, and who was one of the original authors of the Guide. I have tried to update it a bit from its original version.

Anyone who has information to add to this guide is invited to do so!

General Information on Restaurants

Service is pretty slow. Don’t be impatient!
Wine is very expensive here, so if you have a limited budget, stick to water or beer.
You can drink the tap water in Bujumbura, so don’t worry if you are served tap water or ice.
The vast majority of restaurants understand French. A few understand English.
Tipping is welcomed, but not mandatory. While I have heard different perspectives on this, a tip of approximately 5% seems to be good.
At the time of writing (2009), the exchange rate is approximately 1200 Burundian Francs to $1 USD.

Key words:
Ikanye –cold
Msososo: meat-instead of heart, intestines, liver, etc.

For other key words related to meals and eating, see the Kinyarwanda guide. Kinyarwanda and Kirundi are nearly the same language—most words are the same, and the two languages are mutually comprehensible.



Good for a nice meal out and one of the best restaurants in town. Near the port. Old colonial style building with excellent service and a breeze from the lake. Probably has the best chocolate mousse in town but also excellent fish carpaccio, other fish and meat dishes – such as sangala with blue cheese, grilled lamb chops, etc. Someone told me recently they have the best steak in town – order the “tournedos” with your choice of sauce. I recommend the spinach as a side dish – quite delicious. Be prepared to spend a bit ($30), especially if you have some wine.

Khana Khazana
This is the Bujumbura branch of the restaurants which you can find in Kigali and Kampala. People call this the best restaurant in town. In Kiriri, off of Avenue de Belvedere. Beautiful pavilion seating, luxuriously decorated. Great Indian food—have never been disappointed. Numerous vegetarian options. Can accommodate big groups. If you have a birthday, tell the staff, and they'll sing for you in 5 languages for 20 minutes. It's a little excessive but pretty hilarious. Closed on Mondays.

Situated up on a hill in Kiriri with a spectacular view of the town, lake and DRC. Great place to grab a sunset cocktail. There is a bar counter – where you can sip a cold beer, eat some potato curls and look at the beautiful view; just a shame they don’t do tapas! A wide range of European cuisine, rather expensive and fancy for the price but the view is great. Service is good here. Prices hover around 12,000-16,000 per main course.

Bora Bora
On the lake, about 10 minutes north of town, next to the Club du Lac Tanyanika. Fabulous atmosphere. Everyone orders their pizzas, because they are great and whatever you can’t finish, you can bring home with you. Pizzas run from 9,000-11,000 Francs. They also have salads and fish. The latter is unbelievably pricey! Good place for drinks on the weekend, while lounging next to the pool. There is also free wireless internet, so the place is often overrun with muzungus on their computers!

Chez Andre
On Rue Rwagasore, on the right as you go up the hill. Beautiful, beautiful restaurant. Greek-themed, usually empty, but is known for amazing food. A non-profit to train domestiques in cooking is run out of here. Prices are around 12,000-18,000, and they have various kinds of fish, steak, and pasta.

A very colorful and friendly restaurant, run by a female, Belgian/Rwandan rally car driver who has lots of friendly dogs. Also known as the town's gay bar, although homosexuality is forbidden here. Mostly a nightlife destination, not a restaurant destination. Friendly service but if there are more than two other tables full, be prepared to wait.


A family-run boutique hotel/restaurant with wireless connection anywhere – so you can do e-mails while eating in the terrace or garden. Excellent salads, a great fish steamed with vegetables, hamburgers and other treats available. Food is served relatively quickly and is always good—since the quality of the food is always constant, there are no nasty surprises!

Nice coffeeshop in town, very tranquil, with wireless internet and places where you can plug in. They serve real Burundian coffee (and fancy coffee drinks), not Nescafe, and offer some food items as well. (If you get the crepe with spinach, make sure you tell them you don’t want the ground beef in it. Unless you do. Not advisable.) They also have fruit smoothies and ice cream. Very sweet, attentive staff.

On the lake with nice garden and pleasant atmosphere. Sometimes, you can see hippopotamuses while you eat. Service is not that bad, but check to see if they are using their generator before ordering a pizza. They have good pizzas – some say the best in town--and standard meat, fish and vegetable dishes. Pizzas are half price on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Expect to spend around $20 for food and a beer.

Surprisingly for a large chain hotel, it has decent food at decent prices, you sit out on the terrace near the pool. Not exactly warm and cozy. You tend to get stared at a lot here. Seems like a place where dodgy deals take place! There are a lot of mosquitoes most of the day and in the evenings. Don’t forget to buy cakes at the little kiosk next to the bar. (As a side note, the hair salon is good for abazungu males. Seven thousand to get a haircut and the hairdresser actually owns scissors. Get your hair cut with loud Congolese music plays in a nearby boombox and look at the splendid hairstyles women around you having done!)

The Ethiopian Restaurant
I can’t remember what this is actually called. Incredibly hard to find….take the Avenue du Large going away from the city center, and take a left after the sign for Orphan Aid. Excellent Ethiopian food, with real injera. Garden seating. English is spoken here! Whenever I eat here, I spend about 10,000 Francs ($10), and leave stuffed to the brim.

Greek food, good salads, best pizzas in town according to some. Try and get a table on the terrace as the main room can be quite dark. Be careful locking your car here; there are quite a few street kids and thieves around here.

Cercle nautique
The place to go and hang and have a cold beer watching the sun set over Lake Tanganyika. A favorite is to nibble on the small dried/fried fish, Ndagala or munch on samosas. Someone also told me that there pizzas are amazing, crisp with tasty sauces. They have some great drinks: an excellent ginger juice called “gingembre”, a thing called ice tea – which might have tea but has Sprite as well and is very refreshing. If you are lucky they will have fresh pineapple juice. A good place for sunset drinks and beautiful evenings. Occasionally a hippo or two can be spotted in the lake.

Thought to be the best Chinese restaurant in town. A nice family run restaurant, meals in the garden, decent variety. This restaurant was held up a gunpoint 4 times, but now that problem seems to have gone. My favorite is the dumplings called “ravioli” on the menu, the aubergines and even though I don’t like sweet and sour – the sweet and sour pork is great. Also the best place for take-out.

A Chinese restaurant on Rue Rwagasore. Most of the tables are in an outdoor pavilion. Salty food, but what do you expect? You can also buy a kilo of tofu here for 4,000 francs, or a kilo of Chinese noodles for 4,000 francs. (Chinese noodles cost at least 9,000 elsewhere, and tofu cannot be found anywhere else.) If you place an advance order, you can also get dumpling/egg roll wrappers for 400 FrBu apiece.

More of a fashionable lounge than a restaurant, though it does serve dinner (prices are expensive). On the second level, next door to Botanika, and has a beautiful porch with a great view of the Havana Club. Drinks are decently priced. This place has a lot of potential, but was empty when I went.

An up-market cabaret, with a variety of grilled meats. You can have a solid meal for 10 USD. The gigot d’agneau or the lamb leg is definitely the best dish. Surprisingly cheap and very good food. You have to eat the lamb with fried bananas and spinach. The best place in Bujumbura for their vegetables, including the bananas (the really long ones), spinach (absolutely delicious and not salty at all served on a hot tripod) and peas. The best value for money in all of Bujumbura. Does take out too.)

A newcomer to Bujumbura, Tandoor is an Indian restaurant that tends to be low on flavor and high on kitsch. The dal and the chicken korma were pretty flavorless, and not spicy, despite requests for extra heat. The food was served relatively quickly, although others have complained about how slow it was. From the Exorcist-esque German gnome in lederhosen with the revolving head that welcomes diners as they arrive to the concrete kudu in the garden, to the horse's head in the dining room, to the erratic fountain, this place offers endless topics of conversation. Open for lunch and on Mondays (when Khana Khazana is closed).

Eden du lac
On the lake with a nice garden and up-market cabaret food as well as some other choices such as soup. They have sandwiches but I would not recommend them. On weekends they have one of the liveliest “boites” or night clubs.

Le Petit Bruxelles
I'm a little obsessed with this restaurant. The best burgers in Buja. Just to make sure you read that correctly, yes, these are the best burgers in Buja. Try the garlic ones--they're amazing and will also keep the vampires away for days. Can hardly be called a hole-in-the-wall--it inhabits a hallway! Very charming and cheap, though, and there is Amstel on draft rather than in a bottle, which is a nice change. Near Botanika and the Tourism Office on the Boulevard de l'Uprona.

Upscale Burundian restaurant. Beautiful garden seating. The fish brochette was excellent, and the lengalenga was even better (tasted like perfectly seasoned spinach). A little pricey, but not too bad. On the Boulevard Mwezi Gisabo.

Excellent music, but on a crowded street with poor parking. In the university area. A lively scene around the bar filled with journalists, lawyers, NGO staff and interesting people to meet and chat with. Nice vegetation, a wooden upstairs and once again excellent music. They have the standard meat and fish brochettes, salads and it is most famous for its chicken – you will need to share the chicken and have plenty of time.

La Fantasia
Near the main roundabout in town. The best place for pastas and Italian-style food. It is actually run by an Italian lady and serves mostly to abazungu from the UN. Was only open for lunch, but is now serving dinner as well. Order the penne carbonara, aux aubergines or aux courgettes. Some good sandwiches such as Prego (beef and caramelized onions) and also vegetarian sandwiches. The hamburgers are pretty good and juicy, and they have nice salads. A killer tiramisu is also served but can be pricey. Can order take out at lunchtime.

Le Petit Suisse
In the Quartier Asiatique, near Buja Day Spa and the Cameo Cinema. A lovely little restaurant with a nice view of the main mosque, and with the most amazing fish brochettes I've had in Bujumbura. Nice omelettes. Cheap, too.

On the main road in the Quartier Asiatique, a red unmarked door next to a door with painted keys. Also known as the Chicken place. Serves grilled chickens cooked in a red sauce which are really tasty and different to the usual tastes of Buj. They serve chilled prune de Japon juice in small water bottles. No alcohol here, it is run by a Muslim family. Really good and cheap.

Café Au Petit Plateau
The local restaurant where I eat most days. Hole in the wall. Not a muzungu place, which I love. You can find all of the Burundian staples here: Ubugari, beef (which is very tender), fish, beans, lengalenga, isombe, peas, etc. I usually eat here for 1,000 Francs (less than $1 USD). They don’t put salt in the food—they let you add your own. Clean preparation. You can also get good milk and ikivuguto (yogurt milk) here. On Rue Rwagasore, across from the U.S. Embassy, near Dmitri’s.

Another restaurant where you can find good local food. Located near the Poissonerie on Rue Rwagasore. Look for the sign “Galerie Les Arcades,” go down a short passage, and it’s an airy little restaurant with some outdoor tables. It is a bit dusty. They serve all the staples: rice, beans, peas, lengalenga, plantains, meat, etc. The peas and rice are excellent. The meat isn't great--stick with the vegetarian options. A surprising amount of English is spoken here. I eat here for around 2,500 Francs (less than $2.50 USD).

Senegalese restaurant across from Aroma (look for the alleyway) on Rue Uprona that serves local food for a bit of a higher price than elsewhere. Try the traditional fish dish and the peanut sauce. Great venue, with high thatched roof ceilings and decorative details that make it a fun place for lunch. Check the bill, though--they tend to overcharge!

Le Cayor
Offers the town's best coffee--absolutely delicious and puts Aroma to shame. Located in the middle of town, it proclaims "fast food," and it is pretty fast. For those in a rush, order directly from the buffet. Otherwise, you can also order sandwiches and hamburgers. Cheap and cheerful. Parking is horrid.

Local food, cute little restaurant. For 1200 Francs, you can get the Plat du Jour, which comes with rice, lenga lenga, a chunk of beef, bananas in sauce, and beans. For a little more, you can get peas as well. Delicious and fast. Near the Greek Orthodox Church.

Bujumbura has a wide variety of local corner bars known as cabarets and I have listed a few here, there are many more. If there is a choice, choose goat meat as it is usually much more tender then beef. In some places, sausage brochettes are available. Cold beer and sodas are usually available.

For beer drinkers there are usually 4 varieties:

Amstel: usually only available in large bottles, locally brewed by the Dutch managed brewery but quite a high alcohol level –stronger than Tusker
Amstel Bock: comes in small bottles in most places, a dark, flavorful beer
Primus: a light beer in a large bottle with lower alcohol than Amstel, popular with ladies and daytime drinkers
Heineken:this is imported and very expensive. It is favored by the elite.

Sometimes, Tusker and Leffe are available—at a price.

Other drinks you will find:
Flat water
Sparkling water
Fanta Orange
Fanta Citron
Pineapple juice
Passionfruit juice

Chez Gerard
A nice cabaret which, according to Burundians, has the best brochettes. I tried the beef ones and wasn't incredibly impressed, but the atmosphere is great. Cheap and cheerful, outdoor seating, pool tables. Lots of parking. In Kigobe, near the 28 Novembre.

On Rue Rwagasore, across from Chez Andre. It has a sign that says it rents DVDs...perhaps it does, but that's not why people go there. Great local cabaret that has karaoke from time to time. They have sweet fried bananas--delicious! And a wonderful atmosphere. The goat brochettes were a little tough, but the fish ones were very good.

Le Pont
A nicer cabaret with probably the best selection of brochettes and other meat dishes and salads in town. Nice relaxed atmosphere in the garden and good cold beers. Decently priced ; you will probably spend $10.

Picnic or Kolomboko
A lively cabaret that has excellent music, using old LP records. They serve roasted meat on most nights, otherwise standard brochettes and an interesting mixed clientele. The chicken is also pretty good. Dancing to the great old tunes can happen most any night of the week.

Escale du Bien (note this is not the real name)
A garden cabaret located adjacent to Tele 10. Standard cabaret fare but a delicious grilled goat leg is available – sufficient for about 3 people served with grilled bananas and onion.

They serve an interesting snack of cheese and eggplant, good fish and beef brochettes, very simple.

A pool table, decent brochettes (beef, sausage, sometimes chicken and fish) and they usually have a choice of potato or banana frites. That is early at night, later it becomes a disco with lots of interesting young ladies.

Kibira Bar
At the very end of Avenue du Large: a rasta bar with nice gardens – great place for an afternoon. There is donkey and a monkey and old cars that provide lights and some camping vans that during the weekend can be rented by the hour! A fun, lively place to hang out. Food is not what you go there for!

Avenue 2 – Bwiza
This is the Congolese neighborhood and is full of ambience and very much the central African feel. There are a variety of restaurants but best to go with a national staff member who can help you choose which place has the best mshwi that day. You sit on the side of the road, practically in the road, and eat mswhi which is steamed and then grilled goat meat, served with grilled onions and “pate de manioc” or manioc ugali. You might not find a cold beer and you will definitely not find a toilet.

Supermarkets (Alimentations)

The town has a series of alimentations that have items such as wine, cheese, veggies, bread etc. These are for your basic household needs – and it is not an attempt to describe all shopping possibilities.

Escale du Bien Alimentation
The first on the left after Librarie St Paul as you climb up Ave Rwagasore. This is my favourite – the vegetables come in twice a week and are good and fresh – and the staff very friendly. Inside they have all the basics you need and that all the other shops have, with the difference being the staff are friendly. The local eggs are always good quality, they have the standard brown bread and cheese and sausages.

Nice alimentation where Avenue Rwagasore meets the 28 Novembre. They have real eggs (with yellow yolks, not the alien white yolk eggs). They have vegetables, but not the same variety as Au Bon Prix. Sometimes, they carry Leffe beer. Open amazingly late—sometimes until 11 pm.

Fido Dido
On the left –as you go up the hill. Sometimes has a good deal on a nice white wine, has a bakery next door and is usually quite crowded. I have never really shopped here much as parking often gets hectic and there is not that much of excitement. Also their cigarettes are more expensive than elsewhere.

THE MOST EXPENSIVE SUPERMARKET IN TOWN. They can hardly justify their astronomical prices. Cannot really miss it – on the corner as you leave town from the market. Once you get past the blackmarket money changers and the beggars, you enter the large shop with all sorts of items, patés and cheese imported from Europe etc. However, sometimes it is necessary to venture in – there are some things like metal forks, household items, and decent wines.

Go up the road north from Dmitris (not toward Boucherie Nouvelle) and just at the next junction you will see a small shop that sells all types of local fish. I am told they have fresh fish but have only found frozen fish.

Next to the Poissonerie, a packed little supermarket run by a very, very nice man. They have a small selection of good produce, and also sell souvenirs. Open every day, even Sunday.

Boucherie Nouvelle
Down the road near Dmitris but not the same as above. Basically the best place to buy meat, cheeses, homemade sausages, salami, prepared meats for barbecues, other imported and local items like chutneys and sauces. Sometimes, they have chicken. They also have frozen seafood, like crab and shrimp. I usually go early on a Saturday morning before the crowd arrives around 9:00 a.m. They also carry assorted other things, like yogurt, milk, juice, crackers, etc. I bought my olive oil here—the cheapest place in town to find it.

There are other branches of Boucherie Nouvelle all over town.

Au Bon Prix
On the 28 Novembre, easily recognized by all the UN and diplomatic cars outside. They do not have the best prices in town; in fact, it’s one of the most expensive, and the staff are not overly friendly. I do all my purchasing of beer and sodas here because the prices are the same as elsewhere. Other things that are here and not elsewhere- a good selection of hams and cheeses, a nice local goat cheese – that is soft, almost a chevre, as well as a large selection of vegetables geared towards Wazungu – such as grapes, and little orange mushrooms etc when they are in season. Very nice vegetables and fruit, as well. They also carry strawberries!


Marche Central
Middle of town. Total chaos, but best prices you’ll find anywhere, if you negotiate hard. Great fabric! When you go, carry as few valuables as possible, and, if you’re carrying a purse, make sure it’s small and fits under your arm. Thieves abound, and they have been known to reach into bags or, worse, cut through them.

Craft Market
On Rue Rwagasore, near the U.S. Embassy. There’s several individual shops packed to the brim with local handicrafts and Congolese handicrafts (textiles, statues, and masks, in particular). There is also a place to buy vegetables, sauces, and local jams. Outside is a basket seller, as well as a plant and flower market. Bargain, bargain, bargain. Make sure that the plant roots are alive.

Congolese Market
Across from the Hotel Source du Nil, a small market with multiple Congolese vendors selling masks, statues, and other odds and ends from Congo. Some of their stuff may be truly old, but a lot of it was probably made two weeks ago and buried in the dirt to age it a bit, so just keep that in mind when they tell you something is an "antique."

Indian shop near Peace House and stadium
Here you will find all sorts of things for your house, from pillows, to food mixers, cutlery, etc. Decent prices. They also have some food items that come in from Nairobi such as some spices, sauces etc.

There are two centers: one on the way out of town, and one in Kigobe (off the 28 Novembre), near where the new U.S. Embassy will be. Here is where you buy the local pottery as well as good chickens as well as basic household items for good prices. You can also buy all sorts of food items and school supplies and the prices are good. Their gelato is sought after.

Centre des Femmes Musaga
A women’s centre that makes great materials that they paint with all sorts of designs. Great for curtains, T-shirts, wall hangings etc. You can special order T-shirts and it is the best price in town and the quality is good.

T 2000 or the Chinese Shop
You can find anything here from electric cars to coffee mugs - a large store with electric gadgets, household items etc. It is not that cheap though.


Botanika- Known as one of the best hotels in town. Downtown, on the Boulevard de l'Uprona, not far from the dilapidated Novotel. Bujumbura's boutique hotel, it is beautifully situated and appointed, and hosts one of the finest restaurants in town. Rooms have wireless internet, DSTV, and air conditioning, and they wash your laundry in proper washers and dryers. $90 includes breakfast; $110 includes all 3 meals per day. Phone: +257 22228873 or +257 22226792.

Club du Lac Tanganyika- The top hotel in Bujumbura, with prices to match. Located on the beach north of Bujumbura about 10 minutes, the hotel offers frequent shuttles to downtown, several restaurants, a couple of pools, evening entertainment on weekends, etc. I have heard that they even have a horse riding area. Some rooms have air conditioning, and others do not. Prices vary from $120 to $320 a night. Breakfast included (I hope so, at those rates). Phone: +257 22 250220 or +257 22 250 221. Email: Website:

Hotel Residence-Downtown, at 10 Blvd de l'Independance. Owned by a Burundian woman. Beautiful little hotel and restaurant, well appointed. Hot water, satellite TV, fan, wireless internet, and breakfast included. Some rooms have air conditioning. Restaurant has wonderful ambiance and food. Rooms are a bit steep in price. From $75-100 for a single room or suite; $112 to $150 for a double room or suite. +257 22255757 or +257 78862510.

New Tourist Hotel-For the budget, backpacking traveler, this place is really bare bones. It looks quite nice from the outside, but in reality is very simple. A double room is less than $10. Rooms have their own bathroom, but no hot water...and when I asked if they bring you some in a bucket, they said that they don't do that. Phone: +257 79321586.

Ubuntu Residence-By the water, great long-term residences that tend to be cheaper than some of the other high-end options while still a nice place to stay. Suites are self-contained, and at either $80 or $120, you can get a room with a bathroom, hot water, air conditioning, wireless internet and a small kitchenette. Access to the pool and breakfast included. A great restaurant is also located here. Phone: +257 22244065.


Buja Day Spa
In town, near the Muslim Quarter and the Cameo cinema. The best/only spa in town, it offers all services, from hair to nails, to facials, scrubs, and massages. Don't ask me to explain how or why, but there are two Thai women here who specialize in Thai massage, and they have special rooms for that. They also do the regular massage. Massages are an hour long and start at 40,000 Francs (a little less than $40 USD). Closed Mondays. Appointments should be made in advance: 22 22 70 00.

Top Beaute
In town, off of the Rue Rwagasore. Smaller, ambitious little place that tries very hard to be a spa. They, too, have facials and massages. They are known for their waxing, and they have massaging pedicure chairs. Call for an appointment: 79 99 80 50.

This tends to be the main muzungu hair cutting place. Ask for the Congolese stylist--he's apparently very dependable and also has a good sense of style. On the 28 Novembre. Phone: 22 25 97 40.


Buy cloth at the Marche Central (but secure your bag!) and take it to the Avenue de la Mission to have it turned into whatever you want--whether a dress, a shirt, or pillows. They can do it all.

Go to the Musee Vivant, a zoo of sorts that would never be allowed in the United States. They have crocodiles, a leopard, chimpanzees, and several types of snakes (including a spitting cobra). You can feed the crocodiles and leopard with live guinea pigs (for 4,000 francs each), or rabbits (a bit more expensive). If you're really feeling sadistic, you can buy a goat for 50,000 francs and toss it to the big crocodiles. Visitors can also hold several snakes, a baby crocodile, and can interact with the chimps (be careful, they steal cameras!). 5,000 Francs entry.

Lounge by the pool at Bora Bora, the latest hotspot for expatriates and wealthy Burundians. It's a beautiful beach lounge and restaurant on the edge of the lake, about 10 minutes north of Bujumbura. Order a pizza and a beer and get some sun on their beautiful deck, or play a game of beach volleyball. Bring your computer and you can access the free wireless internet.

Play the Burundian drums and have a real Burundian beach experience by spending a day at Saga Plage, just next door to Bora Bora. Burundians of all ages come here to eat at one of the multiple restaurants and listen to "live" music (really, just people dancing on stage with microphones while lip synching). A couple of chimpanzees, a snake, and a baboon live here (none of which live in acceptable conditions, but the baboon has it the worst by far). On Sundays, a traditional Burundian drumming group plays, and for a couple of francs, you can take the batons and try your hand at the athletic music. There's also a restaurant on the actual lake shaped like a boat that has great grilled fish.

Travel ten minutes north of Bora Bora on the same road, cross a strange bridge, and take an immediate left down a small dirt path to get to Rusizi Park (which I call Hippo Park). The closest wildlife park to Bujumbura, its main attraction is its three hippopotamus families. You can also see crocodiles, many birds, and antelopes. You can go by car, but I recommend going by foot--it's much more interesting that way. Go between 11 am and 1 pm, and you are more likely to see the hippos out of the water. Public transportation goes there. Admission is 5,000 Francs, but be sure to tip your guide at the end!

Watch a movie in a real cinema! The Cameo, which is downtown, plays French movies (or movies dubbed in French) on most nights, but on Wednesday and Sunday night at 8:30 pm, they show relatively recent movies in their original English version. You can buy a Coke in a bottle at the front of the cinema and movie snacks--but definitely Burundian-style. They get big points for trying. Admission is 2,000 Francs.

Dance your feet off at Havana Club or Toxic, which are stumbling distance from each other. There are covers at both establishments; they tend to be around 5,000 Francs on Saturday nights. Guard your car and your pocketbook...there are thieves aplenty here. There are also many prostitutes. The best music and ambiance can be found at Gymnase, which is actually a gym during the day. They have relatively secret parties--only those in the know are informed about them--and sometimes charge a cover for those as well.


Saga Resha- About an hour south of Bujumbura along a mostly good road (though there are some serious potholes), there is a small resort hotel along the beach frequented by wealthy Burundians and expats. The hotel is not complete as of writing, but the restaurant is open, and serves all the standards, such as brochettes and grilled fish. If you bring your own food, you will have to pay them for the right to eat it there. There are beautiful little huts on the water, and the beach and swimming are divine.

Saga Nyanza- About 2.5 hours south of Bujumbura, this is a relatively small stretch of nice beach. There is a nice and expensive restaurant here, but you can bring your own food and picnic on the public side of the beach. There is a hotel with a couple of rooms about a mile down the road. The hotel itself does not sit on a beach.

Travel Tips

Personal Safety

Burundi is not as safe as its northern neighbor, Rwanda. Petty crime is frequent, opportunistic crimes are common, and assaults, even on foreigners, have occurred. Guard your valuables, and when going into crowded areas, particularly the Market, carry a bag that fits snugly under your arm to prevent wandering hands. Some thieves try to cut through bags to grab your wallet or phone.

In some cases, people have broken into cars; be sure to lock your car and keep your valuables out of sight. Try to avoid conspicuously putting your valuables into your trunk, as this is an invitation to potential thieves.

When stopped or parked, avoid leaving windows rolled down so far that people can reach in and snatch your valuables. Boys have been known to approach one side of the car to distract the person, while reaching in the other window to take their phone, wallet, or bag.

Basically, be vigilant, but not fearful.

Vehicle Safety

Do not take motos. Just don't. Many, even most, motorcyclists do not have driver's licenses and do not have driver's training. (Unfortunately, many car drivers don't have driver's training, either.) They often don't carry helmets, and fatal accidents involving motorcycles are so common as to be borderline appalling. For a cheap lift, take a matatu; they go all over town for about 25 cents. Otherwise, stick to a taxi.

A caveat on taxis; try to use ones that have been recommended by others. Not all taxi drivers are honest, and there are many stories of taxi drivers driving drunk, demanding unreasonable fees and locking customers in until they agree to pay, and even intimidating passengers through threatened assault into paying high prices.

Drivers are quite bad here, so be careful walking along the road, as well.


The exchange rate at the time of writing (August 2009) is approximately 1200 Francs to $1 USD. The largest bill is the 10,000 Franc bill. Most people can make change for it. Otherwise, there is a 5,000, 2,000, 1,000, 500 and 100 bill. Small change is, unfortunately, also given in micro-bills which closely resemble Monopoly money--they come in denominations of 50, 20 and 10.

Always bargain with taxis and in the market.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Escape to the Field

Map by Lonely Planet. Indiana Jones-style path is mine.

I had been itching to get out of the capital, but with no transportation, the prospects had been dim. Finally, on a random Friday, I found that I was waiting on a colleague before my work could advance, and was not looking forward to a day of doing nothing in the office (putzing around on the internet loses its luster after a while). The driver was going down to Nyanza-Lac, one of the southernmost towns in Burundi, to pick up my roommate for the weekend (she lives in the field, doing hands-on training of health professionals during the week).

I hitched a ride.

The road south, crowded with people and palm trees.

The drive down to Nyanza Lac takes two and a half hours (it’s not possible to go any faster, because despite the long stretches of good road, there are deep potholes in areas, and in others, crowds of people creep into the streets). The road runs along the coast, and the long stretches are dotted with thick, green palms. The water is aquamarine, and extends out as far as the eye can see, and there were times when I forgot that I was in Central Africa, imagining instead that I was in the Dominican Republic (or Haiti, with trees).

The road wound around cliff edges, led through plains, and rumbled through villages large and small. Longhorned cows marched alongside, along with countless women carrying bundled sticks on their heads, men trotting tethered goats, and children playing in brightly colored plastic sandals. On our left rose rolling hills, reminiscent of Rwanda, but far less densely cultivated; a couple of farming plots could be spotted here or there, but in general, the hills looked largely untouched.

Prime real estate. Well, nice views, anyway...

We passed through what I correctly suspected to be palm plantations; the squat palms were planted in perfect rows, and covered acres of territory, contributing to the Caribbean ambiance of the drive. I asked about them, and was told that they were planted in 1967 to cultivate palm oil. Men walked slowly with bicycles carrying oversized loads of palm seeds to towering factories for processing into cooking oil and soap. Some of the plantations were entirely razed, which raised my suspicions about deforestation, but I was told that they were simply planting new palm trees where the old ones stood.

A truck carrying palm seeds to a local factory for processing.

I was awestruck by Lake Tanganyika, mesmerized during the entire drive by its crystal water, its foam-capped waves, and its sandy shore. It looked like the ocean, and I can see how it would inspire local stories and myths (one speaks of an immense crocodile, like the Loch Ness Monster, which locals and expats have claimed to have spotted), as well as the original name of mainland Tanzania, before it united with Zanzibar in 1972 and assumed its current name. The lake boasts many different types of fish—Mukeke, Sangala, Indagara, and Tilapia, among others—and when we arrived at Saga Nyanza, about 45 minutes away from our ultimate destination, we stopped at the restaurant (which is incredibly overpriced…most people actually bring food from Bujumbura to eat) and had grilled Mukeke, a sharp-nosed fish with small razor teeth that is meaty, like Mahi Mahi.

Beautiful Saga Nyanza

Saga Nyanza is, apart from the beautiful beaches north of Bujumbura, the vacation destination for expats and locals. I don’t really understand why—while the beach is beautiful, it’s tiny, and the only thing there is the overpriced restaurant (they charge $6 for a goat brochette, when the going rate is approximately $1) and, about 10 minutes down the road, a small hotel with about 12 rooms and a rocky coastline.

We finally arrived at our destination and picked up my roommate and colleague, who had just come down with malaria. Nyanza-Lac, a small, dusty area, is apparently one of the worst malarial areas in Burundi. She was happy to come back to Bujumbura and find some Coartem, which is the best over-the-counter treatment you can find. As we drove, I asked her about the state of health in Nyanza-Lac, and she told me about widespread malnutrition, as being near the lake causes most people to focus their energies on fishing, and not cultivating fruits and vegetables. This also means that the primary employment opportunities were related to fishing, so there is widespread unemployment among those who are not fishermen—and this has meant that many women are turning to prostitution so that they can eat. The HIV and AIDS rate is higher than the national average here as a result.

A bustling rural market

After spending a short time in Nyanza-Lac, we turned around and started the trek back to Bujumbura, only stopping to do a little on-the-road grocery shopping; along the side of the road were women with baskets and piles of fruits and vegetables, and we picked up some passionfruit, papaya, oranges, tomatoes, Japanese plums (tree tomatoes), peas, and some kind of solid manioc ugali that is wrapped in banana leaves and apparently stays good for weeks without refrigeration. The women jostled for space by the car window, each hollering over the other, while children stood to the side, asking for any spare water bottles. With our groceries rolling around at our feet, we continued on home, arriving in Bujumbura just as the sun was setting over Tanganyika.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Beware of Drivers

I was inspired to write this morning because of unfortunate circumstances. The cousin of our driver/logistician was killed in a motorcycle accident. It is another in a series of accidents I have seen or have heard about, and I can’t sit on my thoughts anymore.

In all of my travels and work experiences overseas, I have never seen as many road accidents as I have seen here. I could not hope to count how many accidents I have passed—usually involving motorcycles. Among the most memorable were a mini-bus thrown on its side, with another car’s hood bashed in; in another, a car hit a motorcycle, whose passenger was thrown and cracked his head—blood spread across the pavement. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, but I'm frankly not sure that it could have helped him. He died on impact.

These are disturbing sights, to be sure, but what is more disturbing is the frequency with which they occur. Every day, going to and from work, and when traveling around town, I see small crowds of people, a couple of police officers, and, usually, a motorcycle on its side. Too many have died. And now, our logistician’s cousin, who came to Bujumbura from a rural area for her school vacation, is gone.

It doesn’t make me sad. It makes me angry. Furiously angry—because the fault lies with two parties: the government, and the people.

First, the government. Here, while drivers of cars should theoretically have a driver’s license (every now and then, a cop will pull over a car to check), motorcycle-taxis (“motos”) do not. Motorcycles are too expensive for many people to buy, so they are rented from people who tend to have many, purchased for this purpose. The renters, more often than not, do not have a driver’s license. Many have very little to no driving experience. They rent because it’s a quick way to make a few francs, and the result is that you have incredibly irresponsible moto drivers, who dash and dart in front of vehicles, who lose balance, who don’t know to yield at intersections. And who are these people renting the motorcycles out? Rich people. People with influence. Sometimes, they are people who work for the government. As long as the money keeps coming in, they will keep renting. Safety is not a concern for them.

The extent of government involvement with the motos is to set up roadblocks forbidding them to drive after 6 pm (which is good, because most of them do not have working headlights). But the government does not require them to have driver’s licenses, insurance, or even helmets. Compounding this is the fact that, since there are no traffic lights, police should be posted to direct traffic. (This happens so infrequently that I always notice when it DOES happen.) Since driving here is one massive game of Chicken, where everyone challenges everyone else to back down, people do not yield. They block roads. They speed up, even through blind intersections. They pull into the middle of the street before they turn, forcing their way through. And people die as a result.

I should also note that it is apparently relatively easy to buy a driver’s license here without driver’s training. Ah, corruption. Among its other undesirable consequences, it leads to the proliferation of irresponsible drivers.

Second, the people. Why? Because they continue to take moto-taxis—while people recognize that others have been killed taking them, they do not think that they, themselves, will be in an accident. (Burundians have told me this.) It’s one thing to understand that it’s Russian Roulette and take the risk anyway; it’s quite another to not recognize it at all. The argument that people who take moto-taxis do it because they can’t afford the car-taxis just isn’t credible—there are mini-buses that go everywhere in the city, and for a cheaper rate than the motos charge. They are also, comparatively, safer.

At the rate of accidents in this city, it’s hard to believe that there isn’t a critical mass of people who have been impacted. I would hope that, in this country, which has some degree of political freedom and opposition (however imperfect), such people would demand changes and increased accountability from their government. I have to grant that self-organizing for a cause may not be a frequent practice, though. That kind of political activism takes time to develop.

What’s the solution? Oh, let me count the ways. But the simplest would be to better use the Burundian police by having them direct traffic and issue fines to motos who drive poorly, who don’t have driver’s licenses, and who do not have helmets (for themselves and their passengers), and not just avail them once an accident has occurred.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

There Goes The Neighborhood

The view from my apartment balcony. In the distance, obscured by the dust of the dry season, is Lake Tanganyika.

I live on 7th Avenue, off of Cleanliness Street (near the intersection with Hygiene Street) and I love it. It’s a little out of the way, and is off the map of the city that I was given when I arrived (it’s dated 1984), but it’s quaint and self-contained, and 100 percent Burundian. Well, maybe 99.9%, since I moved here.

I am definitely the only muzungu, but I admit that I kind of like it. I work with Burundians, and I live in a thoroughly Burundian neighborhood. In that way, I feel like I’ve really jumped in.

It’s a gorgeous place, set on the hill, with a magnificent view over central Bujumbura and Lake Tanganyika. The streets are paved with cobblestones, the streets are wide, and children play on the street corners and kick balls down avenues. Most of the houses are one-story, but there are a surprising number that have two levels (including my own). Rising above the skyline, these two level houses are a sign that someone around here is making money. They’re impeccable, with fine details, columns, and scrolling balconies. The single-story houses aren’t shabby, either—they look freshly painted and their small gardens well-kept. (Since I live on the second floor, I can see over the walls of some of the neighboring houses.) Along the skyline, single papaya trees, whose long necks and tufted canopies look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book, pop up over the rooftops.

7th Avenue. Almost as posh as Manhattan.

All of the houses in this neighborhood are a stone’s throw apart, interspersed with an occasional snack-bar (a bar where you can eat brochettes) or alimentation (a mini-market with fried donuts, cigarettes, candles, soap, and Magic Obama strawberry gum). The neighborhood has its own Catholic church (a massive, modern compound) and high school. The teacher training school, built by the Chinese and resembling a space colony, is across the main road.

The drainage and wilderness behind the houses in the neighborhood

I asked our driver if this was the neighborhood where all the rich people lived. “Oh, no,” he said. “But these are people of high standing.” By this, he meant that people who lived here were generally government workers, or were officers in the military. (Since many people here were officers in the military, it is known as a predominantly Tutsi neighborhood.) In effect, the middle class. The rich people lived in other places, he said. I suspect that most of the muzungus tend to live in those areas, too. In the neighborhood across the main road, Kigobe, massive three-level monstrosities are being constructed, whose gates are elaborate and impressive (and fairly tacky). The residents of Kigobe are thought of as the "new money" population--I have been told that they are mostly Hutu, and work for the government, although there are some businessmen who live there as well.

In the middle of the Kigobe neighborhood is a large, fenced in parcel of land that was purchased by the U.S. State Department and will be used to construct a new embassy. (I stopped by the current embassy to let them know that I am here, and with its concrete barriers and miles of razor wire, it’s pretty ugly.) Everyone I know currently pokes fun at me for living "in the middle of nowhere," but once the Embassy is constructed here, I imagine the area will develop very quickly!

Without realizing it, I’ve also acquired a pet. The owner’s dog, which lives downstairs and is theoretically to be used as an extra layer of security, is sweet and jumpy. Her name is Kiara, and I have no idea what her breed is. She’s black, with a long nose and legs that are a little too short for her body. I am starting to think that my bug spray has pheromones in it, because she likes to hump my leg and smell my toes. Every day, she welcomes me at the gate, accompanies me up the stairs to my apartment, and jumps all over me (and humps my leg) until I manage to squeeze my way into my front door. When I close the door (which she has managed to open a couple of times), she whines and sits on my front stoop until I emerge. Sometimes, she sleeps there. In the morning, she meets me at my door and accompanies me down the stairs, only advancing when I advance, and jumps on me before I leave, usually leaving dusty paw prints all over my pants. I’ve never given her any food, just a little affection, and now I have a new friend!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Attack on an American NGO

*This has been updated*

While this probably won't make the news back home, I just learned that yesterday, a vehicle carrying NGO workers with the American organization Village Health Works (related to Partners in Health), was attacked in the south of the country, in Bururi Province. The vehicle was carrying medical supplies and equipment to the local hospital when it was ambushed. All of the supplies were stolen, as well as the personal effects of the people in the vehicle. After taking everything, the driver was fatally shot. Others in the vehicle managed to get out and run away. They were unharmed. It looks like the attack was planned, and was not random.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Little Drummer Girl

Yesterday, while lounging at Bora Bora Beach Club, I heard the Burundian drums in the distance. Burundi is known for its drummers; with tall, waist-high drums and large stick mallets, they create driving rhythms to which they perform a warrior dance (very similar to Intore dances in Rwanda). I have heard that there are even bands of drummers and dancers that travel to other countries to perform.

I hadn’t seen the drummers yet, so an acquaintance convinced me to go check it out. We left Bora Bora and walked down the shore to the public beach, where they perform every Sunday. The audience was mostly Burundian. The drummers were dressed as warriors, in the Burundian colors of red, white and green. One drummer would dance at a time, and a young boy came out and danced, too (which was very cute, because he was trying to act like a tough warrior). The dancers jumped high off the ground, often landing in a lunge, arms outstretched, and rolled their heads.

While I was taking pictures, one of the drummers handed me two large mallets and invited me up to try the drums. So up I went, banging on that drum as hard as I could and trying to keep up with the professionals. (I gave myself a nasty blister in the process.)

After playing for a while, my arms were killing me, and I passed the mallets back to the drummer. We gave them a round of applause and some francs, and headed back to Bora Bora for a Primus beer and a bandage for my hand. It was quite an arm workout!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Sporty Culture

Of the different countries where I have visited and worked, I have never seen sport or fitness so hallowed as I have seen here. It’s not just a matter of fun here, which I’ve seen elsewhere (for example, kids or adults playing soccer). Burundians, however, also do it for good health and well-being. All day, every day, men and women run down the roads and do push-ups in the medians and on the sidewalks. I’ve even seen people doing push-ups in the dark of night, at 11 p.m. The army often jogs, chanting and blowing whistles, around my neighborhood and down the main roads (causing a lot of traffic, I might add).

Added to this is the fact that the government ministries have mandatory days of “sport,” another phenomenon I have not seen elsewhere. On Tuesday or Friday afternoons, entire ministries put on their tracksuits (they are very popular here—the markets are swarmed with them) and go for a jog, or play soccer, or do something active. President Nkurunziza has been known to play with his presidential staff. (I asked my driver if they always let him win. He just looked at me sidelong and shrugged.) The ministries even have a soccer tournament in which they play against each other.

I can’t speak to television or radio advertisements (because I don’t have a TV or radio), but I can say from the billboards around town that there is definitely an emphasis on sport. In the disarmament billboards, for example, a man is missing a leg. In the background, people are playing soccer. Poor thing. Because of your gun/grenade/other weapon, he can’t play sports anymore. The theme is omnipresent.

It’s so normal for people to run for fun/fitness here that most people don’t bat an eye at the muzungus who go for a jog. Anywhere else, and you get stared down (one, because you’re a muzungu; two, for wearing shorts; and three, because people don’t understand why you would want to run anywhere unless you are really, really late…and even that isn’t worth running for).

I witnessed the icing on the cake about a week ago when, out on Rwagasore Road in town, I passed a number of people selling things—mostly cassava roots and potatoes. A little further down, I noticed a man on the sidewalk, nothing in front of him but a weight scale. A man walked up, paid the vendor a few francs, and stepped on. He looked at his weight, sighed, thanked the vendor, and walked off. Guess he’s going for a run later.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Few Snapshots from Buja

The cheapest way to transport a living room set.

The main roundabout in Bujumbura, with 8 a.m. traffic.

There's always traffic on the 28 Novembre Road...This time, it was a mass group of bicyclists riding around the city wearing shirts against torture on the International Day of Support for Victims of Torture. Shirts generously provided by the UN.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Barbecues and Beer Pong. Happy Fourth.

It was an eventful July Fourth in Bujumbura. In the morning, I left my house to buy a pineapple and some vegetables, my contribution to my boss’s patriotic barbecue. The grill was a traditional one, which is to say that it uses charcoal, and the grill grates are basically flush against the coals. That makes for a delicious brochette, but when it came to grilling vegetables, they were entirely blackened, and there was nothing I could do about it. I ate them anyway. The grilled pineapple turned out especially well, the sweet juices caramelizing beautifully!

The entire barbecue was as American as could be managed in central Africa. We had burgers with local cheese, there was a salad, macaroni and cheese, a potato salad, chocolate chip cookies, and one woman brought tofu in homemade barbecue sauce (which was delicious, and a justifiably American creation). One Senegalese guy complained to me, “But I thought American barbecues had lots of meat, and you only have burgers!” It was true—everything was vegetarian apart from the burgers. At first reviled by the thought of barbecue tofu, he tried it and agreed that it was delicious. (“Heh, if you didn’t know it, you would think this was meat!” he exclaimed.)

The fun lasted until well into the evening, when the group eventually migrated down the street to the U.S. Marine House (since the Embassy is old, the Marines live off the compound). Their house is palatial, with an enormous pool, wrap around outdoor balcony, and a generous living space. When we arrived, a couple of people were playing some kind of karaoke video game and others were playing (or watching) a game of beer pong (known to some as Beirut), the great American college tradition.

After a while of watching the Americans toss the ball back and forth into opposing teams’ cups (and watching them become increasingly inebriated), the non-Americans present wanted to learn how to play. On one side was a Frenchman and a Belgian; on the other, a Kenyan and an English-speaking Burundian. Few who knew the game were able to speak both French and English, and thus I was thrust into the role of teacher. (This probably comes as no surprise to my friends in grad school, who…er…know my affinity for this game. But I swear it wasn’t my idea.) The Kenyan and Burundian won the game handily.

By 11:30, I was exhausted and already had a hangover from the day’s drinking, but I was at the whim of others who had cars, as my own taxi driver had long since gone to bed. Somehow, someone received word that a club was reopening downtown that night, and there was a mass exodus in that direction. I was swept up in that wave, and ended up at Havana, a club that seemed promising until you actually entered it.

We parked the car on the median, and the car was promptly surrounded by six men. They asked for money to “protect” the car, which we basically ignored. I chose to leave my bag in the car (because petty theft would likely be a big problem at the club), and when we tried to lock the car, we found it wouldn’t because a door was ajar. As it turned out, one of the men on the other side of the car quietly opened a door so that he could easily break in after we left. I was very upset and couldn’t help but think about the safety of my handbag. My friend assured me, however, that crime here is generally limited to pickpocketing and petty theft, and not vehicular break-ins. I was still nervous.

The club, at whose entry lingered a number of prostitutes, charged a 5,000 Franc cover (a little less than $5). While it was called Havana, there was nothing Cuban about it; in the middle of the club was a pavilion with different-sized disco balls and colored lights. The walls are high, and the roof is elevated even higher, giving it a little fresh air, but not the sense of openness. It felt more like a converted warehouse. There was some seating around the edges, and a single bar in the back that was, predictably, overcrowded. That night, I saw Chinese men that were completely out of their element, a couple of older white women, a crowd of young aid-worker expats, and, overwhelmingly, countless 60 to 70 year old men (some of whom looked like preachers, bifocals perched on the edge of their pointed noses) groping young, lithe, scantily-clad Burundian women. I know it’s a reality, but I just can’t bear to see it. It absolutely disgusts me.

Finally, at about 2:30 am, I made my way home, even though the club was still jumping. We gave the six men “guarding the car” 1,000 Francs (which apparently was more than enough) and found while driving away that they had tried the “open door” technique again, but hadn’t been successful at grabbing anything. Given the bad experience, I don’t plan to return to Havana anytime soon!

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Ah, Freedom.

Yesterday marked the 47th anniversary of Burundi’s independence from the greedy clutches of Belgium. In advance of the celebration, major roads were blocked every morning so that the military could practice its march, making traffic so horrendous that pulling one’s own fingernails out would be more pleasant by comparison.

I had hoped to attend the events at the stadium, but since my taxi driver didn’t work that day and I had no other mode of transport, I ended up spending the day in my apartment. Most of the expats I had talked to were steering clear, some going out to Bora Bora for the day. Unfortunately, as I don’t have a television or radio, I couldn’t even follow the ceremony remotely.

All was not lost. I spent the day listening to audiobooks I downloaded for free and cleaning my apartment. By noon, my street was loud and bustling, as men congregated at the little bar across my street for brochettes and beer. While it usually only becomes crowded around 6 pm, the holiday meant that drunkenness could begin earlier. By the late afternoon, the aroma of goat brochettes wafted into my apartment, and a dinner of avocado didn’t seem very interesting. I had to have a brochette.

Spraying myself head–to-toe with bug spray, I put a little bit of money in my pocket and decided to brave the crowd of drunken men. I popped downstairs to see if any of the Burundian or Rwandese girls wanted to join me for a drink, and a couple of them did.

The outdoor bar, I discovered, is called “Where the Pretty Girls Are” in Kirundi, which is somewhat ironic because before we arrived, there was only one girl in the entire bar, and she worked there. The patrons were markedly male, from the boy that sat outside the front gate with a plastic tray of hard-boiled eggs, to the middle-aged businessmen who leered at the single waitress. I went straight to the back, to the small hut where the brochettes were grilled, to place my order.

As it turned out, they have three kinds of brochettes (!): Goat, beef, and sausage. I had never heard of a sausage brochette, so I naturally ordered one of those, along with a goat brochette. About ten minutes later, the brochettes emerged, with a side of grilled plantains (I can't eat another banana, so I passed them along to my friends) and some pili-pili. Unfortunately, for some reason, the pili pili sauce I have tried here just isn’t hot enough for me…it has a bit too much vinegar and doesn’t have the same flavor as the kind I am used to in Rwanda. I joked with the girls from downstairs that I was going to go to my apartment and bring down the pili-pili sauce I made the other day, which is much better (and spicier!).

While I was enjoying my brochettes, a couple of fights broke out in the street. Men were pulling off their shirts and throwing punches, rocks, and anything else they could find. Apparently one guy had poured a beer on another guy’s head, and all hell broke loose. I would say this was a product of their having been drunk all day, but it’s actually a pretty regular occurrence on my street. I finished up, settled my check ($1 per brochette, and 70 cents for my Amstel Bock) and headed back to the apartment, happy that I had finally satisfied my craving.

In case anyone is interested in making pili-pili sauce, here’s the recipe:

Pili-Pili Sauce (Rwandan style)
2-3 tomatoes
2 pili-pili peppers*
½ onion
3 tablespoons oil (more or less, depending on how thick you want the sauce to be)

Mince the onion and add it to a pan, frying lightly. Dice the tomatoes and add them to the pot when the onions are transparent. Mince the pili-pili (being sure not to touch the seeds!) and add to the pot. Let simmer until it becomes a thick sauce. Add salt to taste. Store in the refrigerator for a month or more!

*Pili-pili refers a small pepper that resembles a Scotch Bonnet pepper. I’ve tasted the Scotch Bonnet, and it’s not the same, though! Pili pili tastes vaguely tropical, as if it had a touch of mango. The actual name of the pepper is Akabanga (pili pili is just a general term for “chili” in Swahili). Bon Appétit!