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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.