I have been exploring the African continent for well over two years now, and have spent an immense amount of time pondering the major differences between the Western World and the rural Africa I’ve been immersed in. There are a host of obvious differences of course – roads, electricity and running water can be very spotty, military personnel armed to the teeth are an everyday sight, and the weather can be counted on to be extremely hot and humid, except when torrential downpours last months and rainfall is measured in centimetres instead of millimetres. These are the things we notice in our first days and weeks exploring the remote corners of Africa.
But there is something more. Something that took months to feel and notice, only after I looked past the physical difference. There is something intangible I have not been able to pin down, hard as I might try. I sense Africa and Africans know something about life Westerners have forgotten. Daily life is different in a very good way. Something is fundamentally different about the way people live and interact. After years of watching the way people smile, laugh and treat each other I can now see a difference as clearly as I can see the enormous potholes on the roads.
I have become determined to uncover this something, and I vow not to leave Africa until I do.
At just under 28,000 square kilometres, Burundi is the fifth smallest country on continental Africa, and is seldom visited by foreigners. It lies in the very centre of the continent, and is torn between it’s French-speaking West African neighbour DRC and it’s more British-influenced neighbours Rwanda and Tanzania to the North and East respectively.
Full of curiosity, I am pleasantly surprised at the embassy in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. A one month visa costs $90 USD, and must be applied for two weeks in advance, in stark contrast to the rest of Southern and Eastern Africa where visas are easily obtained at land borders in less than five minutes.
The Ambassador welcomes me into his extremely clean and modern office, and I can’t help but notice the classical music attempting to drown out the low hum of the air conditioning fighting to keep the humidity in check. We get to chatting and after flicking through my passport he asks about my home country of Australia, somewhere he has always wanted to visit.
He asks about the people, and how is life Downunder?
I’m torn with which response to give, and feel compelled to tell the truth. I explain Australians are very friendly and easy going, but unfortunately they just don’t have time. They’re all so busy with work and responsibilities, Australians don’t chat in the street like the Africans I have come to admire. Everyone is so busying earning a living they’re always rushing to the next thing, seemingly living their lives by the clock.
The Ambassador listens attentively, and I can see the disappointment in his eyes. In Burundi, he explains, everyone knows their neighbours, and everyone is part of a very tight knit community. In times of need the entire community pulls together to help anyone that is struggling, and that’s what makes Burundi so special. It doesn’t have the best infrastructure or shiny shopping malls, but it does have very strong community, and people who have time for, and care deeply about those around them.
I can clearly see the pride in his eyes.
He explains Burundi’s troubled past, and it’s continued struggles with poverty and lack of infrastructure. Even so, he is proud to add, Burundi has opened it’s borders to those in need, and is currently home to tens of thousands of refugees from neighbouring DRC, fleeing violence and political unrest.
After thanking the Ambassador for his time, I leave the embassy with a sense of excitement for the opportunity that lies ahead.
A month later I climb up into an unexpected mountain range and drive out of Tanzania through enormous steel gates. I immediately see I have driven back into the thick of West Africa, and my sense of Déjà vu is unmistakable. Thousands of brightly dressed people mill about carrying everything imaginable, mostly on their heads. Hundreds of overloaded trucks wait in a long line and soon a stream of men are running alongside the Jeep trying to sell me all manner of cheap Chinese plastic things. To top it off a man in military uniform directs me to a small shack serving as an Ebola check station. I have my temperature taken and my yellow fever vaccination is confirmed before I can proceed. With everyone speaking French, I find myself struggling to acclimatize back into a world that was so familiar not long ago.
Very quickly I realize just how developed the East Africa I have been exploring for the last year has been. Speaking English, staying in nice campgrounds and shopping in modern supermarkets has spoiled me, and it is only now I realize it. Looking around, I feel as if I have driven backwards into West Africa not only in distance, but also through time.
Soon I’m outside haggling with men to change money, and a crowd forms at my driver’s door. As usual I find myself struggling with the big numbers in French, and I feel vulnerable holding a huge wad of cash and all my irreplaceable documents. I have never once had the slightest problem exchanging cash at the borders in Africa, though I always have my guard up and eyes open. I block the door with my body and put my documents on the seat before locking and slamming the door – and then immediately know what I have done. Looking through the window, I can clearly see the keys dangling from the glovebox lock.
For the first time in over a decade I have just locked the keys inside my vehicle. If I had a list of places I didn’t ever want to do that, a bustling International border between two African countries would be at the top.
A moment of stress passes before I put my contingency plan into action. Almost three years ago I secured a spare key to the underside of the Jeep, and I attract some funny looks as I crawl underneath and try to extract it from the now permanent layer of rock-like mud. I am relieved to see it is still there, and snapping the zip tie securing it to the underbody is no problem. The key is not electronic, so the alarm sounds when I unlock and open the door, causing everyone to jump back a pace. After retrieving the electronic key from inside I turn off the alarm and re-lock the doors before getting down to business exchanging one heaping stack of grubby bills for another.
An hour later I move away from the border with a new stamp in my passport and new customs paperwork for the Jeep. I’m impressed to see multiple signs encouraging me to drive on the right, the first time I have done so since leaving Angola, nine countries and 40,000kms ago.
People Treat People Like People
I’m always a little unsure on my first night in a new country, and so I get a cheap room in a large guesthouse, only remembering the French word for room at the last second. Within the hour a torrential downpour lets fly – the first of the season I’m told – which the locals are very happy to see. This is not the first time I have brought the rains, and the hotel owner smiles broadly as he nicknames me the rainmaker.
I order a beer, and strike up a conversation with a uniformed military man also enjoying the ice-cold local brew. He is very friendly and excited to learn I’m a tourist interested in Burundi, not an everyday occurrence. His words soon begin to slur and I can’t help notice he finishes four large beers in the time I finish one, all while nursing a battered AK47 across his knees.
Nearby James overhears our conversation and eagerly joins in. He is from Kivu in the DRC, and is very proud to say his impeccable English is self-taught. In just a few minutes I realize James has seen and lived more in his thirty-five years than most will in their entire life. We chat about the DRC and Burundi at length, and I’m blown away by James’ insight.
What James explains is so simple it’s hard to believe I have missed it before now. People in Africa think about, and focus on, people.
Their entire world is family and friends, and those nearby in their immediate community. Be it good times or bad, people are there for each other, and they always treat each other with the utmost respect and courtesy.
The problem with our ‘developed’ world, says James, is that people have forgotten about those around them, and instead focus on money and possessions.
Because our world revolves material consumption, and the drive to acquire more wealth, we have abandoned the fundamentals of life and happiness. Too often we hear about a billionaire slashing the wages of low-paid employees, or of people that have never met their immediate neighbours. It’s a sad reality that in the quest for ever more wealth and possessions, we have left out such a crucial piece of life.
Here in rural Africa, everyone treats others with respect and they genuinely care about those around them. The joy and sense of wellbeing this brings is on display each and every day.
Fundamentally, when people treat people like people, everything else falls into place.
I have been bumping along in first gear for the better part of an hour when I finally decide to give up. I’m technically driving on a paved road, though I wish it wasn’t. The pavement is so broken, and the potholes so deep I would make much faster progress if the entire surface was just gravel. Even with the rain, mud would be better than half-pavement potholes.
Reluctantly, I pull over and get out to air down my tires. Yes, that’s correct. The surface is so bad I’m airing down my tires on a paved road – and this is not just any road, this is the main North-South highway leading directly into the capital of Bujumbura. I have to remind myself that slowing down to the local pace of life is the best way to experience what is around me, and while outside the Jeep no less than five people on bicycles stop to ask if I need any help.
While moving about I make a point to visit the few known tourist attractions, and I venture off to find a few of my own. Notably Burundi claims the Southernmost source of the mighty Nile River. From the top of a small hill water running off one side finds its way to the most mighty of all – The Congo River, while water bubbling from a small spring on the other side forms the Nile and will flow into the Mediterranean at Alexandria in Egypt. It’s hard to believe the water I see trickling from the mountainside leads to my ultimate destination, still more than 7,000kms distant as the crow flies.
Nearby I locate the extremely beautiful wilderness Hot Spring of Muhweza, easily the best hot spring I have found in all of Africa. The spring is set in a lush green valley and I note a distinct lack of trash. The crystal clear water is the perfect soaking temperature and I spend hours in the late morning washing away the road grime.
Later in the afternoon I wind down from the mountains and drop directly onto the shore of stunning Lake Tanganyika. This enormous body of water is the second deepest and the second largest on the planet by volume. At its deepest point, it’s almost 5,000 feet deep. It’s clearly the centre of life for everyone that lives nearby, with fishermen heading out daily before sunrise and returning each night to a stunning sunset backdrop.
Camping on the sandy shore I ask a caretaker if its safe to swim here. He assures me twice that it is, and I confirm explicitly there are no crocs or hippos. These words are not complicated in French – crocodile and hippopotame – and I’m confident I completely understand his reply. There are none.
Feeling good about the situation I dive in alone for a refreshing swim just as the sun kisses the lake, streaking red over the mountains of DRC on the far shore. I throughly enjoy the peace and quiet which can be very hard to come by in Africa, alone with my thoughts for the first time in what feels like months.
In the morning I’m dismayed to see the sandy beach littered with the remains of what can only have been a mighty hippo celebration. They obviously came ashore and crossed the sandy beach to dine on the tasty green grass the caretaker is now watering. When I ask about the hippo tracks he grins widely. Sure, he says, they only come on shore at night.
I was silly to think I had been alone for the swim after all.
The simple life
As I wind through the mountains of Northern and Eastern Burundi it soon becomes clear farming is central to life in Burundi. Every valley I pass through is heavily cultivated, always structured around a pristine trickling stream or river. The fields are immaculately kept, and there are more varieties of beans and greens than I can easily identify.
I can’t help wondering if this simple life plays a role in the disposition of the cheery Burundians I keep meeting. Each day they toil in the field with their family and neighbours, free from consumption and distractions like television or gambling. The weather is harsh and the labor no doubt hard, though every single person smiles, and genuinely seems content to be doing exactly what they are.
It’s also plain to see these fields have been here for a very, very long time. With no machinery or modern farming practices in sight, I wonder how different this scene would have been hundreds or even thousands of years ago. With the extremely slow pace of development these people have a very real and tangible connection to their ancestors and their sense of purpose is clear.
In general roads in Burundi are in good condition, though vehicles are extremely few and far between. Because Burundi is landlocked it must import everything through neighbouring countries, who all add outrageous taxes. A local explains that while it’s possible to get a cheap car for $500 in the US, the absolute cheapest rust-bucket here starts at $5000. Because of this only the richest can afford vehicles, and virtually everyone moves about on foot or bicycle. Even in the largest cities, the streets are choked with pedestrians, and it’s refreshing to see vehicles being constantly held up by foot traffic. With such a scarcity of vehicles there is also no need for complicated infrastructure – I have extensively explored the country for two weeks before I see my first traffic lights in the capital city.
The consequences of this lack of vehicles are immediately clear – with everyone moving so slowly, they all stop to chat in the street, greet their neighbours and catch up on the latest goings on. Everyone has ample time, and I never meet or see a person who appears to be in the slightest rush.
Throughout Africa my Jeep has attracted a lot of attention, so I’m used to a crowd and a peppering of friendly questions everywhere I go. Here in Burundi the curiosity and awe have increased ten fold, and simply stopping for petrol turns into half an hour of questions and answers. The people here are clearly not used to tourists, and they are eager to hear about the outside world and to inspect my Jeep.
The men always want to know the pertinent details – how big is the engine, how fast can it go and is it in fact four wheel drive – of course I also have to confirm multiple times the engine runs on petrol, not diesel. The men here have never seen a 4×4 vehicle that is not diesel, and they’re shocked to learn such a thing even exists. All agree that makes it better, because it means it has more power, and therefore has a higher top speed. I don’t have the heart to correct them on this minor misconceptions.
Community is the centre of everything
Burundi’s fledgling tourism industry bills itself as ‘The Heart of Africa’, and now I understand why. More than just being geographically at the centre of the continent, Burundi’s people and their unmistakable sense of community really do bring to mind an emotional centre. Burundians have such warmth I struggle to see how an Africa without Burundi could survive anymore than a human without a heart.
It’s easy to point out and see the physical differences between our world and Africa. Much like Dorothy who finds herself in unfamiliar Oz, we only need to open our eyes to realize we are a long way from Kansas. Less obvious, but equally important, are the emotional differences. Back in our world everyone is so focused on work, money and possessions, we have forgotten what we should really be focusing on – the people immediately surrounding us.
Africa has taught me more than I could ever write in entire volumes, and it has changed me in more ways than even I realize. More than any other, there is one lesson I am determined to incorporate into my life as long as I live;
Once we treat people like people, everything else falls into place.