Beating the drums in Burundi


Nicky Dunnington-Jefferson recently returned from a week-long visit to this small East African nation. Here’s what she made of it. (All images by Nicky Dunnington-Jefferson).

Why Burundi? It is little known and little visited; and there’s no guide book.

“Where’s that?” asked the lady on the other end of the telephone when I applied for travel insurance. I explained: it’s next to Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I had wanted to visit Burundi for many years, since becoming obsessed with Gustave, a huge crocodile which patrolled the Rusizi River in the north of the country. According to reports I’d read and a television programme I’d seen, Gustave had eaten people — some say 300, others 60, and some only three. I had wanted to meet Patrice Faye, who knew more about Gustave than anyone else. I learnt, though, that, sadly, Gustave has been killed and Patrice Faye is no longer in the country.

However, there was another very good reason to visit: drummers. And I had heard that the drummers who perform on the royal hill at Gishore, near Gitega in the centre of the country, are supposedly stupendous.

I booked a week’s tailor-made tour — I could find only two UK operators who run trips to Burundi — and flew to the capital, Bujumbura, full of excitement and anticipation.

Although there was no Patrice Faye, a visit was arranged to meet crocodile conservationist Alfred Ngendera, a wonderful man who has realised that crocodiles in Burundi are endangered and is doing his best to keep them safe. He was able to tell me more about Gustave, too. And later that morning I was thrilled to take a boat trip into Gustave’s territory on the Rusizi, to see where he used to sunbathe on the sandbanks.

Burundi is a small country, approximately 10,747 square miles (27,834 square kilometres), so I hoped to see as much as possible in a week.

We stopped at a tea factory on a Monday, but maddeningly that’s the day when ‘maintenance’ takes place, so the machines weren’t in full voice. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see how it all worked, albeit minus the din.

We headed east, to Kirondo, and a very early morning start for a boat ride on Lake Rwihinda — Le Lac des Oiseaux, the Lake of the Birds. The lake — and the small islands — were beautiful, but it was a pity that no one knew anything about the birds…

We headed to Gitega, Burundi’s second city, for the highlight of my adventure. My excellent guide, splendidly named Hypolite, had organised a drumming performance at Gishore, put on especially for me. At the hilltop site there are beautifully reconstructed chief’s huts, complete with relevant contents, and there’s also an intriguing legend behind the drumming performance.

An audience had gathered and hard, wooden chairs had been arranged in a semi-circle. Hypolite and I were to sit in the middle, in front of a cleared arena. On top of the hill, looking across a brown and green landscape, I was completely in thrall to the joyous drumming and athletic dancing, aided by drum sticks, and accompanied by deep, basso profundo male voices chanting in unison, which constituted this performance.

I had never before experienced anything so poetic… so essentially African. I was the only mzungu (white person) there, and as such the focus of attention. But despite my acute embarrassment, I found myself beating time to the music and clapping and yelling for all I was worth. The performance was sensational. The drummers, dressed in the red, white and green colours of the Burundian flag, sure gave it some welly… and then some! And they entered and departed carrying their incredibly heavy drums on their heads… truly amazing.

It is worth mentioning that the National Museum of Burundi is also at Gitega and very well worth a visit.

Karera Falls (there are more than one), which do not draw many visitors, are good to visit (pictured below). Also in this area — and if you don’t mind a 45-minute drive along a very bad dirt road — the so-called ‘Gorge of the Germans’ provides a super view into Tanzania. This was the site of two battles in Burundian history. The first, in 1896, resulted in a German victory over the Burundians, and the second, in 1916, saw the Belgians defeat the Germans.

Before my trip to Burundi, I confess to complete ignorance about a certain Dr Borkhart Waldecker, a German gentleman who, apparently, ‘discovered’ the most southern source of the Nile in 1934, after walking 6700 kilometres on foot from Egypt.

A pyramid was erected in 1938 to mark his incredible journey, but the explanation is all in Latin! His ‘discovery’ is horrendously displayed in a construction that resembles a swimming pool. This receives the trickle of water from the mountainside, said to be ‘the source’, which then empties out down a man-made chute. There is a move afoot to destroy this excrescence and let the water flow naturally, but I don’t hold out much hope.

There are fishing villages to visit on the shores of beautiful Lake Tanganyika (pictured below). And I went for a walk in the Kigwena Forest Reserve, hearing, then seeing, black-and-white casqued hornbills. And I learnt that the ranger who guided us is currently working with Jane Goodall on a proposed chimpanzee sanctuary at Vyanda.

Great explorers have passed through Burundi: Livingstone was there, apparently, and Stanley too, and also Burton and Speke. These names are inscribed on two monuments. The one bearing the names of Livingstone and Stanley is just outside Bujumbura, and the one to Burton and Speke is at Nyanza-Lac, at the southern end of Lake Tanganyika.

Burundi has had tough times. It was part of German East Africa; then, as Ruanda-Urundi, was assigned to Belgium under a League of Nations mandate after World War One. The country gained independence in 1962, but only after the assassination in 1961 of the popular Prince Rwagasore, who is still idolised.

This little country has experienced horrendous genocide and a war with the Democratic Republic of Congo, but now, despite Foreign Office advice not to visit, I can confidently say that during my time there I never felt unsafe.

A good guide is essential: the country is not used to western visitors. That said, it is very well worth a visit, even if only for a few days, to sit on top of the royal hill at Gishore and immerse oneself in one of the most uplifting, powerful spectacles I have ever been privileged to witness: a performance by Burundi’s fabulous, fantastic royal drummers.