In Lonely Planet’s ponderous guide to Africa, which gamely attempts to summarize travel over an entire continent in about 1,000 pages, it lists one of the main attractions in Burundi as “being the only tourist in Burundi.” It isn’t difficult to see why: not unlike Rwanda, Burundi has a history of conflict and slaughter that belies its peaceful, idyllic green landscape. In 1993, it received a giant “X” through it on virtually all overland tourism mental maps, a position it has not really recovered from today. Given its ongoing stability issues and noteworthy dearth (as far as I can tell) of the kind of charismatic megavertebrates that continue to be a golden cash cow for regional neighbors Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC, I’m not sure it’s going to become a tourist haven in the immediate future.


Slight correction: Burundi DOES have at least ONE primate – a chimpanzee named Tina who lives in the capital’s Musee Vivant, a “showcase” for Burundi’s natural treasures. Her enclosure is not much larger than the average college dorm room, and home to one rope, one leaf-bare tree, and an overturned basin. You can see her crouching at the top of the tree, purposefully not engaging with anyone or anything. I am told she looooooooves beer and cigarettes (perhaps with the insinuation that I could treat her, following a small fee?) and basically everything about the situation makes me understand why animal rights activists are keen to enter zoos with a pair of bolt cutters and a sense of grim determination. Skip this, the World’s Most Depressing Zoo, unless your next planned task is to flip over cars and start fires to let off a little steam. Sorry; end rant.

What you have is the Burundi of Today (at least, as I experienced it): many excellent roads, NGO vehicles and offices beyond counting, high-priced everything (I am told this is par for the course when the UN rolls into town), and a great number of people who will quirk their eyebrows in a sort of “Oh really? You don’t say?” manner when you inform them that yes, you actually ARE here to take in the sights. There’s no UNICEF expense account or Doctors Without Borders driver at your disposal. You’re just a tourist in a place that gets too few.

Which is a shame, really, because there ARE things to see and do. And eat. Definitely eat. Unlike inland Kenya, which tragically inherited Britain’s culinary traditions (a friend once referred to it as “The Heart of Blandness”), Bujumbura is steeped in French gastronomical excellence. I was able to practice both my crepe-snarfing and being-on-the-receiving-end-of-an-exasperated-stare-because-I-don’t-speak-French skills, which I am sure will come in handy when I wind up my world tour in Paris at the end of August.

That’s right: I still don’t speak French. Or rather, I speak as much French as I speak German; which is to say, I have duly memorized Joel Grey’s memorable introductory number to the excellent musical, “Cabaret.” I specify “still” because I found myself participating in a truly time-honored linguistic experimentation every traveler is familiar with: when presented with my Francophonic failures, taxi drivers and self-appointed tour guides would stare deeply in my eyes and repeat themselves – louder, slower, and with greater enunciation. As though I were a dysfunctional voice-activated BlueTooth headset, and over-emphasized repetition could set me right. Despite their genuinely heroic efforts, I continue to have very basic conversational vocabularies in merely five languages.

I don’t want to sound as though I’m complaining. I am no such cultural imperialist as to believe the world and its people must bend to MY will, and anticipate my arrival by learning fluent American English. But I will say that part of The Adjustment is the realization that you have gone from having at least one, sometimes two or more, common languages at your disposal to having none (and not turning this into a cognitive self-reflection of Failing At Travel.) It is disheartening at the best of times, for someone who – at least in my native language – considers herself to be reasonably articulate and with strong communication skills to end up gesticulating and sketching pictures to be understood.

And it is no one’s fault but my own, of course. I am ever mindful of that.

Sigh. Moving on.

Perhaps the most historically interesting thing in Bujumbura is the Livingstone-Stanley monument. As we all know, David Livingstone was a celebrated explorer in the late 19th century. Abolitionist, scientist, explorer, martyr. What’s not to love? (Oh, right. His role in initiating that whole “Scramble for Africa” colonization thing. **sad trombone**.) However, he possessed the tragic downfall of being male, and therefore incapable of asking directions; after a lengthy period of time with no updates, he was presumed lost in the 1870s and search parties were sent to find word. It was his reunion with H.M. Stanley that led to one of the most acontextual quotememes in Western history, the oft used: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Ten kilometers south of town, and well off the beaten path, a simple stone has been erected to commemorate this event, of One Mzungu And Another Mzungu Meeting Up. Forgive my slightly glib description; on the surface, it seems like something not all that interesting, especially once you recall that Livingstone didn’t discover anything, necessarily, he was just the first non-African to penetrate the depths of a continent that had been hosting other humans, and human-ish creatures before them, for hundreds of thousands of years. Although on further inspection … perhaps it is a little miraculous, isn’t it? For two people to be able to find each other in a continent so vast and varied?



Livingstone’s monument, in Mugere, just outside of Bujumbura.


As with so many things in history before YouTube, we will never be entirely sure if this is the actual spot where the meeting took place. A village in Tanzania makes the same claim. I found myself mulling over this fact as I leaned against the rock and stared out into the deltas and side-streams of Lake Tanganyika. You know how loathe I am to use the sentence “Africa is _____” because there are so few correct options for fill-in-the-blank-ing there. But I think we can all agree on this: Africa is enormous. Endlessly diverse. Seductive, even? Full of nifty stuff, definitely, both old and modern. Perpetually beckoning the bold and brash; it has suffered at the hands of a lot of things, but will never suffer for lack of potential adventures.

Especially if you don’t speak French.



Following in the footsteps of great Scotsmen. Sort of.



Snapshot from Livingstone’s Hill/Mugere. I wonder if Livingstone and Stanley had this same view?

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