By Manu Gome
Known officially as Burundi’s 2nd city, Gitega sits high up in the hills, a two hour drive east of Bujumbura.
My journey to this former colonial capital of Burundi started in the most ordinary way possible: I took a public minibus.
I like to use Public Service Vans (minibus) whenever possible because you are sure something interesting will happen on the way. This time was no different.
From the half hour delay at Gare du Nord because, after over an hour of sitting in his van while it loaded passengers, the chauffeur realised only after it was full that he needed to change a tyre; to the comedic passenger who kept ‘threatening’ to get out of the van- for whatever flimsy reason came to his mind- but never did (even when the rest of us, fed up with his antics, begged him to go); to the fifth passenger in the first row of the van who, on seeing the police ran for the hills (literally) and left his luggage in the mini-bus, my journey was proving as entertaining as I had hoped.
But there is another reason I like to use minivans: I feel they give an outsider a fairly good insight into the character of a country’s ordinary folk.
As we sped up the excellent tarmac road that winds through hills covered in banana plantations, cassava, climbing beans and tea, the easy chatter of the passengers amongst each other told of Burundians’ sociability; the man who shared his roasted peanuts with the rest of the passengers told of their generosity; the woman who, looking at a cloud-covered hill in the distance, nonchalantly remarked, “The hill is carrying clouds (on its head)”, told of the poetry of Kirundi; and the minivan’s conductor (locally called convoyeur) who begged and cajoled you sweetly to enter his car and turned into a fire-breathing Shylock as soon as you were firmly inside told me, well, that these guys are the same everywhere.
Finally, as the midday sun blazed right overhead, we arrived in Gitega. Many of the buildings have a colonial architecture, giving the city a classic retro feel that makes you feel like a wanderer in some ancient city.
Immediately on entering the city centre, you can see why Gitega is called the heart of Burundi. Apart from being geographically in the centre of the country, Gitega is a throbbing, pulsating city, full of life and activity.
All around, traders and touts, beggars and taxi owners vie for your attention in alternating Swahili, Kirundi and French as they struggle to place you. From afar each of the many shops seems busy, and you can see two or three customers standing and gesturing in the door of each one, while the busy shop owner, his body half-turned away from them, attempts to find their order in the shelves above.
After a couple of hours just walking the streets and popping into random shops in the baking sun, it was a relief to discover some great hotels- Tropitel, Helena and Bethel to name just three- within or right at the edge of the city centre where one could chill out. I had a delicious buffet at Helena Hotel and a relaxing afternoon with cold drinks at the luxurious Tropitel; and although I only spent one short afternoon in it, Gitega is certainly a place I will be returning to soon