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Travelling Burundi

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Reflections from my time travelling Burundi, Africa to play the 2012 ITF Futures event.

On Thursday 8th November 2012, I left Sydney for Bujumbura, Burundi. Two months earlier, I had never known the country even existed. My reason for travelling to what I nick-named, “the bulls-eye of Africa”, was to play in an ITF Futures Tournament.

Futures tournaments are the lowest tier professional tournaments where one can gain ATP world ranking points by winning a match in the main draw. In order to play in the main draw, one may need to play in the qualifying rounds first. Depending on the tournament, and it’s whereabouts, qualifying draws usually consist of anywhere between 32 and 128 players. For more information about futures tournaments, how they work and what to expect, you should read this.

The trip over there

Flying into Burundi is not like flying into the big cities you might be used to. Coming from Sydney, I couldn’t help but dart my eyes around the landscape looking for some sort of CBD. This is what it looked like from my plane seat window:

Upon landing in Bujumbura, Burundi, the first hurdle would be to pass through customs. It is at this point I feel it necessary to pass on what is perhaps the best piece of advice I could give to someone travelling to central Africa. When you travel to central Africa, in particular, Bujumbura, it’s best to accept these three things:

  1. Expect to wait a long time – restaurant food, customs, or whenever you ask for something such as information from reception or particularly, when checking out of your hotel.
  2. Many things are either broken or do not function properly – hot water systems, bed lamps, elevators, electricity in general.
  3. The people are not stupid so do not treat them that way. There are many languages spoken across central Africa and fortunately, one of them happens to be English. Keep this in mind if you find yourself becoming frustrated at not being understood. As broken as their English may be, it’s better than trying your hand at Swahili or “African” French. If you’re going to speak in English, speak slowly and use simple vocabulary.

As I walked off the plane onto the tarmac, I took a photo of the small airport, only to be approached thirty seconds later by a guard armed with an AK47. He told me that photos of the airport were not allowed and that I was to delete it from my phone immediately. I obliged.

I had to fill out two immigration forms at the airport and then pay US$90 for an entry visa valid for 90 days tourist travel. To get the visa you will also need a letter of invitation from someone or some organisation (such as your hotel maybe) stating the purpose of your trip.

The Hotel

My hotel was a US$20 taxi ride from the airport. The taxis are not metered, they seem to have predetermined tariffs for trips around the place. I was looking forward to this taxi ride, it’s always a good way to experience the vibe of a place.

I arrived at the hotel, where I noticed, once again, a guard out the front with an AK47. It’s tough to know how to feel when you see this sort of thing, should I be worried that the place I’m visiting is so dangerous that there’s a need for armed guards, or should I have peace of mind for protection provided by the hotel in this potential warzone?

The Hotel Source du Nil means “source of the Nile”. As I have come to learn, knowing the source of the Nile is a long debated topic. It seems though, that the most distant source of the “White Nile” is either one of two rivers Ruvyironza in Burundi or Nyabarongo in Rwanda. The hotel is extremely dilapidated but it at least seemed clean. There is a nice pool out the back, a better alternative to using the shower facilities in the room due to the fact there is no hot water.

Throughout the day, there are usually one or two guys who sit in the hotel lobby by the elevators. Their only role is to operate the elevator, and it’s probably just as well, they seem rather tricky to control. They will ask you what floor you’re on, but it never seems to matter as they always seem to push the level four button. I stayed on level three during my stay. I would always say either, “Three”, “Trois”, or both and hold up three fingers. Despite this, the operator would still push four, but sometimes two or three, yet I would still get to level three – amazing! They didn’t score a perfect record during my stay, however, on many occasions I did end up on level four, and at least a couple of times half way between a floor and the elevator shaft – that was fun.

Sometimes the doors would open by themselves, many times, however, the doors would need to be wrestled open by the operator. I tried using the lift on my own once, it was a bad idea. The lift went somewhere, I know that much because I felt it vibrating and the old fashioned bicycle-type bell that would ding when you reached a floor, had chimed a few times. Disappointingly, when the elevator stopped, or more appropriately – stopped having a fit, I began to wrestle the doors open, only to find the elevator operator doing the same thing on the opposite side. I had reached the hotel lobby, right where I started. Damn, how do they do it I kept asking myself? Don’t try calling the lift to go down either, it never comes unless your lucky enough to catch someone coming out from below.

The Tennis Club

The courts are right next door to Hotel Source du Nil, all of about a 20m walk. There are twelve courts in total, six are good considering the general state of Burundi, while the other six are pretty terrible, but are at least adequate for practicing.

Here is the view of the courts from level three of my hotel, good courts to the left, bad ones to the right.

The good,

and the bad.

The most vivid memory I take from Burundi is that of Emedy Ndayisaba, an 18 year old boy who coaches at the club. Emedy was kind enough to arrange one of his friends who had a car, to drive three of us around Burundi on my last night. Emedy’s father was killed in the genocide that took place around 1994-96. When we offered to buy him dinner that night, he asked if he could instead not eat, and rather use the money we would have spent on him to pay his term four school fees. This amounted to roughly US$23.

Scenes from Burundi

In Burundi you’ll see a mix of beauty and dirtiness. It really depends on how you choose to see the world.

At the tennis club.

Emedy’s neighbourhood.

Lake Tanganyika – Burundi, Africa’s largest fresh water lake. The democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) is in the background.

Typical street scenes.

The Conclusion

Burundi is typical of many African countries – very poor, and at first glance, grotty and polluted. First impressions won’t be very positive, but if you take a closer look at your surroundings, there is beauty all around Burundi. As you look beyond the confines of the township, there are majestic mountains, a vibrant birdlife and interesting foliage.

Still, to be honest, I don’t know why anyone would choose to travel here. I had my tournament to play, which also meant the opportunity to meet numerous other players and potentially explore the place with those people. I had fun during my four day stay in Burundi, but I’m quite sure those days were my first and last.

Best wishes Burundi!

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