By Ken Yeager
While many of you, I know, have traveled outside of the U.S., most of your trips have been, I would guess, to Europe, perhaps South America and I know for certain, Southeast Asia. But how many of you have been to Africa? When I say Africa, I am referring to that area to the south of the Sahara Desert. My introduction to Africa was in 1977 when I became what was known as an African Rover with the State Department’s African Bureau. During my two years as a rover, I had 23 temporary assignments in 18 countries and that doesn’t include countries that I had to visit to made transfers.
OK, now let me introduce you to a small but beautiful country in East Africa – Burundi. Unfortunately, Burundi has a somewhat jaded recent history with two or three tribal wars between the Hutus and Tutsi people (there is a third but very small group of people called the Twa who are pigmies). I will let Wikipedia give you the gist of Burundi’s history and other significant information. We managed to live there between wars, thank goodness.
Burundi is a coffee and tea growing area with excellent coffee. The climate is super as the altitude of Bujumbura, the capital and where we lived, is about 2,500 feet about sea level. Our major pastime in Bujumbura (Buj from here on out) was playing golf and spending time in the “hill house,” a small house rented by the Embassy up in the hills overlooking Lake Tanganyika and the mountains of then Zaire. Our golf course was small, a 9-hole course with a couple of extra holes added in to form a full 18-hole course. Our golfing colleagues were Brits, Belgians, French, Germans, Americans, Egyptians and a few other nationalities thrown in. We had a small clubhouse where we had a BYOB bar and a fellow who kept the place clean and made ice for the drinks.
Twice during our three years we traveled overland to what was then Zaire and also to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. The first trek in Zaire was really arduous, leaving the vehicles on the road and then through thick jungle and uphill to boot so after about 30 minutes, my mother-in-law who was visiting us, was just exhausted and had to turn back. I and one of the rangers accompanied her back to the starting point where we waited several hours for the rest of the group. Gisela continued on and got to see the gorilla but photos were not possible. We made a another trip, this time to Rwanda and where we were very successful, coming to a group with a HUGE silverback and several young ones. Needless to say we were not alone doing this…we were guided by a ranger who gave us instructions on how to behave when we came to a group. As expected the silverback charged us, and we dropped to our knees, showing deference to this 700 lbs gorilla. Once he was satisfied we were not a threat, he moved on. Gorillas are quite gentle animals, given their size and strength, but as long as the male silverback doesn’t feel threatened, he goes about his business which is mainly eating and sleeping (pretty much the same for me these days). Gisela took some great photos of the gorilla during the 30 minutes or so we spent with the group. We also managed a couple of trips to a game park in Rwanda, once with my son who was visiting us. Unfortunately, this game park was pretty much ruined by the tribal war in Rwanda in the 1990s…..don’t know if it has been restored or not yet.
We did a three week trip to Kenya where we stayed with a friend in Nairobi for a few days before heading to Kitchwatembo game camp where stayed in tents (but with all the furnishings including toilet, shower and lights). Our first night there we experienced a baboon fight just outside our tent that had a see-thru side (like a screen). That was a bit scary but fortunately, it only lasted about five minutes and then they disappeared. The camp is very nice with a lovely dining hall and evening entertainment. Then up before dawn and into SUVs for an animal search excursion..this is when the game comes out to hunt and drink. About 0800, back to the camp for breakfast and time to shower, etc. before some sort of educational program. Lunch and then about 1600, back into the SUVs to look for animals….remember this is close to the equator so the sun is gone by 1800. Dinner after a chance to clean up again and then drinks and entertainment. Early to bed and then back up before dawn. This was really a great trip. Leaving Kitchwatembo, we flew to Nairobi and then to Mombasa for two weeks on the beach and a great tan before flying back to Bujumbura.
As Wikipedia will tell you, Bujumbura lies on the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika, supposedly the second deepest lake in the world. It is also populated by crocodiles and hippos, the latter being the more dangerous animal. When we swam in the lake we would take a motorboat out to the deep water and swim there, one person staying in the boat at all times. It wasn’t until after we left that we found out that the crocodiles will swim across the lake to Zaire. There was a small boat club on the shore of the lake that had a bar and restaurant…it was a watering hole for the after work beer with friends and colleagues. At that time the hippos would be in the water between the docked boats. At night they leave the water to feed. One night Gisela and I were in separate cars driving home near the boat club, when a hippo came up from a field right beside the car Gisela was driving. The car looked small compared to the hippo. Fortunately, it scooted away quickly…but one has to be very careful NEVER to get between a hippo and the water…the hippo feels safe in the water so it is their refuge.
We had wild monkeys in our back yard as well as some beautiful birds and the occasional iguana. Two episodes come to mind when thinking about animals but this time it wasn’t animals but insects. The first was army ants. We came home one evening to find our house guard (all expats had guards to ward off thieves) hold our new puppy. When asked why, he pointed to the ground which was moving. Our entire yard was full of army ants. I called a colleague who showed up with some sort of chemical poison that I sprayed around the house and within one hour, they were gone. This is why Africans do not have grass around their homes…it hides snakes, ants and other bad things. This invasion of army ants happened twice during our three years in Buj. Another incident was when a bug of some sort hatches from larva that has lied dormant in the earth for a year or so (I think they were a type of termite) and they swarm….millions of them and they are attracted to the light so our screens were being pounded by these termites. They only seem to live for 24 hours or so, but the next morning we were awakened by crows feasting on the dead termites. What is that old Chinese saying – May you live in interesting times !!!. Well, I guess we did.
Our time in Bujumbura went all too quickly but I have to say after 4.5 years in Africa for Gisela and 8 years for me, it was enough and it was time to move on. Next post – Guangzhou, China.