Bujumbura, the commercial capital of Burundi may as well be the shisha capital of the region.
On nearly every table at Arena, one of the city’s popular nightclubs along DR Congo Avenue, a pot of shisha bubbles over as young women laugh, blowing plumes into the cool night air.
Meanwhile, Tanzanian superstar Diamond croons about “African Beauty” from the giant speakers.
This is a melting pot of East African culture.
In Bujumbura, men and women are always ready for a good time. They like to put a heavy foot on the pedal of merrymaking. In this city, revellers drink, smoke, dance and hop from one club to the next with unrestrained abandon, throughout the night.
Arena, Toxic and Cristal are the dominant night spots, right in the heart of the city, their diversity of music, ranging from Rhumba, Bongo to Afrofusion as crowd-pullers from Thursday through Sunday.
Foremost, partygoers here cut across all age groups. Men and women in their mid-40s take to the dance floor with as much buoyancy as revellers in their 20s. This is different from other cities across the region, where certain nightclubs are associated with particular demographics.
To strike a casual conversation in a Bujumbura club, though, can be difficult, especially for non-French speakers. Kirundi and French are the main languages spoken. If you’re lucky, some locals can manage a few lines in Kiswahili. With some French, however, you can get around with few worries.
Unlike Nairobi men who go out in virtually anything wearable, Bujumbura men sport tuxedos — which are perfectly cut. And, while they hit the dance floor hard, they conduct themselves with as much gusto as civility — a combination that’s scarce in Kenya’s nightlife.
Out of place
Wearing a pair of jeans and a sleeveless jacket in a sea of tuxedos, I felt awkwardly out of place at night in the city.
Women wear anything from long dresses to denim pants, shorts and miniskirts.
After several rounds of beers at Arena, I was invited to accompany a group of women to Toxic Night Club for a cocktail of shots.
Curiously, there are no chairs at the club on Avenue Source du Nil. Revellers expected to be on their feet, dancing for as long as their legs can carry them.
That life in this capital in Central Africa is cheaper than elsewhere in the region is an added incentive to go out. A beer costs BIF3,000 ($1.5). Getting around by taxi is affordable, with most charging about BIF5,000 ($2.5) to most destinations.
Hotel Kangaroo, Hotel Safari Gate, Roca Gold Hotel and Hotel Club Du Lac Tanganyika are some of the best hotels, with an average rating of 7.5 out of 10 from about 100 reviews. Their rates are also relatively lower than elsewhere in the region, with a night’s stay costing about $110 for comfort, decent services and security.
Safety of visitors is perhaps Bujumbura’s strongest selling point. The city is safe, with police officers patrolling the streets and traffic marshals placed on all busy roads: Cases of mugging are rare.
If hiking is your cup of tea, you can enjoy the activity in Bujumbura. On weekends and most evenings, droves of residents jog through the scenic Kiriri Hills, overlooking the city from the eastern side.
From the hills, the home of the University of Burundi and a number of leafy suburbs, is the uninhibited view of half the city and a section of Lake Tanganyika to the point where it hugs villages in Uvira, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
If you’re visiting Bujumbura for the first time, it’s advisable to understand the payments system. Most regular shops, restaurants and service businesses accept both US dollars and Burundian currency.
There is, however, preference for the dollar due to its higher value, especially among taxi drivers. Street shops that sell artefacts and jewellery, though, insist on Burundian francs.
It is advisable therefore to carry both currencies. Exchange of money from one currency to the other is simple, what with a vibrant forex ecosystem, both in the banks and the black market.
While banks such as KCB, BGF and Bancobu offer forex services, locals prefer the black market. A dollar will fetch you about BIF2,100 at KCB, for instance, while on the streets, the same will be exchanged for as much as BIF3,300.
To travel to Burundi during the pandemic, you must have returned a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours by arrival.
Even so, there is a mandatory test on arrival at the Melchior Ndadaye International Airport for $100. To exit the country, you will be required to take another test at $20. Only the National Referral Laboratory of Burundi performs a PCR test, which you must book in advance. You may need to take the test three days before your travel date to avoid a delay of results, which is common here.
While Burundi has had restrictions to limit the spread of the pandemic, nothing stands in the way of merrymaking.
Watching the sundowner on the shores of Lake Tanganyika is the ultimate delight.
The golden ball dances as it goes down the hills in Uvira, as a warm breeze sweeps from the lake leaving you wanting more time to savour the breathtaking view.
By the lake shore
A series of beach hotels line the shore on the Burundi side of Lake Tanganyika along Bujumbura-Gatumba road, with Congolese villages visible from a distance across in South Kivu Province.
At 6pm, revellers start to arrive and take up seats at the outside bar at Zion Beach. For hours, they will talk and laugh amid clangs of toasts. Everyone here is in full festive mood.
At the beach hotel’s main restaurant, a large Christmas tree has just been lit to cheers from children who are here with their families. The young ones cheerily feed the fish, running up and down the facility.
Dolly Parton serenades patrons with her “Islands in the Stream” from the overhead speakers as diners sing along.
A kilometre into the lake, a lone police speedboat is on patrol.
Lake Tanganyika serves as the natural border between Burundi and DRC, and is shared between Tanzania, the DRC, Burundi and Zambia.
There is little activity on the Burundian side of the water body, with hardly any boats in sight.
No fear of Covid
Unlike other East African states that have recorded thousands of Covid-19 cases, Burundi has announced fewer infections. While its neighbours have endured periods of stringent measures, including lockdowns and night curfews, Burundians have interacted nearly as freely during the pandemic as they did before. Some measures may be in place to ensure safety of the population here, but there is little by way of enforcement.
Face masks are not a common feature on the streets of Bujumbura as people go about their daily activities. They are worn in public offices, banks and at the airport.
A Bujumbura night is quite unlike anything you would experience in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam or Kampala. But it’s worth every penny and time spent.