Burundi transport

There are a lot of peculiarities to how people move around this country.

No…scratch that.

There are a lot of peculiarities to how people move around this country.

There are a lot of things that we find peculiar about how people move around this country. Of course, to those who have lived here their whole lives, and whose ancestors have lived here for centuries, it is normal. You walk. Maybe with flip-flops on, but often barefoot. Occasionally ride a bike. There are cars on the road, but the vast majority of those operate like bus lines. They have set routes, and pick up people for fares along the way. Privately owned cars are rare, at least up here in the rural interior. In the capital many upper-middle-class families own cars..but around us, it is very rare indeed.

It feels like what in the west is considered an appropriate matching of a transportation method to a given load – here you have to jump a few levels to get the same capacity. What in Canada goes on a pickup, here is a bicycle. What in Europe is a car, here is a person balancing something on their head. What is an Australian outback road-train with 3 trailers, here is a stubby truck packed to the sky.

procession to a local funeral

Up here in the rural interior, people just walk. For hours. Small children are out every afternoon gathering firewood and water, carrying bundles of sticks and leaky plastic jugs on their heads. The lush green hills here are overlayed with a web of foot-paths cut into the red soil by hundreds of bare feet plodding over them every single day. People themselves, carry things that before I moved here I would never have through people are physically capable of carrying.

Bikes here are what pickup trucks are to north America. No, scratch that.

Bikes here are what pickup trucks are to north America.

Bikes here are more like what pickup trucks are designed for in North America.

if you need to get to the hospital, but can’t walk, the rack of a bicycle is the usual choice

In North America, I would guess that a very significant percentage of these huge, durable, expensive trucks rarely (some never) carry heavy loads in them that really push the capacity of the frame. Here, if you see only one person on a bicycle it’s pretty safe to assume that they are going to pick up something/someone, or they are returning from having delivered their cargo. Bikes are brought into service to transport items that you think simply would pop the tires and tear the bike frame in half.

in case you’re wondering how they can stop a bike loaded with 100’s of kilo’s of cargo when they start to approach 60-80km/h (which they do) there is a often a secondary brake system like this bike. A simple foot lever connected to a car-tire rubber block that rubs against the inside of the rim.
a typical funeral procession up here – a coffin on the back of a bicycle – everyone else walking

Once you move up to a small car, you start to see some real loads. The Toyota PROBOX probably is the country’s beast-of-burden of choice. A small Corolla wagon it routinely is seen holding 7-10 passengers and hundreds of kilos of cargo shoved in the back. They are also routinely seen with dangerously overloaded frames scraping the ramshackle speed bumps that are common on the national highways here.

A not uncommon sight closer to the city – a Toyota Probox serving as a hearse – with a coffin and still more than the designed number of passengers
sometimes even we call our vehicles into service for other-than-designed uses – like using the bench seat in the Land Cruiser as an ambulance bed.

The speed bumps in themselves can be a bit of a chore to deal with, even if you don’t have twice the manufactures max load weight onboard. There are several speed bumps that we frequent, which have had the cement broken off, and now have pieces of rebar sticking up like a tire-spike to prevent you from leaving the Disneyland parking lot through the entrance without paying. If you don’t know they’re there, you would probably skewer your tire like a goat kabob. Now that I think of it, the consistency of a warm tire and the flesh of a local goat on a thin bamboo skewer are probably not that different from each other.

flat tire on a deserted 5-hour drive in the middle of nowhere Tanzania- en route to a game park

Trucks are loaded up with goods that sure seem like they will make the trick flip over – which they occasionally do. Now that I think about it, one of the reasons they can get away with staking vertically the way they do, is that you never drive under anything. There is not a single bridge, overpass, railway trestle, on-ramp in the entire country. There is simply no man-made passage that another road drives under. OK, that’s not entirely true – as of a few months ago, there is a pedestrian bridge over what is essentially ‘main-street’ in downtown Bujumbura. When it was finished pictures of it were shared by proud city-dwellers on social media, as it was a first for that kind of engineering.

The other thing about trucks is that it seems crazy here to let their pulling capacity go to waste. If they are going to be driving up the hill anyway…having a few hundred extra kilos really doesn’t make a difference. And a free ride up the hill sure beats paying for a seat in a taxi, and a free drag up the hill sure beats peddling yourself.

Some of our kids (including two engineers) trying to fit in and ride like everyone else

I suppose once we move up to air travel the differences become less about what can be carried (although I have seen some pretty bold interpretations of “carry on bag” here) -and more about the absence of it. There is only one paved runway in the country – the single runway at the airport in Bujumbura. Flying is a complete luxury that only a tiny sliver of the population would ever dream of experiencing.

RIP Air Burundi: 1975-1996, 1999-2009 The lone jet of the fleet, retired well over a decade ago, sitting just off the runway at the airport circa 2018

When we moved here 5 years ago there were several weekly flights to Brussels, flights to Dubai, Turkish announced it was about to start flying to Istanbul, and there were multiple flights a day to Kigali, Nairobi and Addis Ababa. As of now, there is one flight to Brussels a week, and a single daily flight to Kigali, one to Addis, and at one point only one to Nairobi – but back to two or three a day now. (this was, of course, before COVID-19 completely shut down our airport and all the others in the region)

I must admit, living here has shown me two things about how things get transported around a society.

First, the timid nature we tend to have about transporting things. We honestly way under-estimate what a vehicle can carry – whether that be a car, a bicycle, or the human body.

sometimes when you combine all of this, on windy mountain roads, you get a fuel truck spun out, stuck blocking the road, and you try to sneak vehicle through. Like the blue truck above that 40 guys had to rock back and forth to get it unhooked from the bumper of the fuel truck as there wasn’t quite room. but …it made it.

Secondly, safety and security always come at a cost. It’s more expensive (in fuel, time etc.) to take two trips instead of one dangerously over-loaded one. It’s cheaper (in the immediate term) to buy a small car and pack it with 2-3 people per seat-belt (if they were even still there, or ever used) than a larger car. It costs more, even in terms of time, to walk up the mountain than to jump on the back of a truck and ride up the highway clinging to the back of a load from the brewery in Buja to the interior. However, when you simply do not have the resources to afford the safer way, it’s not an option.

Safety truly is a luxury of the rich.