10 Helpful Things To Know About Burundi Culture Before You Visit

Table of Contents

Introduction

Burundi Culture is all at once welcoming and fascinating. Before visiting Burundi, we had been to almost every country in East Africa, but there were still many things about Burundi’s Culture in particular that really took us by surprise. Additionally, Burundi is absolutely a beautiful country with wonderful people and truly stunning scenery. It just made us sad that more people don’t visit!

The situation in some parts of East Africa (notably the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda) can be precarious. Though we experienced no issues and had no truly negative experiences, we would advise checking with your own government before planning a trip and exercising caution. You can find the advice given by the UK government here.

For us, this was a fantastic experience in a very unique country and we had friends there, who kindly helped us during our time away. This made things far less stressful! We learned a lot about the country, even during our short stay, and wish we had known a lot of it before visiting.

We wanted to share our takeaways to help others.

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A young Burundi drummer jumping in the air. He is surrounded by other drumming and wearing traditional dress. You can see the mountains in the background.
Watching the traditional Gitega Drumming Ceremony – one of the most amazing things we saw in Burundi

Is Burundi safe?

As mentioned, the situation in this part of the world can be precarious at times, and we’d advise checking with your own government to see their recommendations for travel. For example, you can find the UK government advice for Burundi is here. Most other governments will have similar pages if you Google ‘XX government advice for travel to XX country’.

From personal experience, we found Burundi to be very welcoming and the people to be very kind. As two white tourists, we did not attract much attention. People were definitely interested in us (tourism in Burundi is not very common) but they didn’t really show it. If we were on buses, for example, sitting next to people, they were definitely happy and even eager to start up conversations (especially because I speak French and they wanted to practise), but they wouldn’t harass us in the street or anything like that.

The public transport situation in Burundi, as we will discuss below, is difficult. There is currently a fuel crisis in effect, which means it’s hard to get petrol. Most of the roads are also being resurfaced constantly. Essentially this makes getting around quite difficult, which we’ll come back to in our section on Getting Around, and road accidents and breakdowns are common.

There are hospitals in Gitega (the capital) and Bujumbura. The one in Bujumbura is bigger and better.

Insurance for travelling through Africa

Of course, everyone who travels hopes that nothing will ever go wrong but the fact is that it can do. It’s always best to be prepared for any situation with great travel insurance. We use SafetyWing for our travel insurance and we really like them, particularly because their policy wording is so straight-forward.

You can use their pricing calculator to check rates for your trip below.

Things to know about Burundi Culture

1. ATMs don’t really work for non-Burundian cards

Firstly, there are not many ATMs in Burundi. The ATMs that do exist are in major towns (we only saw them in Bujumbura and Gitega), and they tend to be local banks, rather than international.

Honestly, I think we tried every single ATM in Bujumbura and we had no joy with any of them at all. To be fair, a few of them say Visa only, and we did only have Mastercards, but even so, this was not the case with all of them, and we just couldn’t make a single one work. As a result, we would HIGHLY recommend you take cash into the country with you. The bureaux de change will accept USD or EUR, we’re not sure about other currencies. We’d stick to these two just in case.

Note: as a closed currency, you can’t get Burundi currency (a.k.a. Burundian Francs) outside of Burundi, so we had to rely solely on exchanging our USD, but luckily for us…

2. USD go a long way in Burundi

On crossing the land border between Burundi and Tanzania, we offered our USD to someone changing currency. We were shocked to find that we were being offered an exchange rate significantly better than Google’s for our USD. This seemed really dodgy to us, and we had no idea how to check if the currency they gave us was real or not. Since we were dubious in case they were going to give us fake currency, so we exchanged our small amount of Tanzanian shillings instead (at an almost equally good rate), and held onto our dollars in case we needed them elsewhere.

This turned out to be smart. USD are in serious demand in Burundi, and the rate at which we exchanged them was significantly better than what we were offered at the border (yes, even though that rate was already amazing in itself!).

In Bujumbura, you’ll find the Black Market. It’s not dodgy at all, it’s basically just an area with lots of bureaux de change, but all the locals call it that. You can even find it on Google Maps! There you can exchange Euro and Dollars., and both at a pretty phenomenal rate.

Don’t be put off by the term ‘Black Market’, as it’s actually the official place to exchange currency. At one point, we tried to exchange in a bank and they actually referred us to the Black Market, as they couldn’t do it themselves. Basically, all this to say, it is a perfectly legitimate means of exchanging money in Burundi.

A shot from the car of a very mountainous road. You can see the road curving down the mountain and more mountains in the background.
Driving through the mountains in Burundi

Exchange rate:

During our visit, the exchange rate was around 3600 Francs (Burundi currency) to the dollar, which is around 1.7 times better than Google’s rate at the time of writing. In other words, if we were exchanging 100 USD, we got the Google equivalent of $177 USD to spend in Francs. We even, at one point, were able to exchange an expired 100 USD note for Google’s equivalent of 150 USD in Francs.

Note: it is better to take USD notes which were made after 2009, since these are accepted more widely.

We honestly could not believe it and felt sure we must be ripping them off somehow, but of course it was a fair exchange as they were so desperate for the dollars, and we were providing something that was needed. The only downside is that it’s actually impossible to then move those Francs out of Burundi. Yes, we tried! Western Union only accepts USD and setting up a Burundian bank account seems like the most bureaucratically complex process in the world! However you can have a great time while you’re there, and essentially double your spending money.

3. Visas cannot be purchased on arrival

Before we visited Burundi, the UK government website stated that you can obtain a visa for Burundi on arrival. It also stated that a 90 day visa was $90 and a 3 day visa was $40. Some of this information was technically true – you could obtain a visa on arrival, but it was the 3 day transit visa only, and it was around $30 USD.

We needed longer than 3 days but didn’t have much choice, as we weren’t being offered anything else, so we went with that, thinking at least it was cheaper than we thought. We would need to extend our visas and were told that this could, apparently be done ‘easily’ in any immigration office in the country.

Again, this was kind of true, in that we did need to extend, and could do this at an immigration office, but the process of extending was not remotely easy. We ended up spending a whole day (frankly a miracle it didn’t take longer given how many places we were shipped back and forth between) in the immigration centre for only a 5 day extension. Basically a complete waste of one of those 5 days!

The good news is that the extra 5 days only costs $10 per person, so financially-speaking, we were certainly up, but we had wasted a lot of time.

You can get the Burundi visa ahead of time in Kigoma (or basically any immigration office in Tanzania/outside of Burundi). We were told by a very reliable source that this was indeed easy and would have saved us a lot of time in Burundi. Given our time again, we would have probably saved ourselves a huge effort and done that!

Luckily, the UK government website has now changed its information so no one else should be steered wrong.

A line of Burundian drummers carrying very heavy drums on their head and beating them from below. They are all smiling and dancing as they go.
Watching the Burundian drummers get ready to perform

4. The roads and cars in Burundi are not very good

‘Not very good’ is actually a ginormous understatement.

We entered Burundi on a journey that should have taken 6 hours on one bus, and instead took us 16 hours and we had not one, not two, but THREE bus breakdowns during this time. It was, quite frankly, a disaster! This was mostly due to the horrendous quality of vehicles, but also in part to the really disastrous roads.

The main route from Tanzania to Bujumbura is currently being renovated, and rather than fixing it in parts, they have simply torn up the entire road to redo it in one go. Of course, this means the delays are awful, and this is not helped by the fact that there is also a fuel crisis in effect. In other words, fuel is in extremely short supply and really hard to come by outside of Bujumbura or Gitega, so if you run out, you may be in trouble!

Tourists are definitely advised to let a friend know before undertaking a journey anywhere and to have a Burundian sim to stay connected. Having our own car might have helped if not for the fuel crisis… apart from caution it’s hard to know what to advise, but always take a reliable-looking car or bus, and if possible, avoid long journeys altogether, as the short-haul trips are much safer and easier.

5. Taxi buses (‘proboxes’)

Every African country we have visited so far has their own version of a taxi bus. They’re always called different things, but do usually work the same way: start in a depot somewhere, fill up until full, and then head from A to B, dropping off and picking up passengers at random with no set stops.

Burundi had its own version, called a probox, in addition to the standard larger buses. A probox is an important part of the culture of Burundi. It’s effectively a shared taxi (a car, not a bus), which travels a set route and usually does not stop to pick up additional passengers. For example, proboxes go regularly between Bujumbura and Gitega. We found that although they stopped at random points to let passengers off, pick up shopping for the driver etc, they didn’t normally actually let on any other passengers.

We mention this because it is not the way taxi buses work in most of the rest of Africa, where the bus will set off, then stop every few minutes to pick up new passengers along the way.

What this essentially means for travellers wishing to take them as a transport option, is that you need to make sure you get on at the depot it starts from. Most taxi drivers in Bujumbura/Gitega will know where the proboxes go from if you get stuck, otherwise the locations are usually fairly central, but you might need to wander for a little bit.

Knowing this would have saved us some long waits by the side of the road trying to flag down buses that were never going to stop for us! All this to say, don’t be afraid to ask locals.

A group of people, local Burundians and Murray who is a white British man in his 30s, pushing a bus which has broken down. It is very dirty and the bus is not budging.
One of many breakdowns in Burundi

6. Long distance buses

Another important part of getting to grips with Burundi culture is figuring out the public transport.

As great as a probox is for short-distance travel, you don’t really want to be stuck in a cramped car for longer than a couple of hours. If you’re looking to go further (i.e. leave the country or head to more remote towns), you’ll need to book a proper coach-style bus.

Of course, there is absolutely no information online about how to do this, and the information that is available is not clear. We needed to take two big buses during our time in Burundi – from Kigoma (Tanzania) to Bujumbura and from Bujumbura to Singida (Tanzania).

The first bus we booked ourselves and ended up booking with seemingly the wrong company (according to our friend). This definitely made sense, as the journey was pretty bad, and the company was quite unreliable.

For the second bus we had help from a local friend. He told us that we needed to know first the name of the most trusted company driving that route, and then find their booking office to buy the tickets. Thank goodness we did have him, because without this advice, we would have simply wandered down to the bus station (as we have everywhere else we’ve needed to take a bus) and tried to get tickets there. No doubt we would have ended up on the wrong bus again with another nightmare journey.

We easily found the office for the bus company he found for us through a contact (TAQWA),and bought tickets easily at a set price. Basically, if planning a long trip, we suggest to ask around for the name of the bus you need first, then locating that office to buy your tickets.

Burundi bus companies that might be useful for tourists:

For anyone looking to take the journeys we did, for the sake of convenience, we have listed the companies below:

Kigoma to Bujumbura: Use LUBA buses. They have an office in Kigoma and Bujumbura and can’t be booked online

Bujumbura to Singida/Arusha: Use TAQWA buses. They have an office in Bujumbura, Arusha and Singida and can’t be booked online

For Bujumbura to Gitega and vice-versa, you can use a probox.

(Not sure if this will be useful information to anyone, but we didn’t find a means of getting to Mwanza, which was the stop we wanted in Tanzania, the closest we could get was Kahama or Nyakanazi with TAQWA buses)

7. Burundian people are extremely sociable

Similar compliments could be paid to other African countries, but Burundi in particular was one of the friendliest places we have ever visited.

As mentioned in our paragraph on safety in Burundi, in stark contrast to a lot of the places we have visited in Africa, we weren’t stopped by everyone who passed us. In fact, on the contrary, we were given a lot of space, and most people were content just to show their interest by looking. When we were stopped, our cynical minds immediately jumped to the conclusion that people were trying to sell us something, but more often than not, they were simply interested in us and wanted to have a chat.

Because French is very prevalent there, people often wanted to practise their French (or English) and find out about our culture. We had some very long chats with people on buses and even just on the street, who really did want to hear our life story and find out what we were doing in Burundi! We wish we had known this before going, as we did not need to be half as blunt with people as we were at first.

Language in Burundi

Kirundi is the official language of Burundi and most commonly spoken by locals, but most people will have a good understanding of either French or Swahili as well. There will also probably be some people who speak English almost everywhere you go. Luckily we spoke French and Swahili so we didn’t have to rely to much on English, but it’s not a huge problem if you don’t!

A small Burundian child is dancing and playing with sticks. He seems to be in his own little world and is having fun. There are 3 adult drummers behind him wearing traditional dress and hitting large drums
Even the kids were joining in!

8. Everything is a negotiation

In Burundi culture, the sales technique was perhaps the most mind-boggling thing we have encountered yet in Africa. Having spent 5 months now in Africa and visited also on separate occasions, we have come across thousands of pushy salespeople, who are often utterly relentless no matter how many times you politely (or sometimes rudely) decline.

We’ve been in countries where the best technique was to give a firm no, as well as those where it was just best to completely ignore anyone who approached us. We heard directly from a local friend that the best technique in Burundi culture was to take a look at the product on offer, feign interest and then say ‘no thank you’, be polite and walk away. To our astonishment, this actually worked!

The first few times we tried it, we honestly thought we must have left Africa altogether. Even in local crafts markets, we never had any bother at all refusing a sale, and people were always very grateful that we had looked at their products at all.

9. People don’t usually walk

Although you will get locals walking short distances from A to B, it’s highly unusual to see people walking for long stretches of time, especially couples or families out for a stroll. Local people therefore found it extremely odd when we were happy to walk through town for half an hour and would often run after us, chasing us down, just simply to offer us a lift.

We have encountered similar attitudes in other African countries, but it was especially noticeable here, and often we really struggled to convey to people that we really were very happy walking! As with most interactions with Burundians, politeness was usually key here, and we just had to insist (firmly but kindly) that we wanted to walk for exercise! Also, it’s worth adding that they didn’t seem to have any safety concerns about us being out and about, they just didn’t understand why we would bother. Like we said above, Burundi, in general, felt pretty safe to us.

10. Lunchtime is strictly between 12 and 2pm

This is important for two reasons – 1) you know when to go and get your lunch and 2) all administrative and non-food-related services completely shut down during these hours. This is beyond annoying when you are trying to do something like extend a visa or go to a bank, but perhaps is quite nice as a local worker!**

A popular way to serve lunch in Burundi is in buffet format – these are often inexpensive with varied options, and very often good vegan/vegetarian options, which are difficult to come by elsewhere.

**As a consolation for those worried about this, we did not actually find these hours very strict. The shops/administrative offices definitely did observe them strictly, but restaurants were often open beyond 2 in our experience and sometimes before 12. We didn’t struggle to find places to eat at 3pm or around that time – sometimes the buffets had finished but that was about it.

A shot was above of a river, which looks very full and brown in colour. There are locals washing their clothes in the river. There are trees on the river banks and mountains in the background.
Local people washing their clothes in the river

So that’s pretty much it! We loved our time in Burundi and wish it was more open to tourists, as it is such a wonderful place to visit.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy our post on Staying Safe in South Africa.

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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