Is the Gishora Drum Sanctuary in Burundi worth it?

Table of Contents

Introduction

One of the absolute highlights of any trip to Burundi is the famous Gishora Drum Sanctuary It was the one thing everyone told us we needed to do before we went. But for those visiting Burundi on a budget, it’s comparatively expensive. So is it worth it as a backpacker or budget traveller?

Burundi is easily one of the most interesting and unique countries we’ve ever visited. It was one of the countries we visited in our six month trip through Africa that we had no idea about before we went there. It was also one of the countries no one could understand us wanting to visit. We got more questions about why we were visiting Burundi than anything else! This was so much so that we were even starting to wonder ourselves if we’d find anything of interest there.

Happily, Burundi turned out to be really cool. We got very lucky in that we met someone in Malawi who was actually very familiar with Burundi and helped us a lot with our planning process. One of the main things they told us we needed to do was the Gishora Drum Sanctuary. We ended up doing a lot of research about this before our trip, but it turns out, there’s not much information online!

So we’re here to fill that gap for you.

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A close up of the drummers of the Gishora Drum Sanctuary. It is two Burundian men holding sticks and wearing traditional dress. Behind them are many other drummers drumming.
The drummers of Gishora

What is the Gishora Drum Sanctuary?

The Gishora Drum Sanctuary is an important site within Burundi, linked to the country’s rich history. In Burundi, the drums signify royalty and were previously beaten for royal events. They have close links to power and triumph and the drumming dance is sacred in Burundi. The government of Burundi has even passed legislation to protect the dance as an art form.

Burundi’s last independent King, Mwami Mwezi IV Gisabo Bikata-Bijoga, founded the Gishora Drum Sanctuary to mark his victory over a rebel chief Ntibirangwa in the late 1800s. At the moment, the sanctuary is run by local men and used as a site to practice and teach drumming techniques. The boys and men who run the sanctuary are the descendants of past religious leaders within the community and the site is of great cultural significance to them.

Many Burundian men wearing traditional dress and carry huge wooden drums on their heads. They are walking into an open air arena in single file
The drummers on their way into the ceremony

Where is the Gishora Drum Sanctuary?

As the name implies, the Gishora Drum Sanctuary is in Gishora. This is a small town, around a 15 minute drive away from Burundi’s capital city, Gitega. We took a shared taxi from Burundi’s previous capital, Bujumbura, to Gitega, which was around 2 hours. From Bujumbura, we needed to go to the depot to pick up a shared taxi, which is their equivalent of a taxi bus (we go into detail about this in our post on Things You Need To Know Before Visiting Burundi.

The taxis don’t stop on the way, and they only set off when they’re full. The road between Bujumbura and Gitega is not too bad (comparatively for Burundi) so we were there in good time. From Gitega, you do then need to take a taxi or a motorbike taxi up to the Gishora Drum Sanctuary. The total trip is around 15 minutes. We actually couldn’t find any taxis in Gitega to take us, so we did use a motorbike taxi.

Motorbike taxis are used a lot in Burundi and personally, we are pretty comfortable on them. That being said, the drivers can be a little reckless and it can be dangerous. If you take one, be sure to speak up if you feel unsafe and ask them to drive more slowly, or get off if you’re really uncomfortable.

We paid him a total of 10,000 Burundian Francs (around $3) for the trip and told him we’d pay him the same for the return if he’d wait for up throughout the drumming ceremony, which he happily did. He was even sweet enough to show us somewhere to go for lunch in town afterwards!

Price and entrance fee

Inside Gishora Drum Sanctuary, there is a small museum, where you can see artefacts from Burundi’s history. You’ll see different types of traditional drum, but there is not much explanation there. The men and boys at the sanctuary speak good French but not much English. Their first language is Kirundi, so naturally they do have quite a thick accent – I speak French well, as I work in France and I did struggle a little to understand them at times. Some of the boys there also speak Swahili as well, but not all of them.

The staff will allow you to look around the museum for free, but then they will ask you if you’d like to see the drumming. This is really the main event and I wouldn’t bother going to the museum without it. They asked us how much we wanted to pay and we did have to haggle for a little while. The initial asking price from their side was 200,000 Francs for two of us, but our local friends told us 120,000 (60,000 per person) is about right. After some negotiation, they were happy to drop the rate to 120,000. We have heard that the price has gone up a little so you may pay a bit more than this now.

120,000 Burundian Francs is around £35/$50.

Note: you need to pay in cash as the Sanctuary does not accept card payments.

Note on haggling

In countries like Burundi, haggling is customary and an expected part of the culture. If you opt not to haggle, you may inadvertently be inflating prices for others. As responsible tourists, we always try to haggle (though of course we find it intimidating!). If you would rather not haggle, we highly recommend taking a pre-booked tour where everything is arranged for you. For example, this tour with Viator covers the main sites of Gitega as well as the Gishora Drum Sanctuary.

A Burundian dancer jumping in the air. He looks like he is sitting in mid air and his shadow is below him. He is surrounded by around 20 other drummers.
Some of the jumps were really impressive

The experience at Gishora Drum Sanctuary

Like I said, the drumming ceremony itself is the main event, and the reason visitors go to the sanctuary. It lasts around 40 minutes to an hour, and the drummers honestly drum their hearts out. First, as tourists, you sit in an open-air amphitheatre and watch the drummers march in. For our ceremony, it was us (Murray and I) and another group of three tourists. The drummers waited until everyone was seated, and then march in with the drums on their heads.

They then drum for you for around 40 minutes, which includes traditional dancing. The group is a mix of old and young men, as well as some young boys, who dance and jump in traditional style. Some of the moves are extremely acrobatic and honestly, it’s impressive! Since the ceremony is outside, dress appropriately for the weather, and cover up in case of sunburn or rain.

Note on dress: Burundi is a predominantly Christian country, but conservative dress is the norm. We would suggest longer skirts or trousers and shirts covering shoulders and cleavage. They are not super strict about it, but it seems to make local people feel more comfortable.

After the ceremony, the drummers invited us up to dance with them, and take photos. Dancing, of course, is always awkward as a Brit, but they had fun mocking us.

Many Burundian men wearing traditional dress and carry huge wooden drums on their heads. They are walking into an open air arena in single file
It was seriously impressive to see the drummers carry these heavy drums on their heads!

Is it worth it?

In our opinion, yes. We have been to many traditional cultural ceremonies and quite honestly, usually find them a little gimmicky. It’s generally our impression that they’re for the sake of impressing tourists, but this ceremony felt really different from that. You could clearly tell that the drummers were in their element.

It was also genuine really good. The dancers had such a talent and you didn’t even notice there was no music except the drums. Though the ceremony lasted 40 minutes or so, we barely noticed the time passing. Of the things we did in Burundi, we’d actually say this was the best. It definitely gave us the best insight into Burundian culture (apart from the fortunate insight we got from our Burundian friends) and showed us a very unique side of the country.

As many of you know, our blog focuses on responsible travel and from this standpoint too, we were glad we went. The ceremony is expensive comparatively to the rest of Burundi, but for the work that goes in, we think it is a fair price. The money you pay may not be significant to you, but it is to the drummers and their families. We are glad to support this art form and give back to the Burundian Economy.

Do you need to tip?

Personally, we did give a small tip to the main guy. We only did this because we felt we had haggled especially well, and wanted to make sure everyone got their fair pay. There are a lot of drummers and it was a small group of us watching. It didn’t seem mandatory to tip at all, and it wasn’t the expectation in other parts of Burundi. We tipped 10,000 Burundian Francs and this seemed to be a good amount.

Always be sure to tip fair amount and not go too high, especially if you are from a tipping culture yourself. As generous as your tips are, they can severely inflate local economies and create a false narrative of tourists always coming from wealthy backgrounds.

The Burundian countryside. There are corn fields in the foreground.
Views from Gitega

Other things to do in Gitega/Gishora

Gishora is very small, so apart from the Gishora Drum Sanctuary, there is not much there. In fact, since the Drum Sanctuary is kind of out of Gishora itself, you probably won’t even spend much time there. Gitega is now the capital city of Burundi, so it is a little more lively. There you can find the National Museum of Gitega (which was unfortunately not open when we went). They also do have a centre of art and some fun local markets. You can even take a coffee tour, since Burundi has some fantastic coffee, and Gitega is a hub of coffee production.

Nearby to Gitega, you can find some great natural beauty in Kibira National Park and Chutes de la Karera (waterfalls).

Getting around Burundi and things to do

Burundi is a really compact country, but you do need to spend a while here if you want to see everything, since the roads are not great. Public transport options are also not very good, so getting around can be a struggle. To have the best experience, I’d recommend taking a car, but it’s worth being aware that at the time of writing, there is a fuel crisis in Burundi. This means it can be tricky to get petrol outside of the main cities, Bujumbura and Gitega.

Outside of Bujumbura and Gitega however, there are lots of things you can do, even as daytrips, such as:

  • Mount Heha
  • Rusizi and Ruvubu National Park
  • Kigwena Natural Forest
  • Saga Beach

Bujumbura is also great fun for a few days. It has a lovely dining scene, nice markets and lots of fun museums and monuments.

Gishora Drum Sanctuary Top tips

To recap, here are our top tips!

  • Take cash with you and be prepared to haggle a little for the price of the drumming ceremony
  • Wear clothes suitable for sun/rain protection (depending on the weather)
  • If using public transport, take a probox (shared taxi) from Bujumbura to Gitega, then a motorbike taxi from Gitega to Gishora
  • If you are not comfortable with haggling/public transport, take this tour from Bujumbura
  • For further information on Burundi in general, check our post here

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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