Monday, October 1, 2012

On the Road in Burundi

Note: these photos were taken from moving vehicles through windshields. Quality has suffered as a result.

Travelling around the diocese of Buyé involves using a combination of the main national highway and secondary, unpaved roads. 

National Highway

Secondary Road
The highway is always busy, but not in the sense that highways in Canada can be busy. Along the highway we encounter a few cars, buses, taxis and trucks. It is possible to go quite some distance without seeing another car. But it is impossible to go very far without seeing anyone. Motorcycles and bicycles outnumber four-wheeled vehicles, and by far the most frequent traffic along the highway is foot traffic. It seems impossible to go more than 100 metres without seeing someone walking along the highway.

Women passing banana stalk placed there for a dignitary
We see people carrying enormous loads of goods to markets on bicycles, either laboriously pushing them up hill or riding down the other side at breakneck speed. In this way people take their loads of bananas or charcoal or wood to be sold. (Burundi is very mountainous, so it seems that we are always either going up hill or down.)

Taking bananas to market
Others use bicycles as basic transport, often carrying someone else on the back.

Taking charcoal to market

We also see people (mainly colourfully dressed women) carrying baskets or farm implements on their heads, often with a baby strapped to their back.

People carry anything and everything on their heads. It's actually quite an efficient way to carry a load. Children carry their schoolbooks on their heads, and both men and women carry enormous loads of goods on their heads. We're told it's possible to carry up to 60 kg on one's head. All it takes is practice, balance, and a cushion that is traditionally made from a banana leaf.

And we see crowds of children, young and old, on their way to and from school. Usually when they are on the way home they seem more playful, running and fooling around like school children anywhere.

Along the side of the highway in the villages and towns there are the usual homes and shops and various institutional buildings such as government offices, hospitals, churches, schools and so on. In between towns, we encounter people cultivating fields, herding goats or cows, producing bricks or charcoal or selling things at roadside stands.

A heavy load of charcoal
Sometimes we see small leafy branches on the road, which is a sign that there is an accident scene or a broken-down vehicle ahead, much as we might use flares in Canada.

Often we see people on bicycles holding on to the back of a truck to catch a lift up hill, five, six, seven at a time across the back of the truck; or people who have climbed up and are holding on for dear life on the back of a shipping container.

Don't try this at home
The secondary roads vary in quality from relatively smooth to very rough. Progress can be slow as we must often negotiate the ruts and potholes and the miniature river valleys carved down the road by runoff. On secondary roads we give up driving on the right. Instead we drive wherever the road is smoothest, weaving back and forth in a slalom course along the road. Because these roads can be so rough an SUV is essential. A more delicate car wouldn't survive very long in these conditions.

Bridge on a secondary road
Secondary roads can be a bit less populated than the main highway, but they are still dotted with villages at frequent intervals and there is always someone coming or going from village to village. The main difference in traffic is that there seem to be fewer four-wheeled vehicles on the secondary roads, and more people on foot spread out across the road as they come and go. A horn is an essential bit of equipment as we constantly need to warn people of our approach.

Entering a village
All along the route, there is always something to see, always people coming or going, curious people wondering who we are, often waving or shouting greetings. And the scenery is spectacular. Burundi is a very beautiful country.

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