Just because it's poor doesn't mean it's cheap
(work in progress)
A question that often gets asked on the travel forum is whether it's cheap to travel in Africa - the assumption being that because the vast majority of Africans are poor, it must be affordable for the traveller.
In fact, the converse is true: unless you are prepared to live like a local person AND have a lot of time on your hands, travel in Africa is seldom cheap, and can often be downright expensive.
This apparent contradiction starts to make sense when you consider the contributing factors. The most obvious is the vast majority of Africans live below the poverty line, and are reliant on subsistence agriculture for most of their food. You can buy food in markets, but often even the basics - let alone the more luxury products and the imported stuff that you'll be used to as a foreigner - it is often gobsmackingly expensive. This is particularly the case in densely populated areas such as the Great Lakes region, which has huge competition for agricultural land and a dire shortage of animal protein. In Burundi for example, tilapia fish on the bone costs USD5 a kilo in a country where the average person lives on less than USD1 a day.
The same thing is true of accommodation: unless you are comfortable staying in a basic hut with no electricity, running water, sanitation or security, prepare yourself to pay a huge premium. The cost of constructing 'Western style' accommodation is disproportionately costly in places like Burundi - which doesn't produce its own cement and is reliant on importing cement from farflung places like China. Given the risk of having your valuables stolen or contracting medical conditions such as malaria or waterborne diseases that could be life threatening (particularly to foreigners), I don't think that it's an unreasonable expense, but it adds up very quickly.
Equipped self catering accommodation of a standard that would appeal to most Westerners barely exists outside the major tourist destinations of Southern Africa, so if you intend to contain accommodation costs by cooking for yourself, you'll probably have to camp and be prepared to bring your equipment with you.
Transport is perhaps the one aspect of travel in Africa that can be cheap: but only if you have loads of time on your side. The networks of buses and minibus taxis are usually extensive, but the time it takes to travel what appear to to be relatively short distances are disproportionately long. Partly it's a function of poor road conditions and/or difficult terrain, often it's due to poorly maintained and overloaded vehicle (which poses a significant safety hazard) and the fact that they usually stop in every little village en route doesn't help. If there are borders involved, then things get even more problematic: likely it will take an age to clear customs and immigration, and it may often be necessary to switch from one vehicle to another as services often only operate in country.
If you are on a reasonably tight schedule, the only ways of travelling swiftly and reliably are to hire a vehicle with a driver - expensive in a countries where both vehicles and fuel are imported and are generally subject to huge import tariffs - or to fly (usually only practical between major centres).
Lastly, in most emerging African tourist destinations, numbers have not yet reached the critical mass required to generate either economies of scale of competition. For this reason, your ability to 'shop around' is usually limited, and the differentiator between tour operators is usually quality of service and the standard of accommodation offered (which ranges between expensive and hugely expensive). Do your research, and if one option seems unusually cheap and too good to be true, then it probably is. Such is the case with the unscrupulous Kennedy Nari Ndayisenga of Hakuna Matata Safaris, an operator who leave sbehind him a trail of unhappy clients whom he has cheated and let down.
In summary, is Africa a cheap place to travel? Sadly not. Is it worth it? Absolutely!
Beware of Kennedy and Hakuna Matata Tours
This is a warning for potential travelers to the Great Lakes region (Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Burundi) NOT to use the services of Kennedy Nari Ndayisenga or his tour company, Hakuna Matata Tours & Travel. Put bluntly, Kennedy is a liar, a scammer and a thief who will think nothing of stealing your money and cannot be relied upon to deliver on any promises or commitments that he might make.
We decided to engage Kennedy as a tour guide based on some very positive recommendations from highly respected members on the Virtual Tourist website whose advice is usually reliable and accurate. These highly complimentary reviews were written by individuals who are extremely well travelled in Africa – however, looking back at these positive reviews, I note that these refer to tours run by Kennedy several years ago.
If you Google either Kennedy or Hakuna Matata Tours & Travel, you’ll find a large number of positive reviews on his tours and service. Part of this coverage results from the fact that Kennedy has an IT background and has a genius for self promotion by placing highly visible blogs and reviews, but also seems to reflect the fact that at one point, he actually did provide good service. As we learned to our cost, this has sadly changed.
Our personal experience is as follows. Our family was due to travel to Rwanda just after Christmas 2012 and we agreed a provisional itinerary with Kennedy, subject to confirmation after he had secured permits for gorilla trekking. In late November, he confirmed that he had managed to reserve permits to trek gorillas on the Uganda side of the border and asked us to pay a deposit of US$2140 to secure the permits, which we forwarded by Moneygram on 30 November 2012. We were notified that the money had been collected on 3 December 2012, after which he went silent, and all attempts to contact him via e-mail and both of his cellphones went unanswered.
After a concerted effort, I finally managed to contact him by e-mail. He claimed that he had been unable to contact us as he had been caught in an altercation on the DRC side of the border with Rwanda, in which his vehicles were damaged and his cellphones stolen: as this tallied with media coverage of unrest in this area, we were gullible enough to believe his story. In subsequent highly emotional e-mails, he claimed that he had barely escaped with his life and begged us to pray for him. Naively, we responded sympathetically and offered to postpone our trip until Easter to allow the situation to calm down and give him time to get on his feet again.
This was a big mistake, as from this point on, our trust and sympathy was systematically exploited and abused. Kennedy proved impossible to contact throughout January, and I only managed to track him down via his Facebook account.
He gave me yet another cellphone number to contact him on and I had a brief conversation with him, during which he informed me that he was conducting a tour in Uganda and would respond to me when he returned to Rwanda at the end of the week. Of course, he never did respond, but did send me an offer to become his ‘friend’ on Facebook, along with an invitation to view the photos he’d taken of his involvement in ‘peace talks’ he was participating in Kampala, Uganda.
After several unsatisfactory telephone conversations (always initiated by me), I told Kennedy that I did not trust him to look after myself and my family, and notified him that I wanted a refund of the deposit that we had paid him. Predictably, he became even more evasive after this point, making unspecific statements about the fact that he could only refund me ‘next month’. He promised to e-mail me the specifics of repayment (which, predictably he never did) and feigned surprise when I contacted him to confirm that the promised e-mail had not arrived. Communication ceased altogether when I pointed out that I was using our Facebook correspondence to establish a ‘paper trail’.
By this time, I realised that we had been scammed, and followed up with another respected member of Virtual Tourist whose name I recognised from his Facebook friends list. In fact, she had not followed through on the tour that she had discussed with Kennedy, but directed me to postings on TripAdvisor, including
or or this link
These discussion threads confirm that Kennedy has scammed many other tourists, and that his modus operandi is consistent. Even worse than the tales of people like us who have lost substantial deposits are the accounts of the disastrous tours that Kennedy has ‘organised’ over the past few years, where tourists have had their much anticipated ‘trip of a lifetime’ ruined by his failure to book hotels, secure trekking permits, provide a roadworthy vehicle and/or pay his guides (some of whom have even had to cover costs out of their own pocket despite having paid for their tour in full).
Further research has indicated that neither Kennedy nor Hakuna Matata Tours& Travel are members of the Rwanda Tour and Travel Association. A phone call to the office in Gisenyi through which gorilla trekking permits are issued also confirmed that he is considered to be an untrustworthy and unreliable operator.
A subsequent Internet search turned up the following warning has been issued by the Virunga National Park in DRC: “The management of Virunga National Park would like to inform potential visitors that we advise against using the following travel agency: Hakuna Matata Tours & Travel. We have had multiple complaints from visitors using this travel agency and are now actively boycotting them.” (click here for more detail).
In closing, I would highlight that we are not naïve tourists who were caught short venturing forth into the developing world for the first time. Quite the contrary, since we have lived and worked throughout sub Saharan Africa for over 25 years, and this is the first time ever that we have ever been scammed. Because we are experienced ‘Africa hands’ and placed faith in recommendations from trusted associates on Virtual Tourist, we felt that we had done proper research and had identified a reliable service provider. However, in hindsight, our mistake was that we neglected to follow up on more recent references.
If it is possible for Kennedy to scam people like us, then how much easier is it for him to take advantage of tourists from overseas who are visiting the region for the first time?
Want an excuse NOT to self drive in Burundi?
(work in progress)
I'm familiar with the term 'tailgating', but until I visited Burundi, I merely thought that it meant that a following car was driving too close to the vehicle ahead.
However, a few minutes in Bujumbura gave me a whole different perspective on the term, because in Burundi, 'tailgating' means literally holding onto the tailgate of a truck whilst riding a bike so that you're towed along. And whilst it was bad enough to see this happening in the city traffic, that pales into insignificance compared to seeing this on a mountain road. And - if it's possible get even more scary - I had the distinct impression that at least some of the time the truck driver didn't realise that the 'hanger on' was there ...
I'm not even going to touch on the chaps clambering onto the back of a moving truck ...
Consider the cost of the visa in your planning
(work in progress)
I hate visas. Particularly in the developing world, where it is patently obvious that they have absolutely nothing to do with border control and everything to do with milking foreign visitors for hard currency.
Whereas neighbouring Rwanda has sensibly abolished the need for tourist visas, Burundi (and, for that matter DRC, Tanzania and Uganda) persist in their visa requirements. At the time of writing (May 2013), tourists have to cough a hefty US$50 per person for a three day visa, and US$90 for a visa of longer duration – which probably explains why most tourists spend three days or less in Burundi. However, on the upside, at least it’s available on arrival, which means that you're spared the time and effort dealing with the embassy ahead of your trip.
Like everything else at the airport, the immigration process is shambolic but happily unthreatening. You first have to fill in an immigration card: for reasons that I have yet to work out, this is not handed out on the inbound flight so that you can fill it in at leisure, so all passengers descend on the immigration hall to scrum around a limited number of desks where the forms are available. To ease this process, make sure that you have a pen handy, as you can’t rely on these being provided.
You then proceed to the visa desk to the left and hand over your passport, immigration form and visa fee. Again, be sure that you have the exact amount in dollars, as it’s a tried and trusted scam throughout the developing world for immigration officials to claim that they don’t have any change (thus hoping that you’ll be impatient enough to tell them to keep the change) – also they would be within their rights to give you change in Burundian francs at an exchange rate of their choice.
The Burundian visa is attractively colourful and takes up an entire page: yet more proof of the inversely proportional relationship between the size of the visa and the importance of the country it's issued for. If you’re on a trip that involves visiting several countries with visa requirements, make sure that you have enough spare pages in your passport (even if it means applying for a new passport ahead of expiry) - well worth the effort and expense, as you will be refused entry if you don't have what the immigration official deems 'enough' spare pages.
Once you’ve got your visa, passport control and baggage collection should be fairly straightforward.
There are no other facilities at the airport to speak of, so you’ll have to catch a taxi into town to avail yourself of any services.
Managing the ying and yang of mozzie coils
(work in process)
Make no mistake, malaria is a killer, and although there are fewer mosquitoes in the cooler highlands of Burundi, you need to consider the entire country as being malarial and take appropriate precautions.
Regardless of the effectiveness of whatever malarial prophylaxis you're taking, the best precaution you can take is to avoid getting bitten in the first place. So, in addition to religiously popping your malaria muti, you should be slathering yourself with mosquito repellent, covering up with long sleeved shirts and long trousers between dusk and dawn and taking particular care not to get bitten when you're sleeping. That means sleeping under mozzie nets (where possible) and using mozzie coils.
That said, why would I be recommending devices as primitive as mosquito coils when travel shops are full of all sorts of clever gizmos that you can plug in to keep the pestilential little buggers at bay? Well, the simple, unvarnished truth is that unglamorous mozzie coils are effective in almost every setting - regardless of how primative your accommodation might be. Moreover, they don't rely on an external power source, which in a country plagued by such an unreliable electricity supply as Burundi, is absolutely vital. And, as though they didn't already have enough going for them, they are also cheap as chips and almost always available in malarial areas.
I always travel with several packets of mozzie coils, because they are brittle and tend to break easily, especially when you are trying to ease the 'yin' and yang' parts of the coils apart. This is not as easy as it sounds, and takes some practice before you become proficient: I find that it's easiest to start in the middle and press gently along one coil to separate them. This is a task best done slowly and in good light before you decide to imbibe alcoholic beverages - trying to achieve this in the dark when you've had 'one over the eight' is bound to end in tears ...
You then need to push up the little pin from the little metal stand that comes in the packet so that it's at 90 degrees to the base, and carefully push the pin into the little slot in the coil - again, it's easy to break the coil at this point, so proceed gently and with caution. Once this manoeuvre is complete, you are ready to light the coil. It will initially burn with a flame, but in a few seconds, the flame will go out, leaving a smoking 'stump'.
Quite apart from being messy, you need to bear in mind that the ash that falls off the coil as it burns is extremely hot, and will sear most surfaces that it falls on: something that is unlikely to endear you to your hotelier. To avoid this happening, I find that it's best to place the coil onto a metal or glass surface (most rooms in the developing world still come equipped with an ashtray). At the other end of the spectrum, don't be tempted to place them on the sole of a flipflop, as I once nearly burned down a tent this way, narrowly avoiding asphyxiation in the process due to the noxious fumes liberated by burning plastic ... not my finest hour! [blush]
A couple of very obvious last points, which i mention because they are so obvious that you could easily overlook them. Firstly, each packet (which usually contains 10 coils) only has one coil stand, so however short your trip, sharing a packet of coils between two people sleeping in separate rooms isn't possible unless you bring an extra stand. For this reason, I tend to save coil stands after I've finished a packet of coils, and pack a few spares just in case, as they're elusive little gubbins that can easily get lost in your luggage. Oh yes, and bear in mind that you need to bring matches or a lighter too ... ;)
When it rains, it pours!
(work in progress)
Burundi is in the tropics, so it should come as little surprise that it gets a lot of rain – however, that doesn’t diminish the surprise when the heavens open and a deluge of Biblical proportions cascades down on your head.
A particularly powerful storm hit our last afternoon in town, flooding the centre of town – most notably the lowlying area around the Primus brewery, thus temporarily severing the link between the airport and the centre of town.
When it rains really hard, even the most expensive rainwear really isn’t of much use: it will get waterlogged so quickly that you’ll get soaked anyway, so it isn’t really worth the effort, and will probably leave you feeling clammy to boot. Rather save this for less intense showers where it is likely to be more effective.
First prize is to seek shelter under cover from the storm if you have the option, making sure that you choose buildings rather than metal structures or trees that are vulnerable to lightning strikes. If you have to venture forth, an umbrella is useful to protect you from the impact of the rain – for this reason, it’s probably worth travelling with a folding umbrella. If you are driving, it’s advisable to pull over until the worst of the storm has abated, as even the fastest windscreen wiper setting is unlikely to provide you with decent visibility – just make sure that you do so in a relatively elevated area, rather than a hollow that morphs into a lake after rain. If you have to drive, make sure that your headlights are on and drive extremely slowly, keeping a sharp eye out for cyclists.
Above all, remember that rain is a blessing, and focus on the blissful relief from the heat and humidity that the rain will bring!
A HUNDRED (HORRIBLE) WAYS TO DIE
Doesn’t sound like a nice way to die does it? Please note that the Diseases is plural. Very plural. If you want to get to know a local Burundin VERY well – make sure you use a condom. You will see signs across Burundi warning of the dangers of ‘SIDA’. SIDA stands for Le syndrome de l'immunodéficience acquise. French for AIDS. Unfortunately Burundi, like so many developing countries, has a high infection rate. Being reckless can kill you. Worse – you could get something really nasty that will make you regret living.
Just in case you don’t believe it, I have listed some of the diseases and infections you can contract after getting SIDA.
Bacterial Pneumonia, Septicaemia (blood poisoning), Tuberculosis, Cryptococcosis, Penicilliosis, Herpes Simplex, Herpes Zoster Virus, Isopsoriasis, Leishmaniasis, Candidiasis, Cryptosporidiosis, Microsporidiosis, Toxoplasmosis, Kaposi's Sarcoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, and Lymphoma. This list drives my Spellchecker crazy and they all sound horrible. With good reason.
All these diseases, viruses, infections and growths are available FREE when you save time and money not using a condom.
Please be careful.Related to:
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B.P 1267 Bujumbura, Burundi, Africa
Satisfaction: Very Good
Good for: Business
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