Timeless Bujumbura: a colonial city that has stood the test of time
By Gilbert Mwijuke
Over the years, most cities in the East African region have had to lose their original faces to give way to new, modern buildings and roads in order to keep up with the modern times.
But Bujumbura, the former Burundian capital, has remained pretty much the same for decades. The same roads, sewerage systems and buildings that were constructed during the colonial era still prevail. Built on plan from the word go, Bujumbura’s historic architecture has managed to stand the test of time.
While modern skyscrapers — most of which were built just a few years ago — dominate most East African cities, Bujumbura’s skyline is still dominated by colonial architecture of yore.
In fact, there are just a handful of buildings in the city that have been constructed in recent times, a trend that can be explained by both Burundi’s failure to attract substantial Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) and the sheer lack of need for new structures.
Unfavourable political economy
“Many foreign investors have little or no interest in Burundi because of the country’s unfavourable political economy,” says Christian Nibasumba, Burundian country director of TradeMark East Africa, a Nairobi-headquartered non-profit organisation that operates in six countries in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
According to Nibasumba, the uncertain nature of Burundi’s political economy has kept away would-be investors, especially in the country’s hospitality industry.
For instance, international and regional hotel brands — such as Marriott, Radisson Blu, Hilton and Serena that operate in other regional cities — would have changed Bujumbura’s skyline at least a little bit with new properties if they were to make a foray into the city.
However, such hotel chains still view investing in Bujumbura with indifference because “every election year usually comes with uncertainty, yet these investors always want to focus on the long-term,” says Nibasumba.
Presidential elections — or transition of power — in Burundi usually begin and end in some kind of unrest, forcing most foreign businesses and non-governmental organisations to close shop, either temporarily or permanently. If that can change, TradeMark East Africa’s Nibasumba and others believe that new structures could mushroom in Bujumbura as FDIs surge.
With the 2020 presidential elections just around the corner, the Burundian government has promised peaceful elections this time around. Ezechiel Nibigira, Minister of Foreign Affairs, told the United Nations General Assembly in September that the security situation in the lead up to the June 2020 election was “stable, calm and under control throughout the whole territory”.
ReliefWeb reported that some “positive gestures from the authorities towards ensuring peaceful elections were outlined by Mr. Nibigira, including the promotion of freedom of expression and allowing new political parties to exist; the decision of Burundi’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza, not to stand in presidential elections; the reintegration of refugees and political exiles; and the release of more than 2,000 prisoners since the beginning of the year.”
If the next presidential elections prove to be peaceful, maybe foreign investors might rethink their stance towards setting up permanent bases in Bujumbura, something that could give rise to new, modern buildings that could in turn alter the city’s skyline.
Colonialists planned to settle in Bujumbura
On the other hand, Bujumbura has not had a pressing need for new buildings or roads as the city was built on a good plan from the very beginning. In other words, the city was “modern” from the start.
During the colonial era when Rwanda and Burundi were under one government (Ruanda-Urundi), Bujumbura was the main administrative and business city due to its strategic location.
Set on the lowlands of the country and on the shores of the legendary Lake Tanganyika — the second-deepest lake in the world — it was easy and alluring for Belgian colonialists to plan and construct buildings and a road infrastructure for posterity.
“The colonialists had a good plan for the city because they intended to settle here; they were planning for themselves,” says Amb. Salvator Ntahomenyereye, marketing director at the Burundi National Tourism Office.
In the city centre, not only can you see monuments to Burundi’s legendary leaders, but many buildings in Bujumbura, most of them built by Belgians, feature profound designs despite being old — from the Palais Des Arts Et de la Culture building on Avenue Patrice Lumumba to the historic Regina Mundi Cathedral, built way back in 1903.
Bujumbura is testament to the fact that under Belgian colonial rule, this tiny East African country flourished with invention and capitalism. Even back then, the capital Bujumbura featured buildings and roads of an awe-inspiring sight — so much that they are yet to give city planners a plausible reason to have them demolished to give rise to new, modern buildings.
Today, travellers to Bujumbura can tour a slew of historic, opulent buildings, including hotels and shopping malls, that were constructed way back in the 20th Century.
Hotel Club Du Lac Tanganyika, which remains one of the most popular resorts in Bujumbura to date, was a favourite hangout for Ruanda-Urundi’s rich and famous. In fact, it’s from this picturesque lakeside resort that Prince Louis Rwagasore, Burundi’s first Prime Minister and one of the most revered icons in the country’s political history, was assassinated in October 1961.
Even though Burundi is currently ranked as one of the poorest countries on earth (a debatable ranking especially after you’ve visited the country), its old money (mostly from its gold reserves in Muyinga Province, northeast of the country) shows up in the old, yet swanky architecture of the country’s former capital city.
Indeed, Burundi of the bygone days spent its gold money quite well!