Impressed by the mukeke, drums and jogging in Burundi while in the country to attend a traditional wedding, Anyiko Owoko writes that this has been her first time traveling to a place whose culture challenged her to learn more about her own.
As I plan my first trip to Burundi, where I am to attend a friend’s traditional wedding, I don’t know what to expect when I arrive because I haven’t heard much about the culture and food, the two things I’m always drawn to when I travel. I am however excited and ready to immerse myself in everything this landlocked country will have to offer.
It’s a five hour flight from Nairobi and when we arrive at around 5:00 pm, which would typically be rush hour in Nairobi, it is so refreshing to be met by clear roads. Bujumbura is a small city and most of its residents don’t own personal cars. I am immediately drawn to its scenic hills and mountains, which I have thus far only seen featured in several popular music videos by the country’s local artists, an area of interest to me given that I often work with musicians.
I quickly notice how the residents of Bujumbura are often out jogging at all times of the day, running up and down the curved turns of the city’s winding roads. Burundians actually have a long history of jogging tracing back to bleak times when the country was in war and conflict. For years, citizens used jogging as a means of expression against political oppression. Since then, jogging has been so ingrained into their culture that today it is a hobby for many Burundians. In recent years, the country’s President Pierre Nkurunziza banned jogs involving thousands of people. To jog in a large group, you must first join a jogging club or register with the government, after which you must pick one of the pre-approved venues.
The culture and food are also quite rich and mind blowing. Burundians speak Kirundi, Swahili and French. Having been colonized by the French, some of those influences are still prevalent in their food and love for good wine. Whether you are at a five-star hotel or downtown, you must simply sample Lake Tanganyika’s Sleek lates fish known locally as mukeke, famed for its natural delicious flavour and the fact that it is only found in Lake Tanganyika. For lunch on our first day, we visit Roca Golf Hotel in the heart of Bujumbura for the best grilled Mukeke served in mouth-watering amaranth leaves locally known as lenga-lenga.
Later in the evening we visit Bwiza area in downtown Bujumbura where we have michopo—Senegalese-style grilled goat meat served with a hot sauce made from red chillies, lime and spices. Both michopo and mukeke are often eaten with sticky ugali made from cassava flour.
The traditional wedding I am attending at The Atrium, nestled right by the shores of Lake Tanganyika, is a very cultural affair. In the first phase, for instance, ladies dress up in traditional attire called imvutano. Entertainment is a lively number reminiscent of the Rwandese traditional dance, where the dancers raise their hands in regal postures as though they were royal birds. Traditional drumming is also so prominent here that you need to get a permit to be allowed to have drummers even at a private function. With a selection of over 25 big drums accompanied by a talented team of male drummers at my friend’s wedding, this is certainly a very prestigious function.
My trip sparks several questions regarding my own culture and how much tradition still plays a role in our everyday lives back in Kenya. Upon returning, I’ve been curious to find out what people from my tribe, the Luo, would wear and do during traditional ceremonies like weddings.
It has been surprising that my mother doesn’t know much about this because even during her heydays, she says ceremonies were pretty basic. This has been my first time traveling to a place whose culture challenged me to learn more about my own.