Burundi — World’s poorest country?

As you read today’s travelogue, you can get a feel for what it’s like to sit in a bar on the shore of Lake Tanganyika by clicking on the audio link below. The singer is a South African named Lucky Dube. The song is titled It’s Not Easy.

There are many ways to measure the wealth or poverty of a country. One of the more common ways is to divide the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by the country’s population. This gives the overall average income of every man, woman and child. Countries like Norway, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Qatar, Macau, Australia and the United States come out on the top of this list with average annual incomes greater than $50,000.

The map above shows that most of the world’s poor countries are in Africa, where average annual incomes fall below $1,000. Among the poorest of these countries is Burundi, where the GDP per capita is about $300. Although this number varies from year to year depending on exchange rates, Burundi has been ranked as one of the three poorest countries in the world for the past several years.

Burundi’s GDP per capita of $300 suggests that the average Burundian lives on about $1 per day. This number is misleading because there are several millionaires in Burundi whose extreme incomes raise the population’s average income. A better number to use would be Burundi’s median income which is $129 per person per year, or 35 cents per day. This median value tells us that 50% of Burundi’s citizens survive on 35 cents per day … or less. Burundi has one of the world’s lowest median incomes. With an estimated 80% of its citizens living at or below the poverty level, Burundi may be the world’s poorest country.

Before coming to Burundi, I read the US State Department’s Level 3 advisory against travel to Burundi. I also learned that western news media are barred from reporting on the politics of Burundi ever since the BBC’s documentary on the government’s genocide against its opposition.

Nevertheless, I just spent a pleasant, relaxing and inexpensive 4-day weekend in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital city.

Here’s the hotel where I stayed: The Safari Gate Hotel. It’s a decent 3-star hotel with friendly service, a rooftop bar/restaurant, a pool and wifi. This is where African businessmen and local families stay. If you want to pay three times more, you could stay with the foreign tourists at the Hotel Club du Lac Tanganyika. Both hotels are on the shore Lake Tanganyika.

Here’s where I ate my breakfast of fruits, eggs, bread and African tea every morning. At 673 km long, Lake Tanganyika is the longest freshwater lake in the world. After Siberia’s Lake Baikal, it’s also the second-largest by volume, and the second-deepest. The lake is shared between Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Each morning, I enjoyed cool breezes off the lake and watched birds fly through the trees as I sipped my ginger tea.

On the beach next to my hotel, I witnessed a big family wedding on Saturday morning. Across the lake, just barely visible in the distance, are the high mountains of eastern Congo.

The best way to get around town is by tuk-tuk. These 3-wheeled transports are just like the ones in India, Thailand or the Philippines. They’re cheap, fast and easy. Always negotiate the price for your ride first.

Burundi is about the size of Massachusetts. Its capital city Bujumbura has a population of about 1 million. Sitting on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, the city has the feel of a slow-moving beach town. Here’s the center of town with the bus terminal and the covered market.

In this landlocked, resource-poor country with an undeveloped manufacturing sector, there aren’t many jobs. Consequently, it’s normal to see lots of young men standing around with nothing to do.

With few jobs, sports are popular. The football pitch near my hotel hosted matches from dawn to dusk every day.

For the few wealthy golfers in Bujumbura, there’s an 18-hole golf course right in the middle of the city. It’s only 500 meters from the city’s bus terminal and central market. You can play golf on the manicured course for $20 per day. I noticed that there were no golf carts, but lots of caddies.

Although I can’t recommend Burundi as a tourist destination, Bujumbura is a colorful backwater in the middle of Africa. I communicated using a mixture of English and French. People were friendly. It was easy to get around town on foot or by tuk-tuk. The food — especially the fish and beer — was delicious and cheap. There were hip cafes and bars on the beach that played good music.

In the interior of the country, there are national parks which I didn’t visit because of the warnings published in my Lonely Planet guide. Another negative about Burundi is that a single-entry tourist visa costs $90 and takes two weeks to be issued in Addis Ababa. Still, I’m glad I came here and have no complaints. Burundi is a stark reminder of humanity’s income disparity … and of how people can survive and be somewhat happy in spite of having nothing.

Burundi is my 158th country, my last stop in Africa and the end of this chapter of my travels. The next time you hear from me, I”ll be more than 13,000 kilometers east of here.