Athletic escapism in Burundi

It’s 7am on Sunday morning but already hundreds of bright bodies—a stirred up rainbow beehive—are sprinkled across the brown sand beaches of Bujumbura. We are all here for one thing—to exercise.

I’d left home at dawn in my running shoes.
The town was still waking up, but I passed a few early joggers en route to the sandy shores of Lake Tanganyika. A few cars were already on the road, mostly transporting goods to the market.

I’m struggling with the pace. I love running, but I don’t do it regularly anymore—no time! When I finally reach the coastline—out of breath—I feel instantly energised. By now the sun has risen, like a gigantic light bulb switched on at a private beach party, and the sight of all those moving bodies is surreal.

Flashy push-ups and body stretches are flaunted on the sand, with the show spilling on to the road. Moving vehicles meander cautiously among the contorting bodies. People are in groups, or alone, playing soccer, doing aerobics, bending and flexing—all this while chatting and catching up on gossip. For many of us, it’s just the perfect place to be in Burundi’s capital on a warm Sunday morning.

This particular 2km stretch of beach regularly welcomes hundreds of young and old Burundians who’ve caught the exercise craze. But the rest of the city will also be buzzing with citizens walking in groups belonging to the 20 or so sport clubs, or with family and friends.

Another Bujumbura hot spot for the sporty is a popular uphill route, arduous to run or walk. The ultimate reward for such intense workouts is, once at the top, the view. The panoramic sight stretches beyond the great lake to the tips of the hills of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Gazing down at the contained city and beyond gives me an overwhelming sense inner peace, so occasionally I still slog up that hill.

Foreigner visitors to the city always remark on it: people here love to exercise—anywhere, anytime. The people of this city love to be out perspiring, and runners are a recurring sight, day or night.

Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi at the heart of Africa, is home to about 600 000 people. This is a big population for a tiny city that feels more like a friendly town, green with trees and easy to get acquainted with.

Burundi suffered through a decade of bloody civil war, but this small, poor country has been more or less peaceful since its last elections in 2005. Compared to the rest of the country, the capital did not take the full impact of the war, so although its old buildings could use a lick of fresh paint, Bujumbura remains an attractive city. But the war is part explanation for why the exercise phenomenon really took root in the capital rather than in the countryside.

Desiré Ntungana, a thirtysomething club bouncer and my karate and aerobics instructor, puts it like this: “People lacked things to do during the war as all work stopped. A lot of people started to exercise to pass time and when they started to meet regularly, that’s when many clubs were formed. This was an activity to rid them of negative thoughts.”

I was in my early teens at the outbreak of the civil war in 1994. The schools simply closed. My uncle, who was in the army, gathered some relatives and friends for the pleasures of jogging and body strengthening exercises. It was a way to keep us motivated, sunshine on a gloomy day.

Things have not always been like this. More than a decade ago, explains Ntungana, the trend was to see young people out exercising rather than the older generation.

Now, says Ntungana as he puts me through my paces on the beach, “you might run into an old mama who is exercising, as recommended by her doctor”.

“Once their bodies start flexing, people become addicts.” As the tall and athletic exercise enthusiast talks, a large woman and her similarly-sized daughter sashay across the beach, chitchatting and happy to be out to greet the morning sun.

Ntungana is my favourite instructor from the five club groups, though after his backbreaking fat-burning exercise, I am a dead woman walking. My own mother jogs three times a week for an hour—at 6am—with her friends to stay fit. I struggle to keep up with her.

Ntungana’s Sunday classes are part of the family jogging club. “When they see me giving fun exercises, everybody flocks to me,” he says, smiling. “When I see someone exercising, I am happy. If I can help them train, I am very happy.”

Sports became a refuge, when jobs became scarce, says Paul Rwota, the club’s president who was ordered by his doctor to take up exercise to reduce his weight. It is something people do to help time pass as well as for health reasons, he says, adding that he struggles to maintain his exercise routine. “But it does help me to relax.” And in this Rwota is like many Burundians who found exercise a way to cheer the spirits and face the aftermath of war with all the economic and social problems that came with it.

Rachid Rukwiye (40) is on his way home from the beach, before the sweltering heat of midmorning kicks in. Exercising, he says, is in his blood.

He used to play a lot of soccer, but now he jogs to the beach for 30 minutes. “Exercising becomes a meeting point and, when you meet many people, it becomes fun.”

A man stretching vigorously along the road shouts at me as I casually walk in wonder through the maze of people: “Stretch, do something, don’t just walk!”

That’s Bujumbura, people casually giving each other advice, without knowing their recipients personally.
Running shoes are a must in your luggage if you come to Burundi.

Haydee Bangerezako is a freelance writer and a researcher on local industries. She lives in Bujumbura

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