“Uwunguruza abantu n’ikinga,” in the Kurundi dialect of Burundi, means “bike taxi-man.” In the small East African country’s capital, Bujumbura, cyclists transport everything from human passengers to huge bundles of bananas and sugarcane to bricks and bedroom sets.
In 2013, German photographer Stephan Würth took a two-day road trip around the hilly country, snapping images on his iPhone of these ubiquitous “bike taxi-men.” He documented how “the bicycle has become an integral part of [Burundian] citizens’ daily survival,” as Joseph Akel writes in Ikinga, a new book of Würth’s photographs. In a country the IMF ranks as one of the poorest in the world — the average annual income is below $300 — many Burundians rely on bicycles as a means of supporting themselves.
For decades, images of Burundi in the Western media have focused on the civil war and ethnic clashes that have caused turmoil in the country since King Mwambusta declared independence from Belgian colonial rule in 1962. Würth’s photographs offer a window into aspects of Burundi’s culture and landscape — inventiveness, pride, vibrant color — that are often eclipsed by reportage on the country’s struggles.
“While the history of Burundi and its legacy of civil war and ethnic conflict cannot be ignored, Würth’s photographs, far from eschewing this legacy, offer new insights into how the nation strives to overcome its past by presenting a unique glimpse into life there today,” Akel writes. “The bicycle has become a potent symbol of how that change is playing out … Indeed, the bicycle in Burundian culture has, in many ways, come to stand in for the resilience and the ingenuity of its people.” In these candid images, a smiling young mother with her baby strapped to her back rides sidesaddle on a bike-taxi; a bike’s handlebars are decorated with stripy knitted fabrics, tassels, and reflectors; and a group of boys on bikes cling to the bumper of a fuel truck, hitching a ride.
Founded in 2005, Burundian bicycle-taxi association, Solidarite des Taxis Velos du Burundi, has more than 15,000 unionized members. It doubles as a “de-facto civic organization assisting in the security and well-being of its members and their neighborhoods.” The association is an example of how the role of the bicycle has evolved since Burundi’s period of civil war, in which bike-taxis were often the fastest and most inconspicuous means for Burundians to flee into nearby forests, as opposition forces blockaded the country’s few paved roads.
Today, violence in Burundi is worsening once again; diplomats have expressed fear that the country is “going to hell.” The peaceful images from ikinga aren’t meant sugarcoat a dire situation, but they offer a visual counterpoint that balances such sentiments. “Ultimately, what come across in the photographs that make up ikinga,” Akel writes, “is the resilient human face of a country that has, for too long occupied a place in our collective imagination as a land in inhumanity.”
Ikinga by Stephan Wurth is available from Damiani.