Where ikinga Rules the Road: Photographs of Burundi’s Vibrant Bike Culture
APRIL 3, 2016 6:00 AM by REBECCA BENGAL
Everywhere, Uwunguruza abantu n’ikinga (“bike taxi-men”) ferried passengers on the backs of their bikes—women in traditional dress riding sidesaddle, men in Western suits, a woman with a baby strapped to her back. Bikes were also heaped with coffee beans and laden with containers of cooking oil, stacked with bananas, sugar cane, works of art, and even and rather unbelievably, bricks. Necessity breeds creativity here; the average annual income in Burundi is less than $300.
“In this land that was so otherworldly to me, it was captivating to see how the ikinga was used so universally—all ages, jobs,” Würth said recently by email, en route from photographing another project in Thailand. “So I decided to just take pictures of every bicycle I saw during those two days.” What he captured is a kind of cinema vérité of the vibrant motion of Burundian life on the road. Riffing on Walker Evans’s stealth method of subway photography (Evans famously concealed a small camera in his coat), Würth abandoned his Leica and ended up using his wife’s phone to make the pictures. “I noticed that almost no one saw me take snaps with the iPhone,” he says. “And I loved the images because I was able to capture something more natural and real.”
Growing up outside Munich, Würth had thought of bikes as representing freedom; in Burundi, they have functioned as a literal means of independence. As Joseph Akel reminds in the book’s foreword, the country has a long history of deep unrest. Survivors of civil war in the country depended on ikinga for their lives, taking them into forests to avoid roadblocks set up by opposition forces: “Hitching rides under cover of night, bicycle-taxis were the fastest and most inconspicuous means to escape from certain death.”
Würth’s pictures don’t examine the political strife in the country, but rather the movement of day-to-day life. A sense of liberation and joy was apparent in the ikinga culture he encountered, and it’s plainly evident in these images. “I just really appreciated how universally used and loved the ikinga are. In a place where there is so little, these bicycles are treasures that are taken care of meticulously,” he says. On the cover of the book, a bike is sweetly draped in a colorful, hand-knitted scarf. “What struck me most about the people was that they seem happy, or at least content. In the Western world, especially in the U.S., I notice people with depressed faces. Here I saw no one just lying around—everyone seemed to have a purpose in Burundi.”
A Photographer Follows the Ubiquitous Bike Taxis of Burundi
“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.”
In pictures: The cyclists of Burundi
In 2013 photographer Stephan Wurth was in Burundi and became fascinated by the bicycles that are used to transport people and all manner of goods around the country.
Using an iPhone, Wurth set out to capture as many of them as he could. It was a whirlwind project, shot in just two days as he passed through the interior, recording a side of Burundi rarely seen.
The work has just been published in a book titled Ikinga, after the phrase "Uwunguruza abantu n'ikinga," which means "bike taxi-man".
Burundi is one of the world's poorest nations. It went through a 12-year long ethnic-based civil war that ended in 2005.
Last year it was plunged into a new crisis when Pierre Nkurunziza's successful bid for re-election to a third term sparked protests by opposition supporters who said the move was unconstitutional.
During the civil war, the bicycle was often used by civilians as a fast and quiet means of escape, though at one point the government accused the bicycle taxi riders of transporting rebels.
The book of the project includes a foreword by writer Joseph Akel, who says: "Wurth's photographs document Burundi's bicycle culture without casting judgement on their role in the nation's political and cultural history."