Visiting Goma, Congo
I had the opportunity back in December ’09 to pop across from Gisenyi to Goma, after a few of us had done the fabulous trek to see the Mountain Gorillas. Three of my colleagues decided to do a quick trip to visit Goma and maybe even get to see the volcano only a dozen or so kilometres out of town. I passed on that and chilled out at the Rwanda-side hotel’s private beach. Only 4 hours later, they returned, slightly breathless with the daring-do of the trip they had just made to what they described as a virtual war-zone of dilapidated buildings, broken roads, razor-wire and edgy UN troops. They’d managed to get beyond the town perimeter to play around in the lava fields, but got only half-way to the volcano foothills due to reports of rebel activity.
Early April 2010, and it was time to set this right with a real trip to Goma.
Information was sketchy – there hasn’t been a roaring tourism industry in Eastern Congo in quite a while. Five of us decided to go, after checking out UN and UK websites for consular corps advisories, and we divvied up the work of piecing the trip together. The aim was to spend 3 days around Goma, perhaps seeing the volcano or the gorillas, take a boat down Lake Kivu mostly for the views (Congo one side, Rwanda the other), and then have maybe a day in the Nyungwe rain forest in South West Rwanda before heading back to Kigali late on the 5th day. The boat trip from Goma to the southern end of the lake, a town named Bukavu, takes 3-4 hours by speedboat (US$50/person), or 2-3 times that long by slow overnight ferry.
Goma had been given a poor rap by one of the three colleagues who’d gone there in December… danger, dirt, scary people, demands for bribes, guns… and this fear message spread to the point where a potential sixth member of our trip talked himself out of going just a week or so beforehand and instead went off to a quiet, safe lake in Uganda for the weekend.
This volte-face by our erstwhile colleague was not completely ill-founded; in fact in sober, reflective moments before traveling the risks seemed fairly daunting. Goma presents not one, not two but three major risks: rebels, volcanoes and a deadly dangerous gas bubble.
First, Rebels: even after two major wars between the Rwandans and the Hutu regime who’d fled with tens of thousands of genocidiers/fighters to Goma in 1994, along with a massive number of Hutu civilians. Kinzer and other authors point to the bitter irony of the huge humanitarian effort that followed as these 1 million refugees were cared for by international agencies, while the blood in Rwanda still leaked into the gutters of Kigali. Large numbers of these killers remain at large, occupying areas in the forests and mountains around Goma. So deadly has this conflict been that it is estimated 3-4 million people have died, mostly innocent civilians caught between bullets, rapists and fatal diseases. The rebels were only cleared off the nearby volcano in February 2010.
Second, Volcanoes: the volcanoes near Goma (there are several) are frequently active; the nearest one, Mt. Nyiragongo, just 15 Km away, sent a river of lava through Goma in 2002, destroying 4,500 buildings and covering 40% of this city of 200,000-300,000 (no-one knows), including 1/3 of the airport runway.
And then third, there’s Gas: the massive carbon dioxide gas bubble under Lake Kivu is apparently 2,000 times larger than the one that killed nearly 2,000 people in their sleep at Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986…it’s all just waiting to happen, if it can’t be tapped and extracted in time.
In other words – what’s there to worry about?
One confidence-restoring factor about going to Goma was that a friend from Johns Hopkins had recently relocated there from Kinshasa right across on the other side of Congo. Joseph is an urbane, intellectual guy – not known to be a dare-devil. When I had pinged him by Google chat to ask how he found Goma, his reply was “Chaotic, busy, crazy… LOVE it!” Joseph works in a relief agency helping farmers restore their lives after being relocated. When he later told me he had just trekked up the volcano, Mt. Nyiragongo (a later post), and spent time warming his toes over a lava lake, that sealed the deal — we were going!
Getting to Goma from Kigali is straight-forward. One of our party, flying in from Nairobi and delayed several hours by a heavy fog over Kigali, took a car at a cost of $150 one-way. We locals just took a mutatu, the long distance mini-buses that jam in the passengers (but only as many as there are seats, including the fold-down ones running down the aisles — unlike Kenya and elsewhere, where bodies are simply jammed in any which way). For a princely fare of Rwanda Francs 2800 (about US$5) the 3-3.5 hour trip was paid for and, right on the nail, the bus left Kigali at 7am. At Gisenyi, the town on the western side of Rwanda situated right by Lake Kivu, we disembarked and found our way to the Rwanda-Congo border.
Forms were filled in, queues were stood in (with plenty of queue-jumper attempts), various bureaucratic huffings and puffings ensued at both border posts, and – to our complete surprise, and contrary to all the warnings we’d been given – no bribe nor even hassle occurred on the Congo side. Instead, after plenty of manual transcription of every conceivable detail into a large ledger book had recorded our entry (and US$35 visa fee), we each received an A4-sided visa form, like a merit award, and off we went.
The hotel, Hotel Ihusi, is perhaps the best hotel in Goma, and the lovely lakeside location, stiff room tariff ($90 single), and eye-watering $15 pizzas and $10 mini-burgers at the lakeside eatery definitely supported that claim.
The rooms were fine, the food was edible, and the front desk staff were cheerfully surly – ask them a question (taxi? location of the tourism office? telephone number for a tour company?) and the disdain was palpable. Yes they speak French, but still, it’s not Paris right?
That afternoon, while my companions decided to take a nap, I headed out of the (armed guarded) compound of the hotel to take a walk. Turning into the long avenue that runs up from the lake to the town centre, the first of a few things quickly became apparent: this town had been hit by a natural disaster (the volcanic eruption of 2002, in which few people died but 40% of the town was knocked over by a slow but unstoppable lava flow).
The roads were a mess. As I got closer to the town centre (about a 2Km walk), signs of reconstruction and repair appeared everywhere. And the most commonly-used building material: blocks, chunks and fine gravel all made from lava. Lava is so widely used that many of the buildings and almost all of the walls around those buildings are coloured a dull black-grey.
Large areas of infrastructure work are also evident – ditches here, there, everywhere, for laying pipes and cables. All of this makes being a pedestrian a matter of keeping sharp and watching your footing as sidewalks suddenly run out and trucks, buses, mutatus, motorbikes, large wooden scooters used to haul goods, and UN and NGO vehicles all whizz by.
The UN and NGO presence is evident everywhere. Armed UN patrols, by appearance mostly Indian and Middle Eastern soldiers, are ubiquitous.
Equally as common as flies at a BBQ are NGOs of every type; Goma hosts over 200 NGOs, and, as I saw a couple of days later as we drove along the lakeshore dominated by large 2 and 3 story houses occupied almost exclusively by NGO families, they look after themselves well.
One only dimly-anticipated upshot of all this NGO and UN presence is that Goma has (again) a vibrant night life, ranging from a bunch of funky eating/drinking places, with good food, cold beers and a lively crowd of ‘muzungus’ as well as sophisticated locals, through to the dives we avoided where the working ladies of Goma congregate to be won over by the charm, wit and wallet of an overpaid foreigner…
The prices of everything accessible by a foreigner are NGO-tainted as well; the small supermarkets catering to foreigners price in US$ and they price with giddy abandon… $3 for a loaf of bread, $5 for a large bottle of water…
I’d bet that these sorts of prices are a little out of the league of the university students we saw hanging out on the long, rusty balconies of their lake-side campus building.
At dinner on one of the nights, we spotted a group of UN types at another table and fearlessly dispatched a (female) member of our team to reel one of these guys over to our table for a conversation, not least because one of our group is a young journalist who wanted the inside story.
Within 5 minutes we had our UN man at the table, an affable young chap who, it turned out, is Jordanian. We quizzed him on his background, his role, whether his work could help rebuild the city, his interest in the politics of the place, and his reasons for being here in Goma.
His answers were: career soldier; cartographer; no view on any use of his work by civil authorities; no interest in any local news; here simply for the higher money. When he spotted our journalist buddy actually scribbling down some notes, the games was up and the lips snapped shut…
We never did get to take that boat ride down Lake Kivu. We had decided to take a two day trek, the logistics got fouled up by the agent which delayed us. So we instead spent an extra day in and around Goma, visiting the lava field area and Green Lake (which is fed underground, separately from Kivu).
We ended by cruising the long lakeshore drive where the sun shone on high-pitched NGO house roofs and gleamed on NGO 4WD SUVs storming in and out of razor-wired house compounds.
I guess Lake Kivu, and its gas bubble, will just have to wait for another $5 bus ride from Kigali.