First impressions of Goma, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (February 2014)

view of Goma from the air

It was so lovely sitting up on the hotel terrace this morning. It seems like Saturday is washing day in Goma so I could see people washing their clothes in the lake or bathing in it themselves, then spreading the clothes out to dry on rocks, trees and bushes. There was also a steady stream of men and women walking down to the lake with jerry cans to collect their water rations for the day. It’s surprising, though, that people use the water for bathing and drinking in this way as it is, apparently, full of gas. Ever so often, the UN helicopters break the silence above the lake–always in pairs–disturbing the peaceful atmosphere and the sound of birds and waves from the lakes hitting the shores of Goma. I also saw the big passenger boat arrive from Bukavu in South Kivu, and a smaller passenger boat –not sure where that was headed.

I was also particularly touched by an old man who had a small canoe type boat with him in a small bay just by the hotel. Painstakingly, with measured movements and patiently, he worked away in that little bay, clearing rocks and branches (sometimes with a machete) , throwing stones to one side and moving the boat closer and closer to the side of the shore closest to the hotel wall. I watched him for at least half an hour and when I came back from my excursion into town he was still there working away. He had the dearest face and I wish I could have got a photo of him but equally did not want to push my luck too much–I don’t like taking pictures of people without asking for permission but the best photos are the spontaneous ones taken without people knowing I am taking them, often with my super-strong zoom.

 I struggle to sum up my first impressions of Goma: two main roads fully tarmacked and in excellent condition-all others are bumpy dirt tracks with stones, sand and dust all around them–mostly black as the entirety of Goma is practically made up of volcanic soil, given the volcano nearby. This also explains why the area is so green and why it is so rich in agricultural produce–they can practically cultivate anything here, even crops which we grow in Europe, given the more moderate climate.

The hustle and bustle of Goma was as evident on a Saturday as it was on the other days. What struck me was the huge number of motorbikes all over the roads, going on their merry way alongside UN and NGO landcruisers…they, too, are everywhere. Occasionally, you will see the big UN trucks which are used by the MONUSCO (UN Security Mission in Congo) with blue helmets or Congolese soldiers in them–occasionally also the Congolese army en route to a combat zone somewhere in the rural areas. Apart from the motorbike, NGO and UN vehicles, the roadsides area also full of pedestrians–women with babies tied to their backs or holding on to their skirts, adolescents, men–walking or wheeling heavily loaded wooden bicycles which are typical of Goma–they are literally bikes made of wood and apparently cost about USD 40. Hey why not–if you can’t afford a real bike, wood can do the trick.

how much weight can a wooden bike take

You also see many women with fruit baskets on their heads—these, as our driver told me, are actually Rwandan women selling fruit from Rwanda here in Goma. In fact, most people in Goma head across the border into Rwanda to buy items such as fruit, vegetable and even meat –all of which are cheaper there. The Rwandan border is literally a short walk across a bridge. You also see men sitting by little tables under parasols, selling mobile phone credit; others wander around with wads of cash in hand ready to change US dollars into Congolese Francs. Both currencies are in full use here in Goma and also in Kinshasa—-I will have a nightmare explaining to the finance team at Christian Aid why I get Congolese Francs as change when I pay with US dollar notes. I am forever calculating exchange rates on a spreadsheet.

As I sat in the sunshine today looking around, I felt such an ache in my heart: there is such beauty, such mineral wealth here. The people are so lovely; children and adolescents do what children and adolescents worldwide do; women and men dream of peace and of keeping their families safe like we all do–and yet these people have witnessed violence of the worst degree. It breaks my heart.

I am looking forward to visiting some of the communities in North Kivu next week-although also a bit apprehensive: after all, reading about suffering is one thing; seeing it directly is a totally different matter.