08.07.2009 - 10.07.2009
Of all the days for my camera to die, this was not an ideal one. I was standing on top of a glorious lava flow, with the remains of several houses to be seen, some at the second or third story and unable to take any photos to share with you all. When Mount Nyiragongo erupted in 2002, Goma – a town which has had its share of problems over recent years, to say the least – it was mercifully not a Magmatic eruption. Instead, most locals were able to escape the oncoming devastation simply by slowly walking to safety (though there were casualties), though not without huge devastation to property and infrastructure as the lava slowly ran through the town – straight down the main street – and eventually into Lake Kivu. It could have been much, much worse.
Even now, 7years later, much of the town still has coverings of ash, and smaller roads and footpaths are now cooled lava flows instead of sand or tarmac. The smell of volcanic matter hangs around, and the further out of town you go towards the volcano, the deeper the lava flows and more destruction that is in evidence. Seeing people living or selling out of single story shops is fairly normal for Africa, until you suddenly realise that these are the top floors of what were originally 3story buildings. Everything lower down has been buried in lava and ash and lost forever.
I was in Congo (the hopefully named 'Democratic Republic of Congo' – it's not really Democratic and is barely a Republic - or Zaire for all you old people out there, as opposed to the Brazzaville version) on a quick side trip for Rwanda. After a very pleasant evening spent in Gisenyi on the Rwandan side with an Irish aid worker from Sudan (Stephen) and a Ugandan trader living in Dubai and Hong Kong, the following morning Stephen and I had ambled up to the border and – if you ignore some very dubious practices on the behalf of somebody who was not me – got Congolese visas with surprising ease.
I had come partly for the nerd in me: I have a deep interest in geography and geology, and the chance to see a town half covered in the remains of a volcano in this way was too much to turn down. Besides, i had promised to come and talk to some people about a possible job, whilst Stephen – who i had first met in Kampala – also had some old colleagues in town, so we had people able to show us round and tell us a bit about what is going on.
DR Congo is not a fun place. It is an absolutely massive country, with obscene amounts of natural resources, yet no infrastructure, huge poverty, civil unrest and corruption and with a horrific history (from its origins as King Leopald's personal fiefdom, to official Belgian colonial rule to independence and the ensuing chaos). Atrocities continue to occur daily in what is basically a lawless 'country', home to the UN's largest ever peace keeping force. And there is nothing even vaguely resembling safety or security.
Goma is at least theoretically safer than most places in the country, but that is not really saying much: It is still horribly dangerous, especially after dark. At least half of the vehicles either belong to aid agencies or are armoured UN trucks. The front lines are barely outside the city, there is no land transport anywhere except over the border I had just come across. Hearing gunfire is a daily occurrence. So are attacks, rapes, murders and other atrocities. And another one of the local volcanoes is expected to erupt at any moment, though hopefully and theoretically it shouldn't really affect the town too badly. Finally, the massive UN and aid presence means it is one of those sorts of towns I often dislike intensely due to it's polarisation: UN etc camps that always have electricity, blazing lights and noise when the rest of the country may have nothing at all, and restaurants which charge in USD and are priced towards those with expense accounts, whilst the local population struggles by on annual amounts less than the cost of the average meal. But against that, the people were all very friendly, and i felt in no way threatened wandering around during daylight.
Goma is also a place of obvious signs of some hope: Near the lake, we were treated to the very strange sight of intense building work going on on a large number of large houses being erected there. Whilst these are very obviously not designed for the average local, and pretty much scream 'corruption' at you, the fact that so many houses were under construction means that some people at least feel comfortable enough in the local situation to be willing to invest some hefty sums of money in the town. On such small notes, optimism must lie.
The job offer was interesting but not something that is of any real use to me, whilst the nearby Mountain Gorilla's i reluctantly decided i would still have to miss, despite the availability of permits the following day for a smaller cost than in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda: I realised that I just wasn't in good enough condition to hike through the jungle and up mountains, much though i would have loved to, and the shared genetic matter also means shared diseases, and i didn't want to be personally responsible for killing off the gorillas because of some small medical issue.
And so it was that I crossed back into Rwanda, both more enlightened and saddened than i had previously been, happy to have had the opportunity and contacts to show me around, but saddened even more by the current state of play and fate of the poor helpless locals.
It's not much, I know, but this is Lake Kivu, and the only photo I managed to take before the battery died completely. Apart from that, there are some photos here if you wish to look