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Dangerous city of diamonds, war and volcano

Dangerous city of diamonds, war and volcano

Immediately the first leg of the journey, which began from the ancient Ethiopian city of Addis Ababa, ended with the aircraft landing at the Goma International Airport, the unusualness of this major city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, (DRC) struck us like a deadly punch from a prizefighter. Goma is the capital of North Kivu province in the Congo which natives of this French African country, in a rhythmically fascinating mouthful, call République Démocratique du Congo.

Congo is reputed with huge reserves of cobalt, gold, gems, copper, timber, and uranium. Its most valuable resource is its large reserve of diamonds. Indeed, the Congo has the world’s second-largest diamond reserves, at 150Mct, or 20.5% of the global total. Substantial diamond reserves can be found in Kasai Occidental and Kasai Oriental. Then known as the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908, it was the personal estate of Leopold II, who was the second King of the Belgians from 1865 to 1909. Leopold was known as the founder and sole owner of the Free State which he administered as a private estate, ran by a surrogate called Henry Morton Stanley.

Although his claim to Congo was affirmed by the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, with a caveat that he improved on the treatment of Congo people, Leopold ignored this caveat and visited a regime of brutality on his Congo estate. Not only did he make a fortune from Congo through natural rubber and ivory which he cultivated by forced labour, but he also inflicted atrocities and notorious brutality on the populace. Hands of men, women, and children were said to have been chopped off if they didn’t meet their rubber cultivation quota. In the process, his genocidal killings eliminated millions. The 1904 Casement Report established these and more, with an estimated one to 15 million murders by Leopold, his reign noted as the first genocide on the people. No wonder then that, at the time of independence in 1960, Congolese anger, disdain and hatred for Belgians was indescribable.

As I will show presently, Congo has merely substituted one foreign brutality for another. The first blow from Goma at its airport this Saturday afternoon was the unusually large number of United Nations aircraft with UN boldly embossed on them. Waiting on the hangar were also a fleet of helicopters numbering about fifteen which decorated the fairly petite airport, similarly bearing the UN insignia. A slight drizzle welcomed first-time visitors this afternoon to this ancient town in Central Africa whose airport, albeit looking rundown in terms of available infrastructure, had a tarmac that was a beautifully gleaming stretch of asphalt.

Goma, this likeable city by Lake Kivu, cannot be compared with anywhere else in DRC. It is host to an unbelievably enormous number of UN, international agencies and NGOs. With this, Goma glimmers as an unusually cosmopolitan city, equipped with all the vices of the cosmopolis. It is a town of contradictions, just like Congo herself. The city shares a contiguous border with the Rwandan city of Gisenyi.

Three things get the town its infamous renown. One: it was the city where the pastor, who got infected with the Ebola virus in mid-July 2019, claimed to have been infected. Teaser: Goma is home to mountain gorillas, said to be the infection nodules of Ebola. Second, it is home to the Nyiragongo Volcano, the most deadly volcano in the world and third, Goma was the hot spot of the 1994 Rwandan genocide narrative. In late 2012, the town was the theatre of the M23 rebellion as it was captured by the rebels. Rwanda was also implicated in the war, with Paul Kagame accused of illegally expropriating DRC mineral resources. By the time the shelling and smokes from the artillery mortals of government forces and the rebels subsided, thousands of Goma inhabitants had been dispatched into a premature embrace with their Maker.

Goma also harbours virtually all the paradoxes and trajectories of Walter Rodney about underdevelopment and the underdeveloped. It is beautifully scenic, situated in an idyllic location and grafted by nature on the leafy green shores of an equally arrestingly beautiful, salty Lake Kivu. The hilly and smoulderingly menacing mountains of Goma equally hide treasures in the form of globally scarce mineral resources which the modern world uses to accentuate its modernity. Thus, while it has been said that Goma is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, it is paradoxically home to a beehive of foreigners, a stupendous number of whom you may never encounter in any of the suffering Third World countries. It is a common sight to see a beehive of white UN soldiers in Goma, with huge epaulettes on their shoulders.

Goma is dangerous, make no mistake about it. No, not because of threats from its inhabitants, but from natural hazards. It has hidden in its belly a potentially devastating threat of its mountains which contain Africa’s most potent volcanoes. In the year 2002 for instance, over 100 people got killed when an eruption of Mount Nyiragongo swirled around Goma, even as the people dropped dead one after the other. The lava from the periphery of Nyiragongo emitted gaseous fumes down to the centre of the city and destroyed more than a fifth of it. Fires and explosions followed and by the time the wrath of Mount Nyiragongo had subsided, about 120,000 Goma inhabitants had become homeless. So, though this calamity befell the people eight years ago, they live in daily fear that the horror of molten lava eruption could be repeated any time, with scenes of people dropping dead at intervals from the emission of deadly gases. When it first started, the people attributed the odourless carbon dioxide bubbles emitted by Nyiragongo to sorcery. In fact, they called it, in their Swahili lingua franca, mazukus – the evil wind.

Experts say that the only recipe to the feared calamity of Goma is to have the city and its inhabitants relocated to safer ground, 30 kilometres away. Its inhabitants have however rebuffed such suggestions, claiming that it would create a spiritual wedge between them and their ancestors, the owners of the land. After the 2002 destruction by the Nyiragongo, people just gave it a few weeks and promptly returned to their famed city, to begin a reconstruction of their homes from the debris of the fury of the volcano. Its ruins and rebuilding by the people shows the resilience of Goma people who hold their mountain gorillas tracked by visiting tourists and the amazing climbing of Rwenzori Mountains as trophies of their ancient city.

This writer climbed the dangerous hills of Mount Nyiragongo where you can have a picturesque of the whole of Goma and even see roofs of houses in Rwanda. If you slipped, you slipped into eternity, with the result of mangled flesh scooped from the bowel of the valley. As we climbed up, we beheld shanties built for soldiers and policemen’s families which were constructed by the side of the mountain. Apart from the irruption of another war, what Goma inhabitants and indeed the international community feared most was the next eruption of the Nyiragongo. A similar volcanic eruption had happened recently in the not-too-far Mount Nyamulagira, making it the 26th in the last 70 years. While its cataclysm was about, Nyamulagira vomited lava for close to 10 kilometres in nearby vast rural district lands, poisoning the people’s drinking water.

The UN and the European Union have invested millions of dollars in what is now the Goma Volcano Observatory, located at the top of the mountain. The writer visited the observatory, with its different colour lights that indicated the stages of a possible volcanic eruption. Here, the observatory sees Nyiragongo 17 kilometres away. With seismographs and other equipment, staff monitor the volcanoes, check underground seismic activities and project emergency plans, with a siren to alert people. They also embark on education to sensitize the people on what to do when they hear the siren. Goma people are aware that, once the observatory turns red, it is an alert of the approach of Nyiragongo. If this happens, they are instructed to immediately leave Goma as the UN has a contingency plan for ferrying the people out of town.

Again, Goma is just recovering from one of the deadliest internecine in Africa. All around it, you find scars of unhealed wounds and cicatrices of hate which are taking too long to melt. That same 2012, while the Nyiragongo pelted the inhabitants with red-hot lava flows, asphyxiated them with invisible deadly emissions of carbon dioxide gases, thus making Goma the most volcano-threatened city on earth, rebels also hopped on the city and took turns to rape their women and girl children. They just sheepishly obeyed the dictates and whims of the aberrant sticks affixed by nature to their midriffs whenever the sticks went irrationally turgid. The soldiers also butchered Goma inhabitants like they do at slaughter slabs.

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A walk round the city of Goma revealed so many other contradictions. Squalor is evident and brackish water surround many homes. The writer and his crew rode past the front of the residence of the Governor of North Kivu. Impassable is the least of the words to describe the road and horrible will capture its state succinctly. It is located beside Lake Kivu, with a makeshift one storey shack housing policemen who were ostensibly drafted there to keep an eye on this Very Important Person. With guns held menacingly in their grips, they survey passersby from the top.

We also drove down to the periphery of Lake Kivu, a lake that is connected to the Tanganyika Lake in Tanzania by the Ruzizi River. This lake, measuring more than 460 metres (1,500ft) at its deepest point, which straddles the border of DRC and Rwanda, is one of the chains of lakes that lace the East African Rift Valley. It is from here that the continent of Africa, in the words of geographers, is slowly pulled apart by tectonic forces. According to these scientists of the earth, the stresses from tectonic forces ensure the thinning of the earth’s crust which then results in volcanic activity. Thus, scientists have described Kivu, as well as Lake Nyos in Cameroon, scientific wonders, as well as lurking dangers for humanity. This is because both lakes trap large deposits of dissolved gas which is home to a volcanic vent that resides at the bottom of the lake. It was reported that, on August 21, 1986, when perhaps as a result of a landslide, the lethal potential of the gas reservoir in Lake Nyos suddenly escaped, displaced and made the gas to emit into the air. Rapidly, a huge ball of cloud snowballed into the air which reportedly asphyxiated an estimated 1,800 villagers who lived nearby. May Lake Kivu never bare its fangs. If it ever does, it would be catastrophic for the about 14,000 people who live near Nyos, the well over two million inhabitants of its vicinities, including the about a million in the city of Bukavu, also in DRC. A source said the African Development Bank was on the verge of completing a project of tapping hydroelectricity from River Ruzizi, with an estimated 10,000 megawatts that will cater to the people of DRC, Uganda and Tanzania.

By the shore of Lake Kivu this Saturday were commercial motorcyclists washing their cycles. Oblivious of the danger that it constituted, young boys and girls also stood by the lakeside washing obviously dirty clothes. The writer encountered some young teenage girls smoking cigarettes as if their lives depended on it by the lake. When I asked our guide if smoking was a culture in this volatile city, he said occasionally, law enforcement agents swooped on the teenagers caught in the act. Fishermen spreading their nets for fish harvests also lined the edges of the lake, doing their thing as if dead to all entreaties of the world. By the lakeside were also apparently volcano-splintered rocks. Children played by the rocky road of the lakeside, dead to whatever danger Lake Kivu posed. If it was visible, you could cut the chunk of squalor that is ubiquitous here with a knife. Bad roads dotted Goma, with a sprinkle of recently rehabilitated narrow ones.

Hawkers of pancake roved by the lakeside too. Called chapatti by the locals, it is a pancake that was said to have originated from Tanzanian and had spots where it was baked by the lakeside. Goma, like the rest of DRC, strips cassava to its basest. While the tuber is made into a swallow-able meal called foufou, its leaves are also made into a soup delicacy called sombre. The normal vegetable is called linga linga. Here, cassava is also made into a cake. A police station is situated by the lakeside, apparently to serve as a warning to local malefactors, while locals drove the uniquely configured and ubiquitous local bike called the tshukudu. This bike is said to be the symbol of Goma’s resilience, its men power, its masculinity, reflected in the tshukudu’s ability to carry huge goods for a very long time. Up the mount of Goma is located base stations of Congolese national radio station, as well as communication installations.

One thing that a Nigerian visitor to Goma and indeed, the DRC, will affirm is that the country is a chip off Nigeria. In other words, the DRC and its city of Goma are replicas of Nigeria. While Goma is like the Ogoni land in Nigeria’s Rivers State, Congo parodies Nigeria and they both bear similitude of the parable of a man who lives by the riverside who washes his hands with spittle. They are both infected with the virus of leadership crisis and suffering in the midst of plenty. While both countries are letdowns of the dream of African agricultural revolution, Ogoni and Goma are the geese that lay the golden egg which is malnourished, starved and pauperized. While, in spite of the geographical shortcoming of the Congo, agriculture is the mainstay of the people, the government has not been able to annex this for the benefit of the people. Immediately you enter adjoining countries of Ethiopia and Rwanda, you could see that their leaders are pushing up the boulder of development to an appreciable level. Not DRC. Not Nigeria.

For over two decades of DRC’s – by then known as Zaire, as named by its despotic ruler, Mobutu Sese-Seko in 1971 – conflicts and wars, Goma was the theatre of the bloodshed. In North Kivu alone during this period, there were no fewer than 5,000 to 6,000 Congolese rebels encapsulated in 30 armed groups. They were fighting a tribal war and were propelled by the thirst to be in control of prime mineral zones. They took no for an answer and were known to have massacred whole villages in satisfaction of their bloodhound thirst. During this period, Goma’s most thriving businesses were coffin making, grave digging and artisans who parcelled the dead for their resting places. During this period also, aside bullets which were thriving sights in Goma, human flesh also provided succour for the rebels and soldiers. Fresh human flesh, that is. This lubricated the gruff of war. Goma was said to have recorded over 7,500 female prostitution affiliates and incidences of rape were like you are ringing a bell. The war made prostitution a prosperous industry in Goma and means of letting off steam for the fighters who were engaged in killing their own brothers and sisters.

Statute of the tshukudu in Goma, as symbol of Goma’s resilience, its men power

Goma and its neighbouring area of Rubaya, in the province of Masisi, a three-hour drive from Goma, are epicentres of what is called the minerals war. During the war, the minerals excavated from there were referred to as blood minerals by activists because the minerals escalated and prolonged the war. Goma is a city of minerals and boasts of arable land that produces a large chunk of food harvests for the whole of Congo. Inside the dark hearts of the scary mountains that surround Goma are green powders known as manganese, gold nuggets and small dark rocks known as columbite and tantalite. The latter are better known as coltan. It is said that around 80 per cent of the world’s supply of coltan used to make cell phones is buried under the Congolese soil and particularly in this sleepy city of Goma. So how could Goma be this rich, catering for the needs of the world, from deposits of resources on her soil and yet be this poverty-stricken?

Blood minerals are such an industry in Goma that about 5,000 miners, mostly children and teenagers, who dropped out of school or never had the opportunity to attend any, toil day in and night, almost in quasi-slavery, axing deep tunnels and mountains, searching for elusive minerals. Mining these minerals is a tremendously dangerous activity, especially during the rainy season. In the process of axing the tunnels during this season, the damp earth could give way and the miners would be eaten up by carbonic gas or get enfolded into the earth by underground caverns. They, most times, are never seen again. Miners have confessed that while digging fresh tunnels, they encountered dead labourers’ skeletons and the number of casualties is unknown. It is said that about 40 people get crushed at a go sometimes. These children miners sell minerals like coltan for pittances once they escape with them out of Congo, with darkness as their shield, to the border of Uganda or Rwanda. They are pawned to traffickers who literally filch them for pittances. When the coltan meanders itself to Mexico or Shangai, China’s central coast, the country’s biggest city and a global financial hub, it is sold for about $600 a kilo.

There are so many muzungu or “white man” in Goma. Many of the white foreign military officers, the huge-epaulettes Generals and their black counterparts, are alleged to be millionaires in dollars as they interloped in the mineral resources rape of Goma. A source told me that there are some hidden runways inside the forest of Congo’s Goma where planes land, hunchback huge chunks of DRC’s mineral resources and ferret them to prominent cities in America and other parts of the world. He said this explains the huge presence of muzungu in Goma.

If you drive by the streets of Goma, you would be struck by the unbelievable number of foreigners and military men on its roads. Perhaps because of the dangerous and impassable topography of the city, 4-Wheel vehicles don virtually the whole of the roads. Common vehicular sights are those of multinational agencies plying the streets, long antennae attached to the vehicles and inscriptions of USAID, ACTED, USAID, MONUSCO, (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Congo, whose acronym is based on its French name, Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo) UNHCR, UNHCR, Geneva, Switzerland-based Doctors Without Borders, known in French as Médecins Sans Frontières, and many more on them. MONUSCO also has installations in the mountains. Some of the sights that would confront you are the first court in Goma, the Heal Africa hospital, Bank of the Development of the Great Lakes, (Band de development etat of Grate Lakes – BDEGL) Bank of Congo, Congolese soldiers’ monument, Afia and Del’unite stadia and the Virunga National Park where animals are said to also symbolize the brunt of Goma.

Like Nigeria, there is very seldom respect for Covid-19 in Goma and the whole of the DRC. Rarely do you see locals covering their noses and they milled together dangerously. Here, there seems to be gross hostility or disdain for the existence of the virus. A negligible few wears face mask while the rest mill round one another, pumping hands with abandon and going about their daily businesses in defiance of the deadly virus.

Goma inhabitants speak Swahili, mixed with French. Their Swahili is however seen as substandard to one spoken in Tanzania and Kenya. Our guide spoke with soldiers after we undertook the dangerous climb up the mountain top on a very slim and narrow road bordered by shrubs. I asked him what variant of language it was and he said that it was the Lingala, spoken by the armed forces since the time of Sese-Seko but that when Laurent Kabila took over, their lingua franca became Swahili. There are borders of where a tourist can go in Goma as, not too far away in the Beni territory, about 270 kilometres away, ADF rebels are said to be engulfed in fratricidal warfare. A few kilometres away, you would be seeing Rwanda, as there are no natural borders but the Lake Kivu.

The writer visited places in Goma like the North Kivu National Hospital, the German consulate, the Kinyumba, University of Goma – Universitie Kivu de Goma and the Plage du puble – where children recreate and very beautiful hotels, ostensibly because of the huge foreign presence in the city. Indeed, the best 5-star hotel in Goma, the Serena, is located in Goma. The Le Chalet, located by the lakeside, is another spot of recreation for tourists. As you enter Le Chalet, however, you are confronted by the warning: Covid-19: Le port du masque est obligatoire, demanding, as an obligation, that guests must put on masks. In Le Chalet’s coffee room called Le petit Chalet was what I consider an award-winning graffiti boldly written: Life begins after coffee. By the way, DRC, Ethiopia and the Great Lakes countries, in general, are reputed to be growers of coffee. This writer was particularly interested in Le Chalet because he is a sucker for good coffee.

To get out of Goma to another city called Bukavu, the visitor would have to travel on Lake Kivu by boat. This journey takes three and a half hours. It costs $40 per traveller, buoyed by naval officers. An aqua-phobic on this voyage would repeatedly sing the Christian hymnal, Nearer my God to thee because, peradventure the boat sinks into this 1,500ft lake, they will prepare to have dinner with their Creator. On a voyage from Goma port to Bukavu, you are bordered on both sides by huge mountains that awe you. At intervals, you sight huts from where smokes ooze out, signifying life on those islands. The lush greenery of the mountains instantly arrests you, especially their unbelievable aesthetics. They are an affirmation of the justifications of the presence of an Uncaused Causer somewhere, an unseen weaver of the tapestry who must have birthed those mountains and their arresting beauties. Occasionally, birds of different species flapped their wings past the 50-seat boat, perhaps trying to assert their flying superiority over the human aquatic contrivance that was simulating movement on water. The boat stopped to pick passengers at Port de Ruhundu and one other village.

Inside Bukavu proper, the writer went inside the Kadutu market and you are in a typical Nigerian market. Impatient drivers and okada drove past, with forlorn-looking people sitting by their wares. Effigies of Congolese hero, Patrice Lumumba, adorn some major streets here. Second-hand wares are laid in heaps with a beehive of customers scavenging for them like vultures do cadavers. Smelly market hands shouldering amazingly hefty goods walked past and the horrible roads were badly torn apart like clothes on vagrants.

In the midst of these, boisterous laughter occasionally erupted from some corners of Kadutu, heralding contentment even in the midst of misery. Huge baskets of onions are heaved past, oblivious of its scarcity in Nigeria, even as smells of fish unruly jam your nostrils. Inside Kadutu are also uncompleted buildings made of the familiar small Congolese brown burnt bricks. Besides, you are jobless out-of-school teenagers who loaf about in aimless wonders, occasionally tugging and scampering after buses in motion, bare-footed and without any care in the world. Some wear mud-coated jackboots, torn by rigours of use and the hostile ground. Like among Nigerian motorcycle riders, there is esprit de corps among bikers here when threatened or accidents occur. Like Nigeria too, your guide warns you to strictly hold your cell phone inside the car for you risk its being snatched off you, even in broad daylight. One good thing here and perhaps the whole of DRC is that there was no exhibition of female nakedness, of girls wearing skimpy clothes as short as their morality.

Inside the Kadutu too, you behold aged women eking a living from laborious petty businesses who chat in Swahili without care. By your side are buses suddenly waiting on the main road to pick passengers and goods, deaf and dead to the angry bleating of car horns behind them. You are in Nigeria, you think. Inside the Kadutu market, as my crew and I filming the market went about our assignment, lords of the markets suddenly and forcefully stopped us and demanded payment of $20 for taking video of the market. They suddenly became hostile. We paid. No receipts, nothing. The Omo Onile in Nigeria suddenly flashed down my memory. Within ten days, I had visited other DRC towns like Cimbi-Nyangezi and Kalambo, as well as combing Bukavu inside out.

The Nyiragongo volcano observatory in Goma

As they say that all works and no play make the journalist a dull folk, it was time to explore the gig or sin centres of Bukavu. Casino as de Pique was the recommended rendezvous. Inside the dimly-lit club, a band was on hand, blaring Awilo Longomba-popularized Congolese soukous sensual music which the band members, girls back-up crew and listeners in the club danced as if in a sexual session as they wriggled their hips provocatively. For any man with blood flow to his groins, the music triggers that recalcitrant stick by the midriff to an instant unruly turgidity. Smoking of shisha was the norm here. Roasted lamb with beer brands like Primus, Skol and others were on parade. Girls, said to be populated by Rwandese, who are smuggled into Congo to come have a taste of the well-known ostentation of Congolese men and craving for women and alcohol, wagged their buttocks past in coquettish parade. Could their intention be to magnet a Christian missionary on evangelism to the Congo like me into fleshly temptation (!)? I wondered, afraid that this highly erotic Congolese music was the façade deployed by these coquettes to have a grip of my soul. Anyway, faith in God won the battle!

The Goma airport should rank as one of the worst international airports in the world. It lacks basic facilities, probably has a single luggage scanner. Its officials demand bribe unabashedly like their Nigerian counterparts and the airport counter is as clumsy as a betting joint. As our aircraft got set to fly out of Goma, out of DRC, to the cold weather of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia this Saturday afternoon in November, it was as if the writer had had a 10-day reunion with his long-lost cousin called the Congo. “Cousin, I will be back,” I muttered as the pilot announced the tightening of seat belts.

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