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Published: April 5th 2010
A couple of unfortunate mishaps bring down the traveller's red mist and I decide to cross into the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa's third largest country and frankly, a hell-hole. In Gisenyi I knock back about half a dozen imodium pills to combat a severe case of 'bricking it' and stroll along the edge of Lake Kivu to the border crossing in the early morning.
My initial wish had been to cross into to Goma not just for the day but to then take an overnight ferry down to the southern end of the lake where I can recross into Rwanda. Sadly this plan is scuppered from the word go as I am instantly introduced to my first case of Congolese corruption. The border stooge informs me that the $35 transit visa only covers the Goma area and that to go anywhere else necessitates a full one month visa at the extortionate cost of $153! From another traveller I know that this requirement is bogus as is the cost, but it's an immigration official so there's nothing I can do. He obviously needs a new suit/bike/cow/wife and believes he can get me to cover the expenditure. I have to settle
for Goma alone.
The first thing that strikes me as I enter Goma is the number of aeroplanes taking off or landing here. D.R.C. is blessed with the largest UN peacekeeping force of any country in the world, though they don't appear to be doing much to help (probably because most of them are in Goma!). The town is consequently an enormous base for the UN, NGOs and westerners in general who make it their business to meddle in Africa. During the Rwandan genocide many organisations set up shop here when more than 2million refugees flooded into the country, and it has played a part in both the First and Second Congo Wars at the turn of the century. The centre of town is a busy place!
Part of the frenetic activity I witness in Goma however is due to the timing of my visit. With an uncharacteristic stroke of good luck my entry unintentionally coincides with International Women's Day and Goma is apparently the place to be for the occasion. Rounding the corner from the border post I am stunned to see an enormous line of women stretching off into the distance for at least a couple
of kilometres. They are all dressed in their finest clothes, many in colour coordinated, matching outfits that correspond to their particular village or the movement they represent. Everyone is singing, clapping and dancing and the whole thing resembles the procession at an Olympic opening ceremony, with many women proudly waving large banners as they go. I am mesmerised by this celebration and find it to be a wonderful reflection of Africans' mentality. No matter how much devastation and exploitation people suffer on this continent, especially in an anarchic state like D.R.C. they get back on their feet and can always, always find an excuse to laugh, dance and sing. It is the indomitable spirit of the party and the zest for enjoying life that courses through the veins of all Africans.
Besides the intoxicating festivities Goma itself offers little of interest. The unmissable, imposing form of the volcano, Nyragongo, looms over the town enticingly, but I am informed that the security situation at the moment makes climbing it an unwise ambition. Instead I stick to simply wandering the main streets, branching off from time to time for some more furtive exploration. The contrast with the rapidly developing Rwanda is
instantly noticeable, especially when I stroll down to the shore of Lake Kivu. Gisenyi's shoreline is littered with sickeningly opulent hotels and houses which offer sanctuary to foreigners working in Goma and rich Rwandans on holiday. There is no such luxury on the Congolese side, just some small, crumbling houses and a couple of battered ships being loaded with crates of unidentifiable bottles.
Walking directly towards Nyragongo is more visually rewarding. The road is horrendous, even near the centre of town; so pot-holed that all traffic prefers to drive in the gravelly dirt alongside rather than on it. This formal tarmac track soon gives way to a new material however: scoria. Nyragongo erupted as recently as 2002 (and continues to simmer ominously) obliterating Goma in the process. While some repairs have been undertaken the road has been neglected. Of course, this being Africa, even the vomit of Nyrangongo has not been left idle. There continues to be large heaps of bubbly black volcanic rock strewn about the town but much of it now constitutes houses and "garden" walls marking out property.
I have been forewarned that photography is prohibited without a permit in D.R.C. and that unscrupulous policemen
do not hesitate to squeeze large amounts of hush money should they catch you camera in hand. The parade of women near the town centre and the abundance of official photographers as well as off-duty NGOs with big cameras makes taking pictures a doddle; no Congolese policeman will hassle me if I'm hiding behind a UN peacekeeper! However, further out I must be far more sneaky with my snaps and generally a little more on guard. I recall something my uncle said to me before I left London, that travel in Africa involved "a whole new level of menace". It is not often that I have felt physically threatened (apart from when sitting alongside the many, many reckless bus drivers that populate this continent) and have yet to be seriously harmed. Touch wood. However, I won't deny that I do infrequently feel a little nervous in Goma despite the company of a British couple in their mid-twenties, A and D. Behind me, as we walk along, a man grabs the hat from A's head in passing and continues nonchalantly onwards. He turns, not to see if we're raising a commotion that might worry him, but to challenge A to follow,
to complain, to give him an excuse... The glance contains that menace.
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