Gateway to Congo
Goma is an odd place – Congo’s great eastern gateway, a half-town of walled enclosures, sandwiched between the Scylla and Charybdis of the methane gas bubbling away in Lake Kivu’s deep cauldron, and the red fire of the towering Mount Nyiragongo. Most of their houses are built on the lava flows that marked the last conversation between the two in 2002 – leaving roads so bumpy that cars and motorbikes are reduced to walking pace. At night, this glowing watchtower burns red above the walled enclosures, and the rumour is about that another eruption is due in the next few months. Closer to this open wound, refugee camps sprawl into the highlands, emanating a mix of horrifying observations and inspiring stories – even the people who have worked here their whole lives still can’t make up their minds.
Inside our own walled enclosure, I write perched comfortably on our set of matching zebra print sofas, underneath a set of faux columns – part of the well-documented and bizarre extravagancies of Mobutu’s upper classes. Behind the columns, every wall is painted a different bright colour, and I try hard to imagine that we are not in a badly-made set for a low budget erotic film. Expatriate extravagance extends to drivers, guards, cooks and cleaners, which takes some getting used to – the aid industry certainly brings money and employment to Goma and the surrounding areas. At work or in the house, everyone calls each other ‘Papa’ or ‘Mama’, bringing a familial intimacy to the whole community. Outside the gates, and chances are you will see someone riding over the lava on a Chinese motorbike wearing a leopard-print hat. Go a little further, past the boys selling cigarettes, and you will end up on a winding road round the small coves of Lake Kivu, that could be a Mediterranean coastline, were it not for the soldiers and their guns – another of Kivu’s many contradictions of danger and beauty, energy and resignation.
Goma is the head office for all of our operations in country – managing monthly medical supervisions and medical supplies; trainings; and construction projects for some 200 health centres in East and Central Congo. In Logistics we buy what we can in the field, and ship anything that cannot, from Goma, Kisangani, or even Kenya and Europe – in particular construction materials, vehicles and repairs, it and comms equipment, and a lot of drugs for the clinics. All arrangements are made in slow, formal French, one of the only ties across the expanse of jungle from to Kinshasa on the Atlantic coast.
Under pressure from all angles, the logistics team were recalled back from their various field bases for a logistics workshop to address how best we could support a short-staffed programmes team. In doing so, of course, we had left these teams in the field with far less support. The workshop itself was derailed by a combination of drunk FARDC soldiers, and a shouting match between one ex-military logistician and his ex-jailhouse counterpart. It seemed to be a good demonstration of Goma’s frustration – built on a lack of permanence, a fluidity, anonymity and hedonism that real life can hide behind, with irony in abundance: soldiers and aid workers indulge together in the brothels in the back rooms of reputable international hotels.
Keen to escape this moral onslaught, I was quick to volunteer for my first field trip –across the old front line a small base at Rutshuru, occupied by two expat managers and a large team of Congolese, in order to investigate the pilfering of medication from the warehouse and clinics. The drive took us on the high plains above Goma, the lava flows still breaking the path of the old roads, through the refugee camps built on them, and then down into the jungle through the swathes of jostling vegetable sellers. The road was lined with bored government soldiers, and we were escorted the final few miles by a compulsory UN escort. As the heavens opened, five large UN soldiers fought to squeeze their armour and weaponry into three very small covered seats. Inside the Rutshuru base, the evening quiet was punctured by the sound of gunfire in the market a few hundred metres away, as the CNDP rebels tried to move the stalls further down the road for some unknown reason – apparently very normal in Rutshuru.