Goma: The last outpost

At its best, the DR Congo town is a spectacular global village of humanitarian workers. At its worst, it is the last outpost of civilisation for opportunists seeking treasure.

Flashes of lightning illuminate Lake Kivu as thunder crackles above. The storm causes the lights to trip and disrupts the internet connection at our place of rest, the Ihusi Hotel.

The hotel, which overlooks the lake, is a meeting place – or hunting ground – for UN types, election observers, haughty journalists, as well as certain undesirables.

UN cars line the parking lot. French-speaking receptionists ignore requests made in Queen’s English and poll monitors insist on parading around in their election observer vests (Can sipping cocktails at the bar could ever be free or fair?

The road from the Rwandan border into Goma is bustling with activity and the construction sites lining it suggest the city is undergoing a facelift.

But when the neatly tarmacked road ends, another Goma presents itself in the form of the gigantic BDGL roundabout. On the scarred island in the middle, children kick a football around in the dirt, while others loiter about looking utterly bored.

A donkey wrapped in the flag of a local candidate running in the legislative elections is taunted and petted by passers-by.

Conflicting scenes

A twist in the road leads to another roundabout. This one has a golden chikudu at the centre of the island and is flanked by a well-kept garden. People wander over to take a snap of themselves beside the golden replica of the iconic wooden bicycle.

These conflicting scenes tell a tangled tale of destruction, development and electoral farce.

Craters or potholes appear in clusters on the roads, but there are also ample signs that improvement is under way.

Men in orange vests work on the tattered roads and, by night, street poles light up the city centre, providing a sense of urban normalcy.

“These improvements are just an electoral farce,” I am told by the sceptics, while Joseph Kabila loyalists shoot back: “These promises are a work in progress”.

Both sides, of course, are somewhat right, though you might hear stories of a third force behind most things in Goma. If you are into conspiracy theories, the road works are a gift from Rwanda to Kabila.

Indeed, conspiracy theory is a commodity this town is scarcely short of.

Volcano beneath

Goma is ambivalent there are only signs of a regularity.  But you do get a sense that Goma is just the outer shell of a volcano boiling beneath the surface. And I am not just talking about the region’s geological features.

Goma does not have devastated buildings riddled with bullet holes, unexploded mines spread across the main road or one-legged characters smoking weed and selling blood diamonds on street corners.

But it is one of the main thoroughfares for blood-stained minerals from Bukavu, Walikale or Masisi, en route to the Western world via Kigali, Kampala and Nairobi.

Although Goma was at the centre of a tug-of-war between more than 20 armed groups and national armies, a lot of the trouble occurred on the outskirts, in smaller towns and villages, and in the forests.

Residents say that some of the best development took place after the Virunga National Park’s Mount Nyiragongo erupted and drowned the city in two metres of molten lava in 2002.

On the road to Rutshuru, close to the airport, evidence of lava lays strewn beside the road in the form of huge charred boulders. In the distance, the guilty volcano sits idle, blowing circles of smoke into the clouds.

Global village

At its best, Goma is a spectacular global village of humanitarian workers seeking to perform a miracle in a town fractured by years of instability.

At its worst, it is the last outpost of civilisation for opportunists, diamond merchants and mining magnates before they hop into propeller planes and head into the vast jungle in search of treasure.

I am still trying to decide whether I believe there is a difference.

In the town, dirty UN trucks filled with blue-helmeted peacekeepers sway and bounce as they pass.

The clearly branded 4x4s belonging to the NGOs trundle by and, until late last night, flatbed trucks fully equipped with loud speakers and slogan-shouting dancing supporters crisscross the city.

Across Goma, posters cling awkwardly to just about anything worth holding on to: they are wrapped around lampposts, broken down vehicles, toothpaste billboards and hung between street poles.

The sense that an event is about to take place is palpable. That it is an election is also clear.

Residents will tell you that since supporting Kabila vocally in 2006, it has just been one broken promise after another. Some allege that even basic services have deteriorated and it is past time for the town to stop looking like a complete mess.

This is a city holding its breath for change.

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