Arts Sanctuary in a War-Torn City In Congo, Salaam Kivu Festival Brings Performers to Goma


NEW YORK TIMES, 11 July 2014

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — When Petna Ndaliko was a boy, he would head downtown to watch kung fu movies at the Cine Virunga here. On Saturday and Sunday evenings, his parents would take him to the theater. When he got older, Mr. Ndaliko became an actor himself, performing for the first time in a show at the auditorium next to this city’s Roman Catholic cathedral.

Guns and lava destroyed it all.  The cinema is shuttered now, except a small corner, which a fishmonger occupies. The local theater troupes folded as Goma became a theater of war instead. The cathedral was destroyed after Mount Nyirigongo, the volcano that looms over the city, erupted in 2002. Marauding gunmen came and went, each guerrilla group seeking to wrest control of this storied city.

Mr. Ndaliko, now 40 and a new father, hopes to revive a bit of Goma’s spirit.

Every year, in the middle of July, he and his American wife, Chérie Rivers Ndaliko, put on a quixotic arts festival amid these ruins. They screen music videos and movies made by and for young people in Goma. Bands play at the gates of the city stadium, causing motorcycle taxis and police officers to slow down and listen. Young men compete in dance battles instead of gun battles.

“Art can transcend where dialogue has been blocked,” Mr. Ndaliko said. “You could ask people to start thinking about their own lives without being a threat to the powers.”

Anyway, he said, neither priests nor politicians — certainly not warlords — had helped the people of Goma to end a quarter-century of war. Why not let folks express themselves through music and dance?

The annual Salaam Kivu International Film Festival, better known as Skiff and a platform for performances and workshops of all kinds, is now in its ninth year. Most of the events take place in the yard of Yolé! Africa, an arts center that the Ndalikos run out of a bungalow splashed with murals and encased by high walls of stone and barbed wire, a walled compound in a residential neighborhood.

Last Saturday’s dance battle drew seven crews, displaying flair and attitude to the beat of American hip-hop. Spectators climbed to the roof for better views. Neighbors stood on their balconies to catch the show.
The theme of the festival this year, which runs through Sunday, is “Tutajenga Ao?,” which means, “Will we build or destroy?”

A crowd watches a dance competition at the Salaam Kivu International Film Festival. Credit Phil Moore.

Mr. Ndaliko was born here to a prosperous family in 1974, when Goma was a quiet, small town, with a view of water and hills. His father was a businessman who traded in gold and diamonds. He went to private school and practiced karate at a private sports club. He and his parents went often to see French plays put on at church halls and community centers.

His first break as an actor came at the church compound’s auditorium. He was 23 and knew this was his calling.

Then came the war. Rebels poured across the hills from Rwanda to oust Congo’s longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. Goma was run over by gunmen. Mr. Ndaliko’s parents asked him to take the children of their extended family to the other side of town, to safety. But by then, the city was already a war zone. He kept being intercepted by commanders for one side, then another. He talked his way out of trouble every time and fled to the capital, Kinshasa, then eventually to neighboring Uganda.

As the war spread, Cine Virunga shut down, briefly reopening as a nightclub and then closing again. After the church compound was swallowed by lava, only the cathedral was rebuilt, not the performance hall. The sports club became a military base. A parade of rebel groups came through the city, which sits on the strategic banks of Lake Kivu, right by the Rwandan border. The hills around it are filled with gold and coltan, a mineral used to make cellphones. Warlords fight for control of the mines.

Mr. Ndaliko began Yolé! Africa in Uganda before bringing it home to Goma in 2002. He made short films, and he trained young men and women to shoot videos. On a trip to the United States, he met Chérie Rivers, who was in graduate school at Harvard. They made a movie together, “Jazz Mama,” that focused on the rape crisis in Congo and its sometimes stilted portrayal in the Western media. They married and had a baby. They now shuttle between Goma and Chapel Hill, N.C., where Ms. Ndaliko teaches at the University of North Carolina.

Putting on an arts festival in Goma brings unusual challenges.

In 2008, just as a dance battle was underway, news came that the warlord Laurent Nkunda was advancing on Goma. Mr. Ndaliko recalled that United Nations peacekeepers cautioned him to close down the performance early. But the audience, he recalled, refused. The show went on until nightfall, without trouble.

Three years later, the rebel group known as the M23 was advancing toward Goma. This time, Ms. Ndaliko said, foreign diplomats called anxiously. There were American college students at the festival that year. What if something happened?

Nothing did, and the show went on.

This year the troubles have been more prosaic. A movie was delayed by two hours last Saturday night because the generator broke down. Goma’s electricity supply is anything but reliable.

This year also brought a reminder that art is not always safe. The photographer Richard Mosse had planned to exhibit, as part of the festival, a series of pictures taken of the M23 reign over Goma, which ended last year.

Some of those pictures depicted local civilians collaborating with rebels. Mr. Mosse said he worried about reprisals against them. So he deferred the show for a few months, partly so he could figure out how to “frame the exhibition, so it doesn’t cause problems with civilians,” as he put it by email.

Mr. Ndaliko acknowledged being a bit worried, too. Memories of M23 are still raw. “We really need to be careful,” he said.

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