Jessica Hatcher for The Guardian (24 October 2014)
Public and private investment have created fresh hope in a Congolese city more often associated with conflict and upheaval.
Vanessa Jados, 27, had croissant cravings while pregnant with her first child – but the nearest decent croissant was a three-and-a-half-hour drive away, across the border in Rwanda. Today, the businesswoman from Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is proud to produce what she thinks is the perfect croissant. Her business, Au Bon Pain, is the first boutique boulangerie in Goma, and one of a number of establishments to open in the past year.
“When you hear about Goma, it’s always to do with the war, the volcano – you hear nothing good. But there are a lot of good things here,” Jados says.
“They even have hummus like in Israel,” marvels Bernard Kalume Buleri, a Congolese musician who once played in Tel Aviv.
Twenty years ago, the Rwandan genocide transformed Goma from an idyllic lakeside resort town into the nucleus of a humanitarian crisis when refugees fled into Congo and humanitarian aid workers followed. In the late 90s, a rebel movement, RCD-Goma, sprang up, and went on to control the town.
In 2002, a quarter of Goma was submerged by molten lava from Mount Nyiragongo. As the volcano continued to belch smoke above the town, people dusted off the ashes and rebuilt the North Kivu capital.
But in 2012, another armed rebel group, M23, seized control. While Goma did not experience the worst of the fighting, the M23 movement diverted government funds away from the provision of basic services and shattered hopes of a lasting peace. Now, a year after the demise of M23, new businesses have opened up. And, with two years until the next elections, the provincial government is cleaning up the city’s battle-scarred streets.
Au Bon Pain caters mostly to expatriates; together with the tens of thousands of refugees who live on Goma’s fringes, international aid workers and UN peacekeepers still dominate the town. But even with the expats’ ready cash, doing business here is not easy, Jados explains. She recruited her head baker in Toulouse. “They’re all afraid before they come,” she says with a smile. “But I tell them, ‘No – you must come and see.’” She imported the oven and other equipment from Italy, and sources flour and chocolate from Belgium.
Last year, Thanomsri Looknuu, known as Nam, opened the first Thai restaurant in town. She has to import everything. That’s why her prices are “a bit high”, she admits. “My husband says soon this place will be rising. But it’s difficult. Every morning, children come here begging.”
Congo languishes at the bottom of human development rankings, and the rich-poor income disparity is stark in the urban centres of the east.
Anne-France White, an aid worker and blogger, tried to capture the city’s idiosyncrasies with an illustrated map. Drawn from an expat’s point of view, it marks the pedalos for hire on Lake Kivu, on the rocky shores of which the town is built. It also identifies restaurants including Chalet (“the place for cocktails”) and Nam’s Blue Elephant (“first new cuisine for ages; talk of the town”).
When White drew the map a year ago, Goma had few formally defined pavements. Motorbike taxi drivers plied the streets with neither licences nor helmets. The map featured a single stretch of tarmac; the rest of the roads were pitted and broken. A road that was once a boulevard named after former president Mobutu, and which leads down to the lake from a main thoroughfare, was marked as Garbage Alley.
White had to update her map this year to reflect the recent public and private investment. Today, Goma has a number of pavements, built from interlocking flagstones. The motorbike taxi drivers and their passengers all wear helmets, following a decision by the mayor’s office. “Many people were killed on the roads,” said one driver. “I wasn’t happy about the rule at first, but now we accept it.” The government is cleaning up Garbage Alley and resurfacing a number of roads.
“Despite many difficulties, I sense a spirit of dynamism and hope,” the UN head of mission for Congo, Martin Kobler, told the security council this year. “Turning Goma into an economic hub will boost economic development and foster regional cooperation.”
Emmanuel de Merode is the director of Virunga national park, the southern boundary of which extends to the edge of Goma. The park, home to Mount Nyiragongo and a quarter of the world’s 800 remaining mountain gorillas, is the keystone of North Kivu’s tourism sector. Since May 2013, nationals from 59 countries have come through Goma to visit the park’s headquarters, and it is expanding its facilities to include an island lodge just 10 minutes by speedboat from Goma.
“It’s absolutely fundamental that you focus your energy on rebuilding,” De Merode says of the inter-war periods that the east enjoys intermittently. The only way to end the cycle of violence, he says, is to keep people busy, to give them jobs – but why does eastern DRC struggle to do that?
“There’s so much money coming into this region. [The Congolese] are incredibly hard working, incredibly dynamic. And it’s one of the richest regions in the world. So what is going on? It’s just organisation. It’s an attitude, and a focus on construction. You also have to be prepared to take certain risks.”
• The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Jessica Hatcher’s reporting from the Democratic Republic of the Congo