Tourism and trade boom in a city threatened by war, volcanic eruptions:
The scotching sun is not fierce but the stampede is as an army of porters dashes back and forth; offloading bales from trucks. This is Birere--the trading hub of Goma city, capital of North Kivu province in mineral-rich eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Brand new motorbikes, pharmaceuticals and building materials are off-loaded into shops that stretch a few hundred metres. In front of them, with a sea of yet more goods are traders on standby, waiting anxiously for buyers.
It is Dec. 7, hardly three weeks after the M23 rebels fighting the DRC government of President Joseph Kabila entered Goma after fighting and defeating the UN MONUSCO-backed government forces. The rebels withdrew from Goma after 11 days on Dec.2 in a deal arranged by President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda as head of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and the rotting bodies of government soldiers still lie unburied in the countryside. But the traders in Birere are simply too busy to wait for complete normalcy to return.
Minerals fuel the war:
"Business is booming, you have a million people in Goma and many more that come all the way from Kinshasa and other cities to buy things here," a businessman who imports goods from Nairobi and Dubai, says as porters rush from the truck to his store with bales of goods on their heads.
A few metres from his shop is the Volcanoes Stadium, where the rebels addressed hundreds of residents and where some of the Congolese soldiers and police handed over their guns when they surrendered. The businessman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being victimized by the fighters, says he did not go to the stadium to welcome the rebels. He is angry because, he says, because the never ending wars swirling around Goma and the whole of eastern Congo are because of the country's riches.
"We have gold, diamonds, Cassiterite, Coltan among other minerals all around Goma," he says, "That is what brings people; that is what they want, and that is what fuels war here."
He says Goma, with just one million people is small compared to other DRC cities like Kinshasa of eight million people but that business here is intense. The city is right at the border with Rwanda and every morning, hordes of people can be seen streaming into Goma from the Rwanda side. In the evening the same hordes stream out. Residents say people dash in for business and out in the evening to Rwanda for security reasons.
Gate-way to East Africa:
Part of the reason Goma is so popular is its location as a border town with an international airport. This makes it is easy for business people to fly into Goma then connect to other cities in the region or fly out to the rest of the world.
A youthful tour operator told The Independent that Goma receives the biggest number of tourists in the DRC.
"When they fly in, it is very easy for them to go the neighboring countries from here than from other parts of Congo," he told The Independent.
Most of the tourists come to Goma to see its volcanic mountains and Lake Kivu; ironically, the very things which threaten to burn the city. Scientists say that the huge deposits of methane gas under Lake Kivu could force an explosion causing a tsunami and killing millions of people.
Located at the foot of Africa's oldest national park, the 7800 Square kilometre Virunga National Park that is home to the active volcanic Mt. Nyiragongo, attracts thousands of visitors. Ihusi Hotel, which seats on the edge of Lake Kivu, is a tourist hive.
In 2011, tourism officials projected that visitor numbers at Virunga National Park would jump to about 4,000 from 1,800 in 2010. This would raise over US$1 million for the park as each tourist pays over US$200. Virunga also borders Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Queen Elizabeth National Park and Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda and, like the tour operator says, tourists can set foot in all of them through this park.
Parts of Goma are covered with magma ruble from the many eruptions of the Nyiragongo volcano; the most recent in 2002 that claimed lives and displaced over 100,000 people. It also covered about a kilometer of Goma airport's runaway. But these eruptions also blessed Goma with black soils that residents say are very fertile.
"Apart from tourism and trade, we supply vegetables and other food stuffs to the rest of Congo," a resident told The Independent, "that is why you had many people in other provinces lashing at MONUSCO and government authorities for failing to protect Goma."
Chukudus and money changers:
But these natural calamities aside, Goma has for a decade and a half been brutally pounded for as long as there has been chaos in eastern Congo; including the sequel of Rwanda's genocide. Today, M23 is seeking to surf this crisis of insecurity and the wave of Congolese discontent. A Congolese woman who runs a kiosk along the main road says she cannot understand why wars cannot end in her country. "We Congolese are peaceful and hardworking people," she says, "but I can't understand why people fight us, they hate us."
Her kiosk is at the main roundabout in Goma, on which there is a huge golden-yellow statue of a man pushing a wooden scooter carrying a globe. The wording below the monument describes it as a "symbol of sustained effort and diligent work that leads a country to development".
But in Goma, the wooden cycle cart; onomatopoeically called chukudu because it makes that sound as it rolls along, is not just a symbol. Chukudus are eastern Congo's beasts of burden. The sweaty faces and worn-out looks of their riders; as they ride or push chukudu's overflowing with heavy sacks of merchandise along the bumpy, magma-covered roads of Goma give the impression of what hard labour was before the advent of modern motor vehicles.
A chukudu pusher can earn up to US$ 8 in a day; which is quite high in a place where war is the only serious business. It is not only the Chikudu riders that work hard. In an area called Mabanga, women sell everything from tomatoes, other vegetables, and charcoal. In another area, Kibanda, welders and carpenters brave the sweltering sun to curve and fabricate wood and metal items. And they make the money.
It is here also that one finds currency exchange stalls-- dusty make-shift tables under dusty umbrellas piled high with stacks of Rwandese and Congolese Francs, and slightly smaller piles of U.S. dollars.
"Congolese are hardworking people," one of the mobile forex bureaus operators says as he ties a rubber band around a huge stack of Congolese Francs.
But how people are supposed to keep working so hard when they are insecure, and are ever running from one armed rebellion after another, is a mystery.
Let down by the UN:
Goma residents blame the politicians. They say the M23 rebels are after the politicians and the government soldiers. Even those who are not comfortable with the rebels say the politicians have been a huge disappointment. The whole of Goma, a town of one million inhabitants boasts of only about two Kilometres of tarmac from the Rwanda border, the rest of the roads are dusty, bumpy, and potholed.
The UN has big operations here; maintaining a 1500-strong peace-keeping force (MONUSCO) with its bases, tanks and fleets of patrol vehicles dominating the roads as their aircraft the space--the Goma airport is also in their control. It is here the UN flies to distribute humanitarian effects to other parts of eastern Congo. It is also here that the private jets of international business people land to fetch gold, coltan, and Ivory. The importance of this airport explains the ultimatums from the international community for the M23 rebels to exit Goma. The late Laurent Desire-Kabila, the former president of DRC and father to current President Joseph Kabila, once famously said that "Congo is an elephant that cannot be swallowed by a toad." He was right; if the DRC, Africa's second largest country is like an elephant; then many fear that Goma in many ways is its trunk. The Congolese know that a toad might not swallow an elephant but the small black ant can kill it. All the ant needs to do is enter the elephant's trunk and the irritated giant of the jungle will start banging its head on everything to stop the itching and die instead.
With its endless armed rebellions, DRC appears to have an itch in its trunk and, with support from the UN and the western powers; it has been banging its head on neighbouring Rwanda, and Uganda. It accuses both of supporting the M23 rebels. What remains to be seen is whether the itching in its trunk will go away or the elephant will die.