Above: CBD Goma. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: 20 July 2019
Congo’s been my dream destination even before Nyiragongo erupted in 2002 and nearly wiped out the little town of Goma in eastern DRC that’s on the shores of Lake Kivu and neighbouring Rwanda. The country is gigantic and the second largest in Africa, the Congo River sways 3,000 kilometres across its girth flowing through the mighty Congo forest which like the Amazon forest is a major lung of our planet. The river empties with such force into the Atlantic that for 200 kilometres into the ocean the water is said to be fresh.
The county boasts creatures like the okapi the strange antelope, gorillas and chimpanzees that have filled my imagination for years. But Congo was in a crisis…with years of raging war beginning with Mobutu’s overthrow in 1997. The civil war killed five million people between 1997 and 2003.
Then l read the brilliant novel Blood River by Tim Butcher on his epic voyage in 2004 in the footsteps of Henry Morten Stanley who uttered the epic sound bite ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’ in Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1874 – and my interest rekindled. Stanley was the first to sail the entire river that got the interest of the Belgium king to grab a kingdom in Africa – unknown to the locals – which started the scramble for Africa in far-away Berlin.
So when Cheryl Mangat my 19-year-old niece announced she was returning to Congo – i.e. Goma – it was without hesitation that l applied for my visa in a featureless office and with my new-found relatives, we boarded the Rwandair flight to Kigali from where a taxi was hired to the town of Gisenyi, four hours away. In the waning light, driving through the land of a thousand hills with clouds drifting on hilltops cast a magical aura.
And we reached the Grande Barriere border that separates Gisenyi from Goma.
At 8.16 p.m. l was finally on Congolese soil, an easy crossing including a quick body temperature for Ebola, the deadly virus.
To say ‘l went to Congo’ really doesn’t justify the phrase – the distance from Goma to Kinshasa is more than that of London to Moscow. l only did Goma, sailed three hours across Lake Kivu – Africa’s eighth largest lake and one that’s densely filled with methane and carbon-dioxide – to Bukavu because in Goma l made a discovery about the endemic sub-species of mountain gorilla – the critically endangered Grauer’s Gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. The world’s best-kept secret that even few locals know and which Saturday Nation readers now know.
In the Midst of Goma
Goma’s built on the volcanic soils of its famous landmark – the Nyiragongo – even though it’s 18 kilometres north. Alert boards with colour-coded flags relay the volcano’s mood to the citizens. In 2002, they were caught unaware. On clear days, the perfect peak with its raging lava lake in the crater is omnipresent. Sandwiched between the mountain and Lake Kivu in the Albertine Rift Valley, Goma’s busy building itself up.
Mobutu’s house was once the most lavish address in town. It’s now a pale shadow as a government office with the residence of Joseph’s (Kabila) wife on the other end of the street that houses the posh estate with gardens stretching to the lake. Goma also houses MONUC the largest UN peacekeepers base in Africa.
Under Belgian rule, Goma was a genteel town with lake-shore mansions. Mobutu came into power and at first things went well until all hell broke loose. Mobutu and his foreign cohorts looted the county and the people revolted. Mobutu fled and died in exile in Morocco. There’s hope in the new president – Félix Tshisekedi – who took over from Joseph on 24th January.
In my Congo-filled brain l had envisaged a climb up Nyiragongo and bus rides around the country side. The clouds took over the mountain and I wasn’t going up a freezing 11,380 foot massif that’s part of the famous Virunga enclave of the great apes – plus it’s an expensive hike for non-Congolese – more than USD 300.
But Goma had enough to keep me occupied. In 2002 when Nyiragongo erupted, it wiped out the main town and the poorer area including cutting off the airstrip from the terminal at the local airport.
Modern Goma has pot-hole free roads in the city centre with new buildings, posh restaurants and coffee-houses, a bustling fashion scene and grand weddings on weekends.
And in the midst of the hustle and bustle, it’s the iconic chukudu that’s been the backbone of rebuilding the town which paradoxically is a conduit for its vast mineral wealth coveted by the world.
On the streets of Goma, men transport wares on the chukudu that first appeared in Goma under Mobutu’s misrule. Built of wood with scrap tires and a handle, this ingenious transport vessel is a testimony to human ingenuity. An enormous statue stands on the main roundabout.
There are many hotels in Goma from cheap to affordable with Goma Serena opening soon as the town’s first 5-star.
It’s as safe as any town in Kenya. Spend a day or two on your way to see the cheapest gorilla viewing in Kahuzi-Biega National Park where permits cost USD 400 for foreigners.