Exercise Day in Goma

The ruckus started far too early, particularly for a Sunday: shouting, pounding of feet, the four-in-the-morning din of remarkably motivated and cooperative (or conscripted) voices calling what sounded like military cadence.  Such a Sunday morning racket on any military base in America, though unforgivable, would be no cause for alarm, but given Goma’s recent history of genocide, refugee thoroughfare, rebel hotbed, and volcanic eruption, it was moderately discomforting.  The 12’ brick walls separating the street-facing rooms in the Hotel Ihusi from the road proved more echo chamber than noise buffer, so there was no avoiding it: there would be no more sleep this morning.

The Hotel Ihusi sits on the north shore of Lake Kivu; Rwanda to the east and the expanse of the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west; the idyllic, mountain range-surrounded lake to the south and smack in the middle of what has been, more than once over the last two decades, pure hell.  The roads in Goma are shit.  But with the sister-city of Gisenyi just a few hundred meters to the right, and with it an international border with Rwanda (currently passively patrolled by the Uruguayan army), the road in front of the hotel is paved from the border to the airport about fifteen kilometers to the north, and this morning it appears that every male in Goma is running on it.  Or doing push-ups.  Or knee bends, or arm swings in a circle or break dancing moves or those Russian dancer jumping squat kicks that I thought only my college roommate Dave was capable of mimicking (unimportantly, he did the break dancing as well, usually shirtless and sometimes with a red paisley bandana on his head.  Such were the early 90’s).  The parade that was exercise day in Goma continued until well after sunrise, and every conceivable getup strolled by, velour track suits and dirty jeans with thread-bare t-shirts and tight bicycle shorts and button down long sleeve shirts with khakis and Arsenal soccer jerseys and flip flops and a man in a toga, and all this is promising, because despite genocide, refugee highways, rebellions and volcanoes, who exercises?  Those who believe they have a tomorrow.

Sunset, Lake Kivu

Sunset over Rwanda; Lake Kivu, DRC

A significant percentage of those who have entered Goma over the last twenty years have likely done so on foot, their possessions on their backs unless even that space was dispossessed by a child incapable of walking, what family they still had to their front and rear.  A chartered UN flight, despite leg-numbing vibrations from the twin propellers and an approach that seemed dangerously, dangerously close to hitting the shacks lining both sides of the airport runway, is a bit more sedate means to enter the Congo.  After a safe landing and a quick bag check, I’m picked up by our advance party, here to teach criminal law and the Law of Armed Conflict to the DRC Armed Forces, and we drive into town.  A brief deviation: In 1862 the Nevada mountain town of Virginia City had fewer than 4,000 residents; a year later, as word spread of the legendarily bountiful Comstock Lode, the population nearly quadrupled to more than 15,000.  Though the term was not yet in use (and anyway, may have originated with a river tool used for gathering timber rather than the more accepted population explosion), Virginia City was the quintessential boomtown – a community that experiences rapid growth, both economically and demographically.

The problem with the impressions of outsiders is that they’re almost always wrong.  Or at least uneducated and tainted by our own histories, or confirmation bias, that thing we do when we bend what we see in front of us to fit what we expect to see in front of us, but Main Street Goma conjures pictures of 1860’s Virginia City, so familiar to all northern Nevadans, with a freshly paved road and clapboard storefronts and an infusion of cash, industriousness, and opportunity.  The Goma on the drive from the airport – to be fair, just one main road in a city that covers 30 square miles – is pure energy.  Everyone is moving: moto taxis saturate the city, all drivers male and passengers female, riding exclusively side-saddle; the store fronts open for business; every conceivable product hawked from head-top baskets (fish, live chickens, fabric, mattresses), sold from the back of a cart (steel rebar, engines, concrete, mattresses), or transported via the marvelous chikudu, a wooden kick scooter progenitor apparently hewn solely from industrial strength materials, a Minotaur incarnate.

Chikudu, Goma

Chikudu, Goma

Goma, like Virginia City, has experienced a population explosion.  The comparison is a bit hollow; the population of Virginia City quadrupled in a year due to those seeking their fortune, while Goma gained nearly a million Rwandan refugees in four days.  In three months in 1994, the Hutu majority in neighboring Rwanda killed more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus; in July, after Tutsi rebels organized, they chased the same amount of Hutus – many of them the very same people who had just committed the mass atrocities – across the border and into the DRC, bursting Goma at the seams.  The reasons for the genocide are too complex for even Occam’s razor to dissect (one man’s refugee is another’s genocidaire), but the fallout, along with inflation, corruption, a never-ending war, and a 2002 volcanic eruption that decimated nearly half the town, is that Goma hasn’t experienced much peace and quiet in the last twenty years.  But it’s trying.

Today the Ihusi is just one of two hotels in a city of more than a million people where “westerners” ostensibly feel safe (as of this writing, the U.S. State Department “strongly recommends you avoid all travel to the city of Goma. . .”), and they can charge $70 to $200 – cash only, please – for one night’s stay in a country where the average annual income is $120.  And people pay it.  Pilots on a layover, American military, French NGOs.   The Congolese are here too; a provincial governor for whom a line quickly forms to pay respect, women in bright Liputa prints, the non-hotel staff Congolese separated from everyone else not only by our obvious whiteness but by the relative grating of English or German or even French when it’s compared to the melodic lilt of Lingala.  Like a musical could break out at any moment.  Also, the Congolese consider fashion a national pastime.  They have contests.  And a club, the sapeurs, that has spawned a lexicon and a cultural phenomenon, and they dress like every day is go-to-Church Sunday. No cargo pockets here, thank you, and shorts are for little boys.  The poverty of Africans juxtaposed with the care in which they take in dress is alarming, and the Congolese are downright rakish.  To be fair, the Ihusi is fantastic.  There’s a lakeside breakfast and a crystal clear swimming pool, clipped-wing, crazy-eyed Grey Crested cranes prowling the grounds, and decent beer and red clay tennis courts with an instructor, if you wish, and a wood-paneled room the hotel passes off as a gym where I met an Indian Special Forces officer who, despite a grin and his head wobbling culturally in agreement, seemed awfully pissed off that I stood him up at happy hour at le Chateau.  But it’s a mirage, this Ihusi, and who knows what it portends for Goma.  The city is still broke, aid money still runs the show (in 2014, only Afghanistan and Israel received more foreign aid than the DRC), corruption is still rampant, and the country’s borders were still set by King Leopold.

Outside the lobby of the Hotel Ihusi there’s this statue, a wood carving about four feet high of a tribal woman with bulging, blood shot eyes and protruding ribs and ears and a receding hair line and sharpened teeth bared in joy or wickedness.  My initial instinct is that, though I find it captivating, it is what Congolese know tourists will buy, a caricature of the savage myth cultivated by Leopold and H.M. Stanley and every other colonialist, old school and neo alike, who have used Africa as a till.  Racist.  Like a Nazi propaganda poster or a black lawn jockey, things that never had a time or a place but rather needed human beingness to catch up to them.  But then I think that even though exercise day in Goma means something, it is also worth noting that the foundation of just about every building and road in the city is volcanic rock, forged by violence.

Am I offensive to you?

Am I offensive to you?