On my online wanderings, I recently came across From Congo, a blog penned by an American woman living in Congo. What particularly drew my attention and inspired me to invite Dawn to guest post was her work with SHONA, a small sewing community for handicapped Congolese women. In this post, Dawn takes us to the city of Goma in Eastern Congo, for a glimpse of life in this troubled faraway outpost.
GOMA, EASTERN CONGO
Perhaps you have never heard of the city of Goma, in Eastern Congo. Or, if you have heard of it, what immediately comes to mind are images of a city teeming with refugees in the midst a war zone. Or perhaps the picture that sticks in your head is of a city at the base of an active volcano which erupted in 2002 and covered a third of the town in lava.
All of these are valid images of Goma, this city nestled on the border between Congo and Rwanda. Between war, refugees and erupting volcanoes, Goma faces an almost unbelievable number of disasters. When my husband and I first considered moving here about three years ago, I distinctly remember running an internet search on Goma and coming up with results entitled “living in the shadow of doom”. It was a bit discouraging. But for all that, Goma is a place well worth a second look. So I invite you to join me on a short city tour.
Like most tourists, we will fly into the Rwandan capital of Kigali and drive for three hours through rolling green hills to arrive at the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi. You will be struck by the understated beauty of this old colonial town situated on the shores of sparkling Lake Kivu. The road to the border winds directly along the rocky shores, and reminds me of driving along the coast of California.
But that only lasts for a couple of miles. Once we arrive at the border, everything changes. For $35, we buy a single-entry visa into Congo. As soon as we cross the border, we find ourselves in the city of Goma. The crowds, the dirt, and the volume all expand exponentially. While Gisenyi is an understated town, Goma is a city that demands your attention from the second you enter it.
From the border we will head up about two miles to the center of town. Goma is infamous for bad roads, but you may actually notice some newly paved streets and newly placed street lights. As part of the recent Congolese Independence Day celebrations, a lot of road work was attempted here. Some, amazingly, was even completed.
When you look down at your feet, you will immediately notice that the red dust of Rwanda has turned to the grey lava rock of Goma. The lava is everywhere. Shops and houses are built on top of the lava, and even walls are made out of it.
Goma is a city of hustle. As we walk along the roads you will see young men pushing chukudus (wooden bicycles loaded with goods for transport), weaving in and out amidst the multitude of motorcycle taxis. Young boys pass by with buckets of sodas on their heads, and girls with peanuts and fruits. Shops blare Congolese music into the streets and children gather outside the doorways to watch the music videos playing on screens inside.
In October, when fighting threatened to overtake Goma, the streets suddenly emptied. Shops were shuttered, vendors hid their goods, and everyone went home. But even then, I was astounded at how quickly the hustle returned. Even with soldiers facing off at the outskirts of the city, the vendors came out and shops reopened for business. I never cease to be amazed at the human capacity for resilience.
No one has taught me more about this resilience than the small group of handicapped women that I work with here in Goma, who are surely some of the most vulnerable people in the world. These four young women grew up in the rural areas of Congo that are at the center of ongoing fighting. They, like many people in Eastern Congo, have been forced to flee their homes. But how do you flee when you can’t even stand?
Yet amazingly these women have found a way to create a better world for themselves. Today they live on their own and provide for themselves. If we stop by their home, we may find them in the middle of studying French and Math, or in the midst of their work, sewing crafts and clothes. We sell these handcrafted items on our website, www.shonacongo.com. Through the profits these women have not only found real independence and dignity but also the gift of being able to help provide for others.
If we stop for a minute at their home and listen to these women talk, you will find that they have lived through incredibly difficult experiences. Yet today they are working with such hope and joy.
And this, to me, is the essence of Goma. In the midst of incredible obstacles, or perhaps because of them, you will find a people filled with an inspiring amount of hope. If there is one thing that can be said about the people of Goma, it is that they never cease to hope for a better tomorrow.
So come, check out Goma. You can see the volcano and learn about the war. But stay for a second look, because the most stunning part of Goma are the people themselves. Indeed, Goma is the type of place where you arrive thinking about all the disasters but you leave remembering the people.