Hope For Goma (part II)by Christopher Clark / Illustration by Swishyboy / 12.03.2014
Walking on through the city center, it seemed odd to me the way people went about their business as usual. Between the fighting, life seemed to carry on as if nothing had happened. The bars and eateries were open and full of laughing, drinking men who struggled to make themselves heard above the highlife music that clattered from the worn out speakers all around them.
The roadsides were lined with ample-bosomed women in neon-colored head wraps crouched and sweating beside baskets of groundnuts or small log-fires cooking corn.”Mzungu! Mzungu!” they called out to me – White man! White man! A wide-eyed policeman shouted “Bonjoooouuur Bill Gates!” as I passed. At the large Bank of Congo building, the queue ran at least a few hundred meters out of the door. Nobody seemed to mind waiting. What had I expected? What else could the people do but keep going, keep living? Or keep trying to at least. Was there any other way?
But the semblance of ‘normal life’ was undermined by the intermittent intrusion of UN troops passing by atop large trucks, their facial expressions hard to make out behind their guns and the shadows cast by their bobbing blue helmets. There was something sinister about all those blue helmets. It almost seemed like they were the bad guys, somehow.
Overhead, UN planes buzzed like bees to and from the airport on the outskirts of town. I had the sense that chaos could explode again at any moment, like a sudden storm on an otherwise perfect day. Hope and peace were words that were still used extremely sparingly in Goma.
“Pole, pole!” Slowly, slowly! The locals said.
I ate steaming ugali (maize flour porridge) and beans for lunch and drank two cold Primus beers under the inquisitive gaze of a table of drunk men who took it in turns to approach me, tell me that I was a great friend and ask if I would buy them another round of beers. I thought about joining them, but was worried that if they asked what I was doing in Goma I wouldn’t have a satisfactory answer. The beer was crisp and stronger than I had expected. I left the bar feeling slightly lightheaded and drowsy in the heavy heat. “Au revoir, Chuck Norris!,” one of the men called after me.
I walked down past the main UN compound and countless other heavily-guarded and barbwire-fenced NGO bases towards the edge of the lake. That part of the city seemed a little incongruous; a couple of huge pristine waterfront hotels with grandiose French names – like something straight out of Monaco – were dotted between empty grey shells of buildings that had been left either half-built or half-destroyed.
But it was quieter and less frenetic there by the water’s edge. I looked around the curve of the lake back to the sleepy town of Gisenyi just on the other side of the border into Rwanda. I had gone down to the beachfront and swum in the lake there earlier that morning, and then watched a young, sun-kissed French couple – probably on their honeymoon – trying to learn to windsurf despite a distinct lack of wind. The guy was wearing a speedo and too much tanning oil, and somehow you could just tell that the woman had no hair on her vagina.
All of that was only a stone’s throw away, yet it had remained unscathed by the violence that so often enveloped Goma and the Eastern DRC. The arbitrary, imaginary line had somehow held fast and Goma continued to be sucked away from the shaven-vagina safety that could be found just the other side of the border, and back into the wilder, hairier Congolese hinterland.
I, on the other hand, could cross that line whenever I felt like it and never look back. It didn’t seem fair. Any of it.
A group of young boys, maybe seven or eight years old, took off all their clothes and ran, then fell and tumbled down the slope and into the water below, their penises flapping happily in the open air. They rose up from the water laughing and caught sight of me looking down at them. They waved and beckoned me to come and join them. I waved back, but ignored their summons and walked off in search of a guesthouse. I suddenly felt extraordinarily tired and despondent and very much alone. I didn’t belong there. I had begun to feel like a voyeur, and at the same time I didn’t really know what it was I had hoped to see. I decided I would leave the next day.
Almost five years on, I still read about Goma in the news from time to time, about the violence surging and then subsiding like the ocean. My memory always takes me back to that day. Even all these years later it remains hard to articulate exactly what I was looking for when I walked across the border, or why I didn’t join those men at their bar table, or join those boys in the lake. But I tell myself that one day the madness will stop for good and I’ll go back and somehow it will all be different.
Illustrations © Swishyboy
*Read part one – Welcome To Congo.