A Day in the DRC

He shrugged off an interview request, but what I'd seen was instructive enough. If it weren't for a war that has killed up to 5.4 million people since 1996, there wouldn't be Congolese playing Mexican music to lure Uruguayan soldiers into spending American dollars -- Congolese Francs aren't really all that useful in Goma -- on South African blue jeans smuggled through Burundi. There might otherwise not be places like Salt and Pepper, a dust pit that is nevertheless the only Indian restaurant I've been to outside of India where the proprietors have dared to get the spices right. There wouldn't be places like the Coco Jambo, an outdoor lounge where heavyset and permanently glowering Lebanese men share space with drunken aid workers at the Friday DJ night (Who are those guys, I asked one French NGO employee. "Men who sell things for what they're worth," was her damning reply -- Goma being the sort of place where acquiring useful items in bulk and then selling at value is often an exploitative and occasionally violent livelihood.)

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The view of the Rwandan side of Lake Kivu from the Ihusi Hotel's backyard. (Armin Rosen)

And if it weren't for the war, it's doubtful that, a few hours after my visit to the market by the airport road, I would be gawking at the almost Edenic view of Lake Kivu afforded by the outdoor bar at the Ihusi Hotel, which has a fountain graced by a giant plastic mountain gorilla, in addition to a resident flock of bushy-headed crested cranes, slender blue and white birds strutting among the palm trees. They are apparently endangered.

This idyllic, and, in most countries, illegal scene would be more appropriate for honeymooners than conflict journalists, but it makes a perverted kind of sense: the war has filled Goma with NGO workers and UN staff and outsiders trading in weapons or minerals -- the eastern Congo has an abundance of both. It's created a low-end market, like the scene outside of the Uruguayan base, and a high-end market, where French army generals in blue UN berets can eat a $20 veal cordon bleu amid rare exotic birds and mindboggling natural beauty.

At least some of the locals benefit from this. As James explains, Goma has hotels with connections to the army, and hotels with connections to the rebels -- directly across the street from each other, in one case. There are hotels that serve as transit points for conflict minerals, and high-ceilinged restaurants owned by apparatchiks for ethnic militants and smugglers. The local wealth might not always be scrupulously obtained (although scruples are a loose concept in a place with as little authority as the eastern DRC, where a weak and predatory state has chased over 90 percent of economic activity to the informal market), but at least it's local -- unlike other places in the continent, the city doesn't have the feel of a French or South African colony, even if French is still, well, the lingua franca.

The Ihusi Hotel is only an hour away from sweltering IDP camps prone to food shortages and cholera outbreaks, tent cities that have cropped up in the year since the M23 crisis began. Goma had only 80,000 inhabitants in 1980, but it boasts over a million now. New customers and cheap labor flee for their lives and then glom on to the city's periphery. Today, there's little evidence that the western neighborhood of Kituku was recently a camp for the internally displaced. Beyond it lie squalid IDP camps that are likely to later undergo the same integration into Goma's urban fabric.

War has ensured that there are large communities of each of the region's major ethnic groups, even as it's also ensured that there's a starving and ever-growing underclass adding to an already-disorganized mass of humanity. In eastern Congo, conflict is the catalyst for the same kind of breakneck urbanization that's happening all over Africa, whose urban population is set to triple by 2050. Elsewhere in the continent, rural migrants settle in cities for employment or educational opportunities, which are drivers of urbanization the world over. In Goma, a similar process is occurring -- but because of the conflict that's seized the region's more remote and rural areas while sparing North Kivu's metropolis. Goma is calmer and more prosperous than the rest of North Kivu, those pesky rebel and volcano-related threats aside. It grows not despite, but because of, the violence and chaos that threaten to engulf it.

This suffering has created its share of opportunities.

"I'm afraid of those guys," James joked when we pulled up to a downtown construction site for a half-finished five-story building. "Where did they get money to build like this? This wasn't here a month ago." And there are small opportunities -- below the building, I spotted a wooden rack of coffins, which were apparently handmade and sold for about $60 each. Every coffin was wrapped in a colorful thin felt -- in Goma, you can be sent off in purple or bright red or butterscotch-tinted psychedelic marble. I asked the proprietor, a bearded man wearing a peeling, Dolphins-era Ricky Williams jersey, whether he was doing well out here. "Yes," he said. "There's a lot of death." The smallest coffins were just a couple of feet long, and there were a lot of them.

Later in the day, as the compact jerked over cratered gravel streets, James explained a typical Goman funeral. "Even in war, people try to live their ordinary lives. It's a reflection of the Congolese people. Even if you go to a death ceremony, people will cry. And then they start to relax -- to laugh, to sing." They will mourn and pray for three days. And then the rumba music will restart, and life will struggle back towards normalcy.

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The ruins of a church damaged by the eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo in 2002. (Armin Rosen)

Church is everywhere on a Sunday in Goma. The city has austere Catholic churches and wild Pentecostal churches and rumba churches where congregants worship to the tinny and wandering guitar phrases of Congo's national music. There are street churches that form beneath the crumbling turret of the old Belgian post office near the center of town, as well as churches in wooden lean-tos, churches in cinderblock shacks, and churches built out of stately volcanic brick. In the slums on the northern edge of town, the sounds from the churches carry and mix, but at the small city dock on Lake Kivu, it could easily have been any other day of the week. Ferryboats bobbed lazily in the waves as men fished and washed their motorcycles in the lake. The port is tucked inside a deep natural bowl, below the sweaty and eternally-gridlocked downtown, cut off from the anxiety and noise of its environment. The sliver of mud at the end of the dock, which faces the mountains of Rwanda and South Kivu on the lake's distant opposite shores, would be an excellent place to meditate or relax, and the waters seem to open into a paradise where violence and suffering are inconceivable. And indeed, a pleasant marijuana odor lingered over the little mud beach, whose distractions included analog pinball machines and sundry other games fashioned out of old crates. One such game was jokingly named after Mobutu, the kleptocratic ex-president for life who once owned a massive estate just a few hundred yards away from the port.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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