A Day in the DRC

But the real centerpiece of this homemade arcade was the foosball table, built by a sturdy and industrious man named Stanislaus, who bought the player figurines and steel rods from a Burundian dealer and then sawed and nailed the rest of it together himself. "Many people here didn't know how to play this," he said, before claiming that his was one of only two foosball tables in the entire city. "It was not very popular." Now, he makes about $3 a day renting it out to the children, motortaxi drivers, weed smokers, and pickpockets milling about on the docks. Opponents could play to 10 for 10 cents each. "Out of about 100 young guys, maybe three of them have a good job," Stanislaus told me. "I can't be a thief." He lived in the western part of the city, in a slum of wooden shacks near the IDP camps and far away from the source of his livelihood. He could return to the dock one day to discover that his table had been stolen or harvested for parts of reclaimed by the waves. Already it was showing signs of wear -- the wooden playing surface was chipping and all but one of the red players was missing its head.

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Men fish in Lake Kivu, near Goma's port. (Armin Rosen)

On the drive back up to the city, James and I passed Mobutu's old estate -- a grand Italianate mansion more tasteful than the late dictator's flamboyant reputation would suggest -- and a neighborhood with walled UN compounds spaced every couple hundred yards, places with names like the MONUSCO Integrated Command, MONUSCO Headquarters: Goma, and the UNOCHA IDP Data Analysis Center. In its leafier lakefront precincts, the city is a dirt grid of terraced mansions rising behind barbed wire, with streets like intersecting box canyons of high walls and iron gates.

Goma is calm, but ungoverned: home invasions are common, and militants have allegedly pulled off grenade attacks and assassinations in the city center. NGO employees adhere to strict curfews, and there are no clear lines of authority within a city split between the national army, the UN's army, and a municipality that barely exists. The uniformed police are seldom paid and subsequently operate more like a mafia-style protection racket than a true professional force -- people fear them for the bribes they'll be forced to pay, and not because the law carries any meaning.

And the authorities are hardly the only people with guns: one day, near the edge of town, I saw a pickup truck from a government-allied group of local militants, one of whom was carrying a shoulder-fired rocket launcher. It's no wonder the houses are well-protected: they have flying bay windows and fresh layers of roofing; fake third floors with sharply sloping gables, and broad balconies that are always empty. They advertise wealth and importance in a place where people are poor, anonymous, and frequently armed. And they all look brand new. When Nyiragongo partially erupted in 2002, it destroyed over 40 percent of Goma's buildings; the eruption was so violent that a river of lava made it to the lakefront some 15 kilometers away. Ten years later, the city is a patchwork of improvised slums and handsome new houses. For the most part, the volcano's immediate damage has been reversed. But not entirely: an old Catholic church by the central marketplace is still roofless and partially buried in a swamp of hardened lava. The altar is still there, and when I visited, teenagers were breakdancing and practicing backflips on the smooth concrete where the pews used to be.

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A street scene in Goma, with Mt. Nyiragongo smoking in the background. (Armin Rosen)

As James showed me in the early afternoon, the basketball court was one of the few places in Goma immune to the disruptions of nature and man. He took me to a blacktop court in a city park overgrown with cornstalks, where two teams from Goma's municipal league battled through the humidity and dust. James had gone to a local Catholic high school, where he received what he described as a "basketball education" from the school's hoops-crazy priest and headmaster -- more than once, he told me that the sport had taught him the self-discipline needed to survive in a place where living into your late 20s was hardly a guarantee. Basketball, he said, had saved him from aimlessness or militancy -- it had saved him, period.

We sat down near the top of a crumbling concrete grandstand, from which shouts of "Se bon! Se bon!" would issue from a mostly-male crowd whenever a player heaved a plausible three-point attempt. On the court, the teams and referees wore bright new uniforms and children minded a wooden scoreboard. The blue team's forwards were a head taller than red's, but had no idea how to use their size against the opposition's speedy and accurate sharpshooters: blue hoisted one ill-advised shot after another, while red would press a merciless fast break that reduced blue's defensive strategy -- insomuch as they had one -- to a series of nasty and desperate fouls. Skill and intellect were winning. "They don't play defense," James said of the blue team, which ended up losing by fifteen. "They don't even have a coach." They actually did, but he remained impassive as the game slipped away.

In a region where authority is so totally mystified, the referees displayed an enviable ability to maintain order. The game was logical and organized in a way that nothing else in town seemed to be. Afterwards, the league's president, a graying man with a dignified gut, described to me how the league had endured through the war, and how, as a result, the city now had an entire generation of players who had grown up with the sport. I asked him to name one area of the game in which the city could improve. "Defensive tactics," he told me without hesitation.

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

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