A Day in the DRC

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.

"Here in Goma, basketball is considered a more intellectual sport than football," Selemani, one of the game's referees, told me. "Football is for guys who aren't intellectual, who don't go to school or think in the right way. In basketball, you're supposed to follow the rules." The sport promoted education and civic virtue -- it was a way that the city could triumph over the insanity of the conditions in which it existed.

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The Golden Tchukudu. (Armin Rosen)

The most notable monument in Goma is the Golden Tchukadu, a double-life-sized depiction of a lanky and shirtless young man pushing one of the handmade, oversized two-wheel wooden scooters that ply Goma's unpaved streets. In the monument, which sits in the center of the city's largest roundabout, the scooter's payload is the planet earth itself. This corresponds perfectly with reality: I saw tchukadus laden with jerricans, furniture and sacks of charcoal, some with entire harvests and livelihoods piled over the handlebars. They are dangerous conveyances, dependent on the driver's sense of balance and sometimes controlled using a footbrake positioned over the back wheel. They rumble down even slight inclines at speeds that seem heinously unsafe, with tiny young heads poking over the high steering columns. The scooters always look as if they're one ridge or pothole away from splattering their drivers and cargo over the jagged volcanic streets. The odds of such a mishap are high, and the tchukudus must contend with armored UN trucks, NGO Landcruisers, motortaxis, and the woeful state of the roads. But Gomans are expert tchukudu drivers. They carry their lives on the scooter's back, after all -- the entire world, and nothing less.

So much of life in Goma rides on these syntheses of necessity and ingenuity and constant mortal danger. For all of its churn and anarchy, Goma is still aware enough of itself to commemorate them.

This reporting was sponsored in part by Oxfam America.

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

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