When I was in Central and Eastern Africa this summer, there were only two times when I felt unsafe. The first time was when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a riot after my train had derailed between Dar-es-Salaam and Mwanza. The other time was in Goma.
It seems that things are heating up in Eastern Congo again. But then again, they never really cooled down that much in the first place. When I was in Goma for a few days last August, things were already very tense. Upon returning to Kigali via Gisenyi, which is really just the Rwandan side of a single city that includes Goma, I learned that five people had been killed in Goma. I mentioned this to a Rwandan on a bus to Uganda, and he replied, “Five white people?” I told him that I didn’t think so, that I imagined it was probably five Congolese or Rwandans, to which he replied, “Oh, well that’s normal.”
Goma is probably the strangest and most uncomfortable place I’ve ever been to in Africa, if not the world. It’s not uncomfortable in the sense of there not being modern amenities; there are plenty of expensive hotels with room service and balconies overlooking Lake Kivu. It was uncomfortable in that there was a palpable sense of hostility in the air. If you keep walking on the pleasant lakeview boardwalk in Gisenyi, Rwanda, you end up at the Congolese border where Goma starts after about 15 minutes. The difference between the two countries is striking and immediate. It seems more lively in Goma, but also more dangerous. In some parts of very poor African cities, I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures (parts of Nairobi, Dar, Mwanza and Addis Ababa, for example), mostly because I didn’t want to attract even more attention to myself. In Goma, however, I was afraid of taking pictures, not because I was afraid of dealing with more street kids or panhandlers, but because I was afraid it might attract more violent attention. This is a feeling that I’d never had before, from Uzbekistan to Yemen to Zanzibar and up to Syria via Ethiopia.
And while Goma is one of the poorer cities I’ve been to in Africa, it’s also the most expensive. There are so many international aid-workers and peacekeepers that the prices have been inflated exponentially. Already, Rwanda is expensive, but Goma was even pricier. It was difficule find a meal for less than $20 a person. Which is not to say that there aren’t pricey restaurants in other parts of Africa — there are — but the difference was that in Kigali or Addis or even on Zanzibar, it is easy enough to find a place to eat that caters to local people. I had a difficult time of it in Goma.
All this to say that Goma was already a miserable place a few months ago, so I don’t want to imagine what things look like today.