Over Easter weekend, I finally made it to DRC, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the place on which I wrote my undergraduate thesis and where I epically failed to go the first time in 2013. To give you an idea, my thesis focused on contextualizing a rebel movement called M23 operating in the eastern Congo. The Kivu region in Congo has experienced incredible violence and unrest for a long time, exploding in 1994 when the folks who organized the genocide, as well as thousands of Hutu refugees fearing retribution, fled to Congo and set up camp just across the border from Rwanda. Congo is roughly one third the size of the US, with the world’s second largest rainforest separating its capital from the eastern regions, meaning that the (corrupt) DRC government cannot meaningfully govern vast portions of the country, including the east. Myriad rebel groups have sprouted up as a means to survive the corrupt landscape and control the region’s resources.
When I was in Rwanda as a student the first time in 2013, I organized a trip (over my birthday nonetheless) with an equally enthusiastic classmate to visit the UN mission in eastern Congo and explore Goma (a main city in the east, just across the border from Rwanda) to contextualize what I was researching for my thesis. Not understanding the extent of the corruption, we tried applying for visas at the embassy in Kigali. The woman there said we couldn’t get them at that office but that if we looked at her jewelry for sale in the back, maybe she could work something out. Not understanding that this informal (“black”) economy is how virtually everything operates in Congo, we left, appalled, for the border, where we’d heard you could get visas at immigration.
After the long bus ride to the border, we met up a family friend who helped us navigate immigration, only to find out that we could only get a visa at the border if we paid $200. Not having that kind of money, we were instructed to go back to the embassy in Kigali. We took the long bus ride back to Kigali, begged the woman at the embassy to sell us her jewelry again (“What jewelry? What are you talking about?”), and finally realized that this trip was not meant to be. It was now my birthday and my friend and I were sitting dejectedly on the stoop of the Congolese embassy in Kigali, not knowing what to do. Then a dog from a neighboring compound ran up, bit me on the leg, and I spent the rest of my birthday in bed unable to walk. (Luckily the dog had been vaccinated against rabies, otherwise the story wouldn’t have stopped there.)
Being older and wiser and a lot more cautious now, this time we planned our trip through a legitimate travel agency. The security situation in Goma is relatively safe at the moment and the city is patrolled by myriad UN peacekeepers. Driving around with our guide, we noticed that the only foreigners walking the streets were heavily armed peacekeepers—it felt like South Africa in that we were told it wasn’t safe for foreigners to walk around yet we couldn’t actually tell if this true or an over-reacting and/or potentially racist attitude. We stayed in the car regardless.
The city of Goma itself has very poor infrastructure, with few paved roads, no drainage, and rocky, uncultivatable soil, and the majority of houses don’t have access to running water or electricity. The homes just outside the city are made primarily from wood, which is cheaper than stone and vastly different from the concrete homes of Rwanda. Little stands were set up along the road selling bottles of amber colored liquid that we first thought was some sort of alcohol. Our guide told us that they’re actually selling kerosene, which is used to fuel motorcycles and cars since gasoline is expensive and largely unavailable. It was an amazing contrast to glittering Kigali and made us appreciate how far parts of Rwanda have come in so little time.
Just outside Goma lies Virunga National Forest, where one can see mountain gorillas and hike the active volcano Nyiragongo. (Check out the Netflix movie called “Virunga” http://virungamovie.com/—100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an amazing look at the challenges the forest faces.) Nyiragongo is 3,470m tall (11,384 ft) and has the world’s largest lava lake (the pool of lava at the top). It exploded out the side in 2002, destroying a bunch of homes and businesses in Goma, causing a mass exodus of Goma’s residents into Rwanda, and killing about 150 people. Hearing that, we were a tad bit nervous to say the least.
The hike itself goes through the rainforest and practically straight up the side of the volcano. A group of 25 tourists, 3 armed guards, and bunch of super badass porters trekked up the side. Our porter was named Baraka, a tiny guy who didn’t look more than 18 years old carrying our hiking backpack up the sheer rock face, and I started calling him Baraka Obama. (I’m not sure if he understood….) Five hours of uphill hiking and a significant change in altitude made for a rough time and I can’t imagine how Baraka Obama and the other porters did it with backpacks.
At the top, the lava lake was maybe the most amazing thing I’ve seen. We stood for what felt like hours, mesmerized by the colors and the heat radiating from the center of the giant crater. There are cabins perched on the side of the volcano near the top where we stayed the night and cooks prepared a delicious dinner and breakfast. Dinner was great—we ate local food crowded around a fire in a little hut, sharing language lessons with the locals. I also had my best bathroom experience on the volcano, where the toilet is also perched on the side of the steep rock face and the door-less structure overlooked an incredible view of Goma, Lake Kivu, and Rwanda. (Best shower experience was in Ecuador, a story for another time.)
Three hours of downhill hiking and we made it back to the park entrance and eventually Rwanda.