April 25, 2006

Early Beginning

I leave for Rwanda quite early in the morning to catch the 8:30am flight. I have never been up at 5:30am on a Sunday morning and notice masses and masses of Congolese joggers having their morning jog (or “footing” as they call it). Some are sparring and boxing with old rags around their hands, others are running in plastic sandals and torn shirts. I almost feel like I’m in a Rocky movie, without the cheesy music. There is surprisingly little traffic and I don’t recall ever driving on such deserted Kinshasa roads.

The airport is its usual mess, but there has been a remarkable improvement in the past year I’ve been here. There is less chaos, though I’m sure a foreigner would still be shocked his/her first time here.

We fly over Mbuji-Mayi, the diamond town, and my Congolese neighbor keeps on repeating that “people are literally walking on diamonds here, yet the city is still like a village, with families living in beaten mud houses”.

As we make our approach into Goma, there is a noticeable drop in cabin temperature. I grab for one of the three sweaters I brought and quietly enjoy the cool feeling while the other passengers shiver, switch their A/C vents off, or mumble and grumble.

The landing strip in Goma is few kilometers from the huge Kivu Lake. I am told that, if you row to the very middle of it, the fog slowly drops around you and the edges are so far that you feel like you are in the ocean. The city is dominated by a still active volcano which glows faintly at night. In 2001, there was a violent eruption that spread to the airport and informal shanty towns surrounding the volcano. Thankfully, the lava was slow flowing and few lives were lost. But it remains an impressive sight to fly into to the airport just over the river. The plane lands and the brakes are activated forcefully: the strip which was initially 3,000m is now reduced to 1,800m as the north end is completely covered with volcanic rock. Upon leaving the plane, the volcano looms ominously at the end of the strip, spewing gray smoke. To the left of the strip is a newly built shanty town with gleaming new corrugated iron roofs. I'm amazed that families would rebuild their houses right on top of their old house buried in lava.

I think of New Orleans where people insist on rebuilding their house right on the spot where mucky water has destroyed their land again and again. A colleague of mine who happens to be from New Orleans, says “it doesn’t matter where it is, it’s your home and you can’t leave it”.

My first impression of Goma is that all the colors are muted. It’s dusty from volcanic ash. Goma is sometimes referred to the Switzerland of Africa, for its cool and misty weather. Who knew it could be so pleasant in Africa?

Muted colors in Goma. This was a previously paved road. The cars are now driving on the leveled lava

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Good for them for leveling the lava.