On January 17th, 2002, Mount Nyiragongo erupted and destroyed approximately 20%-30% of the buildings and homes in Goma. News about the event and scientific reports are easy to find with a simple Google search, explaining everything you would ever want to know about the disaster, including pictures of the city ablaze and a detailed look at fumaroles. The video below gives a reasonable overview of Nyiragongo's 2002 eruption, its impact on the city of Goma, and the measures being taken to predict future eruptions more accurately, so that fair warning can be given to residents.
If this eruption managed to blip onto your a t.v. or computer screen in 2002, I'm sure that much of what you saw focused on the dangers of living next to an active volcano and the "kicking-them-while-they're down" timing of this disaster, given Goma's long string of other problems (this article calls it a "crucible of conflict" for over 15 years).
My family had more access to personal accounts of the eruption than the average American because we had friends living in Goma sending us eyewitness news. When Lyn Lusi was finally able to write, she explained that they had to leave their lakeside property by boat, because the lava had cut off the roads on both sides of the house. They sailed through the sulfuric stink and hiss of lava pouring into the water, and past boiling patches of lake to the bordering town in Gisenyi, Rwanda until it was safe to return. Luckily, the Lusi's house was untouched, but their medical NGO, HEAL Africa, had one of its main buildings completely buried by the lava flow. During that following spring/summer, I spent three months volunteering for HEAL Africa as they leveled and started to rebuild that facility, and I overheard much about the eruption during my stay. "What I saw”, "how I escaped", and “what I lost” were common elements of these stories. A young man named Jean Luc, whose family had lost everything, told me without a trace of self-pity that they were “starting again from zero"; then, because I'd expressed interest, he gave me a copy of the four-hour VHS tape circulating in the local marketplace; it was essentially a home movie with a mezmerizing catalogue of lava-driven infernos.
These raw reports interested and saddened but rarely shocked me, given what I knew about Nyiragongo's power to destroy. What did surprise me were interpretations I heard about the eruption's meaning and importance. These creative explanations about the event's impact were explained in very regional terms. Consider the difference between the international news lens and local rumor about the same event: a BBC news story covering a gas station explosion. The news story revolves almost entirely around calculating loss of life and property. For local folk, however, curiosity surrounded the man who owned the neighboring, unexploded station. Since the lava avoided his structure while destroying the one across the street, he got a reputatation as someone in God's pocket. The remaining business not only became a corner monopoly, but people often took pains to patronize his business, hoping some of his luck would rub off on them. I have seen that petrol man swagger around his station pumps as a minor celebrity--not something that would make the news, but which does emphasize how, as Goma residents sought to explain patterns of benefit and misfortune from the eruption, the popular imagination was more interested in figuring out how to access elusive benefits and protections than to catalogue losses.
Besides accounting for why certain people profited and others lost, local stories about the general nature of this disaster were making their rounds in Goma, too. Lyn mentioned a popular one in her letter: many local folk said that the eruption was Patrice Lumumba's revenge for Mobutu's part in his assassination; they pointed to the date (the anniversary of Lumumba's murder) when a rivulet of lava burnt one of Mobutu's houses on its way to the lake. Another story, a religious one, claimed that a Congolese prophet had been summoned to the top of the mountain and been asked by God to pray for Goma's forgiveness because of its moral chaos and corruption. The man refused and the eruption was God's chosen form of divine punishment. A British friend of mine working with World Relief at the time, told me that some of her Congolese co-workers had begun calling the mountain General Nyiragongo because, they said, “Only a general could chase out so many people at once.” With a mixture of dead seriousness and wry humor, local Congolese demonstrated how literal, geological rifts tearing apart the area and causing eruptions could be re-read as figurative ones—as the natural buildup of a long history of injustice, exploitation, and moral disorder.
In my view, these stories are not only arresting but give a telling snapshot of the local imagination in Eastern DRC. They show how human-made disasters can mimic natural patterns of eruption; the stories identify some deeply-rooted historical rifts that destabilize the region and lead to bigger eruptions of violence. Sustainable solutions to the problems in the Congo must address not just the individual disasters as they arise but the the “seismic” political activity in all over Congo--here my focus is primarily on the East, but I believe many of my insights here apply to broader regions across the country.
What strikes me immediately about the stories I heard in Goma are that they pinpoint some of the biggest and most persistent problems in the region, namely: the vulnerability of the local people in the face of unchecked military powers (ie. General Nyiragongo) and both international and local politics undermining democratic processes in Congo (the CIA and Congolese politicians killing Lumumba, an official elected by the people).
There's a tremendous talk these days about the issue of "conflict minerals" in Congo. I would encourage readers to carefully consider the issue of Congolese resources and who's benefitting from their exploitation; there are many good conversations about the "conflicts minerals" focus in activism and policy-making: some convinced that cleaning up the supply chains will help end the conflict in DRC others raising serious concerns about this approach. Jason Stearns has an excellent review of what's at stake in this argument. Of course, resource control is not just about profit but power and politics; the question of who benefits from "business as usual" is worth asking, and one must not only listen to experts, but to what local folks in DRC have to say. Consider the fable a widow told me in the summer of 2002 about the volcanic eruption:
Once upon a time, Nyiragongo an Nyamulagira got married. Nyiragongo was a wealthy Congolese and Nyamuragira was a Rwandan from a family of somewhat meager means; the couple was blissful for a short time.
After her wedding, Nyamulagira went over the border to her family in Rwanda, bringing them many gifts from her new, materially rich life.
After a time, as her gift-giving continued, Nyiragongo's family and friends started to grumble and whisper that Nyamulagira had put her arms around her new husband only to reach the wallet in his back pocket. There were rumors that she and her family in Rwanda were laughing at Nyiragongo and plotting to clean him out.
Meanwhile Nyiragongo was whistling in the garden.
He was so oblivious, so unsuspicious, that, finally, his family and friends approached him and raised the alarm: “Has anyone ever heard of the thing Nyamulagira is doing? A wife taking this many things from her husband to make her family back home rich! She has bad designs. She is not just giving gifts, she is making a calculated transfer of property. Look! She is impoverishing you.”
Nyiragongo blinked his eyes and realized he'd been deceived. He started shaking from anger; he shook so hard the earth moved.
Then, as they say, “he blew his top.”
And this is why the volcano Nyiragongo erupted.
I didn't know what to make of this story when I first heard it, but I knew it was important to write down. Nobody makes a new fable for nothing: this is the kind of material people intend to preseve and pass down to their children as important cultural information. The story's message is this: a bad relationship between Rwandans and Congolese has caused powerful destruction in Congo. The suspicion that many Congolese have developed toward Rwandans comes from evidence that the Rwandan government and economy has profited directly and significantly from Congo's destabiliation. As places like Goma continue to struggle with the negative effects of the 1994 genocide, having trouble meeting the basic needs of its population, the city's inhabitants can nevertheless easily see over the border into Rwandan cities like Gisenyi, where neighboring Rwandans have, in that same time period, achieved comparative peace, order, and prosperity.
In a country where free access to information can be very limited for the average Congolese, a lot of people have to rely on experience, observation, and rumor to help them form opinions. These perceptions--even when they are oversimplified or misinformed--can point out shocking discrepancies in fairness one would do well to note and examine further. One Congolese man complained to me during my visit that "It's like Rwandans have been rewarded for genocide! Congolese are peaceful by comparison and we are punished for it! We would have given more international support if we had been murderers." Consider the average Congolese perception: After the Rwandan refugees arrived in Goma in 1994, it became harder for local folk to feed their families and take care of daily needs. The whole area became overpopulated and resources were stretched very thinly. Disease outbreaks like cholera grew rampant. Medical assistance was even harder than usual to come by--every medical facility experiencing the tide and undertow of overwhelming emergencies. Rwandan military occupation and abuses followed on the heels of these refugee arrivals, destabilizing and spreading disorder throughout the region for over a decade.
More than just expressing discontent, the fable explaining "how Rwanda broke Congo's heart" plays out a local fantasy in its conclusion: that Rwandan trouble would go back into Rwanda and that Congo would be able to prosper from its own resources. This is a powerful sentiment and understandable. It is my hope that the energy building from Congolese dissatisfaction and frustration will be well-directed and used to repair dysfunctional relations rather than fuel greater disasters--because Rwandan people are not the problem--most Rwandans are seeking to meet their basic needs in the same way as Congolese are. Bad government and weak institutions of justice and accountability are the problem. I encourage Congolese to overcome their hesitations and work to develop trust and relationships with Rwandan people who are partners for peace and stability. Many Rwandans understand the explosive ways that political resentments and grievances develop into large-scale tragedies if they are not properly managed; they are potentially excellent allies in developing good prevention and good diplomacy in Congo.
Remember this: Politicians looking for more power thrive on exploiting divisions. They act as Mr. Nyiragongo's family did, raising alarm and feeding fear and resentment rather than encouraging dialogue and cooperative solutions. Yes, Congo's exploitation by Rwanda is real. The essential and difficult work remains to build a platform of justice, not revenge. Put the suspicion where it belongs: on the politicians who are working only for themselves--both internationally and locally. As many people in positions of power have repeated: "when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled." What about when volcanoes fight? What is the collateral damage in that metaphor--between whole countries? With the election year at hand, one already feels seismic rumblings in Goma, as elsewhere in Congo. Friends have been calling us about more killings on the road to Rutsuru and increased insecurity in the rural parts of the Kivu region. As always, many stand ready to profit from the chaos and confusion--the same people who would benefit from perpetual war. I hope that readers will continue to inform themselves about the efforts underway to find long-term solutions to conflict and instability in DRC; we encourage you to visit the information blogs of reputable organizations working for peace and social justice, like Friends of the Congo,* who believe that strong diplomacy and good dialogue are absolutely necessary to prevent more violent eruptions, address Congolese grievances in a productive way, and pave the way for peaceful, popular elections.
*I recommend reading Kambale Musavuli's article "Libya and Congo" to understand why diplomatic solutions are necessary, and signing the petition to get the US to implement PL 109-456, which has been law since 2006 but never fully implemented.