The Defiant Congolese City Daring to Resist a Dictator
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Goma is offering an alternative model of protest to the violence that has wracked the DRC for decades.
Eastern Congo is a place of contradiction. The Congolese countryside is as quiet as it is mountainous, but Goma, the largest city in North Kivu province and the sixth largest in the country, is noisy. When the M23 rebel group invaded Goma in 2012, forcing thousands to flee, the city’s future appeared bleak. Six years later, Goma is rising as an epicenter of the arts, culture, entrepreneurship — and of political protest against a dictator refusing to give up power.
Like much else in the country, Goma’s recent journey is closely tied to the political turmoil the Democratic Republic of Congo has witnessed in recent years. President Joseph Kabila’s second and final presidential term constitutionally expired in December 2016, but he has yet to relinquish the office and has since postponed the election twice. The years under his reign — Kabila has been in power since 2001 — have been plagued with violence in North Kivu, and multiple militias including the Allied Democratic Forces, Mai Mai, Nyatura, and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda – perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide – have attacked the region in this period.
But those trying to revive Goma aren’t willing to let the political crisis derail their efforts.
Even if the story of Goma is tragic, now people are standing up and doing things for themselves
Jean Claude Wenga, co-founder, Amani Festival
At Kivu Entrepreneurs, a Goma-based business incubator and training center that launched in 2017, Congolese innovators are collaborating across sectors, even integrating business competitions into the Amani Festival, an annual arts and music event. The reward for winning? A space at the incubator and personalized business coaching.
Dancers from around the country are relocating to Goma for more opportunities, and their peers in places like Uganda and France are searching for collaborations and workshops with counterparts in Goma, says Meshake Lusolo, one of the city’s best-known dancers and a lead organizer of Goma’s popular Dance ya Kivu Battle. A new event, the Goma Dance Festival, also launched last year, and the city now boasts popular boutiques like Kivu Nuru — run by artist and entrepreneur Mapendo Sumuni — which sells the work of Congolese artists and artisans.
And as Kabila resists mounting calls for him to step down in keeping with the country’s constitution, Lucha, a youth-led, Goma-based activist group, is emerging as a leading voice seeking change in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Elsewhere, post–civil war revivals and democratic movements of resistance have long counted on international support and aid from nonprofits and charities. Goma’s revival, though, is largely led by bottom-up initiatives, driven by a growing collaborative band of artists, entrepreneurs and activists trying to turn the city into an example for the rest of the country.
“Even if the story of Goma is tragic, now people are standing up and doing things for themselves,” says Jean Claude Wenga, co-founder of the Amani Festival and Kivu Entrepreneurs.
Chris Ayale, winner of the Amani Festival’s 2018 business competition, works at a desk in the center of Kivu Entrepreneurs on his new company, Kivu Green, which aims to connect farmers directly to consumers through SMS messaging, and to make locally sourced agricultural products cheaper and more accessible. A few dozen other young entrepreneurs at tables near Ayale work on projects ranging from mobile payment apps to public transportation fixes.
Kivu Nuru’s Sumuni is doing her part as well. Along with arts-focused organizations like Foyer Culturel de Goma and Yole!Africa, her store provides a creative home for Goma’s artistic community, culminating in events like a fashion show this April. Growing up, recalls Sumuni, she lived through three wars. Now, she takes political instability in stride. “We’re still able to go on with our lives, open shops, create and live. It doesn’t hold as much power over us anymore,” she says.
Lusolo, the dancer, recalls how Lilou, a famous French hip-hop B-boy, visited for the Goma Dance Festival last year. “He had before only thought of [the] Congo as a place of war, but was now excited by the talent in the city,” says Lusolo. “Goma is experiencing a kind of renaissance.”
But the politics of Goma is distinct too, from that of other parts of the country, and is rooted in the same do-it-yourself spirit that defines its cultural revival. Lucha, the youth group, advocates nonviolence, but is clear that Kabila must go. “We no longer recognize Kabila as our current president,” says Simon Mukengeciceron, one of Lucha’s oldest members. “Power belongs to the people, and we will keep fighting until we get it back.”
Founded in Goma in 2012, Lucha is now represented in Kinshasa, Bukavu, Beni and other provinces. The group has held multiple protests, fighting for access to clean water, paved roads and, of course, political change. Scores of Lucha demonstrators have been beaten, tortured, jailed and killed over the past six months.
“Goma is a reference place for resistance and political contests — the movement was born here,” says Mukengeciceron. “It’s happening in Goma because we were pushed to rise.”
Goma’s deep mistrust extends beyond Kabila’s government, also touching international nonprofits that many locals say have failed to deliver services to the city’s most vulnerable populations. “They come to eat, and don’t feed,” says Frank Kamba, another core member of Lucha. “Goma’s revival is going to come from the Congolese themselves.”
The city’s creative community says that only galvanizes them further. Sitting at a table in Lapa, a popular Goma bar, visual artist Justin Kasareka shows a recent portrait he made of Rachel Piment, a young woman arrested in March for demonstrating against the government. Kasereka shared the portrait with Lucha to help advocate for Piment’s release. In Goma, according to Kasareka, “to be an artist is to be an activist.”
Still, deep optimism drives the city’s resurgence. Kasareka, along with Sumuni, Wenga, Lusolo and others in the city’s creative community, is working to craft a new narrative for Goma. “Goma has survived, and is now a town of possibility,” says Kasareka. “It’s not just about war here; there is also life.”