On the surface, there is something sassy about Goma. In public spaces, children grin and giggle and come running to greet strangers. Young women balancing heavy baskets on their heads point and laugh at foreigners. Yellow and blue-clad traffic police, often women, offer up enough attitude for a traffic-filled Times Square during Friday rush hour.
After dark, clubs beckon with signs for “girls who dance” and the city’s elegant chalets by the shores of Lake Kivu recall the days when Goma was a vacation hot spot.
But today Goma’s troubles cloud an otherwise brave face. First there is poverty. Then, a few years ago came the conflict sparked by neighboring Rwanda’s genocide when the murderous Interahamwe and hundreds of thousands of refugees poured across the border, soon pursued by Rwanda troops.
In the late 1990s, militia groups and various armies fought over the Congo’s natural riches — gold, diamonds and coltan, a mineral essential for making cell phones and computers — and as many as 3 million people may have died from war, famine, disease. Ignored by the media in the west, the conflict has become known as Africa’s “world war.”
If superstitious locals in Goma ever felt that God was displeased with Goma, they didn’t have to look far for evidence. On Jan. 17, 2002, nearby Mount Nyiragongo spewed fast-moving molten lava in a vast stream down into the city, wiping out its commercial center and overrunning gas stations, which then exploded. Mount Nyiragongo — in Swahili, “the god that is angry.”
A year after the eruption, and from the air, Goma looks like the angry god took a paintbrush dipped in black and broad brushed two lines through the city to the lake.
On the ground, it is even more surreal. Hotels look as if they have been buried to the second floor in chocolate cake mix. Rusted vehicles stick up out of the mix like nightmarish ornaments.
There are other ornaments too — bright signs, red, yellow, green and orange signs that tell locals in French and Swahili crucial information about the mood of their angry, looming neighbor. Most often, the flags on the signs indicate a yellow state of alert, one stage higher than green, which means all clear.
“In the old days, when the volcano was angry, people threw in a young virgin, some fish and a good cow,” explained Eustache Mutombo, a project manager with the Irish humanitarian agency Concern, which part-funded the signs all over Goma and is also in charge of a series of educational programs to warn children and adults about the volcano.
You might assume that all the warning anyone needs if they live next to a volcano is, if it starts erupting, run. But there is much more to living with a volcano.
With his colleague Roger Omana, Mutombo visited a school recently where the volcano sensitivity program was being introduced to schoolchildren aged from 11 or 12 through 16 and 17. The school is called Ecole Primaire Furoha.
Neatly lined up outside the school, the pupils had left their school books on desks inside: handwriting was elegant and legible, describing class studies in human rights, ancient civilization, calculus.
Outside, the volcano program was getting under way.
Large, colorful posters were held up showing what a volcano looked like from inside.
“Matope!” screamed the children in a call-and-response session. It is Swahili for lava, which erupts (“muripuko”) from a “mlima ya moto,” or “mountain of fire.”
Observing the instruction, Auriol Miller of Concern explained how the Irish humanitarian organization became involved with the volcano awareness program. With her was the genial and portly headmaster, Rumbo Buunda.
“We started it partly at the suggestion of a donor,” said Miller, “and we had a good knowledge of Goma and the surrounding area.”
The instructor held up another drawing of a volcano and explained that there were eight in the area that are active, corresponding to the Great Rift Valley — a massive geological fault line. Mount Nyiragongo’s eruption in 2002 was untypical because the lava actually burst out of the side of the mountain, some miles from its smoking, smoldering cone-shaped summit.
At the same time, other deadly fissures opened up all over the city and surrounding area. Some belch steam, others emit invisible, odorless and deadly carbon monoxide. Recently, French vulcanologist Jaques Derieux dangled a luckless goat into a fissure and trained a video camera on it. For anyone watching the educational video, the lesson is clear: the goat went unconscious within 15 seconds.
Back at the school, headmaster Buunda said that there were four further lessons after this, the first to take place at his school.
Lesson one explained types of volcanoes. Lesson two showed the good things and the bad things about a volcano. They can kill — in 2002, Goma lost only about 45 people in the lava flow, unlike the last serious eruption in 1977, when more than 2,000 people were killed.
But the lava, once it has cooled, is easy to fashion into blocks for building, so Goma literally rises from its own ashes.
The lava is razor sharp, but brittle, and within 10 to 15 years it breaks down to extremely fertile, dark soil. Plants were already starting to grow from the lava only one year later.
“You nearly always see kids in Goma wearing shoes,” said Miller, “because the lava would cut their feet to shreds.” It’s true: at the school, other children who had been attending earlier classes hung around in ragged clothes to watch. But each one had shoes.
At l’Ecole Primaire Furoha the children would learn three more lessons in the coming days: health effects of living near a volcano — the prevailing winds tend to carry Nyiragongo’s vapors away from Goma, but toward another town, Masisi, where respiratory problems are high. Concern’s colored alert system would be explained to them and evacuation procedures on the day when, not if, the warning flags turn red.
Miller has worked in this part of Africa for a number of years. She has acquired an affection for the Congolese, whom she said she sometimes thinks of as “the Italians of Africa.” Yes, they are needy people, but they take care to dress as well as they can. Large families and Catholicism make for extended families that care for orphaned children not even directly related. And there is a distinctive sense of humor and sometimes visitors will get the vague sense that the wool has been deftly pulled over their eyes.
As the lesson ended, the children skipped and ran alongside Concern’s team as they were leaving. Were the children good students? the headmaster was asked. He smiled and looked apologetic.
“I am worried that you will think they are badly behaved,” he said through an interpreter. “But it’s just that they are so curious about everything.”
Concern hopes that the volcano-awareness program will soon become part of the curriculum for each graduating class in the area. With a watchful eye on the warning signs across their city, the people of Goma won’t be moving anytime soon.