Goma is crazy. The fact that a Congolese man showed me his penis, however, is not what makes Goma crazy.
In most other cities, a Congolese guy shouting what presumably translates as “Hey white man, look at this,” while yanking down his pants on a busy market street at two in the afternoon would be the yardstick by which all madness was measured. Schizophrenics would look on and say, “Well, I have issues, but I’m not as crazy as him.” In Goma, however, it barely prompted a glance from onlookers of all ages.
I was annoyed and maybe a little horrified, bellowing a guttural “NOOOOOO!!!” to show my disapproval. Ignatius, my Ugandan fellow traveler was more philosophical, stoically remarking “He must be proud of how bushy it is.”
The flasher does not define Goma’s lunacy because the Congolese town, bordered by Lake Kivu and Gisenyi, Rwanda, is a harmonic convergence of crazy and awful. It starts with the combination of lava, gorillas and guerillas and pretty much spirals from there. If Conrad was right that Congo is the heart of darkness, then Goma is its diseased right ventricle a chamber of the heart simultaneously battling heartworm, a murmur and at least three blockages.
The crazy began at the border as Rwanda’s well ordered, if secretly seething society, gave way to Congo’s poorly ordered and openly seething one. As soon as we officially entered the country, a Congolese gentleman who may or may not work for the government expressed grave concern over Ignatius’ absent yellow fever immunization card. Thankfully it turns out that the mere act of giving money to a Congolese gentleman who may or may not work for the government provides immunity against yellow fever.
“Mzungu has card, ok. But Uganda has no card… problem,” the official explained in a mix of broken English and French.
“But surely sir there must be some fine we could pay,” I said using the international standard for “May I offer you a bribe?”
“Twenty, twenty,” the man responded.
“But sir, I do not have 20, I have only 10 dollars,” I countered.
“I was meaning 10, not twenty,” the official replied, and just like that Alexander Hamilton negotiated the Congo border far more effectively than he managed Aaron Burr.
While I was proud that, for the first time in my exhaustive travels I had managed to pay a bribe rather than having a local fixer handle it for me, I did not regard this as particularly crazy. It was annoying, but it was utterly predictable.
What was crazy, however, was the obsessive-compulsive meticulousness of the immigration official who managed the formal migration process before we had even needed to issue a bribe. The matronly woman in the calico dress who handled our visa issues did not ask for any money beyond the official visa fees. That was not her modus operandi. To her, the key to controlling the cross border raids into Rwanda, the smuggling of goods and perhaps even the war itself was to draw perfectly straight lines on the book of graph paper that served as the immigration register.
We had the poor fortune to be the first visitors to Congo on a new page of the register. This meant that the matron needed to go through the lengthy process of creating columns on the new page that exactly matched those on the old page. After checking the old page she would jot a little hash mark on the new page before flipping the book back for the next chart.
Flip. Ten squares for name on the old page.
Flip. Count ten squares on the new page. Make a mark.
Flip. Two squares for gender on the old page.
Flip. Count two squares on the new page. Make a mark.
Only when she had flipped the page some 14 times to cover seven columns, did she finally take a brand new, clear plastic ruler from its polyurethane packaging and draw crisp lines formally marking each column. This was all well and good until a line went a bit crooked, then out came the whiteout. If you have ever wondered how the whiteout industry stays in business in the computer age, the answer is to be found in the Congo. There is no error so tiny that it is not worth applying a dab of liquid paper. Yes, it seemed that the fragile Congolese peace was dependent almost entirely on the ability of this border official to draw perfect lines.
The second indicator of craziness is that the streets are made out of lava.
That’s right the streets are made out of freaking lava.
Okay, okay, it is not the red molten stuff of nightmares and Ben Affleck movies, but the streams of porous black are a sufficient reminder, frozen in time, of the destruction that came before and could just as easily come again. In 2002, Mount Nyiragongo erupted creating what the few tour books that amazingly still include Goma refer to as an “African” or “modern” Pompeii.
I disagree. I have been to Pompeii; I have seen the ghostly, ashen figures vaporized, their faces contorted by fear, forever crying out with their dying breath. In Goma, the fear is also present but not in Pompeii’s petrified form. In Goma, the fear is alive. It moves, evolves changes, but never goes away. The fear is the constant. Today it may be fear of an eruption, tomorrow fear of the guerillas lurking in the mountains and the day after the fear of starvation, but it is always fear.
The people of Pompeii had it easy. Even if for week they watched the mountain threaten destruction, their darkest instant, their time to contemplate imminent extinction lasted for one horrible moment, before the very stuff of the Earth claimed them. The people of Goma must contemplate extinction for all horrible moments.
But the lava at least creates as it destroys. As it leveled homes and business, the lava spit new land into Lake Kivu. The black lumps of igneous rock that represent disaster in the old town present opportunity on the lakeshore. They also represent a new kind of crazy—separation of rich from poor through the sifting of trauma. In the old town, the poor, the old Gomans, those not savvy enough or ruthless enough to grow rich from the war live in a labyrinth of tattered shacks. The more fortunate among them enjoy the meager security of a corrugated iron roof and walls held together with cement rather than hope.
On the new land, the construction is grandiose. Everywhere, the trash-strewn streams of hardened lava are framed by gaudy new mansions. Tidy green lawns right out of suburban America front columned monstrosities right out of Lagos’ ritziest neighborhoods. Grotesque decadence and grotesque deprivation cohabitate in a fashion that even the elites of Rio or Johannesburg would regard as depraved. The question unanswered is who owns these houses?
The question is unanswered because it is unasked. Approaching any gate at any house seems like an exercise in futility at best or suicide at worst. Not only are the houses wrapped in menacing walls trimmed with razor wire, they are guarded by men with guns. They are not even earthbound men with guns. Instead, they sit high in fortified turrets behind the compound walls, watching eagerly for a threat or an excuse. While I imagine that the houses are built by Congolese warlords, ex pats who wish to live like proconsuls or both, I will not risk my life to ask.
And then there are the clashing go/guerillas. High on the volcano live a handful of the earth’s few remaining mountain gorillas. On the same mountains, lurk troops of Congo’s far to numerous mountain guerillas.
The competing homonyms dance along the mountainside, circling the crater’s lava lake as if they are playing some grand and terrible game of ring around the rosy where inevitably, we will all turn to ashes and fall down. The gorillas serene and gentle beckon visitors for naught but the high price $425. The guerillas, silent and deadly, warn tourist away by threatening to exact a far higher price. And on and on it goes, as a lake of lava somehow become this least frightening thing on a volcano.
And so it goes in Goma. Violence begets violence; madness begets madness and penises beget amusing anecdotes. “Goma is crazy!” I can now declare with authority.
And I am right, Goma is crazy, but it no longer seems amusing. As I left Goma, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was arriving to address the ongoing conflict in the region and the fallout. Among the issues she addressed most forcefully was the epidemic of rape in the hills, villages and refugee camps surrounding Goma.
I knew about the war, about the slaughter that began with the Rwandan genocide and still continues, but this aspect, the use of rape as a weapon and the tens if not hundreds of thousands of victims in the Kivu region alone had, perhaps willfully, escaped my notice. I wanted to go to Goma to see what it was like, to see up close how a war zone smells, and perhaps to revel in my own bravery and adventurousness, to applaud myself for stabbing into the heart of darkness like Conrad and Stanley before him. But I am not Conrad or Stanley. I am not even a Ben Affleck. The terrible actor whom I mocked above toured Goma in 2008 to raise awareness of the rape epidemic there. When one has failed in a comparison to Ben Affleck, it is time for some introspection.
It is adventurous for me to have gone to Goma, I suppose, but it is also narcissistic and pathetic in a way. On any different day for a different person, for a Congolese person, my story ends differently. It still begins with a man exposing himself, but he is not this man I saw, or maybe he is? He is drunk or mad, perhaps turned feral by war, and after it begins with this man exposing himself it does not end with a trip across the border to Rwanda, a cold beer at a hotel and a lifetime memory of how crazy Goma is. It ends instead in a life ruined. It ends with the horror. It ends with the darkness.
Goma is crazy. But I should not delude myself about what crazy means. Goma is not eccentric or quirky, a Van Gogh severing his ear to prove his love. Goma is psychotic. Goma is pathological. It is Jack the Ripper stalking the streets of London for someone to dissect or Stalin imposing his paranoia on a nation. Goma is not just crazy, it is criminally insane, and even in this age of wonders, of Prozac and plutonium of antipsychotics and antipersonnel mines, of lithium and largesse, we have no idea how to cure that kind of insanity.