Goma and Gisenyi echo Charles Dickens's novel, A Tale of Two Cities, based on a peaceful London and a Paris dogged by unrest before and after the French Revolution.
Goma and Gisenyi share a horrific history — the Congo wars and the Rwandan Genocide Against Tutsi.
Recently I spent a few days in the two cities separated by an international border, Goma in DR Congo and Gisenyi in Rwanda. Gisenyi is genteel while Goma is a work in progress after being dogged by years of unrest --- wars and a volcano eruption. Both cities straddle Lake Kivu in the Albertine Rift. The lake is a source of methane and carbon dioxide gases that have the potential of being hazardous.
The lives of the people are intertwined, as they cross the border at the so-called petite barrier to either direction in their thousands each day, for trade and family visits. The grande barrier is for tourists and other international travellers. The latter is not as busy as the former but the size entitles it to its name.
Goma delights. I didn’t know what to expect in a city that is listed as being dangerous. To my surprise, I’m treated to public wedding shoots straight out of novellas — brides in lavish gowns accompanied by bridesmaids in haute couture and grooms in cars so posh, it could be anywhere in Africa.
The name Goma is derived from the volcanic Mt Nyiragongo’s drumming. The last it erupted was 2002, and the lava flowed sluggishly down the mountain sides and reached the airport’s runway, through the poor part of town and the central business district before pouring into Lake Kivu. Luckily the lava did not disturb the lake waters deep enough to penetrate the carbon dioxide layer, otherwise the gas cloud would have killed residents like Lake Nyos in Cameroon did in 1986.
Goma has a gentrified suburb, where former president Mobutu Sese Seko had grandiose houses. A smooth tarmacked road passes through rows of new houses on the beautiful lake front, including an amusement park.
Goma has long been home to Africa's longest serving peacekeeping force, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Monusco, and their heavy presence can be seen in the number of blue helmets (also an informal name for UN peacekeepers). The blue helmets keep the city safe from militia. While it’s safe in the city, travelling to other cities like Kinshasa or Lubumbashi means taking a flight.
I spent leisurely days at the home of distant Congolese relatives. We swam in the lake, enjoyed lunches at beach front restaurants like Nyumbani, visited family friends whose children were busy with school projects seemingly in the middle of the year.
“We follow the Belgian system of education, which is more demanding than the English system,” said 19-year-old Cheryl Mangat.
Driving through Goma's rebuilt downtown, the scenes are typically African, with street side hawkers selling everything under the sun. The city is pulsating with life, with the chukudu, a wooden two-wheeler, being the backbone of the city's transport the way bodaboda is to Kampala and tuk tuk to Mombasa.
We cross the grande barrier into Gisenyi, and the scene changes. The city is quaint. It is Sunday, and at the public beach by Lake Kivu Serena, everyone is working out. The Rwandese government encourages physical fitness. I’m told l can walk around town any time of day or night, alone. Security is guaranteed.