Dusty, chaotic, and littered with volcanic rubble, the eastern Congolese city of Goma has seen its fair share of pain and suffering over the years.
Ravaged by rebel occupations, volcanic eruptions, and a vacuum of democratic authority that is usually filled by the greedy and the formidable, one need not look far to see the problems.
But not only has Goma survived these hardships, in some ways, it has thrived. In the midst of it all, Goma residents turn to art as a form of both protest and escape.
Early this month, the city celebrated the nineth annual Salaam Kivu Film Festival, or SKIFF, hosted by Yole! Africa.
On opening night, nearly 300 of Goma’s fashionable crowded into the ballroom of the upscale Cap Kivu Hotel to kick off a weeklong celebration of art, freedom expression, and creativity.
Martin Kobler, head of Monusco, spoke at the opening, championing the creative energy of the youth of Goma, and encouraging them to channel their efforts towards peace. “It is the youth who will rebuild this country,” he said to wide applause.
The schedule at SKIFF included not only films, but fashion shows, musical performances, and, perhaps the highlights of the week, a 68-team dance competition.
Yole! Africa, who has hosted SKIFF without fail for the past nine years, through rebel occupations and the threat there of, is an arts and cultural centre where the youth can come to exchange, learn, and express themselves.
When Yole first opened in Goma after the eruption of Nyiragongo in 2002, it was virtually the only artistic outlet in the city.
“There were no positive options for the youth… People were just happy to have a space,” said Cherie Rivers Ndaliko, co-director of Yole.
After awhile, other signs of artistic life cropped up around the city, including art studios, fashion designers, and handicraft co-operatives and shops.
Rivers and Yole founder Petna Ndaliko started the festival to provide an international platform to the artists of Goma, and bring attention to the city for reasons other than tragedy.
But struggle is often a source of inspiration for artists in the DR Congo. An award-winning film at SKIFF, Expression of My Anger directed by Jerry Ali Kahashi, uses dance and video as a tool of protest against the daily injustices of life in Goma.
The aptly titled short film (closer to a music video) depicts scenes of violence, crime, police brutality, and military occupation cut between an expressive and emotional dance routine. In one scene, a man on the street hurls a rock at a passing army tank.
The audience, vocally engaged and reacting to every film, reached its loudest, as the ballroom erupted in cheers.
The highlight of the festival each year is the dance competition. As fires smolder on the rubble strewn roads outside and inside the Yole! Africa compound, thousands gather excitedly and climb onto roofs to watch Goma’s best battle it out on stage.
For Faraja Batumike, a member of Rinha Crew dance troupe, a winner at SKIFF 2013, and a judge of this year’s competition, dance saved him from becoming a “robber” and “delinquent” like most of the other boys in his neighbourhood.
It taught him discipline while giving him a way to express himself.
Art under threat
“Dance is very popular in Goma and in DR Congo… because it helps us talk about what our mouths cannot say and write what our pens cannot,” said Batumike. “Dance today has made me a good man.”
Aside from cycles of armed violence and natural disaster, artistic expression in Goma is also under threat from the rising tide of NGO money, whose foreign agendas — and SUVs—permeate the city. While aid money can put food on an artist’s table, it can also remove the independent nature of art.
“The artist will only make it if they collaborate with NGOs, but then it stops being art and becomes propaganda,” said Ndaliko.
Still, there is at least an art scene to speak of now in Goma, allowing people like Batumike to find direction in dance, and others in film, music, and other medias. Ten years ago, there was nothing.
Not just entertainment, art in Goma is a coping mechanism, a critical outlet in a city overrun first by rebel armies and then by NGOs.
When so little is under your control — from personal safety to running water and electricity — sometimes, art is all you have.