The last time I was in Goma, DRC (September) last year, I was excited.
This first visit was a quick one, that left me desiring to be back to explore more of a city that I fell in love with despite the horrid insecurity and other turmoil stories.
With the recent street riots by Goma residents against the UN peacekeepers, the question of insecurity had me thinking. However, I remembered what Slawek Muturi, a Kenyan, real estate business mogul, living in Poland told me – that the passion to travel drives the traveller to limitless boundaries.
I trusted Muturi’s advice because he has travelled to more than 190 countries. At the time I met him, a while before the Covid-19 pandemic happened, he was planning to travel some more to become the most travelled person in the world.
Then again, Suleiman Salim, my occasional tour guide once told me that “msafiri ni kafiri” – a traveller has death always hanging on their shoulders, and so one should explore the world without fear.
So, here I was in the land of the most resilient people I have ever encountered. Goma residents have “tasted” all manner of turmoil, but have executed the art of “swallowing” without tasting the bitterness (a different story). This time, I was travelling solo, and I learnt first-hand what travelling to Goma, solo entails.
A messy international airport
Our two-hour flight landed at Goma International Airport. I noticed that the airport was not as crowded with UN planes and vehicles, and personnel as it was on my first visit. The airport too, seemed tidier, with renovations, and constructions going on – maybe in preparation to fit in with East African Community standards, now that DRS is a member.
At the Arrival Department, everything seems chaotic, with some travellers and immigration officials in shouting matches. The clearing process is overwhelming as the system is manual.
As we drive from the airport to the hotel, and later during a city tour, I notice that there is less presence of armed military personnel. Goma has had its share of suffering – war, diseases, and other crises that have led to tighter border controls, and an unusually high number of armed security personnel to protect civilians and tourists. The current situation is an indicator that things are returning to normal.
I learn from Moni Manyange, Kenya’s Acting Consul, that the presence of a 270 Kenyan military contingent, has done an excellent job in security enhancement, bringing new hope to the turmoil-torn province. The residents are looking up to Kenya (East African Community) to capture the ‘elusive peace’ that has torn this region for decades,” says the consul.
During this second visit to Goma, I had the excitement that I had a chance of visiting Virunga National Park, an opportunity I missed during my first visit. The former Lake Albert National Park, which covers an area of 7,800 square kilometres is the oldest national park in Congo and Africa.
It is a Unesco World Heritage site with several mountains like Mikeno, Nyiragongo (the most active volcanic mountain in Africa), Nyamuringa, and Rwenzori Ranges within its boundaries.
The unique park also shares its borders with the Queen Elizabeth National Park, Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda, and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. I could not wait to explore.
However, I was in for a rude shock though. James Nzawala, Goma Serena hotel manager explained that a visit to Virunga requires planning and involvement of armed security. Even though the park is now open, I learnt, that the park authorities have challenges in dealing with poaching, militias, and illegal settlers.
Goma, the consul explained, is not an ordinary destination. He has been here as acting consular going to one year but has learnt quite a lot. After all, his duties call for that.
However, he added, the security situation has normalised and now Goma is rising, and with DRC now a member of the East African Community, and with the presence of African security forces, the country is destined to be a competitive East African hub.
“It is important to note that Goma, and in particular, the Eastern part of DRC is not an ordinary tourism destination. The area is blessed with pristine wilderness, landscape, and wildlife; all this amidst a history of civil unrest, and conflict” the consular explains, adding that Kenya is planning to hold a Tourism Fair in Goma, coming closely after the Education Fair.
Noticing my disappointment about Virunga, Sophie Dans, working with the Consulate, suggests that I take a tour of the fast-growing City. This brightens me up. Twenty minutes later, Sophie has everything put in place. She introduces me to driver-guide Yves Lofemba. Moments later, we are cruising on 105 Avenue De La Corniche Street headed for the city tour.
As we drive, Yves points out landmarks of interest, giving me details of their significance. He does so with a pinch of humour, and I find out that he is quite knowledgeable, and has a timid passion for his country, and Goma in particular.
Among the landmarks is, CBD’s biggest roundabout, Pilipili Club, a popular Congolese music joint; a governor’s residence that is guarded heavily, a downtown business hub, major markets, and major installations.
Later, we take a relaxing drive to one of Goma’s countryside, a 15-minute drive from CBD through a smooth highway that has beautiful rolling hills covered with lush pasture, interspersed with a small clump of towering trees. The hills are dotted with residences, which Yves explains are home to many armed forces personnel.