Boys on a chukudu in Goma,

Boys on a chukudu in Goma, the DR Congo, on December 12, 2021. The chukudu is a popular means of transport in the city.

| Elvos Ondieki | Nation Media Group

In vibrant DRC city, eruptions are a way of life

The small rock did not arouse any suspicion at the two airports. A humourless officer at Goma airport threw away a spare recorder battery from my bag but let the rock be.

He merely glanced at it. Perhaps, he has seen many passengers with these rocks. It now rests on a shelf in my house.

The charcoal-like rock will forever remind me of the trip I made to Goma, a city in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Seven months ago, the rock was red-hot lava flowing from Mt Nyiragongo. There was hardly a tree where I picked it at the foot of the mountain last month, yet the place used to be a forest.

Goma locals do not allow such eruptions bother them for long. I encountered the Nyiragongo rocks, the magnificent Lake Kivu and people.

There was Daniel Hanamali, a 70-year-old tour guide, who knows secrets about surviving volcanic eruptions. As he said told me what locals do when the mountain loses its temper, the issue of the Kiswahili spoken in the region became apparent.

“Twenty” is not ishirini but makumi mbili. “Thirty”  is makumi tatu and so on. “Opening” is fungula instead of fungua. “To burn” is not kuunguza but kulunguza. Something getting warm isn’t kupata joto but kuwa kivukutu. A bag is sakos, not mkoba. Washing clothes is kufula, not kufua.

Ever boisterous, Hanamali said:  “Kiswahiili was born in Tanzania, grew up in Kenya, fell sick in Uganda, died in Rwanda and was buried in Zaire (DR Congo)”

Kenyan ambassador to the DR Congo, George Masafu, says Goma is one of the Kiswahili-speaking regions of the country, alongside Lubumbashi.

“Their Kiswahili is a bit different from ours but we understand each other,” he said.

Hanamali said Kiswahili is not taught in school.

“Tunalokotalokota kwa wale wanajua (We pick it from those who know it),” he said, adding that  Goma residents, being near countries Kiswahili is widely spoken, need the language for trade and other interactions.

Hanamali can tell where Nyiragongo lava will flow by merely observing the smoke.

Smoke, he said, is the first warning sign of an eruption. Families near the mountain flee whenever they spot smoke.

“We tell children not to walk out there. If there is an eruption, be where others can account for you and you can account for them,” he said.

“Juu watu wanapotea kweli kweli (people really disappear),” the father of 10 said.

“We tell them to have a little money to buy even bananas when on the run. Who will give you anything for free in such a moment? We also inform residents that if the lava isn’t heading in their direction, they should remain at home. During the May 2021 eruption, I went to the roof of my house as people fled. Some even came to my house. I observed the direction of the smoke and the lava flow. I know a few things since I have climbed this mountain 94 times. I know where the lava flows,” he said.

Mt Nyiragongo has had three major eruptions in recent years. The eruption in 2002 left at least 30 people dead while the 1977 one claimed an estimated 600 lives.

Hanamali said past eruptions created Lake Kivu from a river.

“I fled to Rwanda with my family when Nyiragongo erupted in 2002,” he said.

The May 2021 eruption left a trail of destruction. We saw destroyed farms and houses.

Goma locals are determined to rebuild their lives. They are returning to reclaim farmland that is now rocky. Years to come after the rocks have weathered, the lands will be fertile for crops, they say.

Hanamali said some regions of Goma produce so much food that it is ferried to DR Congo capital, Kinshasa.

He added that the region is the country’s bread basket, especially the production of beans.

A drive in Goma makes one appreciate the distance lava can cover during its flow. A large section of Goma destroyed in the 2002 eruption has since been rebuilt.

Hanamali said locals have developed knowledge of potential craters and advise families against settling in such places. They call such sites “mazuku”.

Then there is Esperence Rusingiza, the Deputy MD of Nyiragongo Cement – a company started by her husband.

It imports raw materials from Kenya and mixes them with volcanic deposits to make cement.

“The volcano was a threat but my husband thought about turning it into an opportunity that would help rebuild the city,” she said.

“The volcanic eruption destroyed the city but it also built it. We cannot say the volcano is good, but it is helping Goma.”

Most bricks used to build houses and fences in Goma are carved from volcanic rocks.

I also met Aime Zonveni, a French-English translator.

One thinks language barrier is a small matter until they are in a conference where a participant says something that leaves people in stitches or applauding but you have no idea what was said.

Aime was there to ensure simultaneous translation from French to English or vice versa.

His voice in the earpieces came to the rescue.

There was a trade mission in Goma when we landed.

It was the third of four DR Congo cities that have been part of the fair sponsored by Equity Group, whose headquarters is in Kenya, but has been expanding fast across the region.

The faire started in Kinshasa on November 30 to December 3, Lubumbashi on December 5 to 8, Goma on December 10 to 11 and Mbuji Mayi on December 13.

Aime, a manager at a translation company, was with the Equity Bank team throughout the circuit.

Having ventured into the DR Congo in 2015, Equity has made a number of moves, the last major one being the acquisition of a majority stake at Banque Commerciale Du Congo (BCDC) last year.

chukudu sculpture.

Journalist Elvis Ondieki in front of the chukudu sculpture. 

Photo credit: Pool

Since then, it has been trading in the DR Congo as Equity BCDC.

 “The acquisition is aimed at expanding and covering the entire country,” Equity BCDC director-general Celestin Mukeba said.

“It was to be done organically but that would take time. Buying BCDC, which had branches across the country, gives us an edge.”

By holding the trade fairs, Mukeba said, Equity BCDC aims to show the potential of resource-rich DR Congo, Africa’s second largest country by land mass.

“The DR Congo is a land of opportunity. It has close to 100 million inhabitants. It is a vast country. That poses challenges but business opportunities too,” he said.

“That is the idea that pushed Equity Group to bring these investors. They need to be contact with their colleagues in the DR Congo and explore the possibility of exploring investment opportunities in trade and tourism,” said Mukeba, adding that the aim of the mission is to connect people.

According to Mukeba, Equity Group is replicating the model that contributed to its success in Kenya – agency banking.

Six years after entering the DR Congo, Mukeba said, the bank already has at least 5,000 agents.

“All the banks in the DR Congo have a total of 1,000 physical branches. We have deployed 5,000 agents already, which is five times the size of the banking industry in terms of branches,” he said.

Then I encountered Cristiano Ronaldo but not in person. The 75th-minute penalty the Manchester United star scored against Norwich City in the English Premier League that Saturday evening was viewed on many screens in The Saloon, the club I was at.

In Goma, the dominant provider showing European football leagues and other sports is French-based Canal+.

Clubbing in Goma and Nairobi has many similarities. At The Saloon, it was a DJ spinning song after song and hyping the crowd once in a while – mostly in French.

This club had a bias for music done in English, especially songs by American artistes. As people downed their drinks or smoked shisha, which is banned in Kenya, in the dimly-lit building, some took to the floor to dance.

There are Covid-19 restrictions in the DR Congo. Clubs must close by 9.30pm.

Then there restaurants. The most inviting in Goma invariably touch Lake Kivu and Le Chalet, which we visited to watch motor sports on TV, is one of them.

Many restaurants have created special lakeside extensions for weddings. During our visit, a couple came from Rwanda to exchange vows at a lakeside platform at Goma Serena Hotel.

Polythene bags litter Goma streets. The black ones we used for light shopping were banned in Kenya four years ago.

Even the green or yellow ones for carrying heavier stuff – and with calendars for good measure – are on sale. Many Kenyans in my group could not help feeling like criminals from just staring at the bags. Legislation can be powerful on one’s psyche.

I also crossed paths with Joseph, an assistant at the hotel we resided. Like most locals, his Kiswahili was discordant enough to leave doubts as to whether we were on the same wavelength.

Regardless, I pleaded with him to get me a way of using the sockets in the room.

I have always thought the socket on the wall is universal – that I can push a charger into any in the world and get some power to my phone.

I have since learnt that there is a lot of politics regarding the positioning of the three holes on the socket and the plug that goes into them.

The distance between the holes and their shape, plus the number of volts in those metallic terminals, are likely to differ depending on where you are – or the power that once colonised that place.

Having solved my power problem, I tipped Joseph with a humble Sh100 Kenyan note. At today’s rates, that is 1,770 Congolese francs. Astonishingly, he did not take it.

“I would take it if it were Rwandan franc or American dollar. We cannot use that here,” he said.

Curiously, the flip-flops in my room were a familiar brand – Umoja. It appears the Kilifi-based company has gained a foothold in the huge country that is soon to be an East African Community (EAC) member. 

During the panel discussions at the meeting, an official from Kenyan-based Mabati Rolling Mills said more than 90 per cent of the roofing material in Goma are made by the company.

There is also Karen Roses, a Kenyan company selling flowers in Lubumbashi. It exports 1,500 kilogrammes per week.

The three are among Kenyan firms that, in addition to Equity, that have made inroads into the DR Congo.

Ahead of Goma trip, my friend Elijah asked me to say “hi” to Congolese musician Fally Ipupa in case I found him.

I promised to, instead of bluntly telling the poor man that Ipupa is hardly the kind of person who loafs in the streets.

A journalist in our group said when he told his father he was flying to the DR Congo, the old man asked him to buy an album of a top contemporary artiste. I am not sure he found one.

It was all about the association with music, especially rhumba, of the country that was once known as Congo before being renamed Zaire then the DR Congo.

Many Congolese have a permanent place in the music favourites of Kenyans. Franco Luambo Makiadi, Tabu Ley, Mbilia Bel, Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide, Ferre Gola, Kanda Bongoman, Pepe Kalle, Madillu System, M’Pongo Love, Awilo Longomba, Tshala Muana among others, are household names in Kenya.

A couple of clubs played rhumba music, including live performances.

“One of their cultural exports is music,” Mr Masafu said.

Last month, the United Nations declared Congolese rhumba a Unesco cultural heritage.

I also encountered Capt James Karanja, albeit indirectly. He was the man in charge of the Jambojet plane that flew us back from Goma to Nairobi on a Monday afternoon.

Data from flight monitoring sites show that he flew the aircraft from the DR Congo, cut through the northern part of Tanzania, a great chunk of that being over Lake Victoria, then into Kenya through Maasai Mara game reserve.

The pilot sounded otherworldly as he announced the altitudes, weather and whatnot.

Jambojet operates between Nairobi and Goma three times a week – Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Its Managing Director, Karanja Ndegwa, said the route is maturing fast.

Most users of the route are businesspeople, non-governmental organisation employees and United Nations staff.

Jambojet says it has witnessed a steady demand since launching the Nairobi-Goma flights in September last year.

“As per the agreement between Kenya and the DR Congo, we were given four frequencies a week. We started with two as we marketed the route. As the numbers got to over 40 per cent, we increased to the flights to three. We expect to move to the fourth very soon,” Mr Ndegwa said.

Should the trend continue, he sees the possibility of having a daily flight in the future, which must be incorporated in the bilateral trade agreement between Kenya and the DR Congo to take effect.

“Daily flights make it easy for anyone to move in on any day and choose when to fly out. It becomes easier for us to grow the market and make it accessible,” he said.

Flying to Goma from Nairobi is a great experience as the plane cruises above lakes Kivu and Victoria and other natural features.

Mr Ndegwa said the beauty catches his eye every time he is on a flight.

“It is also the landing because you’ll fly over Lake Kivu as you get to Goma airport,” he said.

“The areas outside Goma are beautiful. It is an agricultural region and a beauty to behold.”

Then I met the man who happens to be a statue. He is carved riding what residents call “chukudu”, which can roughly be described as a wooden motorcycle.

You won’t miss a chukudu in Goma on any day.

Growing up, such “motorcycles” were left for boys to make and break their limbs as they rode on steep grounds.

The chukudu is no child’s play in Goma. Most of the ones I saw had heavy loads and were being operated by grown men.

A Goma local told me the chukudu cannot be phased out by the faster, more efficient motorcycles that dot streets.

The chukudu is part of daily lives in Goma. That is the reason the statue depicts a whistling man riding it whilst carrying the world.

I also encountered Mr Masafu, a man who, for the last eight years, has been representing Kenya in the DR Congo, Congo Brazzaville, the Central African Republic and Gabon.

The April 2021 visit of President Uhuru Kenyatta to the DR Congo capital, the ambassador said, opened up channels that never existed before.

“The relationship between Kenya and the DR Congo has never been better than it is presently. The kind of friendship between Presidents Kenyatta and Felix Tshisekedi has never been achieved before,” the ambassador said.

One can easily tell the difference from the way Kenyans are handled at the point of entry.

Those who had travelled there previously spoke of difficulties getting clearance. They also talked of extortion by government officials.

Talks are ongoing towards admitting the DR Congo into the EAC after its application was considered during the 21st ordinary meeting of the community heads of state in February 2021.

“The council has been directed to expeditiously undertake a verification mission in accordance with the EAC procedure for admission of new members...and report to the 22nd summit,” said a communication released then.

Mr Masafu said if the DR Congo is admitted, the EAC would be a giant bloc.

“That actually means the EAC will stretch from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. It will b a very large trading bloc,” he said.

Kenya stands to benefit in many ways when the DR Congo joins the bloc, the ambassador added.

“Kenya is looking at a more expanded market. The DR Congo has close to 100 million people. The DR Congo joining the East African Community means expanding markets for the region. Kenya is the leading market in East Africa,” he said.

“There is also tourism. Many Congolese go for holiday in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. They are discovering that Jambojet can take them directly to Mombasa, Diani or Lamu. We will grow tourism with the DR Congo joining EAC.”

Mr Masafu said President Kenyatta’s goal is to unite the region and Africa as a whole using trade.

“That is what everybody is looking at. And that’s what you see. As an embassy, our focus is on economic diplomacy. Of course, we help in ensuring peace and stability in the region. That is why Kenyan peacekeepers are in many countries. We want to see to it that business thrives in an atmosphere of peace,” he said.

Truck drivers transporting goods from Kenya to the DR Congo have often complained of strange tax demands and other requirements.

At the talks in the trade fair, businesspeople said they hope it would come to an end.

Rusingiza of Nyiragongo Cement said what her company imports from Kenya is not expensive.

“Bringing the materials here is what costs a lot. It costs twice as much as their value to bring them to the DR Congo,” she said.

Mr Masafu said every country has guidelines on trade.

“While in the DR Congo, have a visa. If you want to work here, get a work permit. If you have a truck destined to the DR Congo, it must have 22 wheels, not 24. There is also what they call axle load,” the ambassador said.

“These are sovereign decisions. You must follow them. Unfortunately, some of these rules turn out to be barriers to trade. Because of the good relations between Kenya and the DR Congo, these hurdles are being done away with. We are doing business as friendly countries,” he added.

I also encountered a number of strangers and things considered weird back in Kenya.

Many market women appear to have bleached their skin. Could bleaching be some form of fashion fad in eastern DR Congo? I did not get answers.

Unlike Kenya where we keep left while driving, motorists in the DR Congo use the right lane. It is the case in former French colonies and indeed most parts of the world.

It requires time to get used to. While in a car, one has this instinctive fear that we might crash into something or someone.

To my delight, the food in Goma was not very different from ours.

The new item there was “sambaza” – small fish that are slightly bigger and way meatier than our omena, that are found in Lake Kivu.

“The eastern part of DR Congo is actually very East African,” Mr Masafu said.

“You will not feel lost in Goma. The food is the same as ours. There is chicken, ugali and every vegetable you can think of.”